There can’t be too many Beatles devotees in their mid-50s who got to see the band live, anywhere in the world. But while Richard Houghton was one such lucky fan, he remembers next to nothing about the special guests he witnessed.
“I was taken to see The Beatles’ 1964 Christmas Show at the Hammersmith Odeon by my mother and father. I was four years old and have no memory of the show at all, except that we had been to see a department store Santa earlier that afternoon and I unwrapped my present in the theatre.
“It was a set of wooden skittles and I dropped one of the wooden balls on the floor, only for it to roll away to the front of the theatre never to be seen again. My little sister came along too and decided that she didn’t want to see the show so my Dad ended up taking her in the pub across the road instead.”
Well, it’s more than most of us managed. I for one was (rather aptly) just four weeks old when Hello Goodbye/I Am The Walrus was released, three days ahead of the Magical Mystery Tour LP, my own proper introduction coming much later via the red and blue greatest hits albums and whatever BBC Radio One or Capital Radio were playing. So if the Hammy Odeon festive show was largely lost on Richard, what was his first real memory of the Fab Four?
“I remember the song Michelle on the album Rubber Soul, tormenting my sister Michèle by singing the chorus to her over and over again. Once I realised how much she disliked this, I did it all the more.”
While he’d dearly love to spend more time on his writing and editing ventures, there’s still a day-job for Richard, this Manchester-based music aficionado spending his working hours with Chorley Community Housing. But in his spare time he’s loving his new distraction, with The Beatles: I Was There 1957-1966 (Red Planet, 2016) the follow-up to his successful publishing debut, The Rolling Stones Live 1962-69: You Had To Be There (GottaHaveBooks, 2015). Was this one easier to put together?
“This was almost half-written before I started, because a lot of people told me about seeing The Beatles when they were telling me their Stones anecdotes. And I’d learnt a few handy tips about organising myself – like having a searchable database of venues and dates The Beatles played – saving time when it came to checking facts. But there’s still a lot of leg work involved.”
As with that Stones book, he hasn’t set out to write a definite account of the band. There are far too many of those out there already. In a nutshell, can he explain the premise behind this concept?
“It’s simply the story of The Beatles as a live act, told in the words of people who were actually there at the time. That might be someone who was in the audience as a paying customer or if might be from the perspective of someone who got backstage because their Dad was organising the theatre’s security.
“I can’t claim that there are any huge new insights into The Beatles or their music, but hopefully what comes across is how important they were to people at the time. It’s a little insight into 1960s’ Britain – a look back in time if you will – rather like a Pathe newsreel.”
It’s much more than that, actually, and out in good time time for late Christmas shoppers, at the same time as Ron Howard’s Eight Days a Week DVD release. I’m guessing he’s seen that film.
“I thought it was great. I think what that shows is just how much of a global phenomenon The Beatles were. My book is rather more domestic in its focus, with stories of shows in the wilds of Scotland and week-long bookings at the Dreamland Ballroom in Margate.”
I’m glad he mentioned those Scottish shows, memories of which are among the book’s many highlights. As someone brought up not so far away from Aldershot, I heard plenty about the night The Beatles played their first show in the south of England at the Palais Ballroom in December 1961, 18 people turning up, as retold in great detail by The Beatles Bible website (with a link here). But the tales of those early gigs in Elgin, Dingwall, Bridge of Allan and Aberdeen were new to me, and I particularly enjoyed reading about Margaret Paterson, then 17, breaking it to the Fab Four at Dingwall Town Hall that there was a great band on at the Strath (Strathpeffer Pavilion), hence the poor turn-out for them. As it turned out, Margaret – among just 19 who showed up that night – later that evening went on to see The Melotones and Beat Unlimited at the Strath, where she spotted The Beatles again. Perhaps they were making notes on what counted for a top band across the border.
These are the moments that make publications like this work, and there’s something that resonates with me when I read about people deciding to take a free bus to the next venue rather than stick around to see four lads on the brink of becoming the biggest band in the world (ever). But back to Richard. There are many great publications out there on The Beatles, but this makes a perfect companion book. What’s the best he’s read about the Fab Four or any of its members?
“There are absolutely hundreds of books about The Beatles and I don’t pretend to have read them all. I think my favourite is Many Years From Now by Barry Miles, which is about Paul McCartney.”
