The day the world Rocked
It was sometime early in 1963 and I was sitting in Tony Humm’s bedroom as he sat me down and told me to listen to this. I had never seen Tony so animated and excited about music; he usually only got this worked up over snakes. We were not ones for playing a lot of music. Tony was my animal collecting friend and track bike making friend not a music buff.
I am a collector as I have previously explained. It isn’t just music and musical memories I collect. I collect anything that appeals to me. I had what was loosely called a museum at home. It has fossils and minerals that I collect with Billy. It has shells which I collect with my mother. It has butterflies, moths and insects that I collected with Jeff and Clive. It has birds’ eggs that I bought in a jumble sale. It has miscellaneous objects, such as a mammoth’s tooth, a hippo’s tooth, a pair of antlers and the top of an American Indian totem pole.
I also collected animals. Some of these were wild animals that I collected with Tony others were tame. At one time I had two thousand mice with the full range of colours, forty hamsters, forty guinea pigs, a rabbit, a crow, a couple of gerbils and some stick insects. I made money out of breeding them and selling them to the pet shop. I also had a bit pit I had dug in the garden. I had sunk an old porcelain sink into it as a pond and placed rocks and plants around. This was my wild animal sanctuary.
Tony and I would head off into the surrounding countryside on the track bikes we had made from old bikes we had salvaged out of the ditches. We had painted these old rusty frames up with garish gloss paint we had liberated from our parents’ garages so that they were decorated in stripes and stars. They were the first psychedelic bikes and were obviously a precursor of Ken Kessey’s Magic Bus – Furthur. (Perhaps me and Tony invented psychedelia?). We clutched an aluminium milk pail with lid into which we were to put our finds. We waded in ponds for frogs, toads, and newts. We waded up streams for sticklebacks. We lifted up old corrugated tin in search of slowworms, lizards, grass snakes and voles. We took our spoils back and released them into my pit, or kept them in aquaria. The sticklebacks always faded and died no matter what we did.
But that day in late March it was pouring with rain and we hadn’t gone out collecting. Tony took me up to his room and did something that changed my life. Unbeknownst to me, for I had allowed my interest in the charts to wane, Tony was tuned in.
‘Listen to this,’ Tony instructed. He placed a black vinyl disc on his Dansette and put it on 33 RPM and carefully manually lowered the needle on to the rim.
I sat there with no great expectation.
What came out of those crappy speakers set in the front of that Dansette changed my life for ever. I also believe that it changed the whole world in a way that nothing before or after has managed.
For obvious reasons Tony had played the first side. Not just because it was obvious running order but because that was the track with most impact.
Thus it was that the first Beatles track I ever heard was ‘I saw her standing there’ and it blew me away. I was gob-smacked. It was like nothing I had ever heard. It was raw and exciting. It wasn’t like 1950s Rock ‘n’ Roll. It was somehow more modern.
Somehow ‘Love me do’ had passed me by. I had allowed the trite Pop of Bobby Vee, Fabian and Bobby Rydell to drift over my head. I’d been content with the old Rockers. But this was so vital and alive. It felt like it was my music – music produced for my generation. Old Rock ‘n’ Roll was brilliant but it was from someone else’s time. This was mine!
Tony never struck me as particularly hip and yet he had latched on to ‘Love me do’ and had actually purchased the ‘Please Please Me’ album on the day it was released. I was listening to it just a few days after that and my life would never be the same.
We played the whole album through and through a number of times and I loved it. From there on I bought every Beatle single, album and EP on the day of release and I, like all my friends, were glued to the charts. It had set me on fire again.
I was thirteen years old, living in Surrey on a housing estate in post-war Britain. It was all in the shadows of rationing and war. There were bomb sites and prefabs. The world had seemed very drab and black and white. But on that day in Tony Humm’s bedroom the 1960s began. Hard on the heels of the Beatles Merseybeat hit the charts as Brian Epstein exploited the Beatles overnight appeal to launch a host of Liverpudlian acts and every label in the land fell over themselves to sign up a ‘Mersey’ band. There was an explosion of new acts and all the established Pop acts were blown away. Immediately they were part of the old world. We all went Pop Music mad. It’s all we talked about at school.
