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Come together: the collision of culture, chemistry and magic that created the Beatles

Fifty years since the height of their fame, the band’s legacy is more important than ever, writes authorised Beatles biographer Hunter Davies.

Perfect storm: over the decade between 1960 and 1970 Ringo, John, George and Paul conjured up a rich alchemy. Photo: Getty

Why did Paul Johnson, in his 1964 attack on Bill Deedes for praising the Beatles (see page 23), drag in the fact Deedes was an Old Harrovian? Because he himself went to a minor public school, Stonyhurst? Or because someone who went to Harrow, and presumably could speak fluent Algebra at the age of six, should know better?

And why did he have to attack pop fans for their “cheap confectionery . . . chain-store make-up . . . open, sagging mouths”? All sounds like a sneer to me.

It is interesting that, in lashing out at the Beatles, Johnson has a go at jazz – which the Beatles also hated. In their early years, they had trouble getting bookings at the Cavern Club, a jazz venue, and got only the less popular dates. John Lennon’s own sneer at jazz fans was to describe them as the sort of people who wore Marks & Spencer pullovers.

Johnson was right to point out how our leaders do love tagging on to any popular bandwagon, especially among the young, as Blair and now Cameron still do; but that wasn’t new. A couple of years earlier, in an important speech, Harold Macmillan, not exactly a cool cat, quoted (in fact, half sang) a popular song of the 1930s, “She Didn’t Say Yes” (“she didn’t say ‘yes’, she didn’t say ‘no’; she didn’t say ‘stay’, she didn’t say ‘go’ ”). That showed how in tune the prime minister was with pop culture.

Johnson was also right about Juke Box Jury, presumably one of the TV pop programmes he was lambasting. It ran on BBC TV from 1959 to 1967 – playing records, can you imagine, on a television show. So-called experts voted them a Hit or a Miss. It was appalling, truly awful. Which was why we all loved it.

The thing about popular culture is that liking it, or not liking it, has little to do with brains or intellect, education or social background. It is the backdrop to our lives, influencing us at vital stages, sinking into our souls, usually staying with us for ever.

Johnson, naturally, was being provocative as all opinion columnists have to be, rubbishing stuff that everyone else is drooling about. Which isn’t new, either. Poor old Wordsworth: in 1807, not very long after he and Coleridge had become flavour of the month for their Lyrical Ballads, he got a right good kicking from the Edinburgh Review. “Childish”, “tedious”, “miserable” and “disgusting absurdities” were just some of the reviewer’s insults about his poems. Sharper, pithier insults than any Johnson used about the Beatles. “Apotheosis of inanity” and “bottomless chasm of vacuity” are a bit of a mouthful. Sounds more like 1864 than 1964.

Bill Deedes proved to be spot-on. The Beatles did “herald a cultural movement among the young” that became “part of the history of our time”. No argument there.

One of the strange things about the Beatles phenomenon is that the further we get from them, the bigger and more influential they become. The scruffiest scrap of paper signed by them is worth a fortune. Universities all around the world are studying their work. The 50th-anniversary celebrations this year of their arrival in New York seemed to receive just as much coverage in the United States as the band did back in 1964. Quite recently, there have been two academic books suggesting the Beatles helped bring about the fall of communism. Even I wouldn’t go that far.

But why have they lasted? And where did it all come from? How did they create their songs when they had no musical training and could not read or write music? Since 1964 about 2,000 books, many of them highly academic, have tried to analyse and explain the secret of the Beatles.

Even more mysterious is the question of how, having got started, they suddenly metamorphosed, discarding childish, hackneyed, borrowed forms to blossom into the most admired, most studied, most gifted songwriters of our age. All good artists develop, but in the case of the Beatles the transformation was dramatic. Who would have thought that the minds responsible for the banal lyrics of “Love Me Do” would go on to produce “Eleanor Rigby”?

In defence of Paul Johnson, it has to be said that in February 1964, when he was writing, very few people were praising the Beatles’ lyrics. But raving about their music, by the intellectuals, had already begun.

