Donovan at the Phil: disappointing and bizarre

Donovan at the Phil: disappointing and bizarre

I was so disappointed by Donovan’s concert at the Liverpool Phil a couple of weeks back that I couldn’t summon up the enthusiasm to write about. For the record, though, the following review by Del Pike pretty much sums up how three of us sitting on the front row (myself, and friends Joe and Annette) felt about it. Continue reading “Donovan at the Phil: disappointing and bizarre”

Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey

Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey

One Saturday morning some time in the mid-1980s, when home-grown art works and photographs were displayed for sale on the railings outside the Bluecoat Arts Centre, I bought this moody photo, taken in 1984, of the Seacombe ferry arriving at the old wooden landing stage at Pier Head.  It’s either early morning or a late winter afternoon. Shot by a photographer who has signed the print, but whose signature I can’t decipher, this iconic image has hung in our hall since we moved in here some thirty years ago.

Ferry Cross the Mersey, 1984
Ferry Cross the Mersey, 1984

I love this photo. For me, it’s as evocative of the city I arrived in as a student in the sixties as Gerry Marsden’s lyric:

Life goes on day after day
Hearts torn in every way
So ferry ‘cross the Mersey
‘Cause this land’s the place I love
And here I’ll stay

I always see the city back then in monochrome, like this image. The ferry in the photo would be either the Woodchurch or her sister ship, the Mountwood, both of  which have plied the river constantly since coming into service in 1959 (it was the Mountwood that featured in the film Ferry Cross The Mersey, inspired by the Gerry & The Pacemakers song, and in the opening titles of The Liver Birds.

The Woodchurch  had a complete refit in 2003, returning to service as the Snowdrop (all the Mersey Ferries now have flower names; the Mountwood is now the Royal Iris).  I like to think it’s the Woodchurch in our photo, since it has now been transformed into a dazzling, colourful mobile artwork which, I’m certain, none of us back in the sixties when Gerry sang about it, or in the eighties when my photo was taken could ever have imagined. Imagine. This:

Peter Blake, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, 2014
Peter Blake, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, 2014

The hallucinatory paint job is the work of Sir Peter Blake, who was commissioned by Liverpool Biennial in partnership with Tate Liverpool and 14-18 NOW, the World War 1 Centenary cultural commemoration body.  Because, behind the dazzling, psychedelic colours, this work is actually a First World War memorial.

Dazzle Ferry 1

Dazzle Ferry 2

Dazzle Ferry 3

Dazzle Ferry 5
Setting forth on the Razzle

The Biennial website explains the ocular principles behind 1WW dazzle ships and their links to contemporary art:

Dazzle painting was a system for camouflaging ships that was introduced in early 1917, at a time when German submarines were threatening to cut off Britain’s trade and supplies. The idea was not to ‘hide’ the ships, but to paint them in such a way that their appearance was optically distorted, so that it was difficult for a submarine to calculate the course the ship was travelling on, and so know from what angle to attack. The dazzle was achieved by painting the ship in contrasting stripes and curves that broke up its shape. Characterised by garish colours and a sharp patchwork design of interlocking shapes, the spectacular ‘dazzle’ style was heavily indebted to Cubism.

Dazzle painting was invented by a marine painter, Norman Wilkinson, a future President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. Artist Edward Wadsworth, who supervised the application of ‘dazzle’ patterning to over 2,000 ships, later made a series of paintings on the subject.Though the practice has largely (but not entirely) fallen out of fashion in the military, ‘dazzle’ remains a source of inspiration to artists today.

Peter Blake, Design Motifs for Everybody Razzle Dazzle
Peter Blake, Design Motifs for Everybody Razzle Dazzle

So, as well as being a moving artwork, those who board the Snowdrop can learn more about the history of dazzle and the role that the Mersey Ferries took in the First World War from a display developed by curators from National Museums Liverpool and Tate Liverpool.

Peter Blake's Sgt Pepper album cover
Peter Blake’s Sgt Pepper album cover

Peter Blake has had a long association with Liverpool over the years – most famously with the cover he designed for the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album in 1967 – but his Scouse connections go further back. While doing his National Service in the RAF, he would sail from Liverpool to Belfast, and in 1961 his Self Portrait With Badges won the junior section of the John Moores Prizes. He gave the £250 prize money to his dad.