Unbeknown to me I had been searching for the Beatles. They were definitely part of my quest but I did not put them in the title because that would have been too trite. Besides, in many ways the Beatles were the stepping stone to what came later. Rock and Pop music were still styles aimed at a young teenage market. When you grew up you were supposed to leave that behind and grow to like more mature types of music like Classical and Opera. At the start the Beatles were a Pop band with many Rock elements. As they developed their music became more complex and their lyrics, under the influence of Dylan’s poetic masterpieces, became deeper and prosaic. They led the way for Rock Music to be considered something much more than trivial Pop music and be considered as an adult art form. They enabled Rock musicians to be regarded as genuine musicians.
But I jump ahead. Right then the Beatles were essentially a Pop band unlike any that had gone before. They actually wrote their own songs as well as nicking stuff from American R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll. I heard someone talking on the radio the other day saying that the Beatles were probably embarrassed by the banality of their earlier Pop songs. He was talking shit. Right from the start their stuff was brilliant. There was a patina on every song. It shone with Beatle magic that transformed it into something more. Those songs have quality that lasts to this day, even the Pop songs. They were in a class of their own and I can’t think of a bad one.
That afternoon at Tony’s is fixed in my mind so that here, over fifty years later, I can still remember the excitement and wonder of it. We played the album to death and thrilled to every track.
Suddenly the world had changed. The charts were full of Mersey bands. I rushed out and bought everything by the Beatles and avidly watched their progress in the charts along with all the other lesser bands. All the kids were turned on like never before. There was a palpable excitement.
There was a record stall at Kingston cattle market that sold new albums for £1.25. By saving up my pocket money I could buy one album every two weeks. Gradually I got my collection together. Alongside my Beatles albums I soon had just about every new Mersey band. There was Gerry, Billy J, Freddie, Brian, Dave, Searchers, Hollies and the rest. I had all the singles and EPs. I even sent away for the two ‘This is Merseybeat’ albums and Billy Pepper and the Pepper Pots. My Rock records had been displaced further down my wall and there were considerably more brackets. One entire wall was full and I’d started on the second wall.
Somehow I never got to see the Beatles play. I don’t know why. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I could. None of my friends did. The Beatles did not seem to play anywhere nearby. There were no venues on the Thames Delta. We were a Rockin’ backwater. It’s one of my many regrets.
But at least the Beatles were in my life and I listened to them, watched them on telly and grew with them. I felt I understood them.
I can’t explain the excitement there was waiting for each new release. You pre-ordered it and were dying to hear it. You watched it explode on the charts and excitedly discussed it to death at school. Was it as good as the last? How was it different? As soon as you got your hands on it you rushed home and played it endlessly. I used to put it on the old Dansette with the arm raised so it played non-stop. I’d do the A-side a dozen times and then flip in over and do the same with the B-side. Unlike all the rest the Beatles never disappointed. There’s nothing like it now. Nothing has ever matched that.
There was a disaster on the day of the release of the Beatles second album. My Dansette broke. I rushed out to the local record shop where I had placed my order and picked up the album. I rushed home and I could not play the thing. It was the most frustrating time of my life. I sat in my bedroom holding ‘With the Beatles’. I studied the cover and noted the length of their hair. Hair had become incredibly important. I studied the track list. I could hold it, look at it and take it out of its cover but I could not play it. It was driving me mad.
In the end I had the idea to nip down the road to me mate Jeff. He had a Dansette.
Jeff was only too keen to play it and the two of us spent the day listening and it was brilliant.
Then I had to go home and the agony started again. Jeff suggested that as I didn’t have a means of playing it perhaps I could leave it with him until I’d got my record player fixed. The idea was appalling but I could not think of a single reason why not. Reluctantly I agreed. For the next two weeks my new Beatles album resided with Jeff and I can still remember the gloom and despondency this produced in me.
I grew up with the Beatles and they were a bit part of my musical voyage. As Rock Music progressed and developed into the revolution of the 1960s they were always there at the forefront on the leading edge.
