Gary James' Interview With Rod Davis of
In the 1950s, a musical craze swept England called Skiffle. It prompted teenagers who had never thought about being in a band to form a band. Rod Davis was one such teenager who joined a band called The Quarrymen. There was another member of the band who you may have heard of. His name was John Lennon and he would go on to enjoy a reasonable amount of success some would say, with a band called The Beatles.
Quarrymen member Rod Davis recalls his days with John Lennon and talks about the band today.
Q - As we speak today Rod, is there still a Quarrymen band that is touring and performing?
A - Very much so. It consists of three of us who were onstage with John on the 6th of July, 1957; that's Len Garry who was then on tea-chest bass, but is now on guitar and sings lead, Colin Hanton who was on drums and is obviously still on drums and myself who was on banjo and didn't sing and now I play guitar and I also sing. And, we have one or two various guest bass players. We have a couple of guys in the UK and sometimes when we go abroad we pick up a guest bass player from our friends abroad. Now and then when work permits, because he's still working full-time, we have John Duff Lowe, who played piano with The Quarrymen in 1958. John plays piano with us from time to time, as in when he is able to fit it in. So, there you go.
Q - Didn't the three of you release an album in the 1990s?
A - Yes we did. It was all kicked off by John Duff Lowe himself, actually. He lives in the Bristol area. Some musicians over there heard about The Quarrymen living in the area and got in touch with him and invited him to play keyboards with them. One of these musicians has been in a band called The Four Pennies, which in England had had a big hit called "Juliet". So, there was a chap who went 'round for his record company getting bands to reform to make a CD. He did that with The Four Pennies and Mike Wilsh, who was the bass player for The Four Pennies said "I'm playing with one of the guys who used to play in The Quarrymen. Why don't you try to get The Quarrymen together?" So, John Duff Lowe approached us and I was interested. Len was interested and the other guys weren't. So, with the musical backing and a lot of the vocal backing from the band John was playing with in the Bristol area, Len, John and myself were involved in the making of a CD which never saw the light of day. Then we tried again, or rather John tried again; he was the prime mover, and the recording studio that he recorded at went bust and the creditors pinched all the tapes and he couldn't get his hands on the tapes, so that was a tragedy. Then, he made a third attempt and by this time Len had lost interest, so John and myself were involved and the other musicians and that resulted in the CD which was called "Open For Engagements". I think that came out in about 1994, maybe early '95. So, that's how it happened. That was John and myself, but an awful lot of input from the other guys in the band.
Q - You've toured extensively with The Quarrymen. You've toured Europe, Canada, Cuba, the U.S. and Japan.
A - Yeah, we got around. (laughs)
Q - I guess so.
A - When you're old, you get concession fares. That's how it's done.
Q - Were you touring behind the CD?
A - No, no. Until early this year (2008), actually some of the other guys were still working full-time. Len only retired from working part-time in November (2007), Colin technically still works full-time, but as he works for himself he can take off more or less what time he wants and I am now retired. So, that was the real problem. We couldn't go for two weeks anywhere because that would mean pinching somebody's holiday allowance and their wives wouldn't be very pleased. So, we tended to go for long weekends, although when we were in America in '98, I think we were there for about eight or nine days. But this year we're hoping to come to the U.S. for about two weeks in October (2008). That's what we're planning on. This is just Len, Colin and myself and an American bass player. We're hoping to do two weeks, largely on the Eastern seaboard.
Q - Where will you be performing?
A - Our man in the U.S. is putting things together. Our first night is supposed to be in New York on the 9th of October, which is John Lennon's birthday, and we're booked at B.B. King's. So, that'll be fantastic. So, we're hoping to do from the 9th to the 24th, something like that.
Q - Where were you performing in all those countries I mentioned?