Peter Blake, Self-Portrait with Badges, 1961
Peter Blake, Self-Portrait with Badges, 1961

Blake’s self-portrait shows his equal respect for historical tradition (he based the image on Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait The Blue Boy) and modern popular culture (Blake replaces blue silk with denim, and embeds references to his love for American youth culture – his baseball boots and badges, and the Elvis magazine).

Peter Blake, The First Real Target, 1961
Peter Blake, The First Real Target, 1961
Peter Blake, A Souvenir of the Peter Blake Retrospective, Tate Liverpool, 2007
Peter Blake, A Souvenir of the Peter Blake Retrospective, Tate Liverpool, 2007

Eight years ago, Tate Liverpool hosted Peter Blake: A Retrospective, the largest since an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1983, where I was able to see such works as the Self-Portrait and the delightful The Meeting’ or `Have a Nice Day, Mr Hockney, painted after in 1983 a trip to California where he stayed with David Hockney, an ironic re-working of Gustave Courbet’s painting The Meeting or ‘Bonjour Monsieur Courbet’.

'The Meeting' or 'Have a Nice Day, Mr Hockney' 1981-3
‘The Meeting’ or ‘Have a Nice Day, Mr Hockney’, 1981-3

Peter Blake’s work has always reflected his fascination with all aspects of popular culture, and the beauty to be found in everyday objects and surroundings. Many of his works feature found printed materials such as photographs, comic strips or advertising texts, combined with bold geometric patterns and the use of primary colours.

Peter Blake, Liverpool 2008, Capital of Culture, 2012
Peter Blake, Liverpool 2008, Capital of Culture, 2012

Blake’s works capture childhood images from the fifties and the optimistic youth culture of the sixties. His work is permeated with a nostalgia for childhood innocence.

Peter Blake  and the Dazzle Ferry
Peter Blake and the Dazzle Ferry

Everybody Razzle Dazzle: short Tate film

Those who take the ferry are entertained by the number that provided the inspiration for Peter Blake’s title – ‘Everybody Razzle Dazzle’ by Bill Haley:

A few years ago, we spent a a whole, sun-kissed day on the ferry Snowdrop – taking the Mersey Ferries cruise along the Manchester Ship Canal.

Apart from being dazzled by Peter Blake’s ferry, I continue to be besotted with the magnificent beauty of Liverpool’s waterfront – especially as seen on a day of clear blue skies, when the temperature on the Mersey was the same as at Nice on the Mediterranean.

Pier Head April 14

Pier Head April 14 3

Pier Head April 14 2
Brutal juxtapositions at the Pier Head

See also

A Magical Mystery Tour: It’s All Too Much

I was going to write something about the Beatles festival on BBC 2 at the weekend – the first TV screening of Magical Mystery Tour since 1967, an Arena documentary about the making of the film, plus a workmanlike survey by Stuart Maconie of the cultural context of the Beatles first release, Love Me Do, in 1962. But Fred Garnett has done such an excellent job on his blog that I thought I’d simply repost his superb survey of this cultural artefact that

captured the spirit of its time and, yet again, provided another cultural breakthrough … this surreal slice of English holiday nostalgia inspired by The Goons … a fantastic cheery summer of love trip …

Suffice it for me to say that this overview rivals the Arena documentary for its musical perceptiveness, noting that

it was fuelled by several factors as well as a belief in the value of the psychedelic consciousness, not least being nostalgia for the good old days out of their childhood.

whilst at the same time

It responded to many aspects of the sixties avant-garde (it’s real crime I guess); surrealism, Goonery, experimentation, playing with form.

Best of all, Fred reminds us of that great overlooked psychedelic masterpiece, ‘It’s All Too Much’, which ranks alongside the Beatles greatest psychedelia – Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am The Walrus, Tomorrow Never Knows, and Rain.

One last thing … Fred he mentions a really interesting TV programme, presented by musical expert Howard Goodall, in which he analyses the technical reasons why The Beatles were so great.  Watch it in six parts on YouTube here.

Footnote: Jarvis Cocker on The Beatles:

The whole point of the Beatles is that they were ordinary. Four working-class boys from Liverpool who showed that not only could they create art that stood comparison with that produced by “the establishment” – they could create art that pissed all over it. From the ranks of the supposedly uncouth, unwashed barbarians came the greatest creative force of the 20th century. It wasn’t meant to be that way. It wasn’t officially sanctioned. But it happened – and that gave countless others from similar backgrounds the nerve to try it themselves. Their effect on music and society at large is incalculable.

