Bill Harry is the man who introduced The Beatles to their famous manager Brian Epstein by making the arrangements for him to see them play at The Cavern in Liverpool in November 1961.
He is also the man who created the legendary weekly music publication Mersey Beat running from 1961 to 1964 which documented the golden age of Liverpool music and was the first periodical to feature The Beatles and other Liverpudlian bands of the time, including Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Merseybeats.
Bill Harry is also the man who went to school with John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe at the Liverpool College of Art; as you may or may not remember, poor Stuart was the original bass guitarist of The Beatles and a talented painter who tragically died in Hamburg in 1962, aged 21.
Before The Beatles even existed, Bill Harry, John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe and Rod Murray formed The Dissenters, and they made a vow to “make Liverpool famous” with their music, their art and their writing. And that’s exactly what they did, so much so that Bob Dylan asked specifically for Bill to show him around Liverpool when he went playing there in 1966.
Bill Harry is the true Fab Four’s gatekeeper and a living legend that wrote over 25 books about The Beatles.
After the plan he had with Brian Epstein to create a national music paper in 1964 failed, Bill moved to London and started doing PR for artists like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, The Beach Boys, Suzi Quatro and many others. To date, he is still putting together memories and stories about his famous four mates.
Let’s face it: if the world eventually got to know The Beatles, it is primarily thanks to Bill Harry and its Mersey Beat – and no, don’t say that success would have happened in any case, because, in 1962, The Beatles were famously turned away by Decca Records which picked The Tremeloes instead – read the interview with Len Chip Hawkes of The Tremeloes if you’re curious about what he has to say about it.
There are people out there, people like the one who is writing this, who were born as many as 1391 miles away from Liverpool and learned all Beatles’ songs by heart in 1999 through a cassette Walkman on the way to school without even speaking a word of English.
Had you told one of these folks that at some point in life, she would have the massive honour of running an interview with the leading Beatles authority which would last so long that it would need to be broken down into 7 separate parts afterwards, she would have called you crazy.
But you know what John Lennon once said?
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
★ Part 1: Bill Harry on the current state of music, politics, the media, cancel culture and how the press is treating Led Zeppelin
Bill, what do you think of the current state of music?
Well, it’s a lot different from what it was like back in the days and it makes me a bit sad to see once again yesterday, another television talent competition with big money, so what will happen is the same that has been happening for the last 20 odd years, which I think has ruined the music industry in Britain. You have these manufactured people taking part in these standard talent competitions with celebrity judges that are not necessarily even musicians. And when they pick a winner at the end of the whole television series with it being on television, that makes people famous almost immediately, and whoever wins it, they have choreographers, songwriters, a whole team, an expensive team of people that put everything behind them. But when we were doing it and we had artists such as Elton John, Rod Stewart, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd… you name it, they were actually the people, the musicians, the artists and the singers, who did what we call going on the road, building up an audience, developing their skills in front of live audiences all over the place. And that usually took about two years to establish, and when I was working in PR, representing groups like Mott the Hoople, Chicken Shack, Hot Chocolate, I’d go around with them as they built themselves up over all these gigs and everything. That doesn’t happen now: they’re manufactured, it’s a manufactured pop scene where you get these television people and, of course, they’re the ones that get all the publicity now in the newspapers, all the established ones, and it is getting back to that old scene where all the control is in London, and the television controls everything, the media controls everything. And they’re only interested now in the people who are successful, while many other real artists are plugging away in the clubs and building up their talents. The scene is different these days; the real artists are still there, but they don’t get the opportunity to really develop as they could.
You mentioned the media a lot. What do you think of it?
Oh, the media now is political, even when it gets down to pop music; even under music there’s a political bias to it, and the people writing about music look for the worst thing. For instance, there was a double-page spread about Led Zeppelin in the newspaper yesterday, making out that they’re virtually paedophiles or something, telling how they used to go out with 13 or 14-year-old girls. Now, I represented Led Zeppelin for a couple of years, I know they went after girls, but we’ve never known of them with any young girls whatsoever. You know, with Led Zeppelin I was with them at the gigs, and the music was absolutely fantastic, and audiences loved them and the drummer John Bonham. It was a brilliant group and one of the world’s top groups – and all the media is writing about now is this, they’re looking for dirty things about them, for bad stories. The other story I read was about Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin being in trouble in his house about somebody who built the cellar next door to his home making all the noise.
Sounds like a piece of news that can really make your day.
Yeah, you know, they’re not stories about the music musicians do and their struggle to become more known and things like that; it’s all about picking out the negative side – and I suppose, generally, that the media is negative media. They believe that bad news sells newspapers, and celebrities really get the people to investigate the bad things about them, not about the music or the films or television things they’re doing, or how good they are or what their acting is like or what the music is like. They want flushed stories, and that’s what the media is like today.
This is a very accurate description. Thank you.
And so with the internet and the people and the music papers out there what happens now to publications like yours is that your publication is the equivalent to what I was doing in Mersey Beat at the beginning of the 1960s because it is the one that is interested in the real stories and the real news and the real talents, unlike the normal press, the established press now.
This is enormously flattering to hear. Thank you ❤ If John Lennon was here today, what would he have thought of the state of things?
