Gary James' Interview With Mersey Beat Magazine Founder
Bill Harry was a major player in the Liverpool music scene in the early 1960s. As founder of the weekly newspaper Mersey Beat, he was the first publisher to give major coverage to The Beatles. Bill attended Liverpool College of Art with John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe. In fact, he introduced John Lennon to Stu Sutcliffe. Bill Harry is truly one of the few "insiders" in The Beatles story.
Q - Bill, as we speak, you're still publishing Mersey Beat aren't you?
A - Online. Yes I am. I'm doing two versions online. mersey-beat.com. has all the original writings by The Beatles themselves, all the things that John, Paul, George and Ringo actually wrote, plus Brian Epstein's own reports of The Beatles' first recording sessions and The Beatles' first tour of America. Things like that. That has all the original archived material from it. The other one which is merseybeat.co.uk has replica issues of Mersey Beat. It's got about 500 articles.
Q - Are you still up-dating the magazine by interviewing the people who made the music?
A - Oh, sure. I've been interviewing them for over 45 years. I've tracked down everybody all over the world.
Q - You saw early on that Liverpool had a strong music scene like New Orleans had, but no one around you shared your enthusiasm. How did you know that?
A - Well, because we'd originally started to hear the American Rock 'n' Roll artists in Liverpool. The kids just loved it, that type of music. Liverpool itself had always had this musical heritage because it was one of the world's premier ports at one time. It was so cosmopolitan. In fact, it had the first Chinatown in Europe. It had its own equivalent to Harlem. It was called "the Capitol of Ireland" because all the Irish in the potato famine came to Liverpool. Part of them went to America. Thousands of them stayed. It had a healthy Welsh import as well. So, it was like a cosmopolitan mix. With each of them, they all brought their own kind of music. There were club sing-a-longs. Sea shanties always talk about Liverpool. Things like "Maggie May", the classic one. So there's always been this musical thing in Liverpool with Liverpool people. When we were hearing Rock 'n' Roll, this was at the time when Skiffle music had been popularized in Britain by Lonnie Donegan and taken up. There were 5,000 Skiffle groups around Great Britain. In Liverpool the Skiffle bands really became Rock 'n' Roll bands. There was no publicity. Liverpool was isolated basically from the major local paper, which didn't write about the local Rock scene. You couldn't even advertise a Rock concert or a Rock gig under a Rock heading. It had to be under the Jazz section. They didn't acknowledge Rock 'n' Roll in the local newspaper. Of course all the Northern editions of the national newspapers were printed in Manchester. The BBC and local radio was in Manchester. The local television, Granada was in Manchester. All the majors had a Manchester bias and Liverpool was ignored. The young kids wanted a voice, you know? That ended up with me creating Mersey Beat.
Q - Your first press run was 5,000 copies?
A - It was, yes.
Q - Did you sell out?
A - Complete sell out. We sold out the first issue straight away. I went 'round to 24 news agents personally and they took copies. I went to three main news distributors to news agents in Liverpool that I went to. Then I went 'round all the venues from the Cavern to Litherland Town Hall and got all the promoters to take copies. Then I went in to all the music shops. I walked into NEMS in the beginning of July and asked to see the manager. That's when Brian Epstein came down. I introduced myself to him and showed him the paper. So, I was the first person from the local music scene to ever talk to Brian or let him know about what was happening musically. He ordered twelve copies. Then he phoned us the same afternoon. He couldn't believe that they just sold like that. He ordered more and more. So, with issue 2, he ordered twelve dozen copies, which for a little, local music store, twelve dozen copies of a newspaper was pretty high. Even the big mega stores don't take that much of a single sort of music paper. Of course that was the issue when the entire front page was devoted to The Beatles recording in Hamburg with a photograph by Astrid that Paul McCartney brought back from Germany for me. That was in July 1961, months and months and months before he (Brian Epstein) claimed the guy (Raymond Jones) came into his store and he'd never heard of The Beatles before.
Q - Does Raymond Jones exist?
A - Raymond Jones exists. He lives in Spain.
Q - Has he ever come forward and given interviews?
A - Yes. He's been interviewed by Radio Merseyide by Spencer Leigh. Spencer Leigh gave me his number in Spain. I couldn't be bothered speaking to him because as far as I was concerned, his only relevance in The Beatles' story would be if he did put The Beatles on to Brian Epstein in the first place, which he didn't. So, I found him not relevant to the story, so I didn't bother phoning him up. But he does exist.