Love Me Do: first faint chime of a revolutionary bell

According to Robert McCrum, writing in The Observer last week, ‘the 60s arrived with the sound of a bluesy ‘dockside harmonica’: the launch of ‘Love Me Do’ on Friday 5 October. The Beatles’ raw working-class candour, mixed with Lennon’s riff, went into the nation’s teenage bloodstream like a drug. Well, we do love our anniversaries, and journalists love a neat turning point.

But it didn’t seem like that at the time – and anyway ‘Love Me Do’ didn’t enter the charts until 15 December, rose only to number 17 and remained in the Top 20 for only two weeks.  I had turned 14 that year, addicted to Radio Luxembourg and the pop charts.  My memory – for what it’s worth – is that ‘Love Me Do’, while interesting and catchy, didn’t stand out that much from a lot of the other stuff in the charts at the time.  It was to be another five years before I came to Liverpool as an undergraduate, but for older teenagers already familiar with the Beatles’ shows at the Cavern, ‘Love Me Do’ was a pale shadow of what they sounded like live.

In fact, the week that ‘Love Me Do’ was released the nation’s teenagers were getting high on the space-age sound of ‘Telstar’ by The Tornados, the record named after the Telstar, the first communications satellite, which had been launched into orbit on 10 July that year. Written and produced by Joe Meek, the effects were created in Meek’s recording studio in a small flat above a shop in Holloway Road, North London.  Coincidentally, Our World, the first live, international television broadcast to be relayed by satellite, which was broadcast on 25 June 1967 to what was the largest worldwide TVaudience ever at the time, featured The Beatles performing ‘All You Need Is Love’.

Back in December 1962 when ‘Love Me Do’ entered the charts, the big hits were ‘Lovesick Blues’ by Frank Ifield, ‘Swiss Maid’ by Del Shannon and Elvis’s ‘Return To Sender’ – The Beatles first single sounded fresher than that lot. John Lennon’s wailing harmonica, the first sound we heard on ‘Love Me Do’, was unusual but not unprecedented – it sounded a lot like the one on Bruce Channel’s ‘Hey Baby’ that had risen to number 2 back in April. The harmonica on that record had been played by Delbert McClinton; the Beatles shared a bill with Channel and McClinton at the Tower Ballroom in Wallasey on 21 June 1962.

What I’m getting at here is that, unless you had seen The Beatles live, at the end of 1962 they sounded good – but not that good.  All that changed in March 1963 when ‘Please Please Me’ roared up the charts.  What I really remember, in the months of Beatlemania that followed, is the truly shocking, raw sound of ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Twist and Shout’ blasting from the radiogram as we listened to Two-Way Family Favourites on the Light Programme. That’s when the sixties began.

According to Ian Macdonald’s brilliant and vital Revolution In The Head, ‘Love Me Do’ was made up by McCartney while sagging off from the Liverpool Institute four years earlier.  He wasn’t sure how to finish it and showed it to Lennon, who may have contributed the ‘rudimentary middle eight’.  The song was recorded – along with awful Mitch Murray song, ‘How Do You Do It’ (eventually palmed off on Gerry Marsden’s outfit) – in EMI’s Abbey Road studios on 4 September 1962.

George Martin was producing, and liked the sound – apart from Ringo’s drumming, the problem being that his drumming was actually looser than was considered acceptable at the time.  So it was re-recorded a week later with an EMI session musician on drums.

Despite what I’ve said about my memory of hearing ‘Love Me Do’ at the time, Ian Macdonald averred that it sounded ‘the first faint chime of a revolutionary bell. A new spirit was abroad: artless yet unabashed – and awed by nothing’.  I’ve come across no better description of the spirit of the sixties.

Bob Dylan: 50 years of hard travellin’

Fifty years ago today, on 9 March 1962, Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album was released.  Dylan had arrived in New York only 14 months earlier and was still three months short of his 20th birthday. The songs on Bob Dylan  consisted of familiar folk, blues and gospel material combined with two original compositions. The album made little impact, selling only 5,000 copies in its first year, just enough to break even.  Dylan had been signed to Columbia Records by the legendary producer John Hammond, and some at the company began referring to Dylan as ‘Hammond’s Folly’ suggesting that Dylan’s contract should be ended.

