The Earth didn't shake, the clouds didn't part and a choir of angels didn't sing on July 6, 1957—which happened to be the first time John Lennon and Paul McCartney met. Creatively, it’s still difficult to imagine that that chance meeting between John and Paul would lead, slightly less than a decade later, to the creation of what many have deemed the greatest album ever released, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, now on the verge of celebrating its 50th Anniversary.
“Actually, it was a rather unremarkable event," muses Tony Bramwell, lifelong friend of The Beatles and someone who worked with them throughout their career and beyond. "You really didn't say, 'Wow! I was there!' The Quarry Men were playing, and not very well, and it was the day Paul said 'Hello.' It actually wasn't exciting at all."
What it was, was the moment that set them on the dual course of destiny and history, leading John and Paul to eventually join up with George Harrison and Ringo Starr and impacting the world like no music band had before.
Julia Baird, John's half-sister (same mother, different father), reflects, "In Liverpool, and I'm sure it was the same in the States at that time, you wouldn't say to any of your friends who had a brother, 'Is your brother in a group?' You'd say, 'Is your brother the singer, the drummer, the guitarist or what?' Because everyone was in a group. The only difference with John's group was that they succeeded."
That day had been a celebration of Liverpool's being signed to the Magna Carta by King John in 1215 ("We like our history here, don't we?" laughs Baird). Taking place at St. Peter's Church in Woolton, Liverpool, the annual fete was an opportunity for John and the band to offer a public performance.
"We saw John play in the kitchen and practice in the bathroom and on [Aunt] Mimi's porch," Baird explains. "On that day, John and the Quarry Men were playing on the back of a lorre [truck]. My sister Jackie and I were running alongside the lorre, trying to make John laugh, because he could hardly stand up. Then, in the end, he sat down on the back of the lorre to keep better balance, because they were singing all the way up to the church field. Now Paul hadn't appeared at that point when they were playing, and those are the pictures you've seen of John in the check shirt. Later, Paul was brought up and introduced."
Author Philip Norman in the pages of Shout! The Beatles In their Generation describes the setting as such: "The Quarry Men's big numbers that afternoon were 'Cumberland Gap,' 'Railroad Bill' and 'Maggie May,' a Liverpool waterfront song in which the references to a famous tart and her beat along Lime Street were, fortunately, incomprehensible to the ladies of the Church Committee. The whole performance was watched keenly by Paul McCartney, standing with [mutual John and Paul friend] Ivan Vaughan next to the little outdoor stage. Paul noticed the tinny banjo chords which the leading Quarry Man played, and how, while singing, he stared about him, as if sizing up or challenging the rest of the world.”
Vaughan introduced Paul to the Quarry Men, with Paul immediately impressing John by not only his ability to play and tune a guitar, but the fact that he knew the full lyrics of a number of rock and roll songs.
Here's a recreation of the day John met Paul, from the film Nowhere Boy.
For his part, Paul reflected, "John was onstage singing 'Come little darlin', come and go with me...' But he never knew the words, because he didn't know the record, so he made up his own words, like, 'Down, down, down, down to the penitentiary.' I remember I was impressed. I thought, 'Wow, he's good. That's a good band there.' So backstage, back at the church hall later, I was singing a couple of songs I'd known. I liked their band, and then one of their friends, who was in the band, a guy named Pete Shotton who was a friend of John's, saw me cycling up in Woolton one day and said, 'Hey, they said they'd quite like to have you in the band, if you'd like to join.' I said, 'Oh, yeah, it'd be great.'"
Added John, "I had a group, I was the singer and the leader. I met Paul and I made a decision whether to—and he made a decision, too—have him in the group; was it better to have a guy who was better than the people I had in, obviously, or not? To make the group stronger or to let me be stronger? That decision was to let Paul in and make the group stronger." Obviously there were still several steps before the formation of The Beatles and the final line-up of John, Paul, George and Ringo, but as John would point out, "Everything started moving forward with Paul and I."
Baird points out that Paul had an "enormous" influence on John, which was evident from the first day the duo met. "Obviously, the songwriting came slightly later. I called them the Dream Team, because John was the wordsmith and Paul is the melodist; he has beautiful melodies. You put them both together and you've got almost perfection—as has been proven."
Biographer Julius Fast adds, "The two boys hit it off very quickly. There was something both of them had that just locked together. Perhaps it was a crazy kind of attitude towards life, a contemptuous mockery that later became the trademark of the four Beatles, or perhaps it was just a teenage friendship that stuck."
"There's this whole legend about how great The Quarry Men were, but they barely played any gigs in their life,” notes Bramwell. “As soon as Paul joined, most of the others left because they wanted to play skiffly jazz and didn't want to play rock and roll. Then George Harrison joined and completely demolished the idea of The Quarry Men as a folk skiffle band."
Reflects Baird, "We were watching what happened, but without really knowing what was going on. It was all a gradually evolving process. It's a bit like the auntie that comes every six months and says, 'Oh my God, he's grown.' You don't see it day to day, but it's happening nonetheless."
Part of that growth was that in the earliest days of The Beatles, John and Paul began composing their own material as opposed to using songs provided by other songwriters.
According to Bill Harry, editor of Liverpool's Mersey Beat, the first and most recognized newspaper devoted to the local music scene, John and Paul made the decision to collaborate soon after they met. "Paul had played John a number he'd composed called 'I Lost My Little Girl,' which inspired them to try writing as a team.”
As Paul himself explained it, "Well, first I started on my own. Very early on I met John and we then, gradually, started to write stuff together. There's a lot of random in our songs—writing, thinking, letting others think of bits—then bang, you have the jigsaw puzzle."
Added John, "When we started off, we were uncertain as to exactly where our writing would take us. Paul was a rocker with one eye on Broadway musicals, vaudeville and shit like that. I, on the other hand, was inspired by Buddy Holly's songwriting and was determined to show I was as capable as any Yank. To me, Buddy was the first to click as a singer-songwriter. His music really moved and his lyrics spoke to us kids in a way no one ever bothered before."
In analyzing what each brought to the creative table, John reflected, "Maybe I'd led a hard-centered life. I can only write what I feel and what I've felt. I can go all sloppy if I want to write a love ballad, but I get a greater kick out of being a little more devious and crafty with my words than that. My contribution to Paul's songs was always to add a little bluesy edge to them. He provides a lightness, an optimism, while I would always go for the sadness, the discords, the bluesy notes.”
"Most of the time we wrote separately, not in the same room together, not even aware of what the other was working on at any given time," said Paul. "If I was stuck, I'd see what John thought. He'd do the same, bringing stuff to me for comment. If the other half of the team gave it the go-ahead, that was great. Otherwise we'd accept honest criticism from each other. We had that degree of respect, a two-way thing. It was the only possible way to make the relationship work. That was the basic value of being in a songwriting team, getting a reaction which you could trust, hearing an opinion you'd be prepared to act upon."
"The Quarrymen broke up because John and Paul wanted to write songs," explains Harry. "It wasn't because they thought original material would make them stand out from everybody else, but more because in America there were many songwriting teams. They thought of themselves as songwriters like that. When they originally started writing songs and had finished with The Quarry Men, I don't think they originally thought of writing songs for themselves. They were thinking of writing songs for other people."
History is undoubtedly grateful that something changed their minds.
Look for part two of “The Road To Sgt. Pepper” on Monday April 24th
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