Q - Were you surprised when Brian Epstein asked if he could write a column for the paper?
A - With the second issue (of Mersey Beat) selling 144 copies, they all sold out, Brian couldn't believe it. He invited me for lunch at the Basnett Bar on Basnett Street on several occasions, to discuss what was happening in Liverpool. He was all very excited about it. He asked if he could be my record reviewer. So, Brian Epstein's Record Reviews began in issue number 3 of Mersey Beat in the middle of August. So, he's writing my record reviews, stocking my paper in the shop, taking me out to lunch, coming up to the office and started advertising for NEMS and all the time the paper was filled with Beatles stuff. And the big Beatle feature by Bob Wooler saying they were the greatest thing ever, the only other thing on the page is an advert from NEMS which Brian Epstein put in. This is months before. The evidence is all in black and white.
Q - Your girlfriend at the time, Virginia, now your wife, was your advertising rep?
A - No, she wasn't in advertising. I got all the advertising initially. Virginia ran the office. The Beatles used to come in and help her, answering the phone, helping her out in the office, things like that. But she virtually ran it while I was out writing the copy, designing it, going to the printers and getting advertising.
Q - You managed a group called The Four Pennies?
A - That was years later, after Mersey Beat had folded.
Q - They had a number one song called "Juliet".
A - That's correct.
Q - Why didn't you and the group continue on?
A - When we moved down to London with them, 'cause you had to run the group from London, they just really split because Lionel Morton, the lead singer, married Julia Foster, the actress who was in Alfie and all those films. She was sort of like going on about "Oh, you know, you're the lead singer" and all this, that and the other, but there were internal squabbles within them because of wives and girlfriends. So, during that time I was writing for about five other music papers. News editor, feature writer and columnist for Record Mirror. Columnist for Record Retailer. Feature writer for Music Now and things like that. Then I was asked to take over publicity for The Kinks and The Hollies. Then Pink Floyd. Then David Bowie, Procul Harum, Jethro Tull, Cream, Led Zeppelin. It just went on. So, I was basically right in the height of Swinging London. Seven nights a week going out, whether it's with Keith Moon or accompanying The Beach Boys around London. So, I spent about eighteen years doing that.
Q - I'm surprised you're still alive to talk about it.
A - I know. That's why I really had to get out of it. It was hard to survive in those days I'll tell you. A lot of them didn't. Like Bonzo, (Led Zeppelin). He died. I was also the P.R. for all the London clubs like The Speakeasy, Blazes, Revolution. We were at the Revolution one night and I got a call from Bonzo. He said "I want to come have a drink with you." I said "Where are you?" He said "I'm in Birmingham." I said You can't get out in time for a drink." He said "I'm comin' down." So, he arrived and it was ten to two. So, he ordered 50 lagers between us, before the bar shut. Imagine how he must've drank in those days. It was all like a heavy drinking culture as well.
Q - What kind of a group was Led Zeppelin in terms of publicity co-operation?
A - The point was - no publicity. It was carefully managed by Peter Grant that they wouldn't do TV. I remember doing just one show with them for TV. They wouldn't do interviews. It was part of a thing he created which was successful. While everyone else was giving interviews for every other paper, the laws of trying to get as much publicity as possible, they didn't. It was more like keeping the press off them.
Q - You were the guy who introduced John Lennon to Stu Sutcliffe or vice-versa. What kind of a guy was Stu Sutcliffe?
A - I was immediately attracted to Stu because of his talent. Suddenly there was a buzz in the art college that there was this guy who was really sort of good at art. Now, personally I felt that the people in the art college were dilettantes just messing around. There were only a few really talented people. He had fire in him. He had passion in him. So, I got to know Stu, you see. Then I was sitting in The Canteen and I noticed this other guy. Straight away I saw him. It's like an epiphany, the way he was dressed made me look around and see all the other art students all more or less dressed the same, all conformists. Duffle coats and turtleneck sweaters. He was almost like a Teddy Boy. I thought, I have to go and get to know him, and that was John. We used to go to this pub around the corner from the art college. Stuart was there with his mate, Rod Murray. John came in and introduced them and we all used to get a drink. The four of us became The Dissenters, with our vow to make Liverpool famous.
Q - What did Stu Sutcliffe see his future in, art or music?
