|A Beatle's Boyhood
by Hunter Davies (An excerpt from the bookThe Quarrymen)
Half a century ago, a group of little boys in a
leafy Liverpool suburb grew up with John Lennon.
Unable to play a guitar, he press-ganged them
into his first band - then shrugged them off and
became a star. How do they remember him?
Hunter Davies tells their story.
In November 1998, working on a travel book, I went to Cuba. On the plane someone asked if I was going to the Beatles conference. I didnt know there was one.
Feeling a bit of a fraud, I agreed to give a little talk to the convention. I wrote the Beatles authorised biography in 1968, and have kept in touch with Paul McCartney all these years, but I dont look upon myself as a Beatles Brain.
Cubas Third International Beatles Conference was very serious, with learned papers and deep analysis. To my amazement, one of the events turned out to be a performance by the original Quarrymen - the five friends whom John Lennon got together when the skiffle craze first hit his school, Quarry Bank High, back in Liverpool in 1956.
The original Quarrymen became mere footnotes in history after Paul McCartney and George Harrison came along. Where had they been for 40 years? I was also intrigued by the notion of people who had once touched shoulders with a world-famous celebrity. So I contacted them after I returned to England. All five Quarrymen must have clear memories of the John they once knew well, I thought, probably clearer than John.
He had once told me about his childhood, but those memories were in a vacuum. Now I could put flesh on them and tell the full story.
As Beatles Brains know, John Winston Lennon was born on October 9, 1940, in Oxford Street maternity hospital, Liverpool, during a period of heavy bombing raids. His father, Fred, was hardly around during the next few years. He was a seaman, working as a ships steward. He sent money home when other things did not conspire to stop him doing so, such as ending up in prison for three months after breaking into the ships cargo and stealing some whisky.
When John was about five, Fred reappeared and was allowed to take him off for a short holiday to Blackpool. He decided upon a mad scheme to emigrate with John to New Zealand; but Johns mother, Julia, appeared and took him back to Liverpool. When Julia found another boyfriend and started a new family, her sister Mimi took in John, bringing him up as her own.
Mimi was keen on discipline and good manners, and was very aware of what she thought was her social position in life. She once told me that her husband, George, owned a dairy. In reality he was little more than a milkman and very fond of gambling.
They lived in the quiet suburb of Woolton, to the south of the city, which still thought of itself as a village, with a parish church, old-fashioned shops, several parks and some old sandstone quarries.
Their house at 251 Menlove Avenue was pre-war and semi-detached. Mimi liked to give the impression that she and George were quite well off, but they took in lodgers to help with their finances.
Gradually, John got to know the boys in the neighbourhood who would become the Quarrymen and who now remember what he was really like.
His best friend was Pete Shotton, a tall, thin boy with incredibly blond hair, who lived round the corner in Vale Road. Petes house was semi-detached, like all the others, with an air-raid shelter in the back garden. At one end of Vale Road were council houses. Somewhere in the middle was an unspoken demarcation line. We kept ourselves to ourselves, in our own territory, Pete told me.
Petes first gang consisted of two boys in the same road. He considered himself the leader, even at the age of six, till the big bad John Lennon appeared from the next street - 10 months older, stronger, more aggressive and worldly wise, despite his funny-looking spectacles. John had been born with poor eyesight and had specs from an early age but wouldnt wear them, unless he had to.
Pete and John went to Sunday school each week at St. Peters, the Woolton parish church - one of the attractions being the collection money they were supposed to hand over. It was John, says Pete, who first suggested that they should spend it in the sweet shop, usually on bubble gum.
At the beginning of Sunday school, each child had had to give his full name. When John muttered his middle name, Pete quickly realised it embarrassed him. He would yell out Winnie and John would go mad. One day John pinned him to the ground till Pete begged for mercy. Once he was allowed up, Pete ran like hell, shouting Winnie, Winnie, Winnie. And so began a lifelong friendship.
