In our continuing February celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan appearance, here is an interview with the founder of Mersey Beat magazine, Bill Harry. Harry attended the Liverpool College of Art with John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe. Harry was responsible for introducing Lennon and Sutcliffe and visited such Liverpool hangouts as the Ye Cracke and the Jacaranda Club. It was at Harry’s urging that Brian Epstein went to see the Beatles perform a lunchtime set at the Cavern Club in Liverpool that contributed to Epstein’s managing the Beatles. Harry published Mersey Beat for years and has brought the chronicle of the Liverpool music scene back from extinction several times. Along with publishing his many books on the Beatles and the Liverpool music scene, Harry worked as a journalist and as a publicist for such artists as Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys. There are few figures from the early history of the Beatles who had such a close personal relationship with the group and the Mersey-beat scene as Harry, who also chronicled the scene as it happened and who have written so extensively about it through the years.
Do you remember introducing Stuart Sutcliffe to John Lennon and why did you introduce them to each other?
At the college I heard word of a very talented student, Stuart Sutcliffe. I looked at one of his paintings and decided I wanted to get to know him. I always seemed to be attracted to talented people. I first noticed John in the art college canteen. He was too unusual to miss, with most of the students dressed the same, in duffle coats and turtle neck sweaters–and he dressed like a teddy boy. They were the conventional ones, he was the rebel. I immediately knew I had to befriend him. When I took John to Ye Cracke, the art college watering hole, I saw Stuart with his best friend Rod Murray and introduced John to them. The four of us used to get together all the time in flats, at pubs, at parties–and we called ourselves the Dissenters.
When you were at Liverpool Art College, you spent time hanging out John and Stu at the Ye Cracke pub and the Jacaranda. What most stands out from that time?
What stands out is the night we decided that we should make Liverpool famous–John with his music, Stuart and Rod with their paintings and me with my writing. That was the aim of the Dissenters. We’d been to see beat poet Royston Ellis at Liverpool University and over our pints, felt that he owed a lot to the American Beat poets. We felt that Liverpool was full of creative people–artists, sculptors, poets, writers, musicians and felt we should strive to make the city famous with our own efforts. John was to achieve this in an incredible way, I coined the phrase Mersey Beat and published a newspaper to report on the Beatles and the other bands and Stuart would have become an internationally famous painter in his own right if he had lived. Rod went on to become a master at Britain’s leading art college–he got snipped to be a Beatle by Stuart. John asked both Rod and Stuart to become their bass guitarist. They didn’t have enough money to buy an instrument, but Rod began to make one himself (he still has it). He was nipped to the post by Stuart who sold a painting at John Moore’s Exhibition.
How long did Mersey Beat publish every two weeks? What happened next?
It was an evolution. There was only me and my girlfriend Virginia publishing a newspaper which had to be written, events had to be reported on, distribution had to be arranged, as well as advertising, plus checking the newspaper at the printers. Then we evolved from a six pager almost immediately and after that we later became a weekly after our circulation grew throughout the country.
Did Cilla Black write for Mersey Beat before she became a singer?
Cilla only wrote a small fashion column in issue No.2. She had already been singing with Rory Storm & the Hurricanes and the Big Three. At least I gave her a showbiz name by mistakenly calling her Cilla Black in an article I wrote about her in Issue No. 1. Her name was actually Cilla White
What was your first impressions of seeing the Beatles at the Jacaranda club?
I had been booking them for our art colleges dances before their Jacaranda gigs, so I was already a fervent fan. The first time Stu played with them he showed me his new bass guitar in the room behind the canteen stage. I began plucking it until I noticed blood dripping on it, I’d been plucking the strings so hard it took the skin off my fingers! So I was always present when they played in the coal hole of the coffee bar. Cynthia and Dot Rhone were sitting on chairs directly in front of them holding broom handles to which the mics were attached. The Jacaranda is where I met my lifelong partner Virginia, who started Mersey Beat with me. We used to leave the Jacaranda to go to Streates to listen to the Liverpool poets–and regularly saw Paul and Dot and John and Cynthia necking in the doorways!
Do you remember The Beatles performing “The One After 909” in their early days? If so, how did it differ from the version that ended up on Let It Be and Let It Be Naked?
I heard so many of their performances, but can’t remember the difference.
Did you travel with The Beatles to the U.S.A. for their first visit? If so describe what it was like, just before, during, and after?
No. I was too busy producing Mersey Beat. If I’d gone to America it would have ceased publication. Besides, I could never afford it, not like publications such as Liverpool Echo, which sent their reporter George Harrison on the trip.
If you didn’t go, describe what was happening in Liverpool, just before, during, and after?
