Long before there was Rolling Stone magazine or CultureSonar, young Bill Harry of Liverpool, England, introduced the world to his own “rock’n’roll and entertainment” newspaper/magazine known as Mersey Beat. Now celebrating its 60th anniversary, Harry’s unique publication encompassed articles on rising stars such as Cilla Black and The Beatles, the Mersey country & western scene, Liverpool’s Black, folk, and jazz music scenes, and many other varied musical genres that thrived in the world’s most diverse city of the 1960s.
As the newspaper expanded, Mersey Beat included regular columns from personalities such as The Cavern Club’s beloved compère, Bob Wooler; poetry and prose by John Lennon; and insightful editorials and articles by Harry himself. Recently, John Lennon biographer Jude Southerland Kessler of The John Lennon Series sat down with Harry, to talk about the birth of his landmark publication. Here’s Part 1 of her interview.
Jude Southerland Kessler: Bill, I know that by the end of 1960 and throughout early 1961, you envisioned creating and publishing a very unique magazine/newspaper that would capture the energy of Liverpool’s burgeoning music scene. Tell us how you made that dream into a reality.
Bill Harry: In my younger years, I illustrated science fiction fanzines from the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., including my own fanzine, Biped. In Liverpool’s Junior School of Art, I also conceived their first magazine, Premier. On entering Liverpool College of Art, I released a duplicated handout on the jazz scene and then began working on a magazine called Frank Comments for Frank Hessy’s music store. I was also asked to participate in the writing and production of Liverpool University’s charity magazine, Pantosphinx.
In those days, I always carried a little red pocket notebook with me to record my observations. John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe, Rod Murray, and I would visit local pubs, clubs, and coffee bars, and my notes grew. They revealed to me an amazing music scene of which few seemed to be aware. I wrote to a national newspaper pointing out that Liverpool had a music scene similar to the one in New Orleans, although centered on rock’n’roll instead of jazz. No reaction! The local newspaper ignored the local music scene as well! It became obvious to me that a unique community of music surrounded me, and if no one else was reporting it, then I would.
Kessler: I know that during your years at Liverpool College of Art, rocker John Lennon, the great artist Stu Sutcliffe, Rod Murray, and you formed a group called the Dissenters. Tell us about that signature collective and how the ideals of the Dissenters came to life in Mersey Beat.
Harry: I initially sought out Stuart Sutcliffe because I was always interested in creative people. Then, I noticed John Lennon and immediately recognized a rebel. I took John over to our local watering hole, Ye Cracke, and introduced him to Stuart and Rod Murray. John told them that he was looking for a bass guitarist for his band and offered the job to either of them.
We were all poor in those days, so Rod began making a bass guitar. Stu beat him to it, though, by winning an art competition and putting a deposit on a guitar from Frank Hessy’s. (Rod still has the guitar he was building to become a Beatle.) The four of us used to get together in our spare time. One night, the four of us went to see “Beat Poet” Royston Ellis at Liverpool University. Then, back at Ye Cracke, the four of us began to discuss Beat Poetry (I liked Allen Ginsberg, and John liked Lawrence Ferlinghetti.) We admitted that American culture – films, celebrities, art, comics, music – seemed to dominate British culture.
We knew creative people around us; we were creative ourselves. We knew the writers, artists, and poets in the Liverpool area, and we all realized that Merseyside artistes were totally ignored in the media. We felt that we should do something about it. So, I suggested we call ourselves the Dissenters because we dissented from the media image of culture. And we determined to change things and stand up for Liverpool! The Dissenters decided to make Liverpool famous. John would do it with his music; Stu and Rod, with their painting; and me, with my writing.
Clearly, John succeeded beyond all expectations! I coined the name Mersey Beat and launched the newspaper to record what was happening culturally in the ’Pool. Within a few years, I was sitting in the Blue Angel Club, chatting with Ginsberg, and he was declaring that Liverpool was the Centre of the Universe! The Beatles were becoming the world’s most famous group, and it seemed that what the Dissenters had vowed to achieve had become reality far more swiftly than we could have imagined.