I swung onto my old guitar
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side
Greenwich Village

I walked down there and ended up
In one of them coffee-houses on the block
Got on the stage to sing and play
Man there said, “Come back some other day
You sound like a hillbilly
We want folk singers here”

Well, I got a harmonica job, begun to play
Blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day
I blowed inside out and upside down
The man there said he loved m’ sound
He was ravin’ about how he loved m’ sound
Dollar a day’s worth

And after weeks and weeks of hangin’ around
I finally got a job in New York town
In a bigger place, bigger money too
Even joined the union and paid m’ dues
– ‘
Talkin’ New York’

Yesterday in an article in The Observer marking the anniversary, Ed Vulliamy wrote:

The immediately astonishing impact of the album, by any measure, is the contrast between the image of the unsmiling but fresh-faced lad in his cap and the depth of feeling and range in the singing between love, rage, sorrow and a fixation with death. The core of the album is ‘Fixin’ To Die’, sung as though he were pleading for the life he is about to lose, such is Dylan’s understanding of the intentions of its author, the great Delta blues master Booker T Washington – aka “Bukka” – White.

This is Dylan performing the song on a radio show and being interviewed by Cynthia Gooding on 11 March 1962:

Assessing the significance of the debut album, Vulliamy notes that

The estimable British writer on Dylan, Michael Gray, argues interestingly that the real value of the album is not only that it showed “more than a hint of a highly distinctive vision”, but also “served as a fine corrective for Greenwich Village: it was the opposite of effete,” he says, “in the context of what was happening at the time – American folk culture all but obliterated, and a stagnating ‘folk’ cult established as if in its place.”

Bruce Eder, reviewing the album for Allmusic, pinpoints what made Dylan’s debut album differ from the rest of the folk revivalists of the time:

A significant portion of the record is possessed by the style and spirit of Woody Guthrie, whose influence as a singer and guitarist hovers over “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Pretty Peggy-O,” as well as the two originals here, the savagely witty “Talkin’ New York” and the poignant “Song to Woody” … But on other songs, one can also hear the influences of Bukka White, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Furry Lewis, in the playing and singing, and this is where Dylan departed significantly from most of his contemporaries.  Other white folksingers of the era, including his older contemporaries Eric Von Schmidt and Dave Van Ronk, had incorporated blues in their work, but Dylan’s presentation was more in your face … There’s a punk-like aggressiveness to the singing and playing here. His raspy-voiced delivery and guitar style were modeled largely on Guthrie’s classic ’40s and early-’50s recordings, but the assertiveness of the bluesmen he admires also comes out, making this one of the most powerful records to come out of the folk revival of which it was a part. Within a year of its release, Dylan, initially in tandem with young folk/protest singers like Peter, Paul & Mary and Phil Ochs, would alter the boundaries of that revival beyond recognition, but this album marked the pinnacle of that earlier phase, before it was overshadowed by this artist’s more ambitious subsequent work.

Harold Lepidus at says the album shines even more today:

It has often been dismissed as a minor album, with only one “major” original composition – “Song To Woody.” For many fans, it was a late addition, something the “complete” their collection.  Now, with a half-century of hindsight, the album comes across as a marvel. Dylan, who was twenty at the time, slams through the material with a reckless intensity, like a sort of folk punk, or an acoustic Billy Bragg. What many people don’t realize is that this was virtually unheard of at the time, especially on a major label.

Bob Dylan on a rooftop in New York, 1962

Roland Ellis at Pig River Records adds:

At this time the world had Pete Seeger to gauge the spirit of folk. The family loving, working class, song of the people, serious folk man. Dylan was a new breed – he took what he needed from the traditionals and left their slowly cooked polish at the door, he didn’t take Seeger and co’s folk ideals seriously, and most importantly he possessed a cheek, a personality, and a spark that hadn’t been present on the politically/culturally driven folk records of the past. Folk was serious and selfless music and from the beginning Dylan was something more. He wasn’t interested in passing on old wisdom from gen to gen, he was instead concerned with using this genre and the stories of America in order to deliver something far more introspective and entirely of his own.