This isn’t just for diehard Beatles fans – as you suggested, it also provides a neat snapshot of life in the ‘60s. And some of those anecdotes paint a vivid picture of the era.
“I hope so. I think it’s a real reminder of how much the world has changed. There was no Internet. There were no mobile phones. Not everyone had a phone in their house – we didn’t until 1970 – and of course some houses had a party line, which basically meant you shared a phone line with the house next door. If the phone rang, it might be for you or it could be for your neighbour.”
How many fans got in touch and are featured here. And were a lot of those from the same sources?
“There are over 400 different memories altogether. My appeal for fans to come forward was featured by different local newspapers. Some gave the story real prominence, and that meant I got a better response because it came to the notice of more people. In other cases, staff at newspapers were really helpful in turning up sources and pointing me in the direction of people who might have a story to tell.”
From what I can gather, there are a few photographs that haven’t seen the light of day before. That must have been exciting from your point of view.
“It was. The very first photograph in the book is from Woolton Village Fete in 1957, which is famously the day that Paul met John for the very first time. The photo I’ve included was given to me by someone who was a babe in arms at the time and he’s in the foreground on his mother’s knee while John Lennon can be seen in the background playing with the Quarrymen. And the publisher thinks it’s the very first time this photograph has been published anywhere in the world.”
Those early memories continue with Andrea Creed talking about her playground scrap with a certain Richard Starkey at St Silas School, while Geoff Gripton remembers walking across town with George Harrison as he went for his bus home from Liverpool Institute and Richard Austin talks about John and Cynthia Powell, the future Mrs Lennon, at the Liverpool School of Art.
The memories of the Cavern Club – from 1961 onwards – certainly paint a picture, complete with occasional trips out to venues such as the Civil Service Club and Southport’s Kingsway Club. We learn for example that Ron Watson, 16 in 1961, saw the band 12 times over that next six months and eight more times in Southport that year alone, among 27 Beatles shows he saw in total. He mentions Brian Epstein’s first Cavern visit, George getting a black eye after Pete Best’s sacking, and all those lunchtime gigs while he was working in the nearby Royal Liver Buildings, the band dressed in their black leathers, Ron getting to properly chat with them and getting to know their very different characters. Meanwhile Jim Finn recalls a mischievous Gerry Marsden pulling the plug on the band mid-set, leading to ‘some of the foulest language from John Lennon you’ve ever heard’.
The band soon moved further afield, engagements in New Brighton, Warrington, Fleetwood and Preston’s Public Hall followed by those in Swindon, Lydney, Birmingham, Nuneaton and Gloucester Terrace’s St James’ Church Hall in the capital. Those 1962 dates also included two at Stroud’s Subscription Rooms, where Jennifer Fabb’s mum was asked for some hot water so Paul could shave, and George Lodge says they played Bruce Channel’s Hey Baby – a big hit at the time – three times, John putting his harmonica work to good use.
Then came the aforementioned Scottish shows and dates in Macclesfield, Clacton and Sutton Coldfield, followed by a tour headlined by Helen Shapiro in ’63, all before the first album was even released. As time went on, the order changed here and there, Beatlemania truly kicking in, as was the case for their shows with Roy Orbison (from Abergavenny Town Hall and Bath Pavilion to Worcester’s Gaumont and York’s Rialto theatres, but not necessarily in that order). Among the fans for one such show with ‘The Big O’ was a friend of mine, Jean Jones, who recalls a big night out with her friend Mary Davies at the Odeon in Guildford, their fellas – both from North Wales – having decided they ‘weren’t interested in a night of screaming women when the snooker hall and beer beckoned’. Yet Jean was smitten with Paul, as was Mary with John, the band smartly turned out in ‘beautiful dark fitted suits’, the girls deciding they were ‘sat just too far from the front to make it worth the risk of throwing a pair of their best bloomers’ at the band.
Seaside shows followed in Margate, Weston-Super-Mare, Blackpool and the Channel Islands, the hysteria in full flow long before June ’64 shows in Australia and New Zealand, and the August/September dates that year in the US and Canada. And while Richard can’t really recall those Hammersmith Odeon goings-on at Christmas, thankfully Sue Cornell and Dena Hubbard can, as is the case with Richard’s mum Pamela Houghton and his cousin Karen Smith.