What John was seeking his whole life was the meaning of life, and part of the meaning of life is a type of freedom that makes life more exciting, and you become less vulnerable if you have faith and belief in things and you’ve got a positive attitude, which is something, I suppose, that doesn’t happen now; everyone’s afraid of everything because our society is going like that. The universities and colleges are warning students about great literature, from Shakespeare onward, the warnings are like “You may get worried, we must tell you that there are some murders in there, which may upset you” – they are afraid that students will be afraid of reading books, they warn them about stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and things. This is something going on not only in politics, but all the media is negative. My wife Virginia’s disabled so she takes a bit of relaxation watching television and things, but myself, personally, I’d make a news blackout, I wouldn’t want to look at the news. You know, because it is not necessarily true what happens, and it’s easy to manipulate something and to put down something in a newspaper whether some of the facts may be right, but the way they are put down gave an opposite effect of what they really are. In other words, they can easily manipulate the truth. And this seems to be happening not only in newspapers, but on television, documentaries, and all the rest of that, because what they’re seeking is sensationalism. Sensationalism can damage a lot of people because it gets twisted, and I see in my research that the way people put things down gives a different impression.
Musicians seem to fit perfectly in the global agenda you’ve just described: no protestations, no criticism, no controversial songs.
Yeah, because even with musicians, we’re living in a society with what they now call cancel culture. So, comedians are inhibited about what they cannot joke about, and it’s the same with musicians: if you write certain types of songs, that can blow your career. If you say something, you get the trolls on the internet. Let’s say a musician comes out with a song which people would say criticises something: they will have trolls, they could have thousands of people on the internet saying “Don’t buy their record” and blah, blah, blah. It once happened with The Beatles when John made those remarks about Christianity in 1966 in America, and he said that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus: people started burning all the records in the Bible Belt, and the Klu Klux Klan picketed concerts. That put an end to The Beatles’ touring, basically. And that was in the 1960s. This sort of thing would happen more these days. People are afraid to talk. They are afraid to give an opinion. They’re afraid to stand up to themselves, which is sad.
★ Part 2: Bill Harry on childhood, school and career
What was life like when you were a kid?
I was born in the Dock Road area of Liverpool which was full of bombed sites. I never knew my father because he had been killed in the war when I was two. My grandfather was dying, and my mother was out working all the time. So, basically, I had a solitary existence. We lived in this house which was falling apart. Then one day when I was coming home from college the street was blocked off because my bedroom had fallen into the street. If somebody was walking past, they would have been killed. And of course, I was at a dockside school, which was a very rough place. They didn’t care about education. It was all about surviving the big gangs on the corner searching to see if you had any money on you and things like that. And you had to fight all the time. One time, one guy challenged me so we started up a fight and there was a gang around us. When I knocked him to the ground, I didn’t know it, but his three elder brothers were there so they started kicking my guts in. A lady neighbour sort of pulled them off and took me home, but I was in such agony that they took me to a hospital where it was found my appendix had been kicked in and I was operated on straight away – otherwise, I would have died that night. So, my mother used everything she had to pay for me to go to Skerry’s College [a private school], and from there I won a scholarship to go to the Junior Art College, and from then on to the Major Art College.
How did you become involved in music?
Well, what happened basically is that when I told you that I sort of lived alone, it has a bit of the thing that I started writing about myself that says that music has been my life, and words seemed inadequate to describe the intense beauty, delight and inspiration it has brought to me over the long years of a lifetime, when I lived in poverty as a child, without even two pennies to rub together between the harshness of the bombed-out streets and the lack of anything substantial, the one thing that stood out and made everything else seem insignificant was music and art.
This is moving.
And I actually believe music could touch the soul. As I said, I never knew my father, he was shipped to the war and died when I was two, my grandfather was dying and my mother worked all hours and I hardly saw her. So from an early age, it was a solitary existence, fuelled by books and music. My mother sent me to Stanhope Street, where a woman tried to teach me to play the piano, I loved the instrument but couldn’t play it. Somehow, I was sent an acoustic guitar, but couldn’t do anything with it, so I swapped it for a cornet and then a piano accordion, but I just couldn’t play any instruments, even when my mother paid a man to teach me harmonica. I had a hand-round gramophone player because you could get one from a secondhand shop, and I would let the sound envelop me on the crackling radio listening to Frank Sinatra, Mario Lanza or the songs from My Fair Lady. On Sunday evening, my mother sent me to a friend’s house to listen to the top 20 on Radio Luxembourg and, in some ways, poverty seems to vanish from the mind if you are listening to music.
Did you ever try to become a singer?
I did believe I could sing and my friend Wayne Armstrong would let me sing along with him as he rehearsed his double bass in a room of the local Co-Op. He even took me to listen to music at the Palm Grove, near the top of Smithdown Road where he played. But even with singing, there was a problem: in later years, I teamed up with Jim MacDonald, Bernie Faulk and Pete “The Beat” McGraw to sing in a synagogue but I forgot the words once I was on stage. That was my problem and why I never sang: I found it difficult to remember the words of songs. So here I was: I couldn’t play an instrument, I couldn’t remember the words of songs, yet the music was to wrap itself around me and dominate my life for the next 60-odd years. It was as if fate aimed me in a specific direction to document and report and outline my feelings about music.
Why didn’t you get into music journalism, then?