On 23 December 1963 William Mann, the music critic of the Times, was extolling the “Aeolian cadence” of their songwriting and their ability to “think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes”. The tune Mann had picked on was “Not a Second Time”, one of those that rarely appears today in Beatles fans’ top faves. It had just come out on their second album, With the Beatles.

The big breakthrough in the quality and variety of their songs – music and lyrics – came in 1965 with Rubber Soul. They went on developing and experimenting, introducing us to new sounds and instruments, for the next five years, till they packed up for good in 1970.

It’s often forgotten how long John and Paul had been at it. At the age of 16, they might not have been speaking Greek, but they were already creative, composing their own songs and writing poems and stories. Both had a literary bent, read widely, appreciated good writing, knew exactly what they did like – The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island – and what they didn’t.

It is also overlooked that John and Paul, along with George, passed the eleven-plus exams, went to very good grammar schools and had a grounding in Eng Lit. The influence of their grammar-school education, and their early reading, emerged as their lyrics progressed and developed.

Of course, no one really knows where words come from. “Songs are like rabbits: they like to come out of their holes when you’re not looking,” said Neil Young. T S Eliot observed that the words in a poem were there merely to “divert” the mind. This is even more the case with lyrics, which often get chosen for their sound, to fit the musical mood, rather than to convey precise meaning.

Paul and John met through music – and for no other reason. They didn’t attend the same school or even live in the same area. In fact, they had never met before Saturday 6 July 1957, when John’s little schoolboy group, the Quarrymen, played at a church fete in Woolton, Liverpool, and Paul was brought along by a mutual acquaintance.

Paul, just turned 15, had his guitar with him, and after watching the Quarrymen perform he was introduced to John, the group’s leader, and proceeded to demonstrate his expertise on the guitar, playing a number called “Twenty Flight Rock”. John was impressed but tried not to show it, of course, being tough, being the boss. He realised that Paul knew more chords and was probably a better guitarist than him, so for a week he pondered whether it would be a good idea to introduce a rival into the group. On reflection, he decided it would and invited Paul to join. A year later, George Harrison, who was at the same school as Paul, a year younger but already as good a guitarist as either of them, was introduced by Paul to John and he, too, became one of the Quarrymen.

And so began the long, hard slog with the world showing no interest in what they were doing – which was begging for humble engagements at parties and village halls and, mostly, John and Paul sitting in Paul’s house with their guitars, head to head, pushing, criticising each other, trying to compose songs. The first and obvious explanation for their musical ability is their family backgrounds. John’s father, Freddie, who went off to sea, had a good singing voice (so he told me, and of course I believed him) and would entertain his friends at get-togethers with a song or two, but he never did it for a living. His own father, also called John Lennon, had toured the States as part of a group of Kentucky minstrels.

John’s mother, Julia, played the banjo, well enough to teach him some basic chords. She also played the accordion, according to her daughter Julia Baird (John’s half-sister), and had a good singing voice but could not read music. Yet John’s aunt Mimi, who brought him up, was so against him playing guitar she made him practise outside in the porch. She appears to have had no interest in music, at least popular music. John refused all music lessons, but he learned to play the mouth organ as a young boy, after a fashion. His uncle George (Mimi’s husband) had given him a cheap one and in 1952 he took it with him on a bus trip to Edinburgh to stay with his aunt Elizabeth, playing it for the entire journey. The driver told him to come back to the bus station the next day – and presented him with a much better one.

Paul had a much stronger musical heritage. His father, Jim, although never a full-time professional musician (he spent most of his working life as a cotton salesman), did have his own little jazz band before the war: Jim Mac’s Band. Paul remembers loving all the family gatherings where his uncles and aunts would sing songs and play instruments. In this, the McCartneys were fairly typical. Many working-class families could boast someone able to play the piano or the fiddle – self-taught, and always on call for an old-fashioned family knees-up.

Jim played the piano and the trumpet (until his teeth went) and the family had instruments in the house, but because he played by ear he felt unable to teach Paul how to play, not knowing the rules and the language. Paul did have a couple of lessons, then gave up. Yet his aptitude was clearly always there, encouraged by Jim, who told him that if he learned the piano he would always be invited to parties.