A - We've done quite a few Beatle conventions in the U.S. and in Europe. It's quite hopeful for us to do Beatles stuff, because at Beatle related conventions people understand where we're coming from. We actually play as close as we can to 1956, 1957, right? So it's important for people to understand where we're coming from, otherwise they will say "Well these guys haven't moved on from he mid-50s", (laughs) which is what one critic actually said. Actually, that was a major compliment, although he intended it not as a compliment. That's the whole point of The Quarrymen. I've been playing since 1956. I haven't stopped playing music. I play all kinds of stuff. Basically I'm really a Bluegrass musician. There are so many Beatles look-a-likes and sound-a-like bands that do it extremely well and yet there's only one original John Lennon's Quarrymen who can play like they played in 1956, 1957, 1958. And that's what we do. People seem to appreciate it and we have a good time and so do the audience. So, a Beatle convention is a good venue for that, but having said that, we just came back from Germany ten days ago and we played at what admittedly was an Oldie Day at this little seaside resort on the Baltic. They had all kinds of music there. We were followed by a Las Vegas Elvis show. The most important thing is really that people shouldn't judge our sound by Rock 'n' Roll as played in 2008. We deliberately try to go out and make it simple. We play acoustic guitars, actually acoustic / electric now. Until recently we never did guitar solos because in 1956, 1957, we didn't do guitar solos. There was no point because no one had an amplified guitar and we only knew three or four chords anyway. (laughs) But, we are compromising. This gig in Germany, I did quite a few guitar solos, on the Rock 'n' Roll stuff anyway, not on the Skiffle. Obviously when George came in, in 1958, he was starting to play electric guitar solos. So, we're making a concession.
Q - When did you leave The Quarrymen?
A - I left in mid 1957. It was seriously the Skiffle era in those days even though a lot of our numbers were Rock 'n' Roll. An electric guitar would've been like flying to the moon in '57. It would've been very, very expensive for us. Totally out of our league. In those days you could have four or five guys playing guitar in a Skiffle group. That was the only way to get any volume. Within two or three years amplifiers had become financially within reach and better guitars were arriving from Europe. There was sort of an embargo from importing things from the USA. It was very difficult to get American guitars, but there were a lot of good ones made by Hofner from Germany. They were the same people who made the Paul McCartney bass. Two years later, I had an electric guitar myself. It was a German one, but it was an electric guitar.
Q - It's odd that you couldn't get musical equipment from America. I'd always heard that Liverpool being a seaport, you were getting the American records.
A - Until about '58 it started. Things started to improve. In '57 when I left The Quarrymen, I was a banjo player at the time, I had to become a guitar player. I wanted to become a guitar player. My brother and I sold an electric train set we hadn't used in years that was gathering dust and with the money we bought a guitar, which was a Spanish guitar. So we started with an earphone head set taped to the guitar and played through an old radio set, which worked. I think within a year we graduated to an electric guitar and a small amp.
Q - Do people the world over know this name, The Quarrymen?
A - Well, they seem to. There's a lot of tribute bands in the world called The Quarrymen. There's one in Italy, a Quarry Girls. It's quite easy to tell the difference between them and us. At the Beatles Week in Liverpool every year there's lots of bands that come from all over the world. And my brother who still lives in Liverpool, I live in London 200 miles away, he was in Liverpool one day and he went into The Cavern with his wife 'cause he saw on the outside The Quarrymen are appearing at 4 O'clock. He thought, my brother hasn't told me about this. He went in and listened to this band and he said to one of they guys on the door, "Where's The Quarrymen?" "That was The Quarrymen!" He said "No it's not. My brother is in The Quarrymen. These guys are from Argentina." (laughs) So, a lot of bands call themselves The Quarrymen, so we bill ourselves as John Lennon's Original Quarrymen and try to clear up that confusion. So, people are aware there is a band called The Quarrymen, no doubt about it.
Q - Were The Quarrymen the first band you were in?
A - Yeah, absolutely. I joined the first day I bought an instrument. We were all, not just the guys in The Quarrymen, but just about every musician in England in the mid '50s, was inspired by Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line", which hit the top of the charts in England in January 1956. As a result of that, tens of thousands of young English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh guys went out and started Skiffle groups, even people like Van Morrison started in Skiffle groups. I was trying to get a guitar or a banjo. We didn't have much money and I discovered that my uncle who lived in Wales used to play violin and was in a dance band which had not been functioning for a few years, but the banjo and guitar player in that band was trying to sell his banjo and guitar. By the time I found out about it, the guitar was already gone and I ended up buying the banjo. That was on a Sunday I think. On a Monday I went into school and said to one of my friends at Quarry Bank School, "Hey Derek, I just bought a banjo." So he said "Oh, you wanna be in a Skiffle group?" I said "Who's in it?" He said "Me and John (Lennon) on guitar, Pete on washboard and Bill Smith on tea-chest bass." I said "Yeah, OK. Great." He knew I couldn't play it. I only bought it the day before. (laughs) But they were only three chords ahead of me and I pretty soon caught up with Eric's help.