I never wanted to become a critical reviewer: there is so much music out there that it seemed a touch of arrogance to assume that I could take the creative artists’ work apart as a non-musician as so many reporters in the national press did. If you consider someone who made an uninspiring work, you could just ignore it, and there were so many good works to talk about. I took the point of view that music is to be listened to and you can’t actually describe it as such in words: you feel it. However, you could try and capture the world of the musician and composer, what they felt, what inspired them, and what their lives were like. So I spent my life writing about music and trying to document specific areas of music or history I have actually experienced and lived through, particularly aiming at the truth, having discovered early on that musical myths are created almost daily. So I’ve made a voyage in the musical universe through my personal experiences, from the early days in Liverpool with John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe at the Art College, through the building of Mersey Beat and being part of a community that helped to change the popular music of the world irrevocably. And then I spent short periods of time in Manchester before moving to London where I was to spend the rest of my life and then I fell, once again, morning, noon and night, seven days a week in a musical landscape. So that’s why I was just writing about my feelings about music.
★ Part 3: Bill Harry on the 1960s music scene in Liverpool and London
Why did Liverpool develop such a huge music scene in the 1960s?
What basically happened was that Liverpool was a place of terrible poverty. It was the type of society in the late 1950s where young people were regarded as juvenile delinquents. If you think of all the films that came out at that time like I Was a Teenage Monster and all these things, everything was negative about teenagers, there were some films about Liverpool in which the teenagers were all rough crooks, and this was the way newspapers treated young people: if there was a music concert, all they wrote about was the people going wild and messing up the seats, there were things about Mods and rockers fighting on the beaches and everything like that. There was a time when the whole of the media was negative towards young people and they wouldn’t write about them. Nobody was writing about the music in Liverpool. I used to take a notebook and list all the groups and things I found out talking to people, and I thought “This is incredible” and I began to write to the national music papers, saying that Liverpool was like New Orleans at the turn of the century, but with rock ‘n’ roll groups instead of jazz, because that was miraculous: why was that happening there? It was because of that kind of isolation? But nobody replied. The northern capital was regarded as Manchester as they had the northern editions of the national papers, they had the BBC Radio and BBC Television base there, they had Granada Television [the former name of ITV Granada]. So, the next thing outside of London was Manchester. Liverpool had nothing: no music publishers, absolutely nothing. No real managers or people looking out at the groups of bands. But the kids themselves just loved music because of the musical heritage – there was a huge Irish musical heritage. Liverpool is often called the Nashville of the North as we had doo-wops groups like The Chants, we had Britain’s best folk music group, The Spinners, there was a whole folk music scene and there was the largest country music scene outside America.
Country music in Liverpool? Really?
Yes, and all these great Liverpool country music groups who actually went to Nashville appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage and topped American country music artists’ charts on record and tours! And then you had the poets – the Merseyside poets who became the most important and biggest-selling poets in the entire country during the 1960s: Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri. And so you had all the poets, the country music groups, the folk music groups, the black music groups, everything, and they were playing in church halls, in synagogues, in cinemas, in cellars everywhere, you know – just everywhere you went all over Liverpool there were over 300 venues for entertainment, so it was quite a unique scene, and nobody knew about it. The local newspapers didn’t write about it either. There was no coverage of it because the coverage from the north on radio and television was all about Manchester and nothing about Liverpool.
How was that different from today’s music scene?
Today, there is no community. What we had in Liverpool is that every night I would personally go to virtually every gig with The Beatles – I must have seen them about over 200 times, on their very first TV show, their first radio show, when they began touring outside Liverpool, and I spent so much time with them, they were my sort of buddies. I’ve seen virtually every one of their gigs, but we also used to meet at night, there’s a pub we used to go to which is called The Grapes, and then there was The Blue Angel Club in the nighttime. At The Blue Angel, they would be drinking and talking ’till about two o’clock and there would be all the Liverpool bands when they finished their gigs, they would all go down there and we’d all be together. It was like a community. What we were doing is that our friends were the musicians, and the musicians would be with us and they were friends with the other musicians.
How about London?
It was the same when I came down to London, and I was so delighted that there was a community again. Bands like Hedgehoppers Anonymous, The Four Pennies and others were all in the same hotel, getting to know each other, and then you’d go to the De Hems pub and to The Brewmaster pub and there would be The Hollies, The Kinks and people like that – and then there was Top of the Pops and all these places. And so, seven days a week, we were mixing with the groups, and they were mixing with each other in the clubs at night. So, again, it was like a community, they all knew each other, they were all friends together, they drank together and enjoyed it. In those days, they would be discussing things with each other and help change the music scene, and they would influence the press. That doesn’t exist anymore, there’s no music community now. I mean, I don’t know of any clubs in London like the equivalent of places like The Speakeasy or The Bag O’Nails back in the day, where you go down and find all the musicians relaxing after their shows, and all chatting together. For instance, we were on The Speakeasy and John Lennon would give me a lift in his chauffeur-driven car down to The Bag O’Nails, and so my wife Virginia and I were sitting at The Bag O’Nails and Paul McCartney was at the next table, and he said to Virginia “Oh, we’ve just been to Liverpool to Rory Storm’s house” – Rory Storm was a musician who passed away, and he said “I saw a picture of Virginia there” and blah, blah, blah. And as we were talking, then Chas Chandler came up to the table with the girl and introduced her as Linda, and then they all went off to The Speakeasy Club. You know, all the time there was this rapport and this mixing of the artists and road managers and managers, and everything like that.
★ Part 4: Bill Harry on Mersey Beat, Liverpool in the 1960s, getting into PR and working with David Bowie and Suzi Quatro
What were you doing before you created Mersey Beat?
