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Before they Were the Beatles: My Interview with the Quarrymen
By psychologist, Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, aka, Dr. BLT
For the past two years, Santa has been extremely good to me. Last year, I had the distinct honor and pleasure of interviewing Pat Boone. This year, it’s a Quarrymen Christmas. That’s right. If you can believe it, I had an interview with the Quarrymen, the very boys who used to jam with John Lennon and Paul McCartney---the boys that laid the foundation for the sound that would eventually evolve into a worldwide, historical phenomenon.
When I spoke with Rod this morning, he was recovering from a bad cold (I bet even the Beatles got those). He was also preparing for a trip to Valencia, Spain, where he and the boys will be performing at an event known as Beatles Week.
Rod was the main spokesperson in this interview. He took the lead, but the others chimed in here and there, and when they did; their comments were greatly treasured and appreciated.
I’ve also taken the liberty of inserting the occasional personal reflection or two in response to the comments of the band members, including a musical reflection. These will generally be in italics.
Rod was hospitable, affable, and incredibly humble, especially for a man who had traveled side by side with Paul McCartney, and John Lennon, on a long and winding road that helped define and shape the signature sound of the Beatles.
Based on the comments of the other Quarrymen, they seemed to have the same admirable qualities that Rod possessed, and this made the interview a real pleasure. They all traveled the same journey, as well as their own individual journeys.
Today the journey of the Quarrymen continues, long after the Beatles broke up, and long after we so sadly lost John and George. I’m glad I hitched a ride on the Quarrymen wagon through rock ‘n’ roll history. It was a real trip. It even inspired this brand new song:
Before they Were the Beatles
And now, if you’d like to vicariously join the never-ending journey with me, and skiffle band that shook, and continues to rattle, the world, hop on. Enjoy the ride. Before you do, fasten your seatbelts and read the road map here:
Dr. BLT: Rod, we’ll start with you. First let me tell you what a pleasure is to have the honor and privilege of interviewing the Quarrymen. Let me ask you this: When did you become a part of the Quarrymen? What circumstances led to you joining the Quarrymen?
Rod: Some time during 1956 I bought a banjo as I was keen on Lonie Donegan and his music. I came into school the following day and mentioned this to my friend Eric Grifffiths who asked me if I wanted to join a skiffle group with himself, John Lennon, Pete Shotton and Bill Smith. I agreed. I played banjo at the time but now I play mostly guitar.
Dr. BLT: How about you, Colin?
Colin: I used to meet Eric Griffiths on the bus in Woolton as he was going to school and I was going to work. I had bought a set of drums from Frank Hessy's in Liverpool as I was very keen on jazz. I happened to mention this one day to Eric, some time in 1956, and he came to my house to hear me play. He must have been impressed as he asked me to come down to his house and meet the rest of the group, and that was how I became a Quarryman.
Dr. BLT: Len, at what point did you come in?
Len: The original tea-chest bass player was from Quarry Bank, a lad called Bill Smith, however he kept not turning up for rehearsals. Apparently his dad had agreed to his staying on a school for an extra year on condition that he didn't waste time playing skiffle with John Lennon. I had been introduced to John and Pete a year or so earlier by Ivan Vaughan, a friend from the Liverpool Institute where I went to school and so they asked me to replace Bill. This must have been in late summer of 1956.
Dr. BLT: And what can you tell us about your entry into the band, John?
John: I knew Paul from the Liverpool Institute where we were both pupils. I had met him originally at the auditions for the Liverpool Cathedral Choir, he failed but I was accepted. Paul had heard me play Jerry Lee Lewis style on an old piano at school, so he invited me to play with the Quarrymen in 1958 and with John, Paul, George and Colin we made the famous recordings at Percy Phillips' studio in Liverpool.
(Dr. BLT: Much to my chagrin, I wasn’t familiar with these recordings, but John’s mention of them has me incredibly curious)
Dr. BLT: Rod, how did it come about that you met John Lennon?