Q - So, who put the band together?
A - John and Eric. According to Eric, who sadly died in 2005, but I've heard him tell the story often enough: he was at school one day. There was a mutual friend of theirs called George Lee who said "Why don't you start a Skiffle group?" John and Eric went to learn the guitar from a guitar teacher. They had these terribly cheap and nasty guitars, which is all they could afford. They went to learn how to play the guitar. He wanted to teach them from the notes, from actual notation. After two lessons John and Eric decided this wasn't really what they wanted. They just wanted to be able to accompany themselves. And this is when John's mother Julia stepped in. She could play the G banjo, the four string banjo. So, she taught them banjo chords. She said "if you tune the guitar like a banjo, the top four strings, then it'll be OK," and that's indeed what they did. So, when I turned up with a proper banjo, of course the chords that John and Eric knew worked perfectly on my banjo 'cause that's what it was supposed to do. So I joined them. I'm not exactly sure when, probably March, April '56 I think. By that time they already could play a couple of dozen or so tunes and Eric shouted to me the chord changes and very quickly I picked it up and started playing by ear. So, that was the way we began. John and Eric started the band and very quickly after that, John got his new friend Pete Shotton to find a washboard in his mother's shed. They bought a tea-chest from a grocer's shop, a tea-chest bass and then I joined.
Q - What is fascinating is that Lonnie Donegan's record influenced so many people to form bands. That's phenomenal.
A - Well, in America you had a tradition of people playing guitars and banjos...not everybody. We have this terrible image of America as everybody plays guitar and wears cowboy hats. Of course that's a total stereotype. We have a terrible impression of a simplified America. A simplistic vision of America. You at least did have a lot of parts of America where it was traditional. It was normal to play the guitar, the banjo or the fiddle or whatever. Whereas over here, we didn't have that tradition. But there was a lot of banjo playing in the 20s and 30s, but that had all died down by our time. If you wanted to be a musician in the mid '50s, a musician was a man who sat behind a music stand in a dance band and read the dots. There was New Orleans Jazz in the UK, which started up in the early 1940s and there was quite a Jazz tradition, which is where Skiffle came from. There was a famous band leader called Ken Collier and he was a merchant seaman. In the late '40s, he was on the transatlantic run and he was a trumpet player and he jumped ship when his ship arrived in the States and made his way to New Orleans, and got in with the Black Jazz bands in New Orleans and actually sat in and played with them. Eventually the authorities out there thought, "hang on a minute, who's this White guy playing with all these Black musicians?" They pulled him in and found out he was English and was there totally illegally, so they slapped him in jail for a couple of days and then extradited him. So, he came back to England with the most fantastic street creed, you know? (laughs) Jailed, played with all these guys in Storyville and so on. So, he started a New Orleans Jazz band in England. In the break in the middle, his brother...I can't remember what instrument his brother played, in the breaks his brother played washboards and Collins was also a trumpet player who could also play guitar. They fooled around playing Blues to amuse themselves and the audience in the interval. With all the brass and everything, it was just a guitar, a washboard and a bass maybe. I don't know whether he was the first person to do that 'cause there were several other bands who did it, the same sort of thing. The New Orleans Jazz musicians were into Blues, that is, Blues played on the guitar. That's how it started. For four or five years that's where you would've heard Skiffle. In the interval was the Jazz band playing in the UK. How it really took off was in 1954, Ken Collier had a big falling out with all the other members of his band. They said "right, were leaving", and they all formed a band called Chris Barber's Jazz Band and Donegan was the banjo player in that group, you see. So, they continued this tradition of playing Skiffle in the interval. Chris Barber, who was a trombone player, played double bass. His vocalist Darrell Briden, she played washboard and Donegan, who was the banjo player, played guitar and sang. They cut this 10 inch LP in 1954 for Decca called "New Orleans Joys". Chris Barber insisted that they include a couple of Skiffle tracks on it because they went down so well with the fans. The recording engineers at Decca were so impressed with Skiffle they said "Right. We'll go out for a cigarette, leave the recording machine running and you just play your couple of Skiffle tunes and we'll come back and that'll be that." And that's what happened. So, on this LP there were two of these tracks and a man at Decca called David Cobb started putting out pairs of tracks on 78s. He ran out of all of the New Orleans Jazz tracks and he took two Skiffle tracks and he put them out on the 78 and that was Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line". That's how it happened. I've spoken to Lonnie himself about this and he said you could've knocked him over with a feather, he was so surprised. He was having his breakfast one day and over the radio came himself singing "Rock Island Line". And that's how it started. For some reason, the energy, something about the way he did it, something about the material or whatever, I don't know, just captured everybody. It went to number one on the charts in the UK in January of '56. That was such a contrast from everything we'd had before. I mean, even the American music was "Sixteen Tons" or "The Ballad Of Davy Crockett" or "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window" and Johnny Ray, "Cry". It was very different and people decided they wanted to learn the guitar and be up there on stage and try to impress the girls.