It’s ‘Song To Woody’ though that really signifies the arrival of Bob Dylan the songwriter, and really lives on as the lasting landmark from his debut record. Lyrically insightful and adoring of his hero, ‘Song To Woody’ seems to lament the diminished state that Guthrie was in at the time, whilst at the same time reassuring him that it’s okay, someone has arrived to carry the dustbowl into a new world. That new world was indeed stumbling into existence in early 1962, and along with it was a man that would come to embody everything that the children of the revolution wanted from the 1960′s. Cometh the hour and cometh the boy from Minnesota on a freight train constructed in his own mind.

There are almost no Dylan originals on YouTube (his office must be exceedingly diligent in squashing any uploads), but if you search for ‘Song To Woody’, you do find this treasure: in May 1970, shortly after The Beatles broke up, Bob Dylan and George Harrison recorded this version in New York with Charlie Daniels on bass:

Apart from marking the release of his first album, 1962 was significant for young Bob Zimmerman in two other respects.  In August 1962 he legally changed his name to Bob Dylan, while a few weeks earlier he wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,  the song that would see him break through to a much wider audience.   In Down the Highway, Howard Sounes wrote:

Bob composed ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in a matter of minutes sitting in a cafe across the street from the Gaslight Club. Although he thought ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ special, he did not understand the full significance of what he had done. ‘It was just another song I wrote.’ The melody was uncannily similar to the African-American spiritual ‘No More Auction Block.’ However, borrowing melodies, and even lyrics, was part of the folk tradition and thus perfectly acceptable. A more pertinent criticism of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ concerned the rhetorical lyrics. Many of the most distinguished folk artists in New York were underwhelmed when they first heard the song. There seemed no link between the relentless questions; and, at the end of three verses, none of the questions had been resolved, except to say the answer was blowing in the wind, an image so vague that, arguably, it meant nothing.

Pete Seeger did not regard it highly. ‘ “Blowin’ in the Wind” is not my favorite,’ he says. ‘It’s a little easy.’ Tom Paxton found it almost impossible to learn. ‘I hate the song myself. It’s what I call a grocery-list song where one line has absolutely no relevance to the next line.’ Dave Van Ronk thought it dumb. Still, within a couple of months of Bob performing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ at Gerde’s Folk City, Van Ronk noticed to his surprise that musicians hanging around Washington Square Park had invented irreverent parodies such as, ‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ out your end.’ As Van Ronk says, ‘If the song is strong enough, without even having been recorded, to start garnering parodies, the song is stronger than I realized.'[His manager], meanwhile, knew Bob had created something extra­ordinary. ‘ “Blowin’ in the Wind” was the key to it all,’ he says. ‘That song made it all happen.’ …

On July 30, 1962, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ the song that was the foundation stone of Bob’s career and a catalyst of the singer-songwriter revolution, was copyrighted to M. Witmark & Sons. The same day, [Dylan’s new manager Albert] Grossman signed what Bob later called ‘a secret deal’ with M. Witmark & Sons giving Grossman fifty percent of Witmark’s share of the publishing income generated by any songwriter he brought to the company. Now Grossman stood to earn a substantial slice of Bob’s publishing fees, over and above the [20 percent] cut he took for managing him. This backhanded deal was one of Bob’s primary com­plaints when he and Grossman were in legal dispute in the 1980s, although in fairness Grossman was getting an enhanced part of Witmark’s share, and not necessarily money Bob himself would have received. Bob claimed indignantly that he had known nothing of Grossman’s fifty percent deal with M. Witmark & Sons (Grossman insisted he had told him). Bob also claimed to have had no idea Grossman was given as much as $100,000 to advance to him for signing with M. Witmark & Sons, of which he received one percent. Bob’s attorneys asserted that Grossman had ‘willfully and maliciously’ concealed vital information. The secretiveness was what angered Bob who was, of course, a very secretive person himself.

However, this was not the end of Grossman’s machinations. The last part of his plan was, in fact, the cleverest. If Peter, Paul and Mary [a group Grossman had created] had a hit with a Bob Dylan-Witmark song, Grossman would earn fourfold. He had his management fee from the two acts, plus his twenty-five per­cent of Peter, Paul and Mary’s recording income from Warner Bros., plus fifty percent of the income Witmark earned from publishing a Dylan song. When Peter, Paul and Mary had a massive hit with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ and top-forty success with two further songs written by Dylan, Grossman became as rich as Croesus.  Suddenly, money had become very important.

Bob Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas Party in London, 22 December 22 1962.

