Happy Birthday Paul McCartney: TIME Remembers the Day He Met John Lennon
An exclusive excerpt from TIME's new book, Paul McCartney: The legend rocks on
By James Kaplan
Today, Paul McCartney turns 70. To celebrate the legendary rocker, TIME looks back at that faithful day when McCartney, then a cherub-faced 15-year-old, asked John Lennon if he could borrow a guitar…
An incised sandstone plaque on the wall of St. Peter’s Church Hall in Woolton, a sleepy suburb on the outskirts of Liverpool, commemorates the event as if it had religious significance—as indeed it very nearly does:
In This Hall On
6th July 1957
John & Paul
First MetNo need to ask about last names.
The afternoon was oppressively hot and humid. The occasion was a church fete, a few -summer hours of festivities in the yard next to St. Peter’s cemetery: lemonade and ice cream and cakes and musical acts and performing horses and police dogs. Lots of kids. One of the acts was a group of local boys called the Quarrymen, named after the public high school they attended, Quarry Bank (itself named after Woolton Quarry, where sandstone was mined). The band played skiffle—kind of an English variety of jug-band music popular in the ’50s, thumped out on guitar, banjo, drums and tea-chest bass—along with a little rock ’n’ roll. Its singer and lead guitarist, a sideburned, eagle-nosed 16-year-old in a checked cowboy shirt with the collar turned up, preferred rock ’n’ roll. John Lennon could barely play his guitar—it had only four strings, and he used banjo chords—but with his hoarse yet tuneful voice and cheeky attitude, he was spellbinding. Among the band’s rock repertory was the Del-Vikings’ “Come Go with Me.” Lennon, not really knowing the words, simply made up his own: “Come go with me/ Down to the penitentiary . . .” Somehow he made it work.
After the fete, there was to be a grand dance in the Village Hall across the road. George Edge’s Orchestra would play for the adults; the Quarrymen would entertain the kids. As the long summer twilight faded, thunder rumbled portentously; the heat wave would break that night. As the skiffle group took its instruments into the hall, a close friend of Lennon’s named Ivan Vaughan approached him with a request: Did he have any interest in meeting another friend of his, a boy who could sing and play guitar? The boy was good, Vaughan said.
In a few minutes, Lennon found out how good. The boy, a cherub-faced 15-year-old with big hazel eyes, pouty lips and his dark hair slicked back rock-’n’-roll style, was ceremoniously dressed in a white sports jacket backed with silver threads: a showy touch that Lennon, in his tight teddy-boy jeans and cowboy shirt, would have found disconcerting.
Then Paul McCartney asked to borrow a guitar.
(MORE: Happy Birthday, Paul McCartney: 70 Iconic Images for 70 Years)
The Quarrymen’s instruments were strung for right-handers; McCartney was a lefty. No matter. He’d dealt with this problem before: you simply played upside-down. And that’s what he did, performing a near letter-perfect cover of Eddie Cochran’s fast-moving mouthful -“Twenty Flight Rock,” to the astonishment of Lennon and his bandmates. “I knew a lot of the words,” McCartney later recalled. “That was very good currency in those days.”
Then the young natural showman decided to top that.
McCartney sat down at the hall’s upright piano and blazed through Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” “It was uncanny,” Quarrymen guitarist Eric Griffiths told Bob Spitz, author of The Beatles, many years later. “He could play and sing in a way that none of us could, including John. He had such confidence; he gave a performance. It was so natural. We couldn’t get enough of it. It was a real eye opener.”
For his part, Lennon recalled (to Beatles biographer Hunter Davies), “I half thought to myself, ‘He’s as good as me.’ Now I thought, if I take him on, what will happen? It went through my head that I’d have to keep him in line if I let him join [the band]. But he was good, so he was worth having. He also looked like Elvis. I dug him.”
That was an understatement. From that day forward, the two would be inextricably bound, in each other’s minds as well as the world’s.