Initially, I had the idea to do a jazz magazine called Storyville/52nd Street with Virginia. She was 17 at the time. And I started planning and I thought, well, there’s so much happening about music, nobody’s writing about it, nobody’s doing anything about it. And the groups don’t even know, there’re all these groups singing in the Dingle area, like Gerry and the Pacemakers while Billy Kramer & the Coasters were playing in places like Crosby. But before that, my experience had been that when I was a kid, I used to draw and write for science fiction fan magazines. One of my penpals was Mike Moorcock, he became a famous science fiction writer later on, and he used to illustrate his own fan magazine. And I began to illustrate fan magazines for all the different fan clubs for science fiction around the country. And then I did my own magazine called Biped, a little science fiction fan magazine. And when I went to the Junior Art College, I asked the headmaster if the school had a magazine, he said no and I said that I wanted to create one, so he let me have this typewriter and a desk and all that and I did a magazine which I called Premiere, and when I went to the Liverpool Art College, I asked to borrow the college’s duplicating machine, they said yes and I did a magazine called Jazz. And then the University of Liverpool knew about me doing magazines and asked me to help do theirs, Pantosphinx, and then the music shop, Frank Hessy, which sold musical instruments to John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe and all the groups, wanted me to do a music magazine for him called Frank Comments, and so I did that. So, I had all this experience doing my own magazines since I was about 12 years old.
What achievements are you most proud?
Well, changing from a period of writing to spending 18 years promoting, building and trying to make famous a number of groups like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Suzi Quatro, David Bowie, Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, Supertramp, Hot Chocolate – that’s about 30 major bands I handled over 18 years. And I was also the PR for all the London clubs like The Speakeasy, Blaizes and The Revolution, because as I said, it was a community in those days, just like in Liverpool: the whole of the rock music scene was a community, we knew exactly which club all the groups and road managers and executives would be in, and each spot they’d sort of go to, and the days they’d be at it and at the television places, all the regular things in London at the Marquee and clubs like that.
What was it like to become a publicist after you’d been a publisher for all your life?
As a publicist, I was more able to let the artists speak for themselves, everything was in their own words. For instance, when people went and see Joan Armatrading, I got her to talk about her new album. And what I would do, even though I’d write the whole thing, was to put it in the artists’ name, because every word in it was their name. I didn’t put things as the fashionable writers did at the time, in the music papers, again, in London: what they were doing was writing about themselves. You take an article of the time about an interview with – let’s say, Elton John and the first half of the article was all about the writer. But I wanted to see the feelings of the artists come out, I wanted to hear their own visions on why they recorded the album, how they wrote the songs and the musicians that backed them and all. When you’ve got an album, you listen to the music, and the article written for the artists would give you insight, which, in a word, made you appreciate the record mark.
Which artist did you enjoy working with the most?
Well, my favourite artist I did PR for is Suzi Quatro.
You also worked with David Bowie. How was it to represent him?
Oh, he was fun to manage. David’s manager at the time wasn’t doing anything, so they virtually had him written off. And it was David’s music publisher who approached me and said he’d pay me to do publicity for David, particularly since his new album was coming out and he didn’t think he’d get much help from this guy in terms of management. So I started doing the publicity for Dave, and Dave was quite excited and asked me to do some publicity for him and his friend Dana Gillespie, and I did it. And I mean, then he asked me to do publicity for another of his friends, a mime artist called Lindsay Kemp who used to do an apple with a snake around his neck. But so what happened is that I did what was certainly regarded as a miracle at the time: I got a story of David on the front page of the Daily Mirror, which was the biggest-selling newspaper in the world at the time. And then, in the same week on Wednesday, I got a double-page spread in the middle. And the next thing was that his manager called in and dispensed me from doing his publicity and he just took it over!
What’s the legacy of your work in music?
Well, I think it expanded a very limited music scene in England, because the whole of the music scene, prior to Mersey Beat and The Beatles, was controlled by London: they had all the recording studios, all the A&R men, all the music publishers, all the agents, all the managers, all the music papers, all the major Mecca throughout the country had their headquarters in London and Mecca venues throughout the country. And the people that were in London, the A&R men, would not leave London at all; everything had to go down to London, even the groups that were in Scotland had to travel all the way down. And of course, young groups and young people didn’t have the business knowledge that all these London managers and agents had.
What happened after you launched Mersey Beat?
When I started Mersey Beat, I could see that and I knew what was happening, and I started doing headlines like “London, take a look up north”, and encouraging people that each place had its own music scene. So, after I started Mersey Beat, people would come up from Bristol and other different places to my office and spend time with me to learn how to run a paper, and they’d go back home and start their own. And within a couple of years, there were 23 different music magazines based on Mersey Beat throughout the country like Scottish Beat, Midlands Beat, Southend Beat… Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield. Everywhere they were doing their own thing writing about the local scenes, and suddenly the actual Newcastle band The Animals would play at The Cavern in Liverpool, as well as other groups from Manchester and Sheffield like Dave Berry, Herman’s Hermits and The Hollies, and everybody was welcome at The Cavern, and they all started writing about their own groups because the music papers in London would only write about groups that were in the charts, they wouldn’t write about any new talented groups.
But you did. And in a brand new way.