In the first week of October 1962, the Beatles’ first single ‘Love Me Do’ was released, reaching number 17 in the UK charts.  I can clearly remember that, and in my memory the whole Beatles phenomenon precedes my discovery of Dylan.  I’m pretty certain that it was June 1963 before I registered the name of Bob Dylan, when Peter Paul and Mary released their hit version of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.  Then, a couple of months later listening to radio coverage of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, I heard Dylan sing probably for the first time.

Dylan had actually visited London in December 1962,  to appear in a BBC TV drama, The Madhouse on Castle Street. At the end of the play, Dylan performed ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, but I never saw that – we didn’t have a TV at the time. While in London, Dylan performed at several London folk clubs, and learned new songs from British folk singers such as Martin Carthy.  One of the songs he picked up from Carthy was the ballad Lord Randall’, on which Dylan based the tune of  ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’, the standout track on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in May 1963.

Graeme Thomson, in a superb piece on the artsdesk website, ‘Bob Dylan: Fifty Years of Crooked Road‘, writes:

Fifty years ago today Bob Dylan released his first album, Bob Dylan, on Columbia. Within 12 months he was a rising star; twelve months more and he was the voice of the times; a little over a year later he had gone from saviour to Judas. And on it went. For half a century now successive generations have wrestled with Dylan’s mutations; mostly we pick and choose and settle for – at best – a partial understanding. At the age of 70, Dylan’s appeal is still wrapped up in mystery, mischief and contradiction.

Hailed initially as the king of folk-protest thanks to anthems such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, the enduring image of Dylan as the great liberal voice of the Sixties is a clear anomaly within the context of his 50-year career. His social conscience was largely a creative convenience (like most young men he wrote primarily to impress girls, in his case his politically engaged girlfriend Suze Rotolo) which swiftly turned into a millstone. He realised early on that deification by the liberal literati was a short road to fossilisation and swiftly resigned his post; the coruscating “Positively Fourth Street”, released in 1965, still stands as the greatest ever abdication note set to music. Instead, Dylan has preferred to stir the mind, heart and senses with opaque poetry rather than ideology.  […]

Since his critical and creative regeneration in the early Nineties – which began with two wonderful acoustic folk albums, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, and was sealed by the superb Time Out of Mind – Dylan has removed all traces of modernity from his work. His last four records have been composed entirely from the music of the earlier parts of the last century, touching on jazz, swing, country, Fifties rock’n’roll, folk and most often blues. His lyrics nowadays are an incongruous mix of sulphurous End Times impressionism, sly romance and sexual humour, all of which suggests that Dylan is having plenty of fun while simultaneously believing that the world has gone to hell in a handcart.

See also

George Harrison: Living in the Material World

I got born into the material world
Getting worn out in the material world
Use my body like a car,
Taking me both near and far
Met my friends all in the material world

Walk a mile or so from where I live, across the park that locals call the Mystery, and you will arrive outside 12 Arnold Grove, the small terraced house where George Harrison was born in 1943.  Here, for me, is another mystery: how did this boy from a family of working class Catholic  Liverpudlians come not only to be a member of a musical partnership that changed the world, but also to embrace the spiritualism of Hinduism, Indian philosophy, culture, and music.

Strangely, this is not a question that Martin Scorsese seeks to explore in his sympathetic , sprawling documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World which I watched at FACT the other evening.  There is next to nothing about Harrison’s early life in the film, except for a few shots of the blitz and wartime destruction in the opening minutes.  Instead, the closest Scorcese comes to pursuing the thread of a unifying idea is, as the title suggests, to tentatively explore how Harrison balanced his intense spirituality with his life in the ‘material world’ – the hedonistic lifestyle of a rock musician, property-owner, businessman and tax-payer; a sensualist deeply attractive to women, and a man who loved fast cars.

But Scorcese, though incorporating interviews with a great many who knew Harrison (including his wife and son, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and many other musicians) doesn’t probe too deeply.  Tricky issues are raised, but rather superficially. Beatles press chief Derek Taylor and his wife Joan talk about Harrison’s battles with addiction; Eric Clapton recalls the love triangle between Harrison, himself and Pattie Boyd; while McCartney speaks of the tensions between himself and Harrison as the Beatles began to drift apart.  But Living In The Material World pulls back from really delving into these aspects of Harrison’s life, instead building a sympathetic portrait of a gentle and quiet man, much-loved by family and friends, and one who constantly questioned the nature of his existence.