A - Well, I used to go 'round to Stuart's flat when he did the painting of me. We used to sit and we were interested in the mystical philosophers. We were looking towards an unknown future with excitement. I got a bit annoyed with him when he joined John's group 'cause I said "His passion is art. His art is so great." Not to meddle around with the group. His art was more important than the music, which is what it proved to be.
Q - Besides the art, what other interests did John and Stu share? Did they share the same musical interests?
A - No. I don't think they shared the same musical interests initially. Buddy Holly was the thing I think the two of them shared, the love of the Buddy Holly music which John had done with The Quarrymen and Stu with an interest in it. He'd always been interested in music and had piano lessons as a kid. His father was a seaman. Bought him a Spanish guitar. I think he and John sort of got on well because they were contrasting in some ways and opposites in others and it's just the kind of friendship that is sort of quite unique. Stuart could sort of tame the beast in some ways. There was a chemistry between them.
Q - What was this club, The Jacaranda Club, like?
A - It was a little coffee bar 'cause there was a coffee bar culture in Liverpool at the time. We used to hang around the Jacaranda Club. Basically, it was me, Stuart, John and Rod Murray.
Q - You arranged for Brian Epstein to see The Beatles at The Cavern?
A - Yes, that's right. With Brian, he obviously didn't want to stand in a queue with little kids and pay a shilling to go down these stairs. He wanted to go in, to be expected. He asked me if I could arrange for it. I phoned Ray McFall at The Cavern and told him. He said "Fine. Pat Delaney is at the door." Sadly, Pat died two weeks ago. He said "Yeah, Brian and his assistant Alistair Taylor can come down." So they were expected. So, he was just able to go to the door, mention who he was and was shown inside.
Q - So, Brian wanted V.I.P. treatment? He wouldn't have just gone down there by himself.
A - No, he wouldn't have. He was sort of the level of person who liked to do things sort of in a particular way. Lunchtime sessions at The Cavern, I suppose he'd think he wouldn't want to go 'round the corner to a club he'd never been to. He used to go to The Rembrandt Club on Slater Street, which is a posh type club, members only and only certain people are allowed in. But, for him to think he'd go to a club where all teenagers go to listen to music in a cellar, 'round the corner, he's not gonna go and stand in a queue with people and pay a shilling at the door. He'd want the way paved for him, which is quite understandable.
Q - Were The Big Three a better sounding group than The Beatles?
A - No. The Beatles were by far the best group in Liverpool. Head and shoulders above everybody. The Big Three were great, but they were a different kind of group. They weren't anything like The Beatles. They claimed to be the first group in Liverpool to play a Ray Charles number. They had one of the louder sounds in Liverpool, because Adrian Barber was a wizard at electronics. He used to come in the Jacaranda and show us he'd put a radio in a Coke tin. Things like that. He built what they called coffins. People at the time had these small little amplifiers, with like little attaché cases. He built these huge coffins which were amplifiers which blew people off the stage almost. Of course The Beatles commissioned Adrian to build one for them. But, The Big Three had a different kind of sound. So did Kingsize Taylor And The Dominoes. But The Beatles were unique. And it really had nothing to do with the way Brian sort of built their image in Liverpool because they were already Liverpool's top group. In fact, it's only months after Brian sort of signed them up that we officially announced them as the number one Poll Winners. Brian had all these pamphlets - The Beatles: Mersey Beat’s Number One Poll Winners; Polydor recording artists. But he had to channel The Beatles in a certain way because of all the media, and that includes television, radio, BBC. Everything was run by people a generation above us. They would never have accepted the rough and rowdy Beatles as they were with the swearing, the black leather jackets and the really raucous music, right? They would never have accepted that on radio and television. Brian had to smooth them out and make them acceptable to the media or they never would have happened that way. That is why once they achieved their success, then you were able to create, as Andrew Loog Oldham admits, he thought "The Beatles, now it's time for a rough and ready group." And he created this image for The Rolling Stones, which I think was laughable because there was Mick Jagger, who went to the London School Of Economics. Brian Jones came from Cheltenham and the others from the home counties. While they were all sort of gentile sort of things, there were The Beatles swearing and playing with gangsters and whores in Hamburg and getting themselves drunk and all the rest of it. You know what I mean? Rough, ready John Lennon said The Stones stole their image from The Beatles. The original, savage young Beatles.
