The Beatles? No, thanks

The Quarrymen managed to let Lennon, McCartney and Harrison slip through their fingers. Nearly five decades after that mistake, they are releasing their first album. Tim Cooper reports
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Rod, Eric, Len and Colin. It doesn't have quite the same ring as John, Paul, George and Ringo, does it? But, back in 1957 and 1958, they all played in what would turn into the best-known band of all time. While one half of them became the Fab Four, the forgotten four drifted into normal lives with proper jobs, mortgages, wives and children.

Rod, Eric, Len and Colin. It doesn't have quite the same ring as John, Paul, George and Ringo, does it? But, back in 1957 and 1958, they all played in what would turn into the best-known band of all time. While one half of them became the Fab Four, the forgotten four drifted into normal lives with proper jobs, mortgages, wives and children.

Now, almost 50 years after they started out as a schoolboy group with John Lennon, The Quarrymen have made their first album, featuring songs they used to play with Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. After a reunion on the 40th anniversary of the 1957 show where Lennon first met McCartney, the original members - now all in their sixties - got back together and went on concert tours all over the world.

"It was Quarrymania in Japan," recalls the singer, Len Garry, 63. "When we got off the train, we were mobbed by screaming girls." When the drummer, Colin Hanton, returned to his hotel in Osaka, he met a gaggle of schoolgirls. "They surged towards me, asking for my autograph."

The Quarrymen were formed by a 15-year-old Liverpool schoolboy called John Lennon. In 1956, rock'n'roll was in its infancy. Bill Haley had started it with "Rock Around the Clock", and a sexy young Elvis Presley was dominating the hit parade. But Britain was in the grip of skiffle fever, popularised by a Scottish jazzman with a banjo. Bands were sprouting in tribute to Lonnie Donegan. "Skiffle was very simple, amateurish music. You could learn one or two chords and somebody could beat out some sort of rhythm on a tea-chest bass, and you had a band," says Hanton, 66.

It was an easy sound to imitate, spawning hundreds of new groups. The new sound was derided by the successful acts of the day. "Properly trained musicians never had a good word to say about skiffle," recalls Rod Davis, who played banjo in Lennon's original band. "Their view was that real musicians were being put out of work by fellows who couldn't read music."

Lennon, infatuated by Donegan and Presley equally, had just bought his first guitar. He roped in some friends from Quarry Bank High School: best mate Pete Shotton; Eric Griffiths, who also had a guitar; and Rod Davis, who had a banjo. As John, Eric and Rod learnt their chords, Shotton would bang out a rhythm on the washboard.

A fourth schoolfriend, Bill Smith, played the tea-chest bass - a primitive instrument peculiar to skiffle, made from a chest, a broom handle and a piece of string that made a rhythmic thrum when thumbed. They named the band after their school and Lennon decided he would be the singer.

Smith, whose father didn't want him wasting time on popular music, soon left and was replaced by Len Garry, who went to a different school - the Liverpool Institute - where his fellow students included Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Garry wanted to sing, but as Lennon had that job he took over the tea-chest bass. And Colin Hanton came in as drummer; he'd left school and was working as an upholsterer, but, crucially, he owned a drum kit.

For the next year, The Quarrymen learnt their instruments and taught themselves a repertoire of contemporary hits. They practised in each other's homes until they were ready to play in public, at parties, youth clubs and even a local golf club. "We would get 10 shillings [50p] each. We didn't play in pubs or anywhere that sold alcohol because we were under-age," Garry recalls.

The crucial date in the band's history is 6 July 1957 at the St Peter's church fête in Woolton, Liverpool. Paul McCartney wandered in as they were performing. Intrigued by Lennon's habit of ad-libbing his own lyrics, McCartney sought an introduction and was soon showing Lennon his own talent as a guitarist. The pair hit it off and McCartney was invited to join the band as a guitarist, replacing Davis. "I just drifted out," Davis says. "I played banjo and there was no real place for me in what was becoming a rock'n'roll band."

By now skiffle was being swept away by rock'n'roll, and The Quarrymen began to change their sound. "People quickly realised that the same three chords that worked for skiffle worked for rock'n'roll," says Davis, who won a place at Cambridge University after his departure.

Then Shotton left. "Pete never got much satisfaction out of playing the washboard," Davis recalls. Garry adds: "Pete always got stage fright. He was forever complaining about playing live. One day he moaned so much that John smashed the washboard over his head. And that was it for him."

Meanwhile, The Quarrymen recruited McCartney's schoolfriend George Harrison, then 14. As they now had four guitarists, it was suggested to Griffiths that he might like to switch to electric bass. Unable to afford one, he left the band, leaving the nucleus of what would later become The Beatles.

John, Paul, George, Len and Colin built their reputation in local shows, including a 1957 residency at the Cavern. Garry still blames the legendary venue for the illness that forced him out of the band in the summer of 1958, spending eight months in hospital with tubercular meningitis. "The place had no ventilation, so there was always condensation dripping on you."

By 1959, Lennon and Harrison (but not McCartney) had begun writing their own songs. The earliest known example is "In Spite of All the Danger", recorded that year. It's the first recording ever made by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, but did not resurface until it appeared on The Beatles' Anthology in 1996. That recording, now owned by McCartney, is valued at £100,000.

Soon after making it, Hanton packed away his drumsticks for good. "I was slightly older, with a decent job as an upholsterer, and I got a bit fed up. We were coming home on the bus after a gig where we'd got drunk and blown our chance of a residency, so I thought we were never going to go anywhere. It all got a bit unpleasant, the way drunken lads are. After I got off the bus, I never heard from them again. The next time I saw them was on the television in 1962 in a group called The Beatles."

Hanton, who still lives in Liverpool and works as an upholsterer, insists he has no regrets. He doubts the band would have gone on to greatness without the influence of McCartney. "I was never really serious about it. I think John and George became serious under Paul's influence, and Paul would have made it whatever happened."

Davis remembers bumping into Lennon in Liverpool around Easter 1962. "He asked me if I wanted to go to Hamburg and play drums. But I was halfway through my degree and my mother would have killed me if I'd given it up for 'that Lennon', as he was always known in our house."

How did the former members feel as they watched The Beatles' rise to superstardom? Garry admits to some regrets. "I felt a bit envious. I'd always wanted to do music and they were enjoying themselves doing that. But my envy faded, and I fell in love and got married and had kids - the usual thing."

Hanton says: "I've no regrets, because I was never serious about it. And we've had a good time in the last few years. I've ridden around in limos in Las Vegas."

Davis, too, insists he had no pangs at missing out. "I didn't like the music; I was more interested in folk and bluegrass. And they were trapped in hotels and couldn't do what they wanted. Their lives were stolen from them, in many ways. I've had a lot of fun in my life... and no one knows about it!"

'Songs We Remember' by The Quarrymen is out now on BMG Imports ( www.originalquarrymen.co.uk)

Comments