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Mersey Beat - From Newspaper to Sound

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Mersey Beat was a name coined by Bill Harry for the fortnightly music newspaper he founded in Liverpool in 1961. The paper gave Cilla Black her name, led Brian Epstein to discover the Beatles and promoted all the Merseyside groups. It published columns by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, record reviews by Brian Epstein and unique photographs of the Beatles in their early career.

Mersey Beat later became a phrase frequently used by the national press outside Liverpool to describe the Merseyside music scene.

Bill Harry

In 1959, Bill Harry went to Liverpool Art College at the same time as John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe. He studied commercial design and was fond of American beat poets and rock 'n' roll. Both Harry and Sutcliffe were members of the Students' Union Committee and became close friends. Paul McCartney and George Harrison attended the neighbouring Liverpool Institute and visited the Art College's canteen at lunch.

Harry knew that Sutcliffe had artistic talent and Lennon had a talent for writing, and so hoped to collaborate with them both in order to create a book about Liverpool. Although the book was never written, Sutcliffe and Lennon became very close friends and even shared a flat.

Sutcliffe encouraged Harry to book Lennon's band, briefly called 'Johnny and the Moondogs', to play in the Liverpool Art College canteen. Harry often spent time with the members of the Beatles in the nearby pub, Ye Crack, or visiting the flat. He later described this experience by saying:

Paul, I remember, was always the most pleasant to talk to – very nice and easy to chat to [....] he was less intense than either Stuart or John, with those two you always felt you had to be on your toes. And with George you'd get virtually nothing going on between you. I think George was just extremely shy, he kept in the background so much in those days that he was almost like the Invisible Man.

Mersey Beat

Harry had previously written for college newspaper Pantosphinx and in 1958 had briefly edited a magazine for Frank Hessy's music store, which Hessy had insisted be called Frank Comments. This magazine was unsuccessful, which Harry attributed to the name.

As he kept track of what was happening in Liverpool, Harry realised that the area had a very strong musical scene that was being overlooked. He wrote to the Daily Mail informing them that 'what was happening in Liverpool was like New Orleans at the turn of the century, but with rock 'n' roll instead of jazz', only to be ignored. No local papers were interested either. Yet Liverpool in 1961 had over 500 musical groups playing in over 300 venues of all shapes and sizes, playing all sorts of music, including a strong folk and country scene as well as rock groups.

Harry therefore borrowed £50 from a civil servant and started his own fortnightly newspaper. He rented a small attic room above a wine merchant's shop equipped only with a desk, two chairs and a typewriter. His girlfriend Virginia was the only full-time member of staff. A friend from the Jacaranda Club, Dick Matthews, took photographs for the first issue, but soon a team of local photographers were on commission. These were rewarded with advertising space in the paper to promote their photography studios in order to keep costs low, as Harry was living off his college Senior City Art Scholarship. Harry thought of the name from the idea that the area the paper would cover would be like a policeman's beat, rather than from the musical term. However, 'Beat' had been used more and more to apply to the rock genre since the release of the 1958 film, The Big Beat.

When rushing to finish the first issue, very early in the morning, potential disaster struck. Harry could not remember the surname of the local singer he was writing about. He remembered that it was a colour. With the deadline fast approaching, the review was written about Cilla Black. In fact the performer's name was Priscilla 'Cilla' White. However she loved the name, and has performed as 'Cilla Black' ever since1.

All 5,000 copies of the first issue quickly sold out.

Mersey Beatle?

In 1961, when he was preparing the first issue of Mersey Beat, Harry remembered Lennon's style of writing and asked him to contribute something for the paper. The very first issue contained a biography of the Beatles entitled Being a Short Diversion on the Dubious Origins of Beatles translated from the John Lennon. This was written in Lennon's unique style that would later find fame in his books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works.

This article proved popular with readers, so Harry asked Lennon to become a regular columnist. Inspired by the Daily Express Beachcomber column, Lennon's writings were issued under the name 'Beatcomber'. Harry described Lennon's contribution with the words:

He turned up at the office with an untidy bundle of papers and I leafed through them, completely enchanted by the strange stories, drawings, short tales and political satires.

Sadly, when the paper moved to new, larger offices, many of Lennon's writings were lost. When he was told, he burst into tears, crying on Virginia Harry's shoulder. Lennon also regularly paid to have joke classified advertisements printed among the adverts in the paper.

In Epstein's autobiography A Cellar Full of Noise he wrote that he only heard of the Beatles after a customer came in requesting to buy a copy of their single 'My Bonnie'. This was shortly after issue 2 of Mersey Beat had been published, the front cover of which was devoted to the Beatles and 'My Bonnie'. The single was recorded in Germany before they were famous - the Beatles backed singer Tony Sheridan while they were playing in Hamburg. Brian Epstein had stocked Mersey Beat in his shop, North End Music Stores or NEMS, from the very first issue, selling 12 copies of the first issue and 144 of the second, and regularly read it. Seeing the success of the new local music paper, Epstein quickly began placing adverts inside it promoting his shop, and even, from issue 3, became record reviewer, with a column entitled 'Stop the world and listen to everything in it'.