He moves on there to the New Musical Express Poll-Winners do at Wembley’s Empire Pool in April ’65 and Jean Devine, Diane Everex and Maggie Mayberry meeting the band at The Antrobus Arms, Amesbury, while they were filming Help! on Salisbury Plain. Then there’s Beth Kaplan’s detailed memories from the Palais des Sports, Paris, and Derry Jackson, then 14, reckoning they sang Yesterday for the first time at Blackpool’s ABC Theatre.
Finally, there’s New York’s Shea Stadium and all those huge North American shows, with more of the same to come in ’66, right up to Candlestick Park, San Francisco on August 29th, where despite all the numbers involved Maureen O’Reilly Lasley, 15 at the time, is certain Paul made eye contact with her as he ran out to play that live swansong. Dianne Hicks (nee Wingert), 16, was there too, having survived peltings of jelly beans, ringing ears and a bloody nose to see the band three times (following the ’64 and ’65 appearances at the Cow Palace across the city), ‘each time so special’.
So, back to the interview, and who was Richard’s favourite Beatle? And was that backed up by the anecdotes included in this volume of stories?
“I think it would have to be George, and he comes across as the nicest of the four in the book, the one who was most willing to take time out to talk to people and show a genuine interest in them. I love the story of him being backstage at the Odeon in Southport, looking around their grotty dressing room and telling a lad who wants to get on in the music business that it’s not worth bothering with.
“John was quite acerbic, Paul was often preening or thinking about the band’s next move, and Ringo comes across as a nice bloke but not one of life’s great thinkers.”
I always feel The Beatles were always wrongly – or at least lazily – portrayed as ‘clean-cut lads’, not least compared to The Rolling Stones, the band that no-one would have wanted for son-in-laws. Is that fair?
“Brian Epstein cleaned up their image but they were a pretty rough and ready bunch of blokes dressed in leathers before he put them in suits. One of the contributors in my book who saw them many times playing at the Cavern says that if you didn’t see them before Brian polished their image and got them into collars and ties then you didn’t see the real Beatles.”
While I’m doing the snapshot-type questions, what would you say was your favourite Beatles album or track?
“No Reply. It’s got that slight twist to the lyrics that John always brought to songs. But there really are so many classics”.
Ever get to see John, Paul, George or Ringo live or in person?
“Unfortunately not. I’d love to see Paul McCartney live, although I probably wouldn’t be queuing up outside the Echo Arena to buy tickets to see Ringo.”
You mentioned when we spoke a year ago that your Stones book was a labour of love. Was it the same this time, and is there any danger of all this leading to a full-time job as a writer and editor?
“What working on The Beatles book showed me was that I knew less about them than I thought. That was an advantage in the end, because I had to do more research about – for example – TV shows that they did in Blackpool. It showed a real contrast between their career, where they were really embraced by the establishment, and that of, for example, the Rolling Stones, who weren’t being scrubbed up and being put on the telly for the mums and dads to watch.
“It could become a full-time job, because what I hope I’m doing is capturing people’s musical memories, and there are lots of acts that the I Was There concept could be applied to and lots of people out there with stories. I was at my office party yesterday and the receptionist from my head office just let it slip that her aunt used to go out with a member of The Rolling Stones. So that’s a lead I’m going to follow up!”
As with that last book, accounts occasionally seem to contradict each other, or are somewhat embellished by the contributor, perhaps unintentionally. It is 50 years on after all, and those tales have probably been told time and again to family and friends. Were there any anecdotes left out for that reason? Alternatively, were there others that seem not to have been documented before?
“Some stories I couldn’t use because the details were so vague, or because I couldn’t establish the facts behind what was being claimed. None of the stories that are in the book have been published before, except that a few may have been told to local newspapers. So the stories are being published for the first time, either never having been told before or being told afresh to me.
“Incidentally, I’m quite relaxed about the contradictions. I can have a conversation with my other half and 10 minutes later we have a different understanding about what we’ve agreed, so not remembering precisely re the events of 50 or more years ago is perfectly understandable!”
The first book was with GottaHaveBooks, whereas this one’s with Red Planet. What’s the story there?