Rod: I first met John when I was about five or six years old. I was in a class at St Peter's Sunday School in Woolton which included Pete Shotton, Nige Walley, Geoff Rhind (who took the famous photo), Ivan Vaughan, Barbara Baker (eventually John's girlfriend) and Rob Molyneux (who made the recordings on 6 July 1957). When John moved to Woolton he joined this class.
Dr. BLT: And Rod, may I ask you this? What sort of influence did John Lennon have on you as a musician, and what kind of relationship did you have with John? How about the other members of the Beatles? Did you get to know any of them? If so, what was the nature of your relationship with the Beatles that you got to know?
Rod: When I first started playing with John we were both crazy about Lonnie Donegan and his music, so we played skiffle, which was really a mixture of blues and country music, however with the advent of Elvis and Rock 'n' roll John wanted to play more of this type of music.
As I was a banjo player (Donegan himself played banjo and guitar), this was not the type of music for which my instrument was suited, and to be frank I was more interested in the country music roots of skiffle than I was in the new rock and roll.
So when I drifted out of the band in the summer of 1957 it wasn't a big problem for me, they were becoming more of a rock and roll outfit.
I was replaced by Paul McCartney whom I remember meeting only once when we were practicing at Mimi's one day. Our friends would occasionally ask to come and listen to us practice and when I saw Paul there, whom I didn't know, I asked who he was and was told that he was there to listen to us practice. In fact, he probably already agreed to join the group although I obviously didn't know that at the time. I didn't get to know the other Beatles at all as George was well after my time.
Maybe because I had known John since we were both quite small, 6 years old or so, we always seemed to get on quite well although I was never one of his very close friends like, Pete, Nige, Ivan, Eric or Len.
The last time I saw him was in Liverpool in '61 or '62. I met him in the street and we got talking about music. He asked me what instruments I was playing and I told him. He asked me if I could play the drums and was I interested in coming to Hamburg with them to play. I had to admit that I had no idea of the drums and besides I was two thirds of the way through my degree course at university so that last thing I needed was to throw it all in and go to Hamburg. My mother would have killed me.
Dr. BLT: That’s amazing. Now, would you share one or two of your favorite memories associated with the Quarrymen or members of the Beatles?
Rod: We would practice in Eric's house in Woolton quite a lot as his father had been killed in the war and his mother was often out at work, also in Colin Hanton's house or in my house. One day we were practicing in the garden, climbing all over a big old garden seat, my next door neighbors looked over the wall and threw pennies to us. They were the grandparents of the British marathon runner Paula Radcliffe and she mentions this in her autobiography. This might well have been the first money we ever earned from playing music!
Our band uniform in the early days was white shirts and black jeans, I didn't own a pair of jeans and my parents could not and would not buy me a pair, so I bought a second hand pair from a friend for a few shillings. At one of our early gigs, at the Lee Park Golf Club, just before we went on stage the zipper split and so I had to play the entire evening in a sort of crouch, trying to hide my embarrassment behind my banjo.
Dr. BLT: What a great story! (As I reflected upon Rod’s disclosure, I was a bit surprised that his stage antics, born of embarrassment, didn’t spark some sort of dance craze.)
Dr. BLT: Let me hear a little more from you, Len. Would you tell me what you been up to between the time you first left the Quarrymen and the time you rejoined the band?
Len: I left the Quarrymen in 1958 when I fell seriously ill with tubercular meningitis, spending some 7 months in hospital and of course after this I couldn't spend time hanging around in smoky clubs because of my health.
I started to study to be an architect and I was very jealous of the groups who were of course still playing and living an exciting rock 'n' roll lifestyle as I thought whilst I was working hard. I eventually became articled to a firm of architects in Liverpool and married. In 1971 our family left Liverpool and went to live in Chard, Somerset, where I became lead vocalist in a rock gospel musical called "Come Together", originally started in America by Pat Boone, which toured the south west of England. My two daughters were born during our time in the south-west.
(Dr. BLT: Alas, it all seemed to be coming together at this point. As mentioned in the introduction to this interview, Pat Boone just so happened to have been the guest I interviewed at this time last year.)
