Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: The debt I owe to The Fab Four
YOU may by now have gathered that it’s almost 50 years since The Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do, was released. I was all of nine years old at the time. I don’t know whether it changed your life or not but it certainly changed mine. Up until their fourth single, She Loves You, was released the following summer, I’d wanted to be a farmer when I grew up. By then I wanted to be a Beatle.
For a pale, skinny 10-year-old boy, prone to nosebleeds and chest complaints, there weren’t many attainable hero roles about. I was useless at team sports. I couldn’t fight. I was good at running. I had to be. I couldn’t be a plains Indian, because I lived in suburban England. I’d grown out of Robin Hood. John Wayne was too old and Elvis was all greasy and lip-curling. There were The Shadows, of course. They were the gateway. As George Harrison later said, “Without the Shadows, there would have been no Beatles.” The Shadows lit the fuse. The Beatles were the explosion.
Essex has few Beatles connections. But the one we do have is impressive. On the 16th of August, 1960, when the Beatles left England for Hamburg, it was from Harwich. There were five of them at that point: Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. Packed into the van with them and their gear were their manager, Alan Williams, his wife