When he read about the Beatles and was bombarded by customers coming into the store to ask for copies of the Mersey Beat that featured them on the cover, it was only natural for Epstein to ask Harry to arrange a meeting between him and the Beatles at the Cavern. After all, if he liked what he heard, he could place an order to import copies of 'My Bonnie' from Polydor in Germany. Epstein was so impressed with what he heard and saw in the Cavern that he became the Beatles' manager.

Bill Harry has said that in the early days, the Beatles used to regularly pop in to the Mersey Beat office to catch up and help out. Paul was particularly keen on using the paper's publicity to the Beatles' advantage, and even Paul's father Jim McCartney would pop into the Mersey Beat office on the way home. Mersey Beat had also been given permission to publish photographs of the Beatles taken in Germany by Stuart Sutcliffe's girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr. This encouraged Harry to promote the band in his paper, although after Epstein had become the Beatles manager, Lennon's contributions to the magazine were censored by Epstein to ensure that nothing too rude was published that could potentially tarnish the band's reputation.

Local compere, Bob Wooler, complained that the Beatles were given too much publicity, and said that the paper should be renamed Mersey Beatle. Harry would later say:

People complained that I was giving too much space to the Beatles – they were regarded as just another group. Around that time Pete Best was the most popular one – mean and moody, like Jeff Chandler. But I always thought Paul had such great looks [....] he and John had been writing all the numbers.

Yet, when issue 13 published a poll to determine who was the most popular group, the Beatles won. Brian Epstein would continue to work closely with the paper; when he learnt that George Martin had offered the Beatles a potential contract, he sent two telegrams, one to the Beatles and one to Mersey Beat.

Mersey Beat's Method

As the first paper to take Liverpool's music scene seriously, it pioneered several features that later became common in today's music magazines. It had the first 'What's On' section informing the readers of events they may wish to attend. The paper specialised in including exciting photographs, not only of the Beatles, but also other bands - photographs were taken during performances or on location, not just posed shots. Circulation soon spread outside Liverpool throughout the north of England and was on the verge of going nationwide.

Victim of its Own Success

In late 1964, Epstein, impressed with the magazine's continued success, decided to launch a national music paper called the Music Echo, hiring Bill Harry as editor. Mersey Beat was subsumed into the Music Echo, but despite promising Harry complete editorial control, Epstein frequently made overruling changes without consulting him. Harry soon resigned. He then managed the Four Pennies who had a number one hit with 'Juliet' in 1964, and contributed music columns for various other papers and magazines. He later became the personal press agent to acts including David Bowie, the Hollies, the Kinks, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

Without Harry, Music Echo limped on before finally merging with music magazine Disc in 1966 to create Disc and Music Echo.

Mersey Beat - The Liverpool Mersey Sound?

The words 'Mersey Beat' are often used to refer to the rock sound that flourished in the Liverpool area between 1960-6 and for a time dominated the British music chart. Although the national media called the music 'Mersey Beat' after 1963, this popular description is in many ways an anachronism; at the time the music was established it was called 'The Mersey Sound' or 'The Liverpool Sound'. In the early 1960s any reference to 'Mersey Beat' referred solely to the paper.

Mersey Musical Mastery

In 1963, for 34 weeks of the year an act from Liverpool was at number one2, principally the Beatles, but also other acts including Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Searchers, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas and Cilla Black. The British media were quick to categorise these acts as 'Mersey Beat', perhaps in tribute to the first newspaper to actually take music from Liverpool seriously.

Liverpool had a thriving, and diverse, musical scene. There were over 500 groups and artists performing on Merseyside immediately following the Skiffle and Trad Jazz booms of the late 1950s. There were folk groups3, Country and Western Music groups4, Black vocal groups5, solo singers such as Johnny Sandon, Steve Aldo, Lee Curtis and even Ken Dodd, female rock bands and vocalists including the Liverbirds, Beryl Marsden and Cilla Black, and Britain's leading Christian group, the Crossbeats, also came from Liverpool.

These groups played in cellar clubs, dance halls, youth clubs, church halls, town halls, ice rinks, swimming baths and cinemas. Famous venues included the Cavern, the Iron Door, the Mardi Gras, Tower Ballroom, Litherland Town Hall, Aintree Institute and the Casbah. Some of this atmosphere appears in the Beatles biopic films Birth of the Beatles and inaccurately in Backbeat.

The Mersey Soundbite

Amongst this widespread musical explosion, what makes a group a Mersey Beat act? The definition appears to be based on three key factors:

  1. The act must be from the Merseyside area.
  2. The act must have played beat music in the Mersey beat clubs, such as the Cavern.
  3. The act must have existed in the key years between 1960-6.

Unsurprisingly, there is dispute over how these facts are defined. The biggest acts such as the ones managed by Brian Epstein6 all clearly count as do many other chart acts including Billy Fury, the Searchers, the Swinging Blue Jeans7, the Mojos and the Merseybeats as well as talented acts that never quite made it to the chart8.