(MORE: Old Paul McCartney Letter Shows Early Search for Beatles Drummer)
The doe-eyed phenom who rocked John Lennon’s world that hot July afternoon was, underneath the white sports jacket and the bravado, far more vulnerable than he let on. Paul McCartney’s adored mother, Mary, a midwife and visiting nurse, had died of breast cancer, at age 47, only nine months earlier, leaving Paul, his younger brother, Mike, and their father, Jim, an amateur musician who worked as a salesman for a Liverpool cotton firm, to try to muddle through without her.
For several months, they barely made it: Jim was reeling with grief. “That was the worst thing for me, hearing my dad cry,” Paul remembered. “You expect to see women crying or kids in the playground or even yourself . . . But when it’s your dad, then you know something’s really wrong, and it shakes your faith in everything. But I was determined not to let it affect me. I carried on. I learned to put a shell around me at that age.”
Music was the main component of the shell. It came naturally: the whole extended McCartney family was musical. As a young man in the 1920s, Jim had fronted a dance band, and he still played a mean piano by ear (“His left one,” Paul McCartney liked to joke).
The McCartneys made music whenever they got together, and at first, trumpet was Paul’s instrument. But he was also beginning to listen to American rock ’n’ roll late at night on Radio Luxembourg—there was no rock on English radio in those days—and to grow intoxicated by its rhythms. Rock ’n’ roll wasn’t about trumpets. And then there was the fact that you couldn’t sing while you played a horn.
(MORE: McCartney Comes Back)
Rock was hitting England like a slow-moving tsunami in the mid-’50s. Prior to 1950, as Liver-pool local historian Joan Murray explains, “there were no teenagers.” Especially in that rough-hewn, northern port city along the River Mersey, where working-class and middle-class kids mostly just got out of school and got on with life. But Liverpool, so red brick dingy and looked down upon by London, was also peculiarly receptive to rock ’n’ roll—in part, because of the steady inflow of American culture through the docks. Now, suddenly, amid the postwar recovery, Liverpool kids had a couple of shillings to rub together, and with the records they were buying—records by Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and, especially, Elvis—came new dreams.
Shortly after his 14th birthday, Paul went to a downtown music shop and traded his trumpet for a Zenith acoustic guitar. He practiced obsessively, struggling to teach himself chords, but everything felt backward to the left-hander, until he hit on the idea of restringing the instrument—with the bass and treble strings reversed.
In the wake of his mother’s death, his obsession with the instrument redoubled. He would lock himself in the bathroom and practice for hours at a time. Initially a promising student—English literature and languages (Spanish and German) were his best subjects—at the prestigious public Liverpool Institute, he began to neglect his studies for the one thing that could take him away from all his troubles. When John Lennon sent a message (through a bandmate named Pete Shotton) asking him to join the Quarrymen, Paul McCartney didn’t have to think twice.
Skiffle stayed in the group’s repertoire for a while, but Lennon had little patience for it. Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” had electrified him (as it had McCartney). That—the sound, the look, the attitude—was what he was after. Meanwhile, the band started to break apart, as Lennon and his original mates graduated from Quarry Bank in 1958, and all but John, the dreamer and misfit, drifted off toward real life. But McCartney had introduced Lennon to a younger schoolmate from the Institute, a tiny, cocky 14-year-old, with jug ears and big hair. His name was George Harrison. “George was my little friend,” McCartney recalled many years later, with fond condescension. “But he could play guitar.” And George liked rock ’n’ roll.
(MORE: That Old Feeling: Meet the Beatles)
McCartney helped Lennon advance on the instrument, and with the big-eared little guy playing lead, all at once they were a rock-’n’-roll trio. On Sept. 18, 1959, a front-page story in the West Derby Reporter covered the recent opening of the Casbah, a new club for teenagers in the Liverpool suburb. The club was in the windowless basement of a huge, rambling old house in a residential neighborhood—the performance space, such as it was, the size of a coal bin. The account went on to mention “a guitar group which entertains the club members on Saturday nights . . . [T]he group, who call themselves ‘The Quarrymen,’ travel from the south end of the city to play. They are: John Lennon, Menlove Avenue, Woolton; Paul McCartney, Forthlin Road, Allerton; and George Harrison, Upton Green, Speke.”
