Liverpool, the grimy northern town that John, Paul, George, Ringo and I were born and grew up in, was a dynamic port full of sea shanties, sailors and music. The ancient town had long been a melting pot of musical influences and traditions. Jazz, soul, blues, Irish music, sea shanties, folk and pop all blended from a dozen directions to create a unique sound. African music was introduced when the port became a center for the slave trade in the early eighteenth century. Scandinavian sailors, selling whale oil and salt cod, brought in a tradition of music that went back far beyond the Vikings and influenced all Celtic music. In fact, the slang word for a Liverpool citizen was "Scouse," the name of the cheap and popular Norwegian sailors' stew, made of vegetables and ships' biscuits with whatever scraps of meat or fish were available. Scouse was what poor people crowded into dockside slums ate as their main meal, and Scousers were what they became. (All the Beatles considered themselves Scousers, rather than the more grandiose Liverpudlians.)
Most importantly for the tradition of music along Merseyside, Liverpool was the gateway to England from Ireland. This was the route by which many Irish immigrants came when escaping poverty or famine, the largest influx being in the 1840s during the Great Famine when over a million shipped across to Liverpool alone, swelling a population that previously had been a mere ten thousand or so. By the turn of the century, Liverpool had the largest Irish population of any English town. Irish music, with the sound of the fiddle, Uilleann pipes, tin whistle, a handheld drum called a bodran and Celtic harmonies, could be heard in almost every home and bar, particularly among the dockside slums.
The transatlantic shipping trade took Liverpool music to the eastern seaboard of the United States and, significantly, brought it back, changed, enlivened and made more commercial with the emergence of pop records. In fact, like sailors, the music shipped in and out on almost every tide. By World War II, when American soldiers and airmen were stationed at huge bases in Mersey-side, the exchange of music was well established. In the wartime years, GIs brought all the top hits of the 1940s, with stars like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Doris Day and Ella Fitzgerald — but also Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Western Swing music from Texas and folk heroes like Woody Guthrie. After the war, merchant seamen and ships' stewards, like John Lennon's recalcitrant father, Fred, continued to bring in the latest American records.
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The boys who became the Beatles were born during the Second World War when bombs were raining down. I was born at the end. But for all of us it was a period of great change, deprivation and excitement. Our lives were influenced by the widespread ruin and by the lean times and hard rationing that followed.
Liverpool was a target for enemy planes because it was the main receiving port for vital war supplies from America. Night after night, while people ran for the Anderson shelters, the drone of the Junkers 88s and Dornier bombers would get louder, searchlights speared into the black sky and antiaircraft guns started firing. At times, all the sky would be brightly illuminated with radiant but deadly chandelier flares that slowly drifted down on their parachutes. With the docks, shipping, factories and railways lit up by flares, the German bombs would begin to fall. The worst period of all was during the so-called Liverpool Blitz, which started on May Day — May 1, 1941 — and lasted for seven consecutive days and nights. It was the heaviest bombing of the war in Britain outside London. Bombs hit a munitions ship on the night of May 4, causing the greatest explosion ever heard in Liverpool. Three thousand people were killed and eleven thousand homes completely destroyed that week alone. The Mersey estuary was so clogged from shore to shore with smoking, ruined ships that nothing could leave or enter. Seventy percent of the housing was destroyed. The relentless bombing, the grinding poverty and the overcrowding forged a ruined city of such squalor and citizens of such courage that after the war, there was only one way to go and that was up: to rebuild, expand and start over.
This abrasive and energetic northern port was where I was born and brought up because my mother, a wealthy beauty who resembled Merle Oberon, had eloped with a seaside snapper, one of those smooth professional photographers who haunt sea fronts and parades with a suave line in chat and oodles of charm. She had slender shapely legs and an hourglass figure and he chased her, pursued her to distraction, courted and caught her. Her parents had fifty thousand kinds of fits, but it was too late: they were married without the family's blessing or permission. Mother was a Ferguson-Warner, one of a dynasty of cotton traders whose family seat was a grand mansion at High Lane overlooking the Peak District outside Manchester. Her slide down the social scale after she ran off with my father was rapid. "You've married beneath yourself," some in her family declared, looking down their noses.
When war broke out my father got a job in Liverpool, in one of the new factories surrounding Speke Airfield, assembling those Lancaster bombers. My mother followed him. By then she had been forgiven by her family, who provided her with enough money to buy a house in Hillfoot Avenue, Hunts Cross. She hadn't been there long before my father was called up into the army and disappeared to the war. Neatly summing up their doomed relationship, Mum told me later that every time he came home on leave she got pregnant. Shortly after my birth in 1946 my charming but feckless father didn't bother to come home anymore and they were divorced. I didn't miss what I had never known and was happy enough.