In 1987, my wife Sue, the girls, and I emmigrated to New Zealand but couldn't settle, so we moved back to England a few months later and eventually settled in Liverpool, where we still live.
In 1992 I linked up with John Duff Lowe and Rod Davis to do some recording, with me singing vocal lead on most of the numbers, but unfortunately the tapes from this session were never published.
In 1997 I met the rest of the Quarrymen at the 40th birthday party of the "Cavern" which led to the recreation of the day forty years before in Woolton when John Lennon met Paul McCartney! I am now enjoying singing and playing with my old mates and have written a fascinating account of my early days in Liverpool entitled "John, Paul and me, - before the Beatles", which includes a CD of me and Pete Shotton going around some of our old Liverpool haunts, including "Mendips".
Dr. BLT: How about you, Colin: Would you tell me what you’ve been up to between the time you first left the Quarrymen and the time you rejoined the band?
Colin: By the time I joined the Quarrymen I had already left school and was an apprentice upholsterer, at a company called Guy Rogers which was why I could afford to buy a set of Broadway drums from Frank Hessy's in Liverpool, even though they were the cheapest I could find. I eventually became a fully fledged upholsterer and I have worked at this trade all my life. Guy Rogers closed down in 1979, since when I have run my own company.
I left the Quarrymen after playing a booking at the Pavilion Theatre in Lodge Lane. We had drunk a few beers during the interval and an argument started on the way home on the bus. I got off to catch another bus to take me home to Woolton and somehow or other that was that, they never contacted me again to ask me to play. I saw John a few times and he told me that they had got a drummer called Pete, which must have been Pete Best. After that I lost touch completely. I put my drums away and never played them until we got together to practice for the 40th Anniversary at St. Peter's in 1995!
I married my wife Joan in 1965 and we have two daughters, Christine and Allison.
I live in Liverpool near Penny Lane and it amuses me when I see the Magical Mystery Tour Bus go by and I wonder what they would think if they knew they have just passed one of John's Original Quarrymen!
Dr. BLT: How about you, John? What led you to leave the band? What activities filled your life while you were away from the band, and what ultimately drew you back in?
John: I was born in the Liverpool suburb of West Derby on the north eastern side of the City where my mother still lives. Getting to Paul’s house on the south side of the City on Sunday afternoons for rehearsals or on Saturdays if John or Paul had arranged a gig which was usually over their way, was a bit of a hassle for me as I was too young to drive or own a car and had to travel by bus. I think this, and a complaining girlfriend was why I eventually decided to leave the band, and also I didn’t live near enough to get together during weekday evenings.
I later played piano for a while in a band called “Hobo Rick & the City Slickers” which was fronted by a young Ricky Tomlinson who went into acting and has now become very well-known. After it opened in 1959, I spent many evenings in the Kasbah Coffee Club at the Best family home which was just a short walk from my house. The first time I went with Neil Spinal who was a mate from the Institute and lived in the next road to me. All the Mersey bands including the Beatles used to play at the Kasbah which was always buzzing and a great place to chill out.
After leaving school I joined a firm of Liverpool stockbrokers and was able to spend a lot of my lunch breaks at the Cavern. I remember one time talking to John Lennon during a fag break and he introduced me to a friend saying, “This is Duff, he breaks stock.” When I went back to the Stock Exchange trading floor afterwards my mates would all complain that I stank of disinfectant! After a spell on the London Stock Exchange, I decided I’d had enough of “breaking stock”, and changed course and went into banking and financial services. In 1975 a job moved me to the Bristol area where I now live with my wife Linda and son Henry. My daughter Maude got married to Shane in 2005. I also have a son (Edward) and two daughters (Louisa & Emily) from a previous marriage. Shane & Maude front a fantastic band called Sister Morphine and Henry plays keyboards in a band called Fluke star, so music certainly runs in our family!!
From 1992-1997 I played keyboard in The Four Pennies after being invited in by Mike Walsh the original bass player who wrote the hit “Juliet”. It’s really great to be back playing in the Quarrymen with Rod, Len and Colin.
Dr. BLT: Rod, what other sorts of activities have filled your life?