A photo with the story shows McCartney, soulful in dark shirt and light tie, -confidently strumming his guitar and singing into a mike while Lennon, seemingly a little less sure of his playing, stares down at his instrument, carefully fingering a chord. Two girls and a boy sit on a bench to the right, paying careful attention. The caption reads: “Three ‘cool cats’ listen to ‘The Quarrymen.’ ” The polite-looking, well-dressed young English people resemble anything but cool cats. The girl on the left, smiling at McCartney, is Cynthia Powell, who will later marry Lennon.
TIME’s new book, Paul McCartney: The legend rocks on, by James Kaplan, includes rarely seen images and interviews with relatives, ex-bandmate Ringo Starr and pal Billy Joel. You can buy a copy here.
Read more: http://entertainment.time.com/2012/06/18/happybirthdaymccartney/#ixzz1x1zmcMZq
To celebrate Sir Paul's 70th birthday we flick through Rock's Backpages – the world's leading archive of vintage music journalism – to bring you this NME piece from 1963 where Macca reveals his love of … go-karting
I went roof-climbing with the Beatles – up a rickety wooden ladder, over drainpipes, and past the huge chimney-pots of London's plush Washington Hotel. The traffic bustled dizzily below. "After YOU!" laughed Paul McCartney, pointing to the gaping emptiness that stretched down to the street.
He was joking (I hope). There was an 80ft. drop! But Paul's usually like that, anyway – courteous, and cheerful with it! Fame hasn't changed him. "If anything," he told me, "it's other people who are different.
"I can't quite explain it, but when I meet some of my old mates, they don't seem the same. They have a different attitude towards me. Perhaps they think we've all gone big-time since getting into the charts, I don't know. But they're so wrong."
We reached the top of the ladder and the Beatles posed against some chimney-pots for a breathless photographer.
"Mind you," said Paul, "I'm not knocking anybody. I suppose people can't help feeling we've changed. It's a natural reaction."
There's a lot that's not known about Paul, who's the first in our "Close-up On A Beatle" series ... about his early days as a guitarist, his home life, and the beginning of his association with John Lennon.
"I didn't start in a very spectacular way," he told me. "I got my first guitar when I was 15, and I just used to fool about with it, more or less, as time went by, though, I got more interested. I was still 15 when I met John Lennon at a village fete in Woolton, in Liverpool. He was playing with a couple of fellows and I asked if I could join in. That's how it started, really. I suppose we just went on from strength to strength – John, me, George and another lad named Pete Best, who's now with another group.
"You'd never dream the names we had: 'Johnny [John Lennon] and the Moondogs', 'the Quarrymen' and 'the Rainbows'. We were called the last because we all had different coloured shirts and we couldn't afford any others! After that, somebody wanted to calls us 'Long John Silver and the Pieces Of Eight'! We weren't standing for that, but we did end up as 'the Silver Beetles' for a while. After that it became just the Beatles.
"I guess it's pure chance that I met John. You see, my mother was a district nurse until she died when I was 14, and we used to move from time to time because of her work. One move brought me into contact with John. Since then I suppose John and I have written about 100 songs together, including 'Bad To Me' for Billy J. Kramer. Fab about it doing so well, isn't it?"
Paul comes from Allerton, a typically suburban area of Liverpool, where his father still works as a cotton salesman. He attended Liverpool Institute school and chalked up several GCEs before leaving.