I never got to meet any of the Beatles or even see them play though I got very close. When Roy Harper was recording at Abbey Road studios I was invited along to the sessions. I spent a lot of time there in the early 1970s and all the Beatles dropped in for various projects. I happened across loads of other musicians there but I never bumped into any of the Beatles though. On one occasion I took this American girl along to a Harper recording session. She had been staying with us and turned out to be a bit of a pain in the arse – a typical strident American whose boyfriend was a college jock. – That about summed it up! Liz had got really pissed off with her and suggested I took her out to get her out of Liz’s hair. I took her to Abbey Road where, true to form, she proceeded to piss Roy and everyone else off. She eventually went for a wander and found Paul McCartney and Wings recording in the next studio. She actually barged in while the red light was on and they were in the process of laying down a track and got severely bollocked by Paul McCartney. So the irony is that I went along all those times and never saw them once and she went once and got to meet Paul. Ho hum.
So why the Beatles? Why not Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie, Buddy or Elvis? That’s what Mark Ruston asked me.
Well I loved all those early rockers and the music they made and I still do. I was excited by them but they weren’t mine. Somehow they were from the era before. I was too young when Rock ‘n’ Roll started up in 1956 to really get in to it. I caught up with it five years later. But in 1963 (the year sexual intercourse began – as Mark pointed out) the Beatles were mine. I felt like they were playing just for me. Crazy huh? Their image, the attitudes, the sound was all new. We were creating a new vision for the world, a sixties idealism. It was vital, alive and full of optimism. They blew away the drab post-war drabness of Britain with the Ena Sharples (an old Coronation Street harridan) old ladies in dowdy coats and hairnets. Right from that first track in Tony’s bedroom I felt the energy, excitement and possibility. We were a new generation, with new ideas, a new way of looking at the world. Our horizons were way broader than our parents. We weren’t tied to the strictures of conformity to old ways of dressing, living and thinking. We were making up our own rules. I sensed all that ravelled up in that first track.
Then as the 60s progressed we all grew together. It wasn’t a fan thing. It was a synergy. As our minds expanded with art, poetry, literature and music so did theirs. We mirrored one another. We fed off each other. The sixties scene was an explosion of possibility. There were no leaders. We all evolved along the same lines.
The Beatles were my gateway drug into the hard stuff of the 60s. They were mine – all mine.
As an aside – back in the 1980s I started doing tapes to play in the car. Interestingly I found I could fit all the songs I wanted to listen to of Elvis, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis and even the legendary Little Richard on one side of a C90 while the Beatles ran into 5 complete C90s – that about sums it up for me.
(Recently I tried to get Roy Harper to put together a box set and managed to narrow down the essentials to nine CDs!)
By the end of 1963 Merseybeat was dead in the water. Only the Beatles and Searchers really survived. A whole new bunch of bands had appeared with a bluesier, harder sound, a scruffier long haired image and had usurped the besuited Mersey Bands with their chirpy ‘Boy next door’ image. Longer hair was ‘in’ coupled with a surly attitude and ‘Bad Boy’ image.
I did catch Gerry and the Pacemakers in Hull a few years back at a matinee at Hull New Theatre. I went along out of interest and wasn’t expecting much. The original band had reformed and they were performing a show that was their story. Gerry narrated it, told his anecdotes and jokes, and played the music. They ended with the original line-up doing a short set. It was surprisingly good and the when the band kicked in they were really loud and powerful and nothing like the twee Pop stuff they’d charted with. As it was a matinee there were coach-loads of pensioners (mainly old ladies) who had come along to see the nice little Pop group. I’m not sure they appreciated all the stories from Hamburg’s red light district and when the band kicked in at the end they were putting their hands over their ears and complaining. I was impressed. They were good!
Ironically the rise of the new Beat music coincided with the storming of America by the Beatles and every Tom Dick and Harry from England who could pick up an instrument.
We watched in pride, disbelief and ecstatic delight as the Beatles had seven singles in the US Top Ten and Beatle mania was rampant in the States.
Britain was no longer a musical backwater on a par with Finland. We were the centre of the universe and Elvis no longer ruled. There were big differences though. In the States all the new Beat bands somehow got mixed up with the old-hat Mersey acts. There was no progression or distinction. All the Merseybeat bands got a second lease of life.
One of the weirdest downsides of the British invasion was that Herman’s Hermits became one of the biggest acts. It was Cliff all over again!