Q - Did you ever meet John's mother, Julia?
A - Oh, yes.
Q - What kind of woman was she?
A - Well, she encouraged us to play. She taught John and Eric banjo chords as I explained earlier. And when we went down to her house to practice, she would say "Oh, I don't like those guitars. Give me your banjo." And I would hand my banjo over to her and she would play the banjo and sometimes show us a new chord or whatever. I've got this very firm mental picture of her standing with her back to the fireplace, playing my banjo in her house. She was very encouraging. She'd let us stand in the bathroom and play, as the bathroom where the wash basin and bath were. You'd get the best reverberation off the tiles and you'd hear yourself better. She didn't mind us all standing in the bath or around in the bathroom listening to ourselves. She was quite happy for us to do that. I mean, my parents were encouraging, but I don't think they would've liked us standing around in the bathroom.
Q - You were playing your instruments and singing in the bathroom?
A - Yeah. If you've got no amplifier and no microphones, singing with someone surrounded by tiles, you get all the echoes come back at you and it sounds a lot better, it's not as good as a microphone and an amp, but it's a lot better than just singing in a cold room kind of thing.
Q - Did Julia ever say "You guys are gonna go places."?
A - No. We were just guys having fun basically. If you listen to Colin Hanton, he seems to think when Paul McCartney arrived, Paul definitely had ideas of making his career in music, whereas the rest of us were just having fun basically. (laughs)
Q - At the height of Beatlemanina, did you have contact with John or the other guys in The Beatles?
A - Well, I lost touch with John on a regular basis at the end of July '57, which is when John left school and went to the Art School. At the end of the year, when you were fifteen, you could leave if you wanted to. So, the other guys in the band from Quarry Bank, which was Pete Shotton and Eric Griffiths; Eric went to become an apprentice engineer; Pete went to become a police cadet and John went to Art School. So, I saw him from time to time. Although I was in a band, I was never a very close friend of John's. I lived on the other side of the hill from him, in Woolton where I lived. Most of my friends were over my side of the hill like Colin Hanton and Eric Griffiths. So, I really lost touch with John, although I would bump into him occasionally. The last time I bumped into him was I think in 1962. I was at a university. In fact, I went to Cambridge University and I was half-way though my degree course, but I was home on holiday. I bumped into him (John) on the street and we started chatting. He said "What are you playing these days?" I said "I'm playing a lot of Bluegrass. I'm playing mandolin, fiddle, guitar." He said "You can't play the drums can you?" He said "You can always come play drums for us in Hamburg." Now, he may have been joking, but unfortunately I had no idea of playing drums. If I'd gone to Hamburg, my mother would have been waiting on the railway station with a large knife to dispose of the both of us I think. (laughs) If I'd know what they were getting up to in Hamburg, I might've been tempted. But, there you are. That's the last time I met him.
Q - So, Hamburg had a bad reputation and your mother knew about it?
A - Well, no. It wasn't about going to Hamburg. It was about throwing my degree course in, or going away with "that Lennon" as he was known. John was known as "that Lennon". Stay away from that Lennon!
Q - What kind of personality did John have in the years that you knew him?