Aunt Mimi considered Pete a bad influence on John, just as Petes mother maintained John was badly influencing her son. The boys spent a lot of their time wetting themselves with laughter.
There wasnt all that much scope for being truly wild in their conformist suburban environment. But Pete says they would call each other a cunt, tell the other to fuck off, which from my memory was unusual for the period. Boys from nice homes did not use such words. Even boys in council houses - which was where I grew up, in Carlisle - did not use such words.
Pete liked Uncle George, Mimis husband, who taught John his first rude poem. This inspired John to write his own, illustrated with crude drawings. He let Pete and others see them. Pete could be so convulsed that he would lie on the floor, clutching his stomach in agony, letting out little high-pitched, breathless squeaks. Lets hear you squeak then, Pete, John would say.
In an abandoned garage, they tried to cut their wrists to draw blood and promise eternal friendship, but the knife was so blunt that all they drew was a large weal.
In the summer of 1952 they sat the 11-plus and passed for Quarry Bank High, a grammar school run on very traditional lines. Boys had to wear uniforms of black and gold that made it clear they were definitely not at a secondary modern, the school for children who failed the 11-plus.
Johns first image on his first day was of the size of the school. He once told me he had fought all the way through primary school. Arriving at Quarry Bank High, he looked at all the hundreds of kids and thought, Christ, Ill have to fight my way through this lot.
The two friends tried to enjoy themselves as much as possible. If Pete had to stand up in class to say something, John would do something stupid behind the masters back to make Pete squeak like a pig. When they were sent to the heads study to be caned for the first time, John crawled out on all fours, groaning in agony, much to the waiting Petes consternation.
While Mimi worried that John would turn out like his father, someone came back into his life who encouraged pretty much everything Mimi feared - his mother. John had never realised she was living so relatively near, with her new boyfriend and two daughters. From about the age of 13 or 14 he would go and visit her. She was not against John smoking, didnt tell him off the way Mimi did. She played silly tricks, like wearing a pair of knickers over her head.
Initially, John had tried reasonably hard at lessons. By the third year he and Pete were both in the B stream. By the fourth year, they were in the C stream, the lowest. John was bottom of the class.
Pete says it was all fun. Their japes included hiding alarm clocks to go off in lessons, rigging up blackboards to collapse when a master started writing on them, filling bicycle pumps with ink to squirt at people in the playground.
They made 40 cardboard dog collars from Shredded Wheat cartons - we loved Shredded Wheat - and gave one to each boy to wear in a religious education lesson. The teacher enjoyed it so much he made us keep on our dog collars for the rest of the lesson.
Then came more serious tricks. By chance they found several thousand used school-dinner tickets in a sack, waiting to be disposed of. They sold them to other boys for half price, making themselves £5 each a week, a fortune at the time, which they spent on sweets, drinks or cigarettes.
They also moved on to petty shoplifting; but much of their school years, once they got to 13 or 14 years of age, were devoted to sex. It was thanks to Billy Turner, a member of their gang, that they found a way of getting to grips with real girls.
On Saturday afternoons, so Billy told Pete, if you went to the Abbey cinema near Penny Lane, went to the back of the balcony where it was very dark, youd always find two girls sitting together. You could touch them up, he said, and they wouldnt complain.
I didnt believe this at first, but I went with Billy the next week and it was true, says Pete. John didnt believe it either, when I told him, but he came along with me and found it was true. I still can hardly believe it. I suppose the girls were as sex starved as we were.
They lost their virginity when they were about 14, Pete maintains. John did it for the first time before me. I can remember when he told me. We were standing at the corner of Menlove Avenue and Vale Road and he said, Ive had my first screw. It was a hell of a job...
Petes initiation was in the grounds of Strawberry Fields, the Salvation Army home behind Johns house. She lived in Strawberry Fields, which was a home for naughty girls.