Watch out now, take care
Beware of falling swingers
Dropping all around you
The pain that often mingles
In your fingertips
Beware of darkness

This is an epic film – four hours with intermission at a cinema screening – and, like No Direction Home which dealt with Dylan, Scorcese’s aim seems to be to gather together the definitive document of the man’s career, incorporating interviews as well as beautifully restored archival footage.  It’s successful in that respect, skilfully edited to yield a strong narrative drive from the mass of material (although I did wonder, in the absence of any narration or very many captions,  how easy certain sections – such as Astrid Kirchherr and Klaus Voormann talking about the Hamburg days – would be to follow if you hadn’t lived through this stuff or were not au fait with all things Beatles).

There’ll come a time when all of us must leave here
Then nothing sister Mary can do
Will keep me here with you
As nothing in this life that I’ve been trying
Could equal or surpass the art of dying

Harrison is intriguing for the intensity of his spiritual yearnings, expressed in his music and his quest to absorb the principles of eastern thought. For a short period at least, he brought the Beatles under the influence of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and he came to accept their teaching that the material world is maya, an illusionary state that should not be the final goal in life, but an opportunity to prepare for a good death.  Scorcese explores this aspect of Harrison in some depth, and reveals how his spiritual values affected his attitude to the attack and stabbing by an intruder in his home and his final losing battle with cancer.

Martin Scorsese has spoken of hearing Harrison’s All Things Must Pass for the first time, of  ‘the overwhelming feeling of taking in that all glorious music for the first time. It was like walking into a cathedral. George was making spiritually awake music – we all heard and felt it – and I think that was the reason that he came to occupy a very special place in our lives’.

There’s a crucial scene in the film which focusses on a letter Harrison, aged 22, wrote to his parents while in India in 1965 with the other Beatles studying meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.  In the letter, George says the Beatles had been lucky to acquire early in their lives so many of the material goods that most people spend their entire lives yearning for – because as a consequence, they had learned relatively young how hollow material success can be:

I know that this isn’t it. I knew I was going to be famous, but now I know I can reach the real top of what man can achieve, which is self-realization.

The second half of the film explores Harrison’s solo career, his financial backing for the Python’s Life of Brian and the subsequent emergence of Handmade Films, and his involvement in the Travelling Wilburys, before  dealing with the struggle with cancer and his near-fatal stabbing in 1999.  The events of that dreadful night are remembered by Olivia Harrison, who tells in terrifying detail of the attack that left her husband with multiple knife wounds and a collapsed lung. She wielded a poker to subdue the assailant, and recalls how later at the hospital she and George were shaken by how fiercely they had fought, almost in defiance of their spiritual values.

There’s a strong sense in the film of the friendships that Harrison forged – with musicians, obviously, but with others in the fields of comedy, motor racing and film.  All speak of George with tremendous affection.  There’s Tom Petty remembering the day that George dropped by and left him a great many ukeleles; Ringo admitting his bafflement at  Harrison’s new love for eastern music and recalling the time while recording Abbey Road when Harrison brought in the  tune for ‘Here Comes the Sun’:

He infused Indian musical technique into songs where people normally wouldn’t recognize it. In ‘Here Comes the Sun’, there were seven beats, not the usual three or four beats for the drum’s rhythm. George comes in and says ‘Oh, I’ve got this song, it’s in 7 and a half time’.  He might as well have talked to me in Arabic.

It’s Ringo, too, who produces the most moving moment of the film.  He recalls how, when George’s cancer returned, he flew to Switzerland where George was being treated.  George was very ill, unable to lift himself from his bed.  Ringo sat with him for a while, but then had to explain to George that he must leave him to fly to New York where his daughter was facing an operation for a brain tumour.  With tears in his eyes, Ringo recalls George’s response – the last words he would hear from his lips – ‘Do you want me to come with you?’  Tears and sniffles throughout the cinema.

In 12 Arnold Grove, the only heating was from one coal fire, and the house was so cold in winter that George and his brothers dreaded getting up in the morning.  The toilet was outside  in the yard. The house had tiny rooms – ten feet square – and a small iron cooking stove in the back room, which was used as the kitchen. George  described the back yard as having ‘a one-foot wide flower bed, a toilet, a dustbin fitted to the back wall and a little hen house where we kept cockerels’.  George also said:

Try and imagine the soul entering the womb of a woman living at 12 Arnold Grove, Wavertree, Liverpool 15. There were all the barrage balloons, and the Germans bombing Liverpool. All that was going on. I sat outside the house a couple of years ago, imagining 1943, nipping through the spiritual world, the astral level, getting back into a body in that house. That really is strange when you consider the whole planet, all the planets there may be on a spiritual level. How do I come into that family, in that house at that time, and who am I anyway?