Rod: After leaving the Quarrymen I stayed on at Quarry Bank School to try to get into university. I eventually went to Cambridge to study French and Spanish. I then worked in Germany for a year teaching English followed by a couple of years in Liverpool.
I then moved to the south of England where I have lived ever since, to take a job in the travel industry where I worked for about 18 years, then I became a lecturer in Tourism and Marketing. I still lecture on Marketing at Brunel University in west London. I have always played music, mostly Bluegrass and Old timey, and over the years I have played guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin in various semi-professional lineups.
I got married in 1971 and have a daughter and a son, who are both musically talented but they don't play much nowadays. I was divorced in 1982. With my new partner Janet we spend a lot of time racing in windsurfing events, traveling all over the UK and Europe to compete. We also practice the Japanese martial art of Aikido, which occupies much of our evenings.
Dr. BLT: What does it feel like to be a part of the band from which the Beatles were born?
Rod: It's a great honour, although of course we were just a bunch of kids having fun. Even today, many people don't believe us, but it had to be somebody and of course it WAS us!
Dr. BLT: What do you think John and Paul took with them from the Quarrymen when they formed the Beatles?
Rod: All that happened was that the Quarrymen evolved into the Beatles. "The Quarrymen" was a good name for a skiffle group but it was totally wrong for a rock 'n' roll group, so they had to change it and of course they went through several variations before deciding on "The Beatles".
For me the great thing about being in a group is the "togetherness", the musical tightness, the dovetailing together, the anticipation of the other guys' moves, the closeness, the feeling that the group is more than simply the sum of its parts. These are probably the same feelings that you could get from being in any group however.
There was the love of American music and through that the beginnings of a love affair with a vision of America. There was also the feeling that we were breaking new ground, no one had ever imagined being able to stand up on stage with a guitar and feel good and try to look good, this was a whole new experience for us and we still really enjoy this aspect of performance today, although we do look just a little bit older than we did in 1957.
Dr. BLT: Rod, how did the news of the murder of John Lennon affect you?
Rod: My mother had recently died and I was in the early stages of splitting up from my wife, so I was feeling pretty raw already at the time. I felt immensely sad for John as he had tried to find a new life for himself away from the constraints of being a Beatle and had largely succeeded. I think John and the other Beatles had very quickly realized that there was a dark side to their fame and fortune--that it was like riding a tiger which one day could turn round and bite you, which is exactly what happened to John. It was particularly tragic for Julian, who had just started to rediscover his own father and for Sean, who lost his father at an early age, a macabre echo of what had happened to John himself.
Dr. BLT: How were you impacted by the death of George Harrison?
Rod: The saddest thing about George's death was that he was the youngest. He had also struggled to escape from the tentacle-like grasp of his Beatle past and had established himself as a great solo artist on his own right. I never knew George and never even met him but I had always wanted to ask him how he became to be such a great guitarist at such an early age when the rest of us were still having trouble with three basic chords.
Dr. BLT: I agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiments Rod expressed, as I had previously expressed in this song that I’d like to share with all of you, and with the Quarrymen (I hope this supplements rather than distracts from the interview):
Dr. BLT: When, and under what circumstances did the Quarrymen get back together? What has the present Quarrymen line-up been involved in these days?
Rod: In the early 90's John Lowe played with some musicians in the Bristol area which included a guy called Mike Wilsh who was a member of the Four Pennies, a very successful band in the 1960's. They were approached to re-form the original band in order to make a cd and the same company also approached John. He contacted Rod and Len, Eric and Colin were not interested and we could not find Pete Shotton.
John, Len and Rod, together with John's other musical friends from his Bristol band, put together enough tracks for a cd, which however was never put out. A second attempt was made, this time without Rod, again no success. John tried again at a different studio, financing the project himself but the studio went broke and he was never able to get the tapes. A final attempt followed with John and Rod, but no Len this time, and the Bristol musicians which did see the light of day under the name The Quarrymen, "Open for engagements". As a result of this, John, Rod and the band took part in a series of 3 concerts "With a little help from my friends", together with Cynthia Lennon, Denny Laine and the Merseybeats amongst others.