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When I was growing up, Hunts Cross was still pretty rural, surrounded by golf courses and plenty of other open places for a boy to run wild in. Young Paul McCartney lived close by in Speke, in a small house in the vast social housing projects — known in England as "council estates" — on Western Avenue provided by the local public services because his mother, a midwife and a district nurse, needed to live within the community she served. When Paul was nine, they moved to Ardwick Road, to another house on the same council estate. Mary McCartney was a pleasant and popular figure locally. Having a nurse live nearby was a plus and many mothers made it a point to become friends with her. We went to different primary schools (Paul to Stockton Wood and I to Kingsthorne). We were four years apart in age, but as far as we were concerned, the age difference didn't seem to matter. Paul was always just "around," part of our ever-expanding gang of small boys running around with short trousers and muddy knees in and out of various degrees of fun and mischief. It didn't seem to matter that we lived in posh Hunts Cross and Paul lived in poor Speke, where all those factories were. He was a nice polite boy and my mother liked him.
When I was about five, the eight-year-old George Harrison also moved to Speke from central Liverpool, where he and his family had been crowded into a two-up two-down terraced dwelling with an outside toilet. (Until he moved near us George and John Lennon had gone to the same primary school in Penny Lane, but, with the three-year difference in their ages, John was in a senior class and George in a junior one and they scarcely noticed each other. However, George's mum and John's Aunt Mimi were acquainted.) One day someone in our gang turned up at our house with George. He was very shy. He sat at the table and said nothing, just nodded when Mum asked if he was hungry. Mum never minded our friends coming round without notice. There was always plenty of plain food — bread and butter and jam sandwiches (known as jam butties) and some kind of knock-up cake. Or Mum would bring us spam sandwiches out in the garden. Afterward, we ran around and just played.
George's house was in a cul de sac called Upton Green, in the next street from Paul. It wasn't long before they met each other and realized that they were part of "our gang."
My best friend, a boy the same age as I, was the son of my mother's closest friend, Sonny, a woman she had known since childhood. Sonny married a musician named Hal Christie, but being a polite boy, I always called them Mr. and Mrs. Christie. They performed in cabaret at places like the Savoy Hotel in London. The boy's name, my best friend, was Jim Christie. Years later, he would live with John Lennon's former wife, Cynthia.
Jim, George, Paul, Tony, Chris, Barry. It didn't matter who it was, or even what the age difference was, we were always in and out of each other's homes, sometimes being offered jam butties and lemonade, sometimes a big plate of fried chips. Ketchup was never an option. We always had salt and vinegar. We all used to go cycling down Dungeon Lane to the Cast Iron Shore along the muddy banks of the Mersey, where gang fights were often going on. We'd watch and egg the big boys on, without getting involved ourselves. If things got too bloody, we'd jump on our bikes and spin off to Woolton Woods where there was a fantastic arboretum of rare trees, or to Camphill, part of an old Roman settlement, or to Strawberry Fields behind John Lennon's house. Or we'd go to Hale-wood, one of the little linked villages spread out along the banks of the Mersey, still surrounded by hay meadows.
There was so much to do. Our gang would build haystacks into castles and camps to defend, all the wonderful things young kids do. We'd go to Bluebell Woods and do bike scrambling, or explore the grounds of ancient Speke Hall, a fantasy black-and-white Tudor building straight out of the history books. We built camps within the dense rhododendron shrubberies and thick yew hedges of the hall and played war games or cowboys and Indians. We filled up our days, late into dusk until we were dragged home to supper and bed. There was none of this watching TV endlessly, or playing computer games, or moaning we were bored. We were too busy and far too active.
But one bit of mischief we got into went too far and almost killed the lot of us, including George Harrison. It started when we found some unexploded shells in a field near the airport. Someone said they came from ack-ack guns, left behind by troops guarding the airfield. These shells were a glorious find. We gathered them up and decided that we were the Resistance, fighting the Nazis. One of the forbidden places where we played was among the wartime pillboxes still guarding the main railway line that linked Liverpool with London. We got onto the tracks and followed a deserted branch line until we came to a tunnel. It was the very spot for a bit of sabotage.