Kessler: Many people dream. Few act. But in the spring of 1961, you began taking steps to bring your dream of a music magazine or newspaper to life. What happened next?
BH: I was a student with no income apart from a small grant. In Liverpool’s Jacaranda Club, near the art college, my fiancée (later, my wife) Virginia and I used to talk about the magazine that I wanted to start. Dick Mathews, a friend, wanted to help us with this dream, and he persuaded another friend, a civil servant named Jim Anderson, into backing us. Jim asked how much money we would need to start this entertainment and music magazine. I told him that I had decided it would now be a newspaper, and I picked the figure of £50 out of the air. (I really had no idea how much it would cost!)
Virginia was a comptometer operator at Woolworth’s, and she gave up her job to work full time on the newspaper, taking a small salary of only £2.10s a week. The newspaper office cost £5 a week, and I took no money (as I’d won a Senior City Art Scholarship and used that money to live on). Sometimes I worked 100 hours a week on the newspaper, pushing through the night, going to the Pier Head at 4 o’clock in the morning for a cup of tea and a meat pie. Sometimes I’d collapse in the office. Once, I had to be taken to hospital with a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop. But the project wouldn’t have worked without both Virginia and I also devoting ourselves fully to it. (We did solicit the help of The Beatles to answer the phones!) Overall, it was a one-woman-one-man enterprise with Dick Mathews offering to help as a photographer. (I arranged for him to go to the Cavern to take the first-ever photos of The Beatles performing there for Mersey Beat.)
Although each issue of Mersey Beat was selling out and Virginia was getting ample advertising for us, I’d reckoned the cost of the enterprise without funds for ‘working capital.’ That meant that we had to wait for our money to come in from distributors and advertisers, even though the printers insisted on full payment upfront! That was a problem, so I approached Ray McFall, the owner of the Cavern Club, and he graciously provided further capital in exchange for shares.
Kessler: Bill, that very first issue of Mersey Beat was printed in your offices in Liverpool. How did you distribute it to the public? And how did that process introduce you to The Beatles’ future manager, Brian Epstein?
Harry: The first issue of Mersey Beat was printed by James E. James, a professional printing firm with whom I’d worked when I penned Frank Comments for Liverpool’s Hessy shop (where John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe got their first guitars). I decided to print 5,000 copies of Mersey Beat, and I arranged to have the three main distributors: W. H. Smith, Conlans, and Blackburns. I had also personally arranged for 24 newsagents to take the newspaper. Then, I selected prominent music venues such as the Cavern Club and certain music stores to carry the paper. I went to the City Centre record shops such as Cranes, Cramer & Lee, and the North End Music Store (NEMS) in Whitechapel Road, where Brian Epstein was the manager. I also contacted Hessy’s music store and Rushworth & Dreaper.
Kessler: Most Beatles fans know the famous story of Raymond Jones who wandered into Brian Epstein’s North End Music Store (NEMS) in Whitechapel Road, Liverpool, seeking a copy of the record “My Bonnie” by The Beatles. That one event is credited with introducing Epstein to The Beatles for the very first time. But that isn’t correct, is it? Give us “the rill fax,” as they say in Liverpool.
Harry: The only relevance Raymond Jones would have to The Beatles’ story would be if Brian Epstein had been unaware of the group completely until Jones asked for a copy of their record. This isn’t the case; Jones is simply one of a number of youngsters who went into NEMS asking for The Beatles’ record — some of them earlier than Jones. Furthermore, as far as I knew, it was Alistair Taylor, Brian’s personal assistant, (and not Brian) who took orders for those records.
Alistair once stated that he was Jones, probably a mistake when trying to remember the orders he took, as Jones did exist. However, the only reason Epstein opened his autobiography, A Cellarful of Noise, with the claim that Jones had alerted him to The Beatles was to spice up his book, which was written in a matter of days by Derek Taylor.