Q - Did you ever see The Beatles in the Hamburg clubs?
A - No, I didn't see The Beatles. I saw all the other groups. Everyone from The Big Three onwards. I went over after they'd done their last appearance there.
Q - That was The Beatles in their leather jacket days you were talking about.
A - I saw them hundreds of times. I went to virtually every Cavern gig. I went to all the other gigs, all around that they did. Plaza St. Helens, Tower Ballroom, virtually every gig they did in Liverpool. Me and Virginia were there. We were at their first radio show in Manchester with them. We went to the theatres where they were touring. Went to their first TV show at Granada TV.
Q - Did you ever go on tour with The Beatles in 1964 or 1965?
A - No, because then, from '65 onwards, I'd sort of taken on The Four Pennies and moved to London. I went to live in London permanently in '66. Then I'd see The Beatles all the time in the clubs, first the Ad Lib Club, then the Scots Of St. James Club. Then they'd be at The Speakeasy and The Revolution. When Apple opened, I was always invited up to Apple at the time.
Q - Do you still keep in regular contact with Paul or Ringo?
A - No. Paul, when I wrote last to him, I was gonna do a project to try and get a Mersey Beat village going in Liverpool. Paul wrote and said he would endorse it. Also, he wrote to me when he did the album "Flaming Pie" to use some of the stuff John wrote for me. In the first issue of Mersey Beat, I had John write the story of The Beatles, the one he said "The man came down on a flaming pie." And there virtually thirty years later, it's the inspiration for an album.
Q - Where did the group get the name The Beatles from?
A - The name came when Stuart and John were in their flat. Royston Ellis, the poet was there. They were sitting around talking and trying to think of a name. I'd call 'em the College Band. They were doing gigs for us at the art college. They were trying to think of names. It was Stuart who suggested a name like Buddy Holly's Crickets, 'cause he liked Buddy Holly. He said "Let's have a name like The Crickets." So they began to think of insects. They came up with the Beetles. Royston Ellis mentioned "Like the Beat generation in America." He was a Beat poet. He said "Why not put an a?" It had nothing to do with Beat music. The term didn't come out 'til a year or two later. That was in 1960. That's how they got the name.
Q - They didn't get the name from the Marlon Brando film The Wild One?
A - The movie was banned in England 'til 1968. It was never shown in England 'til 1968. None of them had ever seen The Wild One. We knew nothing about it. It was never shown here. They didn't write about the films like they do now.
Q- Colonel Parker only managed Elvis. Brian Epstein managed so many groups. Why? Weren't The Beatles enough?
A - Parker kind of told him "I don't understand. You got the biggest group in the world. Why are you signing all these people?" Brian didn't really have any idea about talent, or what to do. He thought his empire could grow bigger and bigger all the time. That's why he took over and registered the name that Bob Wooler called him; "The Nemperor". I think The Nemperor sums it up. He just thought he could keep going forever, signing up people. Cilla (Black) go so fed up, she wanted to split from him and so did Gerry (Marsden of Gerry And The Pacemakers), because he was taking too much on. And there he had the world's biggest group.
Q - He must've realized at some point he had taken on too much responsibility.
A - I don't know. He was just swept along with it. Everything was happening in such a giddy state that had never happened before in the UK. The entire British music scene was controlled from London. Everything was run from London, record companies, music publishing companies, all the top agents, managers and everything. You really couldn't make it in Britain unless you were based in London. When The Beatles made this big breakthrough, and as a result all these other groups came down with Brian Epstein - Cilla Black, Billy J. Kramer and all the rest of them. It also opened the way for all the other groups from the provinces - The Hollies, Herman's Hermits, The Animals. Both The Animals and Herman's Hermits were discovered at The Cavern in Liverpool 'cause that's where they used to play a lot. I suppose it was all the euphoria of the time. Brian thought you could just keep getting extra people and getting extra staff to cope with things.
Q- He did have extra staff, didn't he?
A - He had one group and he told Alistair Taylor to manage them. So, Alistair Taylor was looking after them and had some tours lined up in America. But Brian suddenly refused to pay for their air flights or something and the whole thing was cancelled. But, I think he couldn't let go of control of the acts he was signing up even though he had The Beatles, which was strange. Nobody in Britain had done anything like he was doing. Before, the big name was Larry Parnes. He used to sign up kids and pay them a low fee. With Brian Epstein it was different. It was proper management.