As a result of the "Open for engagements" CD, John and Rod were invited to Mark Lapidos's Beatlefest in Los Angeles and Chicago in 1995.
In 1997 we were all invited to the Cavern's 40th birthday party, there was free booze all day and by the evening we were about to go off to have dinner when we were asked to go on stage to play for a TV crew who were just arriving. We got up on stage with a Lennon look-alike and a McCartney look-alike and played a couple of numbers. There were some Beatle fans in the audience from the NW of England who were planning to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the day John met Paul in Woolton in July 1997 and they asked us to take part, so we did!
Since then we have played five or six gigs per year, in the UK, Europe, America and Japan. We made a cd in 1997 -"Get back - together" and a cd in 2003 -"Songs we remember" and a DVD in Japan "Putting on the style" in conjunction with top Japanese group the "High-Lows". We have appeared at Fests for Beatelfans in Orlando, New Jersey and Chicago, we have played in Las Vegas, the "Bottom Line" in Greenwich village and Foxwoods Casino, we have appeared in Havana, Cuba and made many radio and tv appearances. Beatle biographer Hunter Davies wrote a full length biography of the Quarrymen in 2001.
Now we are looking forward to the 50th anniversary of the Day John met Paul.
Dr. BLT: Which of you knew, recorded or performed with members of the Beatles?
Rod: I knew and performed with John only.
Len: I knew and performed with John and Paul and knew George.
Colin and John: We knew, performed and recorded with John, Paul and George.
Dr. BLT: What are some of your favorite Beatles songs and why?
Rod: I particularly enjoy Penny Lane, as during my school lunch hour when I was at Quarry Bank School, I would climb over the school wall, stroll past the fire station and walk along Allerton Road to Penny Lane, we'd get our hair cut at the barber's shop, which was then called Bioletti's, buy fish and chips and sit and eat them in the bus shelter on the roundabout - need I say more! "In my life" is also one of my favourites.
Dr. BLT: Describe the present members of the Quarrymen, and how the personalities in the band compliment or clash with one another.
Rod: I think we compliment each other very well in the present line-up, getting John Lowe to play piano has given the band a great musical boost, much the same as he did for the Quarrymen in 1958 in fact! We have still not started to tap all John's musical talents yet and we intend to develop some more complicated arrangements. Len continues to be our laid-back lead singer who remains calm and unruffled, Colin is eaten away with anxiety before every performance and despite being the oldest in the group by a couple of years is still coming to terms with being on stage. However once you press the right button he is totally unstoppable and very entertaining, especially when you get him in front of a microphone. Rod just enjoys being on stage and making music and trying to explain what the Quarrymen are all about.
Basically we try to sound a much like 1957 as we possibly can, we don't play Beatles music - but we do play the stuff we played back then so the audience can get a feel for the sound of the group which gave birth to the Beatles.
Dr. BLT: What would you, as an artist, like to be most remembered for?
Rod: I really enjoy just playing an acoustic guitar, I'd like to be remembered for being able to entertain people without any electronic gimmicks, just a wooden box with silver wires….
Dr. BLT: What would you, as a band, like to be most remembered for?
Rod: Being able to convey to the audience the sheer fun and excitement of playing in a band. As the Quarrymen-- being able to show people the origins of the Beatles, and the music that influenced them.
Well, the Quarrymen are nearly as busy as the Beatles are big, so we had to wrap it up at this point. Yes, the interview was over, but the memory of it is, and will always be, permanently etched in my mind. As for the journey? Well, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings, and, so far I don’t even see a fat lady stepping up to the mic--- only four extraordinary talented, forever young lads, who set off the spark that started the fire that continues to burn in the hearts of rock ‘n’ roll fans across the world. The Quarrymen are the centerpiece in the history of skiffle, the history of rock ‘n’ roll, the history of the British Invasion, and the history of the Beatles.
PS: Hey, Rod, be sure to
take care of that cold of yours! Doctor’s orders J