Pete thought John regarded most girls as pure sex objects. One of his favourite remarks was chuck your bird before Chrimble. That was his word for Christmas. It meant you wouldnt have to waste money on a prezzie.
John was also friends with a Quarry Bank boy called Eric Griffiths, who lived in a semi-detached house in Halewood Drive. His father had been killed in the war and his widowed mother was at work all day, so Eric was a latchkey kid. If he bunked off school, sagging off in Liverpool, he could go home and nobody knew.
Eric got good grades until the third year when I started to slide. Why was that? Girls, that was one reason, and the other was John Lennon. John and I always got on well. I liked his wit. Yes, he could be a bit cruel, but he never was with me. Not that I was aware of. Perhaps we got on because neither of us had a mum and dad at home. Almost everyone did then.
Mimis husband had died and, like Eric, John was being brought up in what we would now call a one-parent family.
Another of Johns friends since they were seven years old was Rod Davis, who was considered a bit of a swot. His family lived in Kings Drive, in another semi. Rod can remember some council houses not far away whose inhabitants they considered a bit rough. He remembers a boy called Peter Sissons - now not at all rough, having become a BBC star.
Rod had an interest in foreign languages, prompted by the back label of a bottle of HP Sauce. I didnt know what it was, what it meant, so I asked my dad. He said its French, son, the language which French people speak. I dont think I realised till then that other countries spoke different languages.
He was put in for a scholarship to the Liverpool Institute, seen as Liverpools best grammar school, but he preferred Quarry Bank and found himself in the same class as Lennon J and Shotton P.
His memories are different from theirs. He enjoyed the work and was impressed by most of the teachers. Many of them had served in the war and were wonderful characters and storytellers, such as Fred Yule, the maths teacher who had been a bomber navigator and sported a metal leg which creaked so that you could hear him coming for some distance. He was so strong that he once lifted Lennon clean off the ground by his lapels.
Rod was house swimming captain. Lennon was never known for his interest in anything sporting, but I did once manage to get him to join the relay team. I cant remember if we won. Probably not.
A late entry into this group of friends was Len Garry, who lived in Lance Lane, Wavertree, a short distance from Woolton. His mother was quite musical. When Len passed for the Liverpool Institute he became friendly with another boy there, Ivan Vaughan, who lived in the same road as Pete Shotton and had been part of Johns gang since he was six.
One day in the long summer holidays of 1955, Len rode over to visit Ivan and found the gang standing around with their bikes. Every boy had a bike, or wanted a bike, in those days. It was common to get one on passing the 11-plus. Eric had a Claude Butler with drop handlebars, derailleur gears and alloy wheels. Rod got a J F Wilson lightweight on his 14th birthday. He still has it today. Len had a Raleigh Rudge.
When I was introduced to John, I made some remark about his name being like his bike, his Raleigh Lenton. John said yes, it was made for him.
Len started joining the gang at Calderstones Park, between Johns house and Quarry Bank school. They sat around talking, smoking, hoping to spot some girls. They didnt play either football or cricket. Len decided that, because John could hardly see without his glasses, he hated all games and wouldnt let the others play.
One day Len and John managed to chat up two girls, Barbara and Miranda, and persuaded them to go into a tunnel in the park with them. Barbara was the prettier one and Len maintains he was the first to go out with her. But she became Johns first regular girlfriend.
And then skiffle arrived. In 1956 it blew across Britain like a contagious disease. Two or three years later it had gone, overtaken by rocknroll.
Until skiffle, popular music was made by musicians with real instruments, which cost money and were hard to play. Skiffle, played on primitive instruments, encouraged anyone to have a go.
Its sudden appearance in 1950s Britain was part of a more general change in society. Almost overnight there appeared clothes, haircuts, attitudes, language and music that appealed primarily to one section of the public - youth.
Lonnie Donegans single, Rock Island Line, became a surprise bestseller. Fifteen-year-old John Lennon bought a copy which he practically wore away. Then he sold it to Rod Davis. (Rod still has it.)
