I’d been writing about the entertainment business in London for less than a year when the Beatle boom began. The editor of the magazine I was working for asked me to take a look at the new group and tell him what I thought. I watched them on the live national variety show, Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and wasn’t impressed. Those suits, those haircuts, that name—“They’ll never make it,” I told him. “Can’t sing. Stupid name. Won’t last.” “Don’t you believe it,” he said. “They’re going to be important. Spend some time getting to know them.”
They were operating out of a little office over a porno bookshop just off Cambridge Circus on the northeast fringes of Soho, and in the summer of 1963 I joined them on and off on tour, helping them load in their sound equipment and Ringo’s drums at crummy halls around the nation. We spent one storm-swept night in a theatre office high above the ocean in Rhyl on the wild Welsh coast, locked in to protect the group from a thousand baying fans below. The toilets were on the other side of theatre, impossible to access, and Lennon, needing badly to pee, had to be restrained from using the window as a urinal.
He wasn’t the one I liked most; by comparison with the gentle George Harrison and the witty, if somewhat stand-offish, Paul McCartney (whose choice of backstage reading was Faulkner, Ibsen and Chekhov), he was caustic and hard to get to know. They were just back from a holiday in the Canary Islands. Out swimming, Paul had become entangled in underwater weeds and almost drowned. Lennon had dragged him clear in the nick of time. Paul talked freely about the incident, but Lennon was taciturn and ungiving. Harrison and McCartney would be happy to spend the hours between shows chatting, joking, looking for laughs. Lennon always seemed to have something else to do.
The first time we talked, he laid out the ground rules. “There are three things I hate people asking. ‘Where do you come from?’—because that’s fairly easy to find out without asking us. ‘Why did you call yourselves Beatles?’ And the worst of all: ‘Just sign this for me or I’ll get shot.’” You knew where you stood with John Lennon. Still, there was never any denying the force of his leadership or of his musical creativity. He was so irritated by the media’s attempts to psychoanalyse them that he suggested holding a press conference at which reporters would be admitted one by one. For the first reporter they’d act as if they were on the edge of a nervous breakdown. For the second they’d be raring to get on stage. And so on.
No one, least of all the Beatles themselves, had any idea, then, of the things they would bring to pass. American fame had yet to happen. George was content to buy himself a second-hand Jaguar. Ringo wanted to buy his parents a house in a better area of Liverpool (they lived in a rough area of the city, and one day a gang of about 200 youths came swarming around looking for him, and when they were told he wasn’t in threw bricks and insults through the window).
I can’t say it wasn’t fun. At one point, my editor decided to run a reader contest with sets of the iconic Beatle ties “actually worn by the Beatles” as prizes. We supplied the ties; I had to make sure the Beatles at some point wore them, even if only for a second. None of us could take it seriously, but they played with the silliness nonetheless.
If there were drugs I didn’t see them. I didn’t see a lot of groupies either, though we talked a lot about girls. John was married at the time to Cynthia, and she and their baby Julian were hidden away somewhere in Cheshire—he didn’t see why people should treat her like a freak, he said, just because she’d married a Beatle.
Success was fun but ambition had limits. Despite the fact that they’d gone from gigs that earned them six pounds ten shillings ($20 at that time) for a one-hour show to 40-minute spots that paid them ten pounds ($30) a minute, they still hadn’t come to terms with the cash crop that fame brought. I may be romanticizing the memory, but it seems to me now that I was fortunate to spend time with them in the last days of their innocence.
Only John had his sights set on other things. In the late summer of 1963, prescient as always, I did a piece asking “When will the Beatle bubble burst?” McCartney couldn’t see it ending as long as their records continued to sell. But Lennon was clear-eyed. “I don’t want to be a Beatle when I’m 30,” he told me. “I’ve got other things to do with my life.”