Our worst crime to date had been placing pennies on the lines to watch train wheels flatten them. Once, we'd been caught and dragged home by the police to the wrath of our parents. But having an armful of live shells was far worse. Hell, this was dangerous! I looked at George. Our eyes met — his were wide and dark — with fear? Would one of us be the first to break and run? Of course not. We dug a huge hole and, brave little buggers that we were, we made a big bomb, packing in the explosives — any one of which could have blown us to kingdom come. We lit the fuse and ran for it. With a dull roar, the stonework crumbled and a huge hole appeared in the bridge.
Awestruck, we stared. Bloody hell, we'd done it! Suddenly the enormity of our crime sunk in and we fled. For days afterward, we waited for the heavy hand of the law to descend. How long could you be sent to prison for such a heinous crime? We were scared witless.
Apart from that one lapse, we were good kids, not malicious or into wrecking things. There should be many more dramatic incidents to remember, but fortunately, given the war zone we grew up in, there weren't — though there were stories of boys being blown up along the shore, where unexploded bombs and land mines were fenced off by miles of barbed wire, marked by notices with skull and crossbones in red. Paul had played down there and been beaten up by some bigger kids who had stolen his watch. One boy lived in the house behind him, so he was easy to find. He was hauled off and taken to court. Paul told us that the offender was sent to Borstal, the place where bad boys went. Would that happen to us? We trembled. Nothing happened and eventually we forgot about it.
* * *
From the earliest age, we were mad about music. On Saturday evenings, we would slick down our hair with Brylcreem or water and pedal off past Dungeon Lane to Halewood, where a youth club was held in the village hall. We'd play Ping-Pong or listen to our own records on the portable Dansette, while the vicar did his best to jolly us along.
When Paul was thirteen his family moved to Allerton, a district that was slightly closer to Liverpool. It was still within half a mile of Hunts Cross, on the other side of Allerton Golf Course, a distance that could be covered in five minutes on a bicycle, so we didn't lose touch. John Lennon lived on the third side of the golf course in a respectable middle-class house on Menlove Avenue with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George. He and Paul had many mutual friends, who along the chain, were mutual friends with George and me.
Unknown to John, his runaway mother, Julia, also lived facing the golf course within a stone's throw of Paul, in a new council house in Blomfield Road with her lover and their daughters, John's younger half sisters. Paul's mother knew Julia and her daughters well and would often stop for a chat. The bus was another link. The number 72 was the one that went to downtown via Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane to the smart shopping area around Princes Street, before turning around at the Pierhead Terminal. George's mum, my mum, Julia and Paul's mum, in that order, would often get on along the route. They all knew each other by sight and would sit down in adjoining seats to gossip.
It was all a pattern of events and place-names which didn't seem at all important then, but years later gained a great deal of significance in songs and among millions of fans worldwide when the various homes the Beatles had lived in became shrines.
When they were older, my brothers and George got part-time jobs, which was wonderful because it meant they could buy more records. I was heavily into records, spending all my pocket money on buying whatever I could lay my hands on, from Buddy Holly, the Everlys, Carl Perkins, to Elvis. The record lending circle continued. I'd lend them to George and George would pass them on to Paul, who had just started at the Institute, the famous Liverpool grammar school. In turn, Paul lent records to George, and when George, our butcher's delivery boy, came in with our order he'd leave his battered bike leaning up against the hedge, often with the basket full of deliveries still to be made. Mum would offer him a drink or a sandwich. Then there'd be a new record to listen to, or a band to discuss and he'd forget the time. Mum would say, "What about that meat, son? It'll go off — it's in the sun!" and he would grin and off he'd pedal to finish his deliveries.
* * *
I had quite an advantage over the other boys where music was concerned. My mother had a friend who worked at the Adelphi Hotel, the place where anyone who was famous stayed when they came to Liverpool. Through this friend I was given complimentary tickets to as many shows as I cared to see at the Empire. I was taken backstage and met my hero, Roy Rogers, when I was eight. He did some special lariat tricks just for a small boy, and sang "Happy Trails" — but the icing on the cake was seeing Trigger being taken up the wide sweeping stairs of the hotel and being put to bed in a grand suite. It was a stunt of course: he was actually bedded down in one of the garages, which they turned into a stable for him.
Joe Brown, Marty Wilde, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Billy Fury, Georgie Fame, Tommy Steele: I saw them all. The best show was Duane Eddy and the Rebel Rousers with Emile Ford and the Checkmates and special guest, Bobby Darin in a tuxedo. I'd never seen anyone in a real tuxedo singing rock 'n' roll. When he came out and conducted the orchestra I thought it was pure show biz. I went every single night for a week. I was hooked; music became my first love.