All over the country, boys started working out ways of playing skiffle. John had never learnt to play an instrument, but he took a guitar from a boy in his class, tried to play it, found he couldnt, and gave it back. He then went to see his mother and she got him his first guitar, a second-hand Egmond for about £5. Later he persuaded Aunt Mimi to buy him one guaranteed not to split.
The first recruit to his skiffle group, once the idea had come into his head, was, of course, Pete - to whom it seemed like just another wheeze, like building a camp, forming a gang. Petes first reaction was to say no, as he wouldnt have a clue how to play in a group. He thinks now that if he had continued to say no, John would not have gone on to begin the Quarrymen.
Its inconceivable that either of us would have got involved in something if the other wasnt keen. He was accustomed to being the ringleader, but he feared stepping out on his own. He desperately needed the supportive presence of whoever he felt closest to at the time. It wouldnt have occurred to him to organise a band from a group of strangers.
From the shed in Petes garden they found a washboard that Pete said he would play. With the help of Petes mother, they acquired an old tea chest and inside it they stuck a broom handle. String was tied from the top of the broom handle to the side of the tea chest. When twanged, it was a home-made double bass.
Pete thinks he thought of their name, the Quarrymen. The spelling has varied between Quarrymen and Quarry Men over the years, but it is one word in the line from their school song that inspired Pete: Quarrymen, old before our birth.
They needed someone who could play the guitar, as John was struggling. Eric Griffiths couldnt play either, but he had a guitar, so he was recruited. Me and John got our guitars at around the same time - and neither of us could play them, he said.
Eric was better at dancing. John was useless at dancing. I tried to teach him how to jive, but he could never manage it. He couldnt pull the girl towards him on the beat.
Johns mother, who had a banjo, taught them how to play banjo chords on their new guitars.
We used to skive off school, buy 10 Woodbines and a bag of chips, then go to Julias house, said Eric. She always let us in. She wasnt like anyone elses mother. She was young at heart.
When they heard that the studious Rod Davis had bought a second-hand banjo with a proper case, he was invited to join, too, even though he couldnt play it.
Rehearsals - sometimes in Julias bathroom, where the acoustics improved the sound - could be chaotic. Eric shouted out the chord he thought he was playing, hoping I would follow suit, or at least somehow fit in, said Rod.
Rod bought a banjo manual and set about teaching himself some chords. It meant I soon knew more chords than John. And I was venturing right up the neck, but he told me not to play there. I think he thought I was being flash, trying to be better than him. He was no great shakes on the guitar, but then none of us were much good. But when we started playing at peoples parties, we found that John could hold an audience.
Next they needed a drummer. Eric produced one: his friend Colin Hanton, who lived in a rented semi round the corner in Heyscroft Road. Colin didnt go to a grammar school. He went to a secondary modern - the sort of thing, in certain circles, you kept quiet about 50 years ago. He left school at the age of 16 and became an apprentice upholsterer on £3 a week. When skiffle arrived he could afford records - and, eventually, a set of drums. I was self-taught. I just put a record on the radiogram and played along as best I could, he said.
Eric asked him over with his drum kit to meet John. I was invited to join the group there and then. Simply because I had a set of drums. It wouldnt have mattered how badly I played.
Finally, Len Garry was invited to play the tea chest. I really wanted to sing, Len said. But John was the singer.
There was a problem: a boy called Bill Smith, who had occasionally played for them, had the tea chest. One lunch time, John and Pete sagged off school, determined to recover it from Bills house.
Nobody was in. They found a window slightly ajar and Pete, being very thin, managed to climb through. While they were searching the house, there was a knock at the front door. Before Pete could stop him, John went to answer it. A smartly dressed young man asked if his parents were at home.
My mums dead and my fathers in jail, said John.
I am sorry, said the man. He explained he was a soft drinks salesman, giving out free samples of a new drink. He asked John if he had any brothers or sisters.
