It was Saturday, July 6th, 1956 and John Lennon‘s skiffle group, The Quarry Men, were playing Woolton Village Church Garden Fete. In the audience, lured along by his friend at the promise of lots of pretty girls to chat up, was a 15 year old Paul McCartney.
John Lennon had attended the Quarry Bank School since 1952, which gave the group it’s name and was formed from his friends at the school; Eric Griffiths on guitar, Rod Davis on banjo, Pete Shotten on washboard and Len Garry on bass. The instruments gave a big hint that John Lennon‘s ealy influences were not the Blues or Rock and Roll, but closer to home in the shapes of George Formby, but mainly Lonnie Donegan.
Lonnie Donegan and Skiffle
In the UK rationing was still in force and musical instruments were expensive, so skiffle was a godsend to many British teenagers as it could be played on a washboard with a tea chest for a bass.
The leading light of the skiffle scene was Lonnie Donegan, a Scotsman who had a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic with his skiffle cover of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line”, selling several million copies. The day Paul McCartney and John Lennon met Lonnie Donegan was at number one with “Gamblin’ Man”.
All The Beatles were fans of skiffle and Donegan in particular. John Lennon had bought a copy of “Rock Island Line” and this along with other typical Donegan numbers like “Cumberland Gap” made up most of The Quarry Men’s set. Paul McCartney was also a big fan, having seen Lonnie Donegan play at The Liverpool Empire, he would sneak down to the Empire during school to catch a glimpse during his lunchtimes.
Ritchie Starkey (as Ringo Starr was then known) had formed a skiffle group with his neighbor, Eddie Miles, called The Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group. Ringo had managed to get one up on most of the local skiffle groups as he had managed to finagle ten pounds from his step father, which he had spent on a drum kit.
George Harrison borrowed money so he could go to every night that Donegan played the Empire and, when he found out where he was staying went round and banged on the door until he came out and signed an autograph for him. As George Harrison said –
Lonnie and Skiffle seemed made for me. It was easy music to play if you knew two or three chords, you’d have a tea chest as bass and a washboard and you were on your way
Paul McCartney Joins The Quarry Men
John Lennon‘s ability to get under people’s skin had caused several incidents at earlier Quarry Men gigs. At one of their first gigs, on Rosebury Street, they had been chased down the road and hid in a house until the police came to escort them home. At another gig at Wilson Hall, John Lennon found himself being chased down the road by two Teddy Boys, escaping by jumping on a moving bus.
By these standards, the Woolton Village Church Garden Fete gig was one the Quarry Men’s calmest, but the 15 year old Paul McCartney obviously impressed John Lennon when they were introduced. Firstly he could tune a guitar and wrote out the lyrics for “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and “Twenty Flight Rock” for Lennon.
Of the meeting John Lennon later said
I had a group, I was the leader. Meeting Paul meant making a decision about having him in the line-up. Was it good to make the group stronger by bringing in someone stronger than the ones we had, or let me be stronger
John Lennon made the decision to let Paul McCartney in and as Paul cycled down the road, he was accosted by John Lennon‘s friend and fellow Quarry Man, Pete Shotton and told Paul McCartney that John Lennon wanted him to join The Quarry Men. It was, according to Paul McCartney, “as simple as that.”
Paul McCartney Makes his Debut with The Quarry Men
Paul missed The Quarry Men’s first gig at the venue that would become synonymous with The Beatles, Liverpool’s Cavern Club while away on a scout trip. The Cavern Club was a jazz venue that tolerated skiffle, but Rock and Roll was considered a fad and not “proper music”. John Lennon decided to try out a few Elvis Presley numbers during their set, which demonstrated both the direction the band were beginning to take and John Lennon‘s ability to wind people up. The Elvis numbers upset the Cavern’s manager Alan Sytner enough to have him pass John Lennon a note on stage saying “Cut out the bloody rock!”
Paul McCartney made his debut with The Quarry Men on October 18th, 1957 at Wilson Hall. By now many of the skiffle numbers had been replaced by rock n’ roll numbers. John Lennon was the big Elvis Presley fan, while Paul McCartney favored Little Richard and the set was filled out with crowd pleasing numbers by artists such as Buddy Holly.
Paul McCartney‘s debut was not entirely a success though. Paul McCartneywas taken on as lead guitarist, however he made a complete mess of Arthur Smith’s “Guitar Boogie” and was banned from playing lead again. This left a hole in The Quarry Men’s lineup.
George Harrison Joins The Quarry Men
George Harrison was younger than Paul McCartney, but they had become friends after sharing the number 92 bus to school. George had learned to play guitar and formed a band called The Rebels. Paul McCartney was impressed enough to lobby John Lennon to let George Harrison join The Quarry Men as their lead guitarist. John Lennon regarded George Harrison as a “little kid” and was reticent to let him join. However after a Quarry Men gig at Wilson Hall, George Harrison played John Lennon the instrumental track “Raunchy” on the bus on the way home and he was in – although John Lennon‘s attitude to Harrison arguably never changed during their time together in The Quarry Men or The Beatles.
The Quarry Men continued on into 1958 and on July 12th, 1958, they entered Percy Phillip’s Studio. In the session they recorded Buddy Holly’s “That’ll be the Day” and a Harrison/McCartney original called, “In Spite of all the Danger”. However the steam was running out and shortly after this the Quarry Men played their last gig at Woolston Village Hall.
George Harrison went to play guitar with the Les Stewart Quartet, while Lennon and McCartney took some time out from playing to focus on their own songs and forging possibly the greatest songwriting partnership in history.
During their time in The Quarry Men, both Paul McCartney and John Lennon lost their mothers. Paul McCartney‘s mother, Mary, died of breast cancer on October 31st, 1957 and John Lennon‘s mother, Julia, was killed in a road accident on July 15th, 1956. As Paul McCartney said –
That was one of the things that brought John and me close together. It was a bond between us, quite a big one. We came preofessionally together afterwards. And, as we became a writing team, I think it helped our intimacy and our trust in one another. Eventually we were pretty good mates – until The Beatles split up and Yoko came into it.”
The two would skip school and convene at John’s house while his father worked at the Cotton Exchange. The first numbers they wrote were, “Too Bad About Sorrows” and “Just Fun”. The writing partnership was not one where they sat down together and wrote, but one where they came up with ideas and bounced them off each other. The competition between them spurred them to write better songs. As John Lennon said –
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 that 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 had bothered before.
It was during this time they agreed that whoever wrote the bulk of a song would have their name first on the writing credit, so a McCartney song would be credited McCartney/Lennon and vice versa. However due to a mix up, their first single was a McCartney song, “Love Me Do” which was credited as Lennon/McCartney. Seemingly to re-balance things, “Please, Please Me”, a Lennon song, was credited to McCartney/Lennon. This arrangement carried on until Brian Epstein and music publisher Dick James persuaded John Lennon that a standard Lennon/McCartney on all song-writing credits would be less confusing. Paul McCartney was on holiday when this was decided and told of the decision when he returned.
- The Beatles Anthology
- Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now
- The Beatles: 10 Years That Shook the World
- Norwegian Wood – Norway’s Beatles Fan Club Site