I just wrote about the people and the groups who had talents, and also, I didn’t use all the standard photographs that the London music papers had, like the studio shots that are rather static; I would tell my photographers “Go out, take the picture of The Beatles and all the other groups when they’re performing, while they’re on stage, or take them out to locations out in the city, and to try and make different pictures, different images”. And also the interviews and things I did were quite different from the type of stuff other music papers in London were doing, like asking what somebody had for breakfast and things like that. I was writing about their music, their influences, and everything related to music. I thought that music speaks for itself; when people are playing music, that’s all about what people feel with their ears, but to write about it is something different. You write about the experience and the people, so writing about music is different from listening to music, you get an insight and get the character so that the people who love the groups will get to know all about them almost as if they became friends.
Where did the name Mersey Beat come from?
When I started doing this, the idea of the coverage came when I was in the office one night trying to figure out what to call the paper. And so I thought I’d cover the whole of the Merseyside and also New Brighton and Birkenhead, Southport and Crosby, and while I was thinking of that, I could see a map of the area I’d cover. And then sort of, in my head, I saw a policeman walking across it, like a policeman beat – the territory that a police officer patrols. And I thought “Ah, that’s my beat: Merseyside is my beat, I’ll call it Mersey Beat.” And that’s how I came up with the name, it had nothing to do with music. I borrowed 50 pounds, and me and Virginia started the newspaper, we got a little office, a tiny attic office with a desk and two chairs, and a typewriter. And then I started the magazine on 50 quid. When we made the first issue, I went to all the main wholesalers for them to take it. And then I went around the clubs and everything, The Cavern and everywhere else. And then I ordered 5000 copies, and so I started taking them around to all the music shops.
After Mersey Beat was founded, a Liverpool band called The Merseybeats emerged; weren’t you worried that people would get confused?
Well, basically, I think that they were called The Pacifics in the beginning, and then they changed to The Mavericks but that sounded too country music, and they thought they would be mistaken. So, Bob Wooler, The Cavern’s DJ, came to the office with them and said “Can they use The Merseybeats as a name instead of The Mavericks? You know, it makes publicity for the paper!” Well, I just thought I would help them out, just I didn’t consider any conflict at the time, I just wanted to help them out. You know, with all sorts of things for all the groups at the time, I would just go out of my way to do what I could for them.
What was day-to-day office life like at Mersey Beat, in 1961?
Virginia and I did everything; she did all the business, getting adverts and trying to collect the money out of advertisers and people, and I did everything else myself: all the writing, getting all of the photos together, commissioning and everything, designing the paper, dealing with the printers and all the rest of it. Sometimes, work took up to 100 hours a week. I’d be working around the clock and until about four o’clock in the morning when I’d go to the Pier Head for a cup of tea and a pie. It was pretty tough at the beginning, just me and Virginia, running a fortnightly newspaper that eventually became weekly. We didn’t have any real staff until a lot later on, with just one or two people and that was it.
Do you know what happened to the 23 local papers based on Mersey Beat that were created across the UK?
What happened to the group magazines is that the groups they promoted eventually became big. Take, for instance, The Moody Blues; the Midlands paper was writing about them and then The Moody Blues became big. Southend also had groups in the chart, so the result was that groups from all over the country were now able to get to London and be recognised by A&R men, and the A&R men would also come out to the different cities looking for different groups, then. And of course, the national music papers adapted to all this and started writing about more of a range of artists, so eventually, all the local music magazines in the provinces faded away.
★ Part 5: Bill Harry on life before, during and after Brian Epstein
Is it true that Brian Epstein discovered The Beatles through Mersey Beat?
On July the 6th 1961, I walked into NEMS [North End Music Store, Brian Epstein’s family’s music store] and I asked to see the manager. And this smartly dressed man came down the stairs. And it was Brian Epstein. I asked him to maybe take some copies, he looked at the paper and said “Okay, we’ll take a dozen”. And then when I got back to the office that afternoon I got a call and it was him. he was so surprised that the entire stock had sold out straight away. He wanted more. And then with issue number two, he ordered 144 copies and asked me to come to the office and see him. The entire Mersey Beat’s front cover was about The Beatles’ record in Hamburg, the entire story had published pictures of The Beatles in black leather in Hamburg, which are the ones from Astrid Kirchherr that Paul McCartney had abroad for me, and that was the big picture on the front cover. That was in July 1961, and Brian couldn’t believe it, he was going over every page, he was all excited, and he said: “You haven’t got a record reviewer!”, and so he became my recorder reviewer in issue number three: Stop the World—And Listen To Everything in It: Brian Epstein of NEMS, that was his record review in issue three, and that was the 3rd of August 1961.
What happened next?
And then Bob Wooler, the DJ at The Cavern, wrote this incredible article about The Beatles saying that there was no one like them and there would never be and that they were fantastic and so on – for an entire page. The only thing else than that on the page was an advert from Brian Epstein. And this was still in August. Then Brian invited me twice to The Basnett Bar on Basnett Street to discuss the groups and what was happening, he was so excited. He never knew that such a scene existed, even though The Cavern was only 100 yards from his music shop. And The Beatles were in every issue, and Bob Wooler would come to the office and tell me that everyone was saying that we wrote so much about The Beatles that we should call it The Mersey Beatles! So I thought “This is a good idea”, and I put a regular page and called it the Mersey Beatle.