Much earlier than Jones — on July 6, 1961 — I went into the NEMS store and asked to see the manager. Brian was called from his office, and I showed him the premier copies of Mersey Beat. He ordered a dozen. Then later, he phoned me for more, and with the second issue, he ordered 144 copies.
One afternoon, Brian called me into his office, offered me a drink, and wanted to know all about the local music scene of which he’d been completely unaware (as he was virtually unaware of everyone else in Liverpool’s music scene, prior to that first issue of Mersey Beat). The entire cover of Issue 2 on July 20, 1961, was the story of The Beatles’ recording session in Hamburg, together with the first-ever published photo of Astrid Kirchherr’s image of the black leather Beatles, which Paul had brought back from Hamburg especially for me.
Brian asked me about this and wanted to know more and more about the Merseyside scene. Paul McCartney stated that Brian’s story about “not knowing about The Beatles prior to Raymond Jones” is not true. He also confirmed: “Brian knew perfectly well who The Beatles were – they were on the front page of the second issue of Mersey Beat, the local music paper. Brian sold twelve dozen copies of this issue…so many that he invited the editor, Bill Harry, into his office for a drink to discuss why it was selling so well and to ask if he could write a record review column for it. He is unlikely to have missed the ‘Beatles Sign Record Contract’ banner headline, reporting on the session with Tony Sheridan for Bert Kaempfert, nor, (with his penchant for rough boys) is it likely that he passed over the photograph of the leather-clad Beatles without giving them a second glance.”
During my July visit to NEMS, Brian was quite excited about Mersey Beat and the discovery of Liverpool’s local music scene…so much so that he asked if he could become my record reviewer. I was delighted, and his first column appeared in Issue No. 3 on August 3 under the title “Stop the World – and Listen to Everything In It.” (Brian also visited our office with his advertisements and brought Virginia a box of chocolate liquors.)
Mersey Beat Issue 5 on 17 August featured Cavern disc jockey Bob Wooler’s feature story on The Beatles. Wooler wrote that they were: “Truly a phenomenon. Such are the fantastic Beatles. I don’t think anything like them will happen again.” It was the most prophetic article ever written about The Beatles – and Brian had his NEMS advert on the same page.
In the meantime, Brian also invited me for lunch on two occasions at Liverpool’s Basnett Bar. He wanted to discuss The Beatles and the local music scene. He then phoned me to ask if I could arrange for him to see them. I suggested he go to a lunchtime session. (He obviously didn’t want to have to stand in the long evening queue with a group of teenagers and pay at the door.) So, I phoned Cavern owner Ray McFall and arranged for Brian and his assistant Alistair to attend the lunchtime session on 9 November 1961. Bob Wooler accurately reported, “[Brian] phoned Bill Harry at Mersey Beat and wanted his entrance smoothed into the Cavern. He took Alistair Taylor with him for support. Bill Harry arranged it with Ray McFall and Pat Delaney on the door.”
-Jude Southerland Kessler
Photos: Insert image of The Dissenters courtesy of Bill Harry
What happened next??? Stay tuned for Part 2 of Bill Harry’s true story of The Beatles and the Liverpool Music Scene as CultureSonar celebrates the 60th Anniversary of Mersey Beat!
For more information on Bill Harry, go to: http://triumphpc.com/mersey-beat/?fbclid=IwAR2jy0DOuSjARJw_jmi272JiqvL87mBau7-D-Ue9G-i7qQ8pRquwxmpIYks
Great article! I can’t get enough of the early, TRUE history of Liverpool’s music scene during 1961 and on.
Wow, never knew the big (personal) connection of Mersey Beat to the Beatles nor detail of how Brian got to the Cavern. Mr. Harry is obviously a big figure in the early story of the boys. Can’t wait for Part 2.