Yeah, three brothers and three sisters. Our Uncle Herbert looks after us all.
The salesman left seven bottles of the new cola, and a questionnaire to fill in, saying he could came back later in the week.
John and Pete guzzled the cola, wishing it was beer, then searched every room for the tea chest; they found it in the garage. They left seven empties in Bills front room, and the questionnaire.
When they felt theyd practised enough, the boys began to play at St. Peters youth club and at parties. But Rod remembers that John wasnt really seen as either a good singer or a good musician. In school, what he was known for was his cartoons, not his music. There was evidence that he had talent as a wit. If Id been asked at the time if John had obvious musical talent, I would have had to have said no.
The first proper gig Rod and Colin can remember was at a golf club. They agreed to wear black jeans and white shirts, but Rods parents did not allow jeans. I was forced in the end to get a second-hand pair from a friend, with very poor-quality fly zips. Just as we were about to go on stage, my flies broke. I had to play the entire set with my banjo slung low.
John once told me that the first proper engagement he could remember was playing at Rose Street. It was the Empire Day celebrations, he said. It was actually in Roseberry Street and was nothing to do with Empire Day. It was held on June 22, 1957, to celebrate 750 years of Liverpools royal charter.
They played from the back of a coal lorry. By their second set, Colin was quite drunk. But I wasnt too drunk to hear some lads who were watching us putting their heads together, muttering and pointing. There was someone in the crowd I knew, so I beckoned him over to the side of the wagon and asked what was going on. Oh, theyre planning to get Lennon, he said. When I told John, it was guitars away, drums off and we all made a hasty retreat.
Colin thinks a policeman was called in to give John protection.
Two weeks later, the programme for the garden fete at St. Peters Church, Woolton, announced that the Quarry Men Skiffle Group were going to play. It was Saturday, July 6, 1957. A whole book has recently been written about this one day. But it is hard to get those who were there to agree on what precisely happened.
Ivan Vaughan brought along a Liverpool Institute friend called Paul McCartney - who stood and watched, noting that John was making up many of the words and not managing all the right chords.
I noticed Paul while we were playing, said Eric. He looked a very fresh-faced kid.
Later, while they were rehearsing for the evening dance in the church hall, Ivan introduced his friend to John. Paul, who had just turned 15, took 16-year-old Johns guitar, retuned it from banjo chords, and played Twenty Flight Rock, his party piece.
Neither Eric, Colin nor Rod remembers this, however. Perhaps I paid a visit to the toilet and missed the greatest moment in rocknroll history, said Rod.
About a week later, Paul happened to bump into Pete, who asked if he wanted to join the Quarrymen. Paul said yes, and cycled home for tea.
Paul was very good, said Eric. We could all see that. He was precocious in many ways. Not just in music but in relating to people.
Paul was polite and deferential to elders, though this failed to impress Aunt Mimi, said Pete. Despite Pauls charm, Mimi didnt like Paul coming round to see John. She wouldnt let him in if John was not at home. It was probably snobbery, as Paul came from a council house.
His charm also worried John, according to Eric. We were all walking down Halewood Drive to my house to do some practising. I was walking ahead with John. The others were behind. John suddenly said, Lets split the group, and you and me will start again.
We could hear Paul behind us, chatting to Pete, as if he was Petes best friend. John knew we were all his pals, but now Paul was trying to get in on us. Not to split us up, just make friends with us all. Im sure that was all it was, but to John it looked as if Paul was trying to take over, dominate the group. I suppose he was worried it could disrupt the balance, upset the group dynamics, as we might say today. I said to him, Pauls so good. Hell contribute a lot to the group. We need him with us. I like to think that was my greatest contribution to the history of the Beatles - not letting John chuck Paul out of the Quarrymen.
For his debut with the Quarrymen, Paul said he would wear a white sports coat. According to Eric, John was worried that it might look as if Paul was the leader, so he managed to acquire a similar coat. The others wore white shirts and bootlace ties. Len was wearing two pairs of trousers to make his weedy legs look more manly.