But anyway, Brian said to me “I’d like to see this group”, so I said “Ok, I’ll arrange for you to see them at a lunchtime session at The Cavern”, but he was a bit reluctant because he said he didn’t want to stand in there waiting at the door, so I called Ray McFall, the owner of The Cavern, asking if we could arrange that, and he said “Sure, all he is asked to do is asking for Pat Delaney at the door, and Pat will take him down”. So I arranged that for Brian Epstein and he went down there. This was in November 1961. Now, what got me is that all this time from the beginning of July 1961 up to when he went to see The Beatles at The Cavern in November, is that he never mentioned that at all in his book, all he’s got is that “a boy came into his shop and asked for this record” [A Cellarful of Noise was published in 1964, and Brian Epstein died in 1967]. And that was after over four months I’d been discussing The Beatles with him and writing about them and having his adverts on the same pages, and him going over the paper with me and pointing at The Beatles all the time. And here’s what he does in his book. At least Paul McCartney, in his biography, says that Brian discovered The Beatles through Mersey Beat… Paul knows as he was there. But then, of course, Philip Norman, the writer, says that the trouble with Brian Epstein was that he didn’t like to acknowledge or give credit to anybody.
Brian Epstein and yourself were supposed to create a national music paper together in 1965, but this never happened. What went wrong?
Yes, I decided to merge Mersey Beat with a publication which I named Music Echo, in 1965 with Brian Epstein. But I had disagreements with him as he didn’t stick behind his promises, so I left and it didn’t go well after that and he eventually had to merge Music Echo with Disc. As for myself, I later did another magazine, which was quite unique, and I called it Tracks. This was in the early 1980s, I anticipated the changing scene, that there would be albums on DVDs and everything, and so I made Tracks as an album magazine and I’d interview everyone for the album, like Tina Turner, Lionel Richie, and go into detail with them doing track by track of albums. I used to interview all the names, it was a complete album magazine, it was the first proper album magazine and I created that. And then later in the 1980s, I had another magazine that went through all the newsstands, called Idols: 20th Century Legends which was all about 20th-century idols, I had a couple of popularity polls, and The Beatles came number one twice at both polls! But it was all about James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot and all the great idols that I loved. And it was still only me and Virginia doing the job, so I really needed some proper backing because it was being sold all over the country and there was even a French edition. Eventually, it was going to be in a partnership with the people around the Daily Mirror newspaper: I would be producing, and they would get all the advertising and the circulation, but then the owner of the magazines at the Daily Mirror group got killed. He’d fallen off a boat the week before we had to sign all the deals and contracts, and then the magazine division was sold, so I missed out on that. So I changed my career again and I went back to writing, and I had my columns located in 50 different countries around the world. That was in the 1990s.
★ Part 6: Bill Harry on meeting John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliff at the Liverpool Art College, the beginning of The Beatles and talking poetry with Bob Dylan
How did you meet John Lennon?
When I went to the art college, there was all this talk about this talented guy, a really talented artist, Stuart Sutcliffe. And I thought: “I’m attracted to creative people, so I’ve got to get to know him”. So I got to know Stuart and his friend Rod Murray. And then I was sitting down in the college canteen one day, and this guy came in, and I was surprised as he looked like a teddy boy [the Teddy Boy subculture started among British teenagers in the early 1950s ], and I thought “Wait a minute”. And I looked around and saw that all the art students who were supposed to be rebels were all wearing turtleneck sweaters and duffle coats. And he was like a teddy boy, he was different. So I thought “He is definitely the rebel, he is the one I’ve got to get to know”. So I introduced myself to John Lennon and we became friends. I took him around to our local pub and introduced him to Stuart and Rod. He was looking for a bass player, and in fact, both Stuart and Rod wanted to become bass players to take up John’s offer. None of us had any money in those days, so Rod started making an actual bass guitar himself, and he still got it, but Stuart managed to sell a painting and got a real guitar, so he beat Rod to it! They became our school’s band, and they played at our school dances. When there were our dances, I’d go with them in the backroom as they were getting ready, and Stuart once showed me his brand new guitar and gave it to me to play and it took the skin off my fingers, which bled because I didn’t know about using a plectrum. And I was a member of the students union committee along with Stuart, and we proposed and seconded that we used our students union funds to buy a PA audio system which they could use at our dances. So they used the PA system, and then they took it away and the college never saw it again. And they were my mates and everything, we would drink together, go to the coffee bars and clubs and everything, and spend our time together. The four of us, me, John, Stuart and Rod, called ourselves The Dissenters and we made a vow.
You made a vow?
We made a vow to make Liverpool famous. You know, again, because we had all these creative people here, the artists, the painters, and nobody was writing about the talent in Liverpool at all, and we believed in our talents. So we made the vow to make Liverpool famous: John would do it with his music, Stuart and Rod with their painting, and I would do it with my writing. And of course, the writing ended up becoming Mersey Beat. John’s music ended up becoming The Beatles. You know, unfortunately, Stuart died at only 21, but back then, we were The Dissenters anyway.
Did you ever get Stuart Sutcliffe to paint a portrait of you?
Yes, I do actually have an oil painting of me by Stuart Sutcliffe. I’d been working knocking a mill down during the holidays and with my first pay, I bought a blue jacket. I went to see Stuart at his Percy Street flat and he said he liked my jacket. I said he could have it if he painted me. He took several sheets of pink foolscap paper and began sketching my face. Then he set up his easel and the painting was done in around an hour. I still have it.