A - Well, I think one of the things was he realized that there was very little of consequence that they could do to him, short of hit him on the backside with a cane. Even that was banned eventually at Quarry Bank School. So, he could more or less do what he wanted because he knew that they just couldn't do anything to him. So, he did more or less what he wanted. Our school was what we call a grammar school. The general idea of going to a grammar school was that you were supposed to more or less conform, learn as much as you can and then go away and use it later. If you rebelled at school it made the whole exercise pointless, but then again that's what John seemed to want to do. And sure enough, that's what he did. He just spent too much time fooling around at school. I got on with him very well 'cause I'd known him since I was about five years old. We were at Sunday School together. But he could be very unpleasant and he could be very cruel in fact. He was what we would call these days a "disruptive pupil." I've been a teacher. A sort of kid you do not want in your class. (laughs) He was very funny. He would stop other people learning, not deliberately, but because he wanted to show off and be funny. He was a nuisance basically.
Q - What did you think of him as a singer and a musician in The Quarrymen?
A - As a singer he was very good. He could front the band very well. He was great. As a guitar player, we were all rubbish. It didn't make any difference. We only knew three or four chords. Until Paul McCartney came, which was after my time, he learned to play guitar chords quickly. But he was a good harmonica player. Then, most kids I knew could play the harmonica. So, that wasn't really exceptional.
Q - I recall reading somewhere that George said John didn't have rhythm. I thought John's rhythm guitar playing in The Beatles was right there. It helped define The Beatles' sound.
A - What I think you've got to bear in mind is that when they went to Hamburg, that was the place they had to...that forged The Beatles. If you've got to play six hours a night, I mean, nobody practices for six hours. I've never known a band that will practice for six hours at a stretch. To practice six hours everyday, actually in front of the public, that either kills you or turns you into a great band. If you can't play rhythm having played six hours a night for a week, you'll never play rhythm. John certainly learned how to play rhythm in Hamburg if he couldn't play it before hand. With The Quarrymen, we were all very much at the outer end of the spectrum. The fact that none of us were really very good didn't make much odds. In Hamburg, that's what made The Beatles basically, the fact that they were forced into playing well in Hamburg. It was either that or out.
Q - I think they were actually playing eight hours a night, seven days a week for a three month stretch.
A - Yeah. There you go. I said six hours a night. Eight hours a night is ever more incredible.
Q - Did The Quarrymen work regularly in those early days?
A - No. it was just occasional stuff. We were a garage band I believe you call it in America and we didn't even have a garage. We would play anything that people offered us. A lot of the time it was playing at the interval at a dance. Sometimes you'd have a New Orleans Jazz band or a straight dance band playing. Then they would have a Skiffle group in the interval. That was the thing to do. That was a lot of our work. Then we got to play Rock 'n' Roll. You were supposed to just play Skiffle at The Cavern. We played Skiffle competitions. We played the odd golf club. We played church hall dances. It was a total rag bag. There were thousands of Skiffle bands in Liverpool. The only difference about us is it happened to be lead by John Lennon. At the time, it didn't cut any ice you know. (laughs)
Q - He was just one of many.
A - Yeah. We were all one of many. We had a drum kit, which made us stand out a bit. Colin was a bit older than the rest of us and he was working and therefore he was able to pay for some drums on the installment plan.
Q - What do you think John would have to say about The Quarrymen still being around today?
A - Well, I would hope that he would want to come and play with us some time. That really would be nice. We don't take ourselves seriously. We do it for fun. We don't do it for the money. Yes, we do get money, but we don't get shed loads of money for what we do. So, basically we do it for fun. I know Paul has supposed to have had this idea of going back on the road and do those little secret gig places. I would be nice if Paul decided to turn up and play bass with us one day. We would be delighted. I would have hoped that John would've felt the same way. Come back and meet his old pals. We were in New York during a Beatle convention in New Jersey, walking around New York, being filmed (by the BBC) and were asked a similar question. Colin said "When we play The Bottom Line in Greenwich Village, I'm sure if John had still been living in The Dakota, he would've hopefully come down and sat in with us, never mind just having a few beers with us." But, obviously that didn't happen because he died many years previously. I would like to think he would think it was a good bit of fun.