Ticket to write: Derek Taylor’s front-line dispatches from Sixties counterculture

Diaries of the Beatles’ press agent illustrate his proximity to the cultural tremors of that extraordinary decade. 

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Perhaps the best way to extract maximum enjoyment from Derek Taylor’s front-line dispatches from Sixties counterculture is to take the advice of the man himself. “Open it at any page,” he writes in his opening chapter. So here goes.

Take this for instance, from 1965: “We went round to Brian Jones’s apartment where we smoked some grass and some hash and as there was no food in the place and, after the wine had finished, no liquid excepting a half bottle of milk, solid as chalk, we went out for hamburgers and then went home.” The “we” here refers to John Lennon and George Harrison and, possibly, although Taylor is a little vague, sundry members of the Byrds.

Or maybe this, from 1970: “At Dylan’s that night we heard his new album and I met him properly for the first time… He played some tunes on the piano, some new and some old, and asked George [Harrison] would he do some recording with him the next day.”

Taylor does not sprinkle his pages with these delicious anecdotes as a way of showing off the coolness of his CV: his credentials are such that he has no need to exaggerate his proximity to the cultural tremors of an extraordinary decade. He had two spells as press agent to the Beatles, joining them during the height of the moptop madness in 1964 before returning in 1968 to a different kind of mayhem at the headquarters of their ill-fated Apple Corps in Savile Row.

In between he took his family off to Los Angeles, where he worked for a variety of artists, helped to organise the Monterey festival in 1967 and harvested another collection of stories for this memoir. Amid the Hollywood glitz, he was making a great deal of money but somehow it slipped through his fingers and when the IRS came calling he was given 24 hours to settle his tax bill. But when you are as well-connected as Taylor, short-term financial problems are easily overcome. He simply phoned the Beach Boys, asked them for a loan and the money arrived swiftly and with no questions asked.

As Time Goes By was written in the early 1970s when all those who had been closely connected to the Beatles were nursing their bruises and wondering what on earth they would do with the rest of their lives. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry now that it’s over,” he writes. The book’s immediacy and rawness is one of its greatest strengths but – in the spirit of the era it is celebrating – it is sometimes rambling and unfocused. Readers approaching this reissue will quickly discover it is not a rock memoir in the way they are usually tackled – with the benefit of several decades’ hindsight.

Taylor trained as a journalist on local papers on Merseyside, graduated to the Daily Express and fell under the spell of the Beatles after being sent to review them at Manchester Odeon in 1963. Before long he was on the payroll and ghosting Brian Epstein’s autobiography.

You may think that generating column inches for the greatest entertainment phenomenon of the 20th century was not exactly difficult. But Taylor earned the trust and friendship of the band – notwithstanding the odd caustic put-down by Lennon or Paul McCartney – and clearly had a gift for dealing adroitly with the multiple demands of all sections of the media.

He could move smoothly between pouring whisky for Fleet Street’s finest and dispensing psychedelic wisdom for the emerging alternative press. He also had a newspaperman’s gift for the memorable expression. It was Taylor who described Brian Wilson’s masterpiece “Good Vibrations” as a “pocket symphony”, a phrase now forever linked with that song.

In the Sixties, the courtiers around the leading artists were allowed to indulge in a little of the hedonism themselves. As Time Goes By is full of casual references to drug-taking, which Taylor makes sound entirely normal and for which he is unapologetic. Of his return to England from LA, he writes: “There is nothing like a ride in a Rolls on a little acid on a Saturday afternoon in June in the lanes of Surrey.” In LA he smashes a mimeograph machine in his office after “too many brandies at breakfast”.

As the Beatles begin to fracture and Apple disintegrates, he unwittingly plays a role in driving the band irreparably apart by suggesting they hand their tangled business affairs over to the bruising New York accountant Allen Klein.

One of the great strengths of the book is its closeness to the events. When Taylor was writing, the Beatles were not as universally revered as they are now. But he presciently anticipates a future for those who moved in their immediate orbit spent as chat-show guests or documentary talking heads revisiting the glory days. “The manner of the ending of the Beatles is a shame, a real bad bummer. Maybe one day it will seem easier, I trust so,” he writes near the end. Taylor died in 1997, having lived long enough to see that wish fulfilled. 

As Time Goes By
Derek Taylor
Faber & Faber, 228pp, £9.99

This article appears in the 08 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State