What’s your single favourite memory from your time with John Lennon?
One night we spent at the Gambier Terrace flat when we sit and talked with John, quite late. The buses stopped running at the same time in Liverpool early so we couldn’t get Virginia home, so John Lennon put us up in the bath. And there are all the memories of being at Gambier Terrace and chatting and forming The Dissenters to make Liverpool famous. Just think that we were four unknown art college students in Liverpool saying that we would change things and make Liverpool famous – and then, within three years, there was the American poet Allan Ginsberg chatting to me at The Blue Angel Club. There were film actresses like Judy Garland down there too, and all these celebrities and famous people were coming from all over the world to Liverpool. So yes, that was three years after me, John, Stuart and Rod made that vow to make Liverpool famous.
I heard that when Bob Dylan visited Liverpool, he asked specifically for you to show him around.
Yeah, that’s right. When Bob Dylan came to Liverpool to perform, he asked me to introduce him to poets. So when he came, we went to the show and afterwards, we went to the hotel. He was staying at the Adelphi Hotel. And then we took him to The Blue Angel Club. And I said, “What would you like to drink?” And he said Beaujolais [a French wine], but The Blue Angel only sold spirits and beer. So he said: “Oh no, let’s go back then”. But I said, “Hold on, here are Mike McCartney and Roger McGough, the poets, and blah blah blah”, so we all went back to the hotel with Dylan, and his manager was sitting in the armchair, and he had on the table a whole crate of Beaujolais! So we spent the night talking, and Dylan was very excited about telling me about his new poetry book called Tarantula. It was quite an interesting time.
Is there anything about The Beatles that you think people should know but, for some reason, they don’t know?
Oh, hundreds of things. I mean, I’ve written 25 books on The Beatles, and I’ve got piles of stuff here, there are so many other things that people don’t know. And so I’ve been writing about them only on my computer. That it is. And nowhere else. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of stories that have never been published before. It’s long and short stories and basically all true and factual about The Beatles. There are funny things as well.
Do you remember how they came up with The Beatles as a band name?
I’d been with them right from the beginning and I was with them at that time, too. I was sitting with Stuart and John when they were trying to think of a name because they got rid of The Quarrymen and had been through all kinds of names like The Moondogs and stuff like that. Then they would think of Long John and the Silvermen because of John’s favourite books from Treasure Island – he loved Long John Silver. So we were sitting down in the Gambier Terrace flat and Stuart said “What about a name like Buddy Holly & The Crickets?” So, okay, crickets, insects – let’s think of insects. And of course, the most obvious name was The Beetles with the two Es.
When was that?
That was early in 1960, probably around June-ish, I think. And they were thinking to call themselves The Silver Beatles, and then The Beetles with the two Es. And, in August that year, in August 1960, they settled on The Beatles as it’s spelled, famously.
How much of The Beatles’ success do you believe depended on the final band formation? Would have it been different if, for example, Stuart didn’t die, or Ringo didn’t join?
Right, yeah, with Ringo I think that was the ideal band. But, I mean, nothing wrong with Pete Best, the one that they got before him. But Ringo was the ideal for them, I think. And you know, when they went to America, Ringo was the most popular member of The Beatles, people wrote songs about him and everything.
Why did The Beatles break up, while The Rolling Stones stayed together?
The Beatles lasted the same more now than anybody else. And you see more things on The Beatles today than you do on The Rolling Stones.
But they still split as early as 1970.
We all know that the Beatles ended touring because of the trouble in America [John Lennon’s remarks about Christianity in 1966] and so they decided not to tour anymore, and to spend their time recording. And as a result, you get all these brilliant innovations in recording that The Beatles created, as well as the new things they created initially, the big touring at these huge arenas and things like that started with the Shea Stadium in New York in 1965. And they created the notes on album sleeves and different album covers and all the rest of it. So, instead of touring, they spent their time in the recording studio and they were doing all innovations but, musically, in the studio. And if you listen to music now, anywhere you would hear more about The Beatles’ music being played than The Rolling Stones’. The image of rough and ready Stones and mop-top Beatles always annoyed John. Because what happened is that The Beatles were a rough and ready R&B group in Hamburg, playing rock ‘n’ roll and R&B in their black leather, before prostitutes and gangsters and all the rest of that and coming from the poor city of Liverpool, right?
When it comes to The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger went to the London School of Economics, Brian Jones is from Cheltenham, which is like a beautiful garden village type thing, and what happened is that their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, as The Beatles were already established, did the opposite for them, because they couldn’t have been established beforehand and I’ll tell you why. And what happened is that John Lennon was furious, and would say: “They stole our image and people think of the bad boys as The Rolling Stones, and not The Beatles who were with the gangsters and all the rest of that!” And it’s actually crazy, but that’s the way things go, you know? You tell me a huge list of Rolling Stones’ records to put up against The Beatles’ records… so, yes, The Beatles disbanded, but you know that we know all the reasons why that happened. It’s probably in some ways, not a bad thing. Because they have blessed the great legacy, they haven’t ruined the legacy. Sometimes, when people go on too long, it doesn’t work out. And I know that Paul and Ringo are still going, but they’re not going as The Beatles, they’re going in separate careers. They’ve done it in a different direction.
Is there any 1960s band you feel was underrated?
