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The John Lennon Series
by Jude Southerland Kessler

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The Beatles and Mersey Beat

by Bill Harry, Beatles' friend and founder of Mersey Beat

Liverpool College of Art, 1958: students would go over to Ye Cracke pub in Rice Street for a beer. I'd got to know an extremely talented student, Stuart Sutcliffe and his best friend Rod Murray. I'd also got to know a new student John Lennon and introduced him to Stu and Rod in the pub.

It was the four of us who, early in 1960, in that same pub, decided to call ourselves the Dissenters and made a vow to make Liverpool famous John with his music, Stuart and Rod with their painting and me with my writing.

Stu and Rod had settled in a flat in Percy Street and then moved on to Gambier Terrace which John was to share with them. It was here, after a drinking session at Ye Cracke that John took Cynthia Powell and sealed their relationship.

It was also here that I sat round with Stu and John while they were trying to come up with a name for John's group, which Stu had now joined. Stu suggested that they coin a name similar to that of Buddy Holly's backing group the Crickets. So, insects it was. They came up with Beetles, although it wasn't until August of that year that the name finally evolved as the Beatles.

I must admit I was surprised when, decades later, people seemed to think that the name came from the film 'The Wild One', which was actually banned in Britain for 14 years and the group had never even seen the film!

I met my girlfriend Virginia at the Jacaranda early in 1960. This was the coffee bar which John, Stu, Rod and I frequented. At one time the owner Allan Williams asked Stu and Rod to paint some murals in the club. They did, with the help of another student Rod Jones. John and I didn't participate Stu and Rod were experienced, having painted a mural in Ye Cracke and also at Norris Green Territorial Army HQ!

Bill and Virgina

Surprise, surprise when, decades later, people claimed that John had painted the murals with Stu. Another piece of nonsense!

Virginia and I used to drop around to the Gambier Terrace flat to have long conversations with John and one night, because Virginia had missed the last bus home, John put us both up in the bath!

It was in 1960 that Virginia and I began planning a newspaper and, I suppose, I was to fulfil my promise as a Dissenter when I actually created the newspaper Mersey Beat, which I helped use to promote the Beatles.

I'd also come to know Paul and George, who were next door to the art college at Liverpool Institute and they used to frequent our canteen and also rehearsed in the college Life Rooms. Stu and I were on the students union and we booked the group for our college dances, although at that time they hadn't decided on a name and I referred to them as the college band. Stu and I also used student's union funds to buy p.a. equipment which they could use but they took it and never returned it!

I suspect this is the reason why Stu was turned down for the ATD (Art Teachers Training Diploma) when he returned to Liverpool from Hamburg. As a result he returned to Hamburg and I never saw him again.

The group also began playing in the coal hole of the Jacaranda the main port of call for Virginia and I to meet. After watching them play we'd often drift off to Streates in Mount Pleasant to listen to poetry readings and would notice Paul and Dot Rhone and John and Cynthia necking in the doorways in Slater Street.

So we launched Mersey Beat with Virginia the only full time member of staff. I was on a students scholarship but spent virtually all of my time on the paper, writing the articles, designing the pages, organising the photos, getting the advertising and distributing the publication while Virginia manned the office, handled the accounts and kept her eye on the Beatles, who often dropped in the office to give a hand answering the phone and chatting with the other regular visitors. Members of groups recall the Beatles in the office when they visited particularly with sights such as John leaping over the counter and tossing paper from the desks into the air!

Mersey Beat #1

The first issue was launched on 6 July 1961 45 years ago and on page two I published John's first printed work, a short biography of the Beatles which I'd commissioned him to write for me. He hadn't given it a title, so I called it 'Being A Short Diversion on the Dubious Origins of Beatles, Translated From the John Lennon.'

John was completely surprised and delighted when I printed it in its entirety and came into the office with virtually everything he'd ever written and drawn and gave it to me, saying it was mine to do with what I will.

So I decided to use the pieces as a regular column, which I called 'Beatcomber', because I felt there was some rapport with the humorous Beachcomber column in the Daily Express newspaper. Sadly, all this work was lost during a move to larger offices resulting in John crying on Virginia's shoulder when we told him about it one night at the Blue Angel club.

Some of the copies I personally distributed by hand, going into all the musical instruments and record stores in the city centre. At NEMS in Whitechapel I asked to see the manager and a dapper young man called Brian Epstein came down the stairs from his office. I showed him the publication, explained its content and he took a dozen copies. Then he began to phone me ordering more and more copies. With issue No. 2 he ordered 12 dozen copies, an incredible amount of newspapers from a single store.

This was the issue with the entire front page dedicated to the Beatles recording in Hamburg, illustrated with the first published photograph by Astrid Kirchher which Paul had brought me back from Hamburg.

Incidentally, apart from John's pieces, I also published pieces by Paul, who always wrote me letters about his exploits including the time the Beatles backed a stripper, the story of his impressions of Hamburg and details of his trip to Paris with John.