"I decided I'd like to enter art college if we flopped in show business," he says. "I got my GCE in art, and I'm still very interested in the subject. I often sketch when we're on tour – when I'm not writing songs or go-karting! That's the big rage for me these days, go-karting. We were doing some of it recently and now I'm thinking of taking it up in a big way. I'm not really interested in sport apart from that, except for swimming – but that's the thing these hot days, isn't it? It really cools you off."
How do the rest of the Beatles get on with Paul? "Oh, fine," they laughed as we leaned against a chimney-stack. "He hasn't changed a bit, you know. He's just the same old big-'ead we all got to know and love!"
"Funny habits?" asked John. "I'll say! Did you know he sleeps with his eyes open? We've actually watched him, dozing there with the whites of his eyes showing. And he won't believe us when we tell him. He's a good lad, really. We don't have much trouble with him, except that he gets a bit restless at feeding time. He's always good when we tell him, because he knows that if he isn't, we won't take him out for a walk on his chain!"
Paul takes all this with characteristic good humour. "You have to laugh, don't you? If you don't live this life with a sense of humour, it could soon get you down. That's the way I look at it, anyway. Sometimes, you know, I feel as if there's nothing I'd like better than to get back to the kind of thing we were doing a year ago. Just playing the Cavern and some of the other places around Liverpool. I suppose the rest of the lads feel that way at times, too. You feel as if you'd like to turn back the clock.
"It's only a passing mood, though. Most of the time lately we've been living on top of the world. Everything has been going right for us! No, I haven't bought anything special for myself since everything happened. Perhaps I could get a cine-camera – then the lads could film me while I'm dozing, and I'd know if I really sleep with my eyes open!"
His music has been loved for half a century, but Paul McCartney has probably never been more admired than he is on Monday, his 70th birthday – and with good reason. His performance at the Queen's jubilee concert earlier this month was not his best, but it was an unerringly powerful reminder of his unique and deserved status in the national culture. So, likewise, will be his place at the climax of next month's Olympic games opening ceremony. Paul McCartney is the top of the bill for a reason.
That reason is his songs. Dozens, even hundreds, lots written with John Lennon, many written on his own, a few duds certainly but, all in all, the greatest songwriting career of the era. Where to start? Perhaps with PS, I Love You in 1962. Or maybe All My Loving, Can't Buy Me Love, I've Just Seen a Face, and loads more; you all know them, make your own list – it will be a long one. He defined and moved with the swing of the 60s, morphing from besuited moptop to kaftanned hippie, as he broke out of the confines of the rock'n'roll ditty to dream up the Technicolour glories of Sgt Pepper. Through the dope and facial hair, there was always regard for deeper traditions, and – from Penny Lane to Blackbird – the one constant was craftsmanship in fusing melody and verse. The greatest songwriter since Schubert, the Times music critic William Mann boldly asserted back then. That claim doesn't seem hubristic now. No one has a back catalogue to touch his. But back catalogue doesn't do justice to the sheer artistic generosity he has bequeathed. His songs are our songs too.He has gone through periods of being uncool – but then McCartney is a working-class northerner in a London posh-boy dominated country and he has lived a long time. There was a time when the Stones had more attitude, then punk, then hip-hop. But whose songs will last longest? No contest. Lennon, edgier, more aggressive and dead, was more rebellious, more political. But it was the two of them together who led the revolution. And McCartney stayed in Britain, fought to save his local NHS hospital, sent his kids to state schools and would have been entitled to say "I earn a lot of money, so I pay a lot of taxes," even if, frustratingly, Google doesn't confirm the clear memory that he did.
Watching him at the jubilee concert was to be reminded that McCartney too is a national figure. If the Queen is an embodiment of one sort of Britain, McCartney is the embodiment of another, the egalitarian achieving social democratic optimism of the 1960s. From Love Me Do right through to Abbey Road's The End, his songs say I love you and I want you to love me – a better philosophy than much that came later, not just in music. What makes you proud to be British? Well, Paul McCartney does, for one. Number one, yet again.
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