The Beatles: 50 years since that first time at the Cavern

The Beatles outside the Cavern Club in July 1961

In January I noted that it was 50 years since Bob Dylan arrived in New York, at the start of a year in which his musical and personal trajectory progressed at a rapid pace. Dylan soon emerged as the quintessential voice of the sixties, but there was another sound that will forever define that decade – that of the Beatles.  And, in one of those strange historical coincidences, today marks the 50th anniversary of the the Beatles’ first ever performance at the Cavern.  So, at around the same time that Dylan was visiting Woody Guthrie in Greystone hospital, on this side of the Atlantic four greasy, leather-jacketed scousers were thrashing out covers of rock ‘n’ roll standards by the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly.  It was the start of a journey that would see the Beatles become the most popular band in the world, often trading ideas and influences back and forth with Dylan.

The Beatles had served their time in the nightclubs of Hamburg  before they mounted the stage of the Cavern that February lunchtime, nevertheless it had been difficult getting a booking at the popular Cavern. It was Pete Best’s mum who begged Ray McFall, the owner, for a lunchtime slot for the group.

In The Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney recalled:  ‘The Cavern was sweaty, damp, dark, loud and exciting  . As usual, we didn’t start out with much of an audience, but then people began to hear about us. We could always entertain them’.

John Lennon had played occasionally at the Cavern with his skiffle group The Quarrymen back in 1957. For the Anthology, he recalled: ‘In those old Cavern days half the thing was just ad lib; what you’d call comedy. We just used to mess about, jump into the audience, do anything’. George Harrison remembered:  ‘We’d play from noon till about two.  It was very casual; we’d have our tea and sandwiches and cigarettes on stage, sing a couple of songs and tell a few jokes’.

Beatles at The Cavern with Pete Best on drums, 1961
The Beatles at The Cavern with Pete Best on drums, 1961

The Cavern Club had opened in Mathew Street in January 1957. Its aim was to put Liverpool on the map as having the best jazz cellar in the country, outside of London. The opening act was the Merseysippi Jazz Band and the club soon became a focal point for jazz enthusiasts.

The early years of the Cavern also coincided with the skiffle craze, sparked by the release of Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Rock Island Line’ in 1956. Skiffle was big in Liverpool, and the lunchtime sessions were introduced in April 1957  in response to the skiffle boom. Most of the big names in the Liverpool music scene of the early sixties could trace their roots back to the skiffle period.  The Quarrymen Skiffle Group, featuring John Lennon, made their first appearance at the Cavern on Wednesday 7 August 1957. A week earlier Ringo Starr made his debut with the Eddie Clayton Skiffle group. Paul McCartney made his debut at the Cavern on 24 January 1958 with the Quarrymen. George Harrison’s first appearance was at the lunchtime session on 9 February 1961.

The Beatles (with Pete Best at drums) playing the Cavern Club, DEcember 1961
The Beatles (with Pete Best at drums) playing the Cavern Club, December 1961

For their first show the Beatles were paid £5 to share between them.  It was George Harrison’s first time on the Cavern stage, as it was for Stuart Sutcliffe. Harrison arrived in blue jeans, which were banned from the club, but he managed to convince the bouncer that he was one of the performers.

In his book, The Cavern, Spencer Leigh quotes Ray McFall, Cavern Club owner as saying:

They were different and they were very well rehearsed because they had come back from three months of torture in Hamburg. The other groups were like Cliff Richard and the Shadows, but The Beatles’ music was so vibrant… However, I didn’t like them wearing jeans which were taboo in the Cavern. Our doormen would stop anyone wearing jeans. I felt that if people were wearing good, clean clothes they would be more likely to behave themselves as they wouldn’t want them getting dirty and damaged.

For the next three years the Cavern was the fount of Merseybeat, the sound that swept the world. During that period, the Beatles made a total of 292 appearances at the Cavern. Their last show was on 3 August 1963.

The Beatles: ‘Some Other Guy’ at the Cavern in 1962

The Beatles: ‘One After 909’  Cavern rehearsal