With other artists there is a dispute over whether they count or not. Billy J Kramer came from Bootle, Liverpool, but though his band the Dakotas all hailed from Manchester, they are generally accepted as a Mersey Beat Band. However, Herman's Hermits are not, even though Peter 'Herman' Noone was raised in Liverpool. So how many members of the band have to come from Merseyside before it is classed as a Mersey Beat act? Are the Hollies a Mersey Beat act? They played in the Cavern in the correct period, but they come from Stockport, which is not Liverpool but is still a town on the River Mersey. Does this qualify them to legitimately consider themselves Mersey Beat? Numerous record compilations seem to think so.

Another challenge that has been faced is whether the sound really was created in Liverpool, or did it originate in Hamburg, Germany? Numerous acts from Liverpool, including firstly Derry and the Seniors followed by the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Kingsize Taylor and The Liverbirds all went to Hamburg to perform. However Bill Harry of Mersey Beat has always asserted that though Hamburg helped forge the Beatles and other acts into what they became, Hamburg itself had a much smaller music scene and its influence helped to polish acts, but did not create or shape them. Unlike Liverpool's vibrant music scene, when the Beatles arrived in Hamburg there were only four rock 'n' roll clubs:

  • The Indra - A former strip club which closed after seven weeks following complaints from the neighbours. This was the first venue in Hamburg that the Beatles played, 48 nights between August and October 1960.

  • The Kaiserkeller - This closed after being open for only a year. The Beatles played 58 nights here in October and November 1960.

  • The Top Ten Club - The Beatles played 92 nights here between April and July 1961.

  • The Star-Club - The Beatles played a total of 75 nights here, between April and May, November and December 1962. Although the Beatles seem to have agreed to allow their very last performance here to be recorded, this recording was later released as an unapproved bootleg album, The Beatles Live! At the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, 1962.

What was the Mersey Sound?

Generally (although there were exceptions to the rule) the term 'Mersey Sound' was considered to apply to music by bands consisting of between three to five young white men under 25 from Liverpool wearing matching outfits. The instruments played were usually the basic Beatles-style line up of three guitars (lead, rhythm, bass) and drums, although saxophones were an optional extra. Pianos, however, were comparatively rare; most Liverpool venues did not have high quality pianos and it was impossible for a musician to easily carry one around. The beat was controlled by the rhythm guitar, and drummers would often use kick-bass, snare and hi-hat simultaneously.

Drum solos and instrumentals were rare, and the theme of the song would invariably be about young love. Unlike acts from other cities, there would usually be more than one lead vocalist as well as three-part harmonies.

Songs were usually either own compositions or covers of rock 'n' roll records from America9. Liverpool's music shops, including Brian Epstein's NEMS, were incredibly well stocked to serve the music-loving population, and so cover versions of little known songs were common. Unusually, unlike musicians in London, Mersey Beat musicians largely ignored blues, preferring pop R&B.

Some Principal Mersey Beat Acts

  • The Beatles - First and foremost, their name was inspired by Buddy Holly's backing group, the Crickets. They wanted a similar name and thought of insects – beetles.

  • Gerry and the Pacemakers - The group got their name when Gerry Marsden heard the phrase 'pacemaker' on television.

  • Cilla Black - Her name came about by an error in the first issue of Mersey Beat.

  • The Merseybeats - They asked the newspaper if they could name themselves after it.

  • The Searchers - Named after a John Wayne film.

  • Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas - John Lennon added the 'J' to William Ashton's stage name, as it stood for John's son Julian.

  • The Fourmost - Originally called the Four Jays, they had to change their name because a group in London had already taken it.

All the above acts released songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney with the exception of Gerry and the Pacemakers, an act that the Beatles were quite close to. Once, for fun, on 19 October, 1961, at Litherland Town Hall they performed together as 'The Beatmakers'.

1Cilla Black would later be signed by Beatles' manager Brian Epstein and, surprise surprise, sang many songs written by Paul McCartney. It is a little known fact that she knew the Beatles before they were famous.2The first Mersey Beat act to have an official UK Number 1 hit was Gerry and the Pacemakers with 'How Do You Do It?', as the Beatles' 'Please Please Me' had only reached number 2 in the Record Retailer chart.3The Spinners were Britain's leading folk outfit of the Sixties.4They had their own clubs, their own annual Grand Ole Opry, a Country Music Association and groups such as the Hillsiders who went on to appear at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and record with several American Country stars.5The most famous were the Chants. Members of the Chants went on to appear in the Real Thing, who were to top the British charts in the 1970s.6The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Fourmost, Cilla Black and the Big Three.7Originally the Swinging Bluegenes.8Acts such as Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes, the Undertakers, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Howie Casey and the Seniors and the Escorts.9There is a myth that Merseyside groups got their music from 'Cunard Yanks', sailors returning from the States. Close investigation has revealed that all the songs played by rock 'n' roll groups in Liverpool had been published in the United Kingdom.

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