Oh, yes, a lot. A lot of them should have been absolutely massive. Now, one of them was Faron’s Flamingos: one of my favourite groups. They looked sensational; visually, they looked like they’d be, you know, popular around the world. They had great looks, and they did what we called The Mersey Motown Sound.
What was the Mersey Motown Sound?
UK’s biggest-selling city for the Tamla Motown label, created in Detroit in 1959, was Liverpool, as their artists and songs would be hits locally. Their records were distributed by a small record label, Oriole, and the largest market for them was on Merseyside, and so they found out that they were doing so well in Liverpool that they sent John Schroeder, the A&R man, up to Liverpool, and he gave me the Motown records, and I took Fingertips by Steve Wonder to The Cavern and had it play, and Ringo Starr came up to me and said: “That’s fantastic, can I have that?” And so I gave him the record, and had John Schroeder send him out the entire catalogue of Motown to Ringo! But so, yes, what we called the Mersey Motown Sound is where the Liverpool groups would adapt the Motown sounds to a rock ‘n’ roll beat. The Countours were a vocal group who did Do You Love Me? as a vocal thing, and Faron’s Flamingos turned it into a rock ‘n’ roll thing, a fantastic rock ‘n’ roll thing. Virginia and I went down to London to the Oriole Studios while they recorded it and we were asked to go out to the street to ask some young folk to come in and dance to the recording, and I also got in crates of ale. John Schroeder said that this was going to be number one in the charts, that was a fantastic record. But instead of releasing it as the A-side, it was put on the B side of the record, and Oriole didn’t put money in to promote it through radio pluggers. And then The Dave Clark Five copied note for note Faron’s Flamingos’ version, and so did Brian Poole and The Tremeloes, and they established that. Both of them are good, particularly The Dave Clark Five’s version, as it became a massive hit and that should have been Faron’s Flamingos. And that was sad. And they were so disappointed that the group disbanded.
What is the one best song of all time, in your opinion?
Which type? Could it be anything?
There are so many types of music, I’ve got some quite eclectic tastes, you know, everything from musicals to all kinds of things up to the R&B stuff, I love Ray Charles and everything. Motown was my favourite period of music for me. I suppose my favourite song will be A Day In The Life by The Beatles, there’s something unique about that, it has got a sound which is a quite unique sort of music, I think.
★ Part 7: Bill Harry on the Paul is Dead conspiracy theory
How do you cope with the Paul is Dead conspiracy theory? There are loads of people who, based on pictures and videos of McCartney looking taller after 1966, his voice sounding louder, his face seeming longer and the head shape appearing different, believe that the real Paul died in a car crash in 1966 and was replaced with an imposter by the name of Billy Shears Campbell.
I mean, that’s another dropped shoe where things get totally mixed up as we talked before, when we said how stories can get mixed up and misinterpreted by the press. This was a whole, complete mixer, which have no real foundation at all. And it went even further with other stories and conspiracies of how Brian Epstein fell out of a helicopter and died and he was replaced. You know, it’s kind of weird stories, and there is a certain part of the population that loves conspiracy tales, so it goes on.
It’s because I wanted to understand why this has gone so far for so long that I carried out some research. Truth to be told, in addition to the physical appearance, there are several other things, like George Harrison calling him the new fella in The Beatles Anthology Series, Olivia Harrison calling him Billy, his strange reaction to Lennon’s death and many other similar situations.
People refer to him as Faul because they regard that as the false Paul McCartney. You know, it’s just silliness. But it’s so detailed, that it is actually amazing, because people add more and more stories to it, and it’s all this Billy Shears rubbish. I mean, it’s incredible how far it goes, and it still goes on, and people today still believe it. Like, here is an example of how this false news took off, particularly in social media. I saw a report recently published in the Hollywood Inquirer, saying that Ringo had confirmed the Paul is Dead myth. I was immediately suspicious. Despite realising that Ringo has a great sense of humour, he certainly wouldn’t have cobbled together something of the disputed myths that arose in the conspiracy theory. During the alleged interview, Ringo reportedly confirmed that Paul had died in a car crash on November the 9th 1966 after an argument during the recording session, and had been replaced by William Shears Campbell, the winner of the McCartney look-alike competition.
The video of the 1963 Paul McCartney lookalike competition was recently retrieved.
He supposedly continued by saying that “When Paul died we all panicked, we didn’t know what to do. And Brian Epstein, our manager, suggested that we hired Billy Shares as a temporary caution, it was supposed to last only a week or two. But time went by and nobody seemed to notice, so he kept playing along”. He also reportedly mentioned that he was a good musician, almost better than Paul, and they all felt guilty about the deception. He also complained that John didn’t get along with the replacement and that the group did send out a lot of hidden messages. Now, apart from the fact that the Hollywood Inquirer doesn’t actually exist, the alleged interview first appeared on the World News Daily Report, which is a site that creates false news and stories and states that “all characters appearing in articles and this website, even those based on real people are actually fictional, and any resemblance between them and any persons living there or on dead is purely a miracle“. And so they created the post in which Paul allegedly responded to Ringo’s allegations and blah, blah, blah, and that goes up. But people believe the Hollywood Inquirer exists, and believe that those stories were true, and the website admitted that they are false, but people continue to believe them. And that just goes on… well, you’ve got to be careful with what you read!
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Unless otherwise stated, the pictures published have been provided from Bill Harry’s private collection; full copyright belongs to Bill Harry © and no image can be replicated without written permission from the copyright holder