We had been experiencing every step of the Beatles evolution, but in those days when they were out of the country, we only received second-hand information. There was no system of TV contact between the USA and the UK because the system hadn’t been developed to link us across the Atlantic. The entire city of Liverpool was excited, but those young fans who had always supported them at all the Liverpool venues were saddened, because they knew they’d never really be able to see them again and listen to the music they used to play in local clubs. When they did their concert tours they played a standard 20 minute set with screaming fans blotting out the music, not like their hour long gigs around the ’Pool, chatting to the fans, taking their requests and producing a powerhouse sound that made the hair stand out on your neck. As John said, their best music was performing in Liverpool and Hamburg.
Do you have any particular stories about your time as press agent for the likes of The Kinks, The Hollies and Pink Floyd?
Far too many memories of all those bands I represented over an 18 year period. I loved all the artists I was press agent for and there were so many stories. I took Pink Floyd to the Radiophonics workshop in Maida Vale. This was part of the BBC and where the sounds for programs like “Dr. Who” were created. I knew the lads were interested in unique sounds, so I suggested they come along. They were fascinated as the radiophonics people were showing them interesting sound creations, such as what could be done amplifying a dripping tap.
Can you talk about Tracks and Idols magazine?
I’d begun to tire of being a press agent and the last artist I represented was Kim Wilde. I was approached by someone who wanted to produce a pop newspaper distributed throughout the Boots chain. I said that wouldn’t work, but a glossy colour magazine would–and we were able to ship out 450,000 a month. I also said a standard pop magazine wouldn’t work. I wanted it to be focused on albums, not singles. I also felt that the music scene was changing and there would be more interest in albums, particularly since the advent of the CD. It was the first magazine in Britain to focus on albums and I interviewed so many artists discussing their latest releases–Tina Turner, Barry Manilow, Meatloaf and dozens of others. The publishing group IPC got their hands on our demographical research and came out with Q. Then the people funding the paper didn’t give me the percentage promised, so I left to launch IDOLS: 20th Century Legends, a full color monthly on great legends from the Beatles and Elvis to James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Virginia and I had the same problems we had with Mersey Beat–finance. However, one of the major newspaper groups in Britain agreed to work with me. I would produce the magazine each month and they would handle all advertising and distribution–the week before we were to come up with the first dummy image of a new style IDOLS, the owner of the newspaper group died in mysterious circumstances. As I’d ceased publishing while the negotiations took months to complete, I couldn’t bother re-starting it and spent the next decade writing features which were syndicated to 50 countries around the world.
Is Mersey Beat, the album you did for Parlophone still in print?
No. It was only released on vinyl and cassette. It was the only compilation at the time which contained Beatles tracks. It was a double album which I regard as the best collection of Mersey records so far released.
Are you in touch with Paul or Ringo?
No. I used to be in touch regularly when we were all in London, meeting them at the Speakeasy, Scotch of St James, the Revolution, with John giving me and Virginia lifts between clubs and my regular visits to Apple in Savile Row when I used to take members of the Beach Boys and spend time in Derek Taylor’s office listening to previews of their forthcoming releases. Last time I saw John was at the Speakeasy, same with George, last time I saw Ringo was at Tramp. Paul invited me to a couple of his Buddy Holly lunches, but I lost touch as I haven’t met up with many of the former groups I represented for decades. The only one I keep in touch with is Suzi Quatro.
Who are you still in touch with from The Beatles world?
I have always been in touch by e-mail and phone with numerous people from the Beatle world. I no longer kept in touch with Apple after Neil and Derek passed away and men in suits then took over.
Mersey Beat started publishing again in 2009. Prior to that, when was the last issue?
The original series ended in 1965. Brian Epstein wanted me to produce a national music magazine for him and I created Music Echo, but he interfered so much that I knew it could never succeed, so I left for Manchester and became manager of the Four Pennies.
Does Mersey Beat still publish?
Occasionally I’ll produce an issue with a particular theme. I did a couple of issues in association with the Liverpool Echo. I’m now working on a Mersey Beat magazine, basically ‘Mersey Beat Files’ with the history of the entire Mersey scene. I have also created a website
Can people buy any of the original editions of Mersey Beat from the 60s?
I am negotiating with a merchandising company to produce replica issues.
Do you have any books coming out in the United States?
The publishing industry has changed. Despite having had 25 books published without an agent, most major publishers will only deal with agents. I have five Beatles books covering angles not explored before. However, I have to find a publisher.
Any other projects?
Finding a company to license Mersey Beat merchandise, completing books, having a magazine Bill Harry’s Mersey Beatle to go online and working on several new projects.