“Both publishers have seen the appeal in the approach I’ve taken in unearthing people’s memories of seeing groups from way back when, as it is a different take on your standard rock history book, and both were interested in the Stones book. GottaHaveBooks were a start-up company being launched by a friend and I was their first author. But Red Planet are an established publisher who have a wide selection of titles and a much bigger marketing operation, so it made sense to go with them when they said they’d still be interested in a book on the Beatles, even though they didn’t publish the Stones one. As a writer, you want as many people as possible to read your book.”
If there’s one theme that seems to comes up more than others in the book, whether we’re talking about shows in the UK, the USA or Australia, it’s the amount of fans who were swept up by the whole magic of the occasion and ended up – mostly against their prior wishes – screaming throughout those Beatles shows. That just seems such a waste of an amazing experience, doesn’t it?
“It does, but that was the experience for many. Several fans used the same phrase, about ‘breathing the same air as the Beatles’, even though they were several hundred feet away sat in Row Z of an American football stadium, and I think it was a mixture of hormones and teenage anticipation that caused them to act in the way that they did.
“We haven’t really had the same sort of teenage hysteria since, although the Bay City Rollers generated a bit of it in their time. And these Beatles fans didn’t come away disappointed that they hadn’t heard a note. For many, it was still the best concert they ever went to.”
Another theme seems to be that of fans’ parents throwing out precious memorabilia left at home when they moved out, those respondents wondering what might have been if they still had those autographs, and so on. Would your folks have done the same? Are you a hoarder (or should I say ‘collector’)?
“I’m definitely a hoarder, and it causes me some angst that somewhere along the way I’ve managed to lose a ticket for a Clash concert from 1979. My mum kept those Beatles tickets for a while, but I’ve turned her spare room upside down many times in an unsuccessful hunt to unearth them so I think they’re long gone.”
There are so many great ones to choose from, but what were your favourite anecdotes from this collection?
“The story about Paul and Ringo stopping off at a house in Skeffington Road in Preston to have a fry up and then Paul playing the piano while Ringo bashed out the rhythm on an armchair is a great one. Although I’m not sure the neighbours would have been so pleased!
“And them chatting up two girls outside a ballroom in Birmingham and one of the girls being disappointed that she had to snog John Lennon when she wanted to snog Paul McCartney is a nice story too.”
Similarly, which of the gigs recounted were the ones you really wish you could go back in time to see?
“I’d have loved to have seen them play the Cavern, when they were on fire as a live act after having honed their skills in Hamburg and were just knocking out those rock’n’roll standards. I don’t think that period was ever captured properly.
“What really came across when I was interviewing people for the book was the genuine affection that people had for the Fab Four. They were ‘our lads’, and for teenage girls in particular they just embodied everything that was possible in terms of society, fashion and music changing as Britain emerged from the post-war austerity and the Swinging Sixties blossomed. More than one person said to me that they wouldn’t change anything because they believe that they had the best music and the best times in the Sixties.”
And what’s next? I get the impression you may be working on a book on memories of The Who in the ‘60s. Are there any more titles in the pipeline?
“I’m well on the way with a book about The Who, with over 300 stories from around the country to date and a January 2017 deadline. Red Planet are talking about more in the I Was There series too, and obviously the format is eminently transferable to other acts, whether that’s someone from the ’60s or more modern bands like The Smiths or Oasis. At the end of the day, there has to be an audience for a book for a publisher to want to invest money in it. Hopefully, though, I’m unearthing stories that people really want to tell and that others really want to hear.”
Now I’ve Got A Witness – Remembering The Rolling Stones’ 1960s roots with Richard Houghton featured on this blog in November 2015, with a link here.
The Beatles: I Was There 1957-1966 (Red Planet, 2016, UK £15.99, US $25.99), edited by Richard Houghton, is available online via Amazon and other big retailers such as Waterstone’s, and is also being stocked by HMV, while any bookshop can order it in.
If you’re reading this and want to belatedly relay your own tales of encounters with The Beatles, Richard Houghton would be happy to hear from you. New material is already coming in, with a possible second edition in the offing if there’s enough of a response. If you have a story about seeing The Beatles live that you’d like to share, e-mail Richard at firstname.lastname@example.org.