Discover more from Before They Were Beatles
It Was 20 Years Ago….
Join us as we launch the project to bring you an updated and expanded 20th Anniversary edition of Before They Were Beatles.
While attending college in Liverpool and hanging out in various clubs listening to local bands I heard many stories about the early days of The Beatles. The problem was that none of them agreed with each other. In the early 2000s, I set out to uncover the story of the boys' teenage years and how one of the hundreds of schoolboy skiffle bands in the 1950s evolved into the beginnings of the greatest band in rock history. The story of John, Paul, George, and Ringo - Before They Were Beatles.
The resulting book has proved to be a steady seller for years and is now the basis for a popular podcast series that updates and expands the story.
To mark both the 20th anniversary of the original book’s publication and the popularity of the podcast, we have decided to answer many long-standing requests for an updated and expanded version of the book with a new 20th Anniversary edition.
This newsletter will give you behind-the-scenes access to the development of that new edition with exclusive first looks at the new text, and more.
The news and updates sections each month will be FREE to all subscribers.
Each month paid subscribers will get:
Exclusive first look at in-progress updates to the updated and expanded 20th Anniversary edition
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Strawberry Fields - An Introduction
(The following is the introduction from the original 2003 edition of Before They Were Beatles.)
It’s early on a sunny September morning, the air is crisp and the squirrels are playing in the trees around me. The tourists are starting to arrive in a steady stream. Some walk over it without noticing, and others stop and look as if to say “Is that it?” But a few stop, bend down, and touch the mosaic tiles that spell out a single word. IMAGINE. Their faces reflect memories, hopes, and dreams.(1)
For me, this is the culmination of a personal journey that began many years and an ocean away, when I first stood outside the gates of Strawberry Field in Liverpool, England.
I was born and lived the first twenty years of my life on the banks of the River Mersey about thirty miles upstream from Liverpool. Shortly after my fourth birthday, my family bought its first television set.
I remember watching a Popeye cartoon followed by an early evening show broadcast by a local station called Scene at 6:30. I’d been allowed to stay up a little late as a treat.
Something on that show caught my imagination - a strange sort of music I hadn’t heard before. My parents preferred light opera to rock 'n roll.
It was October 18th, 1963 and The Beatles had entered my life (2).
From then on I loved their music. As with all other kids of my generation I played at being “The Beatles” in the streets, complete with plastic guitars. As I grew older I discovered other bands and sounds, but underlying them all was the influence of the Fab Four.
In the mid-seventies, punk had exploded on the scene. Some friends formed a band and I ended up playing one gig (as support to The Buzzcocks) as a substitute bass player, unwittingly imitating one of the early Beatles’ back-to-the-audience techniques to cover my lack of skill.
In the late seventies, I attended Riversdale Technical College in Liverpool where I was surprised to learn that one Richard Starkey, better known as Ringo Starr, had once, albeit briefly, been a student. I also suddenly found myself amid places with familiar names such as Penny Lane and Strawberry Field. I spent most of my time listening to local bands playing in small dank nightclubs - hearing tales of the Mersey Beat era and The Cavern club (3) - this all lead to an interest in uncovering the early history of The Beatles (4).
I was determined to find out exactly what combination of circumstances, influences, and even chance encounters transformed a school-boy band (one of thousands in late 1950s Britain) into the rock ‘n’ roll group that headed to Hamburg in 1960 (5) billing themselves under the newly acquired name of The Beatles.
And what a journey it's been. This book is the culmination of many years of research (6) involving hundreds of books, magazines, newspapers, and websites; many hours of music, and a rediscovery of what made The Beatles so special. It has also opened my eyes to the pitfalls and perils that are faced by anyone who has the vague notion of writing a biography. History is fickle, and memory is selective, even with recent events. That has proved to be the case in nearly every aspect of the story of The Beatles' early years in Liverpool. Nobody documents the minutiae of their teenage years, and we certainly don’t think that the games we play, the schoolboy fantasies, and the attempts at defining a role for ourselves will be noteworthy to future historians. The teenagers and young men who populate this story were no different from the rest of us. As a consequence, many of the facts surrounding the early years of The Beatles are lost to time.
Where possible I have tried to verify facts against contemporary published resources, where they exist. Otherwise one has to rely on the memory of those present, both central and peripheral. Over the years that memory is subject to change, sometimes in an effort to inflate a person’s own importance or to promote a particular personal agenda. Recollections are often contradictory. Often though it is no more than an inability to recall the exact circumstances or facts. While frustrating to the researcher, it is something I fully understand as I can’t even recall the name of the band I played in as a teenager, it was only for one gig after all.
When writing Before They Were Beatles I have attempted to present a near-chronological story that charts the converging paths of the main players in the Beatles story between the years 1956 and 1960 (5). Dates and events have been determined by comparing various sources, published and unpublished, and in some cases, I will admit to the occasion educated guess as to when a particular incident fits into the time frame. Any errors or omissions are my own.
A journey like this isn’t made alone, and I thank all those who helped along the way. And of course a large vote of thanks to Paul, John, George, and Ringo as well as Stuart, Pete (both of them), Rod Eric, Colin, Len, Norman, Tommy, Ken, and everyone else who played a part. Without them, there would be no story to tell.
I’ve been lucky enough to continue to visit New York on a pretty regular basis over the last twenty years. Whenever I’m in town I always try and carve out time to stop by the IMAGINE mosaic in the Strawberry Fields area of Central Park. Over the years I’ve seen a marked shift in the way that people approach it. It’s years since I witnessed anyone walk over it. In many ways, it has become a sight of increasing reverence and contemplation. On my last visit, in June 2022, I posted the following note on my Instagram account “Some stop and just grab a photo, others stand by in silent contemplation. Others, like me, grab a bench seat and watch the people. As always there’s a busker working their way through the Lennon/Beatles catalog. I loved seeing a group of teenagers singing along as they had their photo taken.
The music continues across generations. I just hope they listen and understand what was being said more than my generation did.”
This photo is actually the group rehearsing in the Scene at 6:30 studios earlier in the year (there don’t appear to be any still images of the October performance available)
Liverpool's relationship with The Beatles in the late seventies was very different from what it is today, back then the city hardly acknowledged the existence of its most famous sons. In 1974 a small, strange, quasi-religious statue had been placed high on a wall on Matthew Street, near the site of the original Cavern Club, which had been demolished in 1973, other than that there was nothing.
I recently heard an argument that it is impossible to construct the history of rock music due to so many conflicting stories and resources. That same argument applies here, so please consider this a history of the early Beatles.
The original 2003 edition of Before They Were Beatles did indeed cover the events up to The Beatles heading off to Hamburg in late 1960. However, Seasons Two and Three of the Before They Were Beatles podcast extends the story until the end of 1962, and this 20th Anniversary edition of the book will do the same.
Of course, as soon as the original book was published in 2003 new facts and stories came to light, and there have been another two decades of research since. The aim of this new edition will be to fold in as much of the new research as possible.
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As it turned out one of my trips to New York one year coincided with the celebrations of John’s Birthday- and I managed to capture this moment at Strawberry Fields on my phone.
I hope you enjoyed this taster of things to come, please subscribe and join us next month as we start our journey in January 1956.
Alan J. Porter