If you’re someone whose heart harbors notions of true romanticism, you are probably keenly aware of how often the romantic ends up apologizing for his or her predilections.
Usually this is by way of disclaimer or undercutting joke. As in, “I know it’s a long shot, but I’m a bit of a romantic, to be honest.” I’m not sure there are people who are only slight romantics—you either are one, or you’re not. You believe in that other person being out there for you; you believe in the tide reversing course after years of hard work; you believe that you and the person you kept it together for, whom you have yet to meet, will eventually walk up to each other and say, “So here we are at last.” And if you’re a Beatles fan and a romantic, there is nothing sweeter than the events that transpired 60 years ago on July 6, 1957, when a 16-year-old John Lennon met a freshly 15 Paul McCartney.
The Beatles stories that we tend to focus on are of the post-fame variety. The recording session for the orchestral overdubs on “A Day in the Life,” with various musical celebrities in attendance and classical musicians donning silly masks, or the rooftop concert of Jan. 30, 1969, when the Beatles broke free from a dismal raft of studio sessions and went for it out in the cold London air.
But before the band tore into that English winter air, there was that first, far quieter, far more bucolic, meeting between its two crucial members, in a time and place so different it might as well have been from when Sherlock Holmes still advanced over moors.
It’s common for Americans to picture the Liverpool the Beatles sprang from—and grew up in—as nothing but a port city, far more urban than Edenic. But both Lennon and McCartney knew vast rural spaces, forests, and quaint grounds you could encounter in an episode of Grantchester, like St. Peter’s Church in Woolton, where the social highlight of the year—mark your calendars!—was the annual church fete, with the crowning of the Rose Queen.
You would walk over to the church, bring some baked goods, drink tea, hope for a breeze, feel refreshed, and gossip with your friends—more or less politely—as you enjoyed a range of village-fair-based divertimenti. In 1957, these amusements included the dogs of the Liverpool police force, a fancy dress parade, the band of the Cheshire Yeomantry, and our men of the march, the Quarrymen Skiffle Group. Get pumped, tea imbibers.
Len Garry was on tea chest bass, the invaluable-to-history Pete Shotton was on washboard, Colin Hanton manned the drums, Rod Davies was on banjo, Eric Griffiths was on guitar, and playing another guitar with banjo chords—and singing—was John Lennon.
Surprised by the lineup? Not very rock ’n’ roll? That’s because this was skiffle: a combination of household instrument rockabilly and nascent rock to produce a musical salmagundi that wasn’t terribly long for the world. But there may be no shorter-lived musical moment that had more lasting reverberations than skiffle, with the Quarrymen—so named for the school the boys went to—now being, of course, a major footnote to history.
Lennon had had some problems earlier in the day prior to the 2 o’clock parade procession, with the acts riding to the grounds on the backs of lorries. He wanted to wear a pair of tight-fitting drainpipe trousers, which his Aunt Mimi put the kibosh on, requiring Lennon to find a place to stash them outside and hasten into them later on the way to the gig. The things a young rock and roller must overcome.
The Quarrymen did their thing on the back of that lorry, with the mother of a school friend waving at Lennon—much to his embarrassment. Mimi turned up, of course, saw the drainpipe trousers, which led to Lennon extemporizing some lyrics to reference Mimi’s rage—albeit of the good-natured surrogate-parent variety—into the rumble coming from the back of the Quarrymen’s truck. After which point it was time for liquid and light refreshments on the church grounds. And it was also time for one Paul McCartney—who was quite chubby then—to turn up on his bike.
The Quarrymen’s proper gig—the one they would have been excited for—was that night in the church hall. No moving trucks this time. A school friend of the band, Ivan Vaughan, had invited McCartney to attend if he wished. And now that he was there, Vaughan went a step further, introducing McCartney to the leader of this ragtag assembly.
They talked. McCartney noticed that Lennon’s guitar was in banjo tuning and he offered to tune it properly for him, while breaking out into renditions of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” and Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula.”
Ever seen the lyrics to “Twenty Flight Rock?”
They’re a mouthful, no? Or how about this: Ever been 15 or 16? Ever been that age and ventured into someone else’s social circle with all eyes on you? What did you do? You probably turtled a bit, right? Let people on the other side do their thing, maybe wait for a moment to ingratiate yourself later?
Not McCartney. It’s a stunning amount of confidence, really, and for someone so young. Lennon, even at this age, couldn’t have been a non-intimidating presence. But he was probably delighted that someone had no problem being themselves around him, as there was little Lennon liked less than people pretending to be things they were not. Affected poses, and cowardice, were among his chief anathemas.
McCartney watched as the Quarrymen played that night. Lennon must have already been wondering if he was going to ask the new boy to join his band. On the one hand, the band would become better. On the other, his authority might be challenged. McCartney was clearly the better musician. But hey: Fortune sometimes lets a coward squeak by, but it never favors one.
Amazingly—almost unbelievably—recordings survive from that gig, the music that the Quarrymen made, that Paul McCartney stood hearing. I cannot think of a less likely recording to exist in the history of rock. Can you? Why on earth would someone be bootlegging a gig at a church by teenagers with no appreciable musical skill? Just madness. But one Bob Molyneux was there with a Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder, and you can hear the Quarrymen cover Gene Vincent’s “Puttin’ on the Style” and Elvis’ “Baby Let’s Play House.” The artifacts of some kind of miracle, if you believe in things like miracles.
The weather vane of the church was auctioned off not too long back—I guess you never know what a weather vane knows—and Lennon, of course, did invite that new boy to join the band. It took him a few weeks. You didn’t just cross everyone’s path in a Twitter feed back then.
It was Pete Shotton, Lennon’s best mate—even during the Beatles era—who served as proxy. He cycled up to McCartney, who was also on his bike, in Woolton, and asked if he wanted to join the band. You probably know the rest from there.
Just like you probably know, if you are indeed a romantic, that the jokes and the disclaimers aren’t really necessary. They don’t help populate the kind of stage you’re looking to share. Faith does. Like when you ask a kid who’s better on the guitar to join up with you, and trust that it’s going to be cool.