Paul was apparently rather nervous, making a bit of a hash of Guitar Boogie. But he had an immediate impact on the group. John and Eric decided theyd better learn to play the guitar properly. After Pauls debut, they got only occasional engagements. At the Stanley Abattoir social club they were considered cacophonous. They got return bookings at the Wilson Hall in Garston, but had trouble with teddy boys.
The local toughs didnt like their girls fancying John and Paul. Thats one theory for the attempts to beat them up. Another is that it was all Johns fault.
Eric explained: John never wore his specs - which made him stare very hard. He gave the wrong impression, got him into a lot of trouble. People would think he was deliberately trying to look hard - which was another reason teddy boys wanted to fight him.
A more likely explanation is that the Quarrymen were seen as snobs from Woolton, former grammar school boys from semi-detached houses, poncing about, trying to be working-class rockers, performing in front of real hard men who were labourers during the day but became genuine teds at night, wearing the full gear, plus razors and bicycle chains at the ready.
John wasnt a real ted, despite his quiff and tight trousers. He would have run a mile if anyone had ever wanted a fight.
One evening after a Wilson Hall performance, they were chased by the teds all the way to the bus stop. Pete was in charge of the tea chest and dropped it in his panic.
John and I managed to get on the bus, just as it was moving. But these two thugs got on. We were upstairs, crouching at the front, but they found us and started fighting us. At the next stop, John dived downstairs and disappeared. They took off after him, as it was John they wanted to thump. I could see them standing on the pavement, wondering which way he had gone. I thought hed got off as well - till I discovered he was downstairs, sitting quietly between two old women.
Fourteen-year-old George Harrison came on the scene early in 1958. George got himself into the group gradually, playing when Eric couldnt make it, said Pete. George hero-worshipped John, but at first John had mixed feelings about being seen with him. We all looked upon George as a naive little boy, but we all knew he was talented on the guitar.
Pete had a problem. Being Johns friend, I hadnt wanted to say I was fed up, that I wanted to leave. My contribution was totally non-musical. I just went along to make wisecracks or help carry the gear. I never liked going on stage. It gave me the willies.
The ending came at a wedding reception in Toxteth. It was the first time in his life that he remembers John being really drunk.
John and I were on the floor, sitting cross-legged at the end of the party, surrounded by our instruments and empty beer bottles. John was in fine form, making me laugh hysterically at something or other. I plucked up the courage to say I was leaving. I say plucked because I thought hed be upset. But hed obviously been struggling to tell me he didnt want me in the group any more. Anyway, he suddenly picked up my washboard and hit me over the head with it. He then turned to me and said, Well, that takes care of that problem, doesnt it. So that was it. I was released from the Quarrymen. We then just laughed till the beers rolled down our eyes.
Rod was the next to leave - I sort of just drifted away. Len caught tubercular meningitis and by the time he recovered, the Quarrymen had moved on. Eric was told he had to change to the bass guitar or leave; he left. Colin was the last to go, after a gig at which he, John and Paul were drunk.
On the bus home, Paul started making silly noises. It sounded to me as if he was imitating deaf and dumb people, doing the noise they make when they try to talk. John was doing much the same as well. This annoyed me because I had a couple of deaf and dumb friends. In the end I rounded on Paul, told him to stop it and we got into a huge argument. We were all still pretty drunk, of course, so that didnt help. It wasnt quite a fist fight. Just a lot of shouting and arguing. But I suppose I had begun to feel fed up with them by then, by their attitude, the things they were doing and saying. I got so pissed off by how they were behaving that in the end I just stood up, even though it wasnt my stop. I collected my drums, left the bus - and left them.
In later years, friends used to point him out. You know what Liverpool people are like. They love taking the piss, Oh, heres Colin, he could have been a Beatle. I hated all that. It really got up my nose.
Copyright © 2001-2002 Hunter Davies
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