As for George, neither of his parents seems to have been very musical. His father, a bus conductor, owned a guitar but it appears he didn’t play it while George was growing up. George’s mother, Louise, enjoyed a sing-song and, unlike John’s aunt Mimi, she actively encouraged her son when he joined the Quarrymen, going along to watch them play.

Ringo does not feature as a composer or lyric writer of any Beatles songs apart from “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Octopus’s Garden”, and his family background appears to have been totally non-musical. In 1967, I did track down his father, also called Richard, who separated from Ringo’s mother when Ringo was very young. He was then living in Crewe, working as a window cleaner, and was not keen on talking. Ringo did not pass the eleven-plus and go to grammar school; he spent much of his childhood in hospital with various illnesses.

Paul’s mother, Mary, died in 1956 from breast cancer. Paul was 14 and his younger brother, Michael, recalls it was around then that Paul’s obsession with playing the guitar began. Was it a compensation mechanism? Would it have happened otherwise? The first song Paul remembers writing was “I Lost My Little Girl”.

Mary McCartney, like George’s mother, was Roman Catholic, but neither Paul nor George was sent to a Catholic school. Both boys attended Church of England Sunday schools, as did John. Paul was a keen choirboy. Though none of the Beatles’ parents was overtly religious, or even a regular churchgoer, the boys followed working-class conventions of 1940s and 1950s Britain whereby children were sent to church or Sunday school on a Sunday, giving their parents a break and perhaps the opportunity for a bit of a Sunday-morning cuddle.

Did Catholic mothers and Church of England attendance have any influence on their musical tastes? A case has been made for the effect of religion on their music: think of “Lady Madonna” and “Let It Be”. And what of their Irish ancestry? Paul and John had Irish roots, as did George. The Irish, so we are always told, are very musical. And have a way with words. So they also say.

Then there is humour. Merseyside culture is built on mockery, irony, sarcasm, satire, not taking yourself or others too seriously. Liverpool has been described as “a designated area of outstanding natural sarcasm”. As the Beatles’ lyrics progressed, there were jokes, puns, wordplay, pastiche. Even when being terribly serious and preachy – which they could be at times – they usually ended with a laugh.

If Brian Epstein had not come along as their manager, would they have made it? Or if their producer George Martin had not encouraged and allowed them from the beginning to record their own compositions? I think they would. Their talent would surely have been recognised.

Yet there is one “what if?” about which I’m not so sure. What if Paul’s mother had lived? As a trained nurse and midwife, she was keen on her sons’ education and on their economic and social improvement. I am sure that when Paul, aged just 18, came home to announce he wanted to go off to Hamburg with John to play in some dodgy-sounding nightclubs, she would have put her foot down, insisted he stay on and go to college, train as a teacher. And Paul, being a good son, might well have obeyed. In which case, even before they had properly begun, John and Paul might well have gone their separate ways.

One of the most common clichés about genius is that it is 10 per cent inspiration to 90 per cent perspiration. The Beatles certainly worked hard. When they first appeared they were assumed to be overnight sensations. In fact, they had spent the six years leading up to 1963 unknown and mostly unpaid, slogging away.

When I was observing them at Abbey Road in 1967, during the making of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I was always amazed how many takes they would record, going on and on, late into the night, while they all sounded much the same to me. And at Paul’s home beforehand, in his little studio at the top of the house, he and John would take for ever, trying out endless variations of lyrics and music. They would move on only when the other one agreed: yeah, that will do.

It is strange that Paul never composed with George, who turned out to be an excellent songwriter, when they went to the same school. Perhaps it was because George was younger, and a late developer, that Paul never sat down and composed with him. Perhaps there was nothing there between them. With John and Paul, though, the vital spark shone from the moment they met.

The band’s biggest single musical influence was therefore not family background and not Liverpool, nor even the hard grind – it was each other. We didn’t know all this back in 1964, or how they would develop. But we can now see it was the combination of Paul and John, their rivalry, competing and contesting, making the other try harder, do better. That was the real secret of the Beatles’ success, and made them part of the history of our time. 

Hunter Davies is the authorised biographer of the Beatles. His new book, “The Beatles Lyrics”, will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 25 September

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