Brian called me into the office to discuss the newspaper. He poured over the pages, astonished that such a thriving music scene existed around him. He asked if he could be my record reviewer and his reviews began to appear beginning in Issue No. 3. on 3 August.

Brian also took out advertisements which I placed on the same page as Beatles stories in particular, the famous column by Cavern compere Bob Wooler who penned the most prophetic piece about the Beatles yet written which ends with the words "Such are the fantastic Beatles. I don't think anything like them will happen again." This incredible prediction was published on 31 August 1961!

Mersey Beat #11, September 20, 1962

As the Beatles were my pals and it was my newspaper, I began to feature them above everyone else, with the result that Bob Wooler turned up at the office one day to say that all the groups were complaining about my coverage of the Beatles, saying that I should re-name the paper the Mersey Beatle! I was later to actually introduce a regular page each issue called Mersey Beatle.

Brian Epstein invited me to lunch at the Basnett Bar on a couple of occasions to discuss this new musical scene which he found exciting. He asked me if I could arrange for him to visit the Cavern one lunchtime so that he could have a look at these Beatles himself.

I phoned Cavern owner Ray McFall and arranged it.

Naturally, I don't know the reason why Brian opened his book 'A Cellarful of Noise' with the claim that he'd never heard of the Beatles until a boy came into his store on 28 October asking for a copy of the record which I'd promoted in the pages of Mersey Beat, but the physical copies of Mersey Beat, display the truth in black and white and put the lie to it.

In addition to the fact that I had discussed them on numerous occasions with Brian, he had noticed them in his store during the months following their lunchtime sessions at the Cavern. They'd drop into NEMS to listen to the B sides of records in the recording booths and Pete Best even recalls Eppy looking at the boys clad in black leather to ask his shop girls who they were. Also, prior to the alleged enquiry by Raymond Jones, Brian had posters in his shop for the Operation Big Beat promotion at the Tower Ballroom and was selling tickets to the event in which the Beatles topped the bill.

All the groups throughout Liverpool were exited when I announced a readers poll to decide who would be the leading group in the city. I was aware that members of the group were buying up copies in order to increase their positions in the poll and newsagents were even telling me of lads who came into their shops to buy up all their copies.

When Virginia and I counted up the votes, Rory Storm & the Hurricanes (with drummer Ringo Starr) came top. Having convinced myself that surely with the saturation coverage in Mersey Beat, the Beatles must have won, I decided to go through the votes again.

I noticed a bundle of Hurricanes votes had been written in green ink, obviously by the same hand, and suspected that Rory had been responsible, so I cancelled all those votes, about 40 of them. This meant that the Beatles were now number one I decided not to cancel other votes, even though I knew that similar attempts to Rory's efforts had been committed by the Beatles and other groups, something which Paul admits.

So the first year of Mersey Beat ended with Brian Epstein offering to manage the Beatles and with the group safely ensconced in the position of No. I group in "the north west" and the bill toppers at the Mersey Beat Poll Concert, which I'd organised at the Majestic Ballroom, Birkenhead.

My association with the Beatles continued throughout the Mersey Beat years during which I was to sadly write a brief obituary to my friend Stuart, see Pete Best, creator of the 'Atom Beat' turfed out of the band, watch as Ringo from one of my favourite groups became a Beatle, turning out to be so popular in America that records such as 'Ringo For President' were released.

I was also proud to see that all the photographs which I had personally commissioned for Mersey Beat from Dick Matthews, Peter Kaye, Graham Spencer, Harry Watmough and Barry Farrell had captured the Beatles very early days for posterity and was naturally pleased to see that decades later, John's piece from Issue No. 1 was to inspire Paul with 'Flaming Pie.'

The times from 1960 to 1965 were never to be repeated experiences. Apart from Virginia and I visiting the Star Club in Hamburg on various occasions, making lots of friends there, we were also to meet many of our rock idols such as Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and Carl Perkins and we produced, once again for posterity, the most detailed record of a most incredible musical explosion when young kids on the banks of the Mersey river created a sound which was to reverberate around the world.

When I said that those times were never to be repeated, I really should qualify that because they were for Virginia and me. We moved down to London and became immersed in the 'Swinging London' scene, attending gigs, concerts and parties several nights a week, during which I became p.r. for London 'in' clubs such as the Speakeasy, Revolution, Blaises and Tiles and pr. for a range of artists including Pink Floyd, Kinks, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin.

High octane all the way!

Bill Harry, born in Liverpool, attended Liverpool College of Art with John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe. He coined the phrase Mersey Beat and launched a newspaper of that name. He later moved to London where he became personal press officer to over 30 major acts including Hollies, Kinks, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. He was the first person ever to write regularly about the Beatles and has written more about the group than anyone else in the word.

This article is Copyright © 2006, Bill Harry, and may not be reproduced on other web sites or in print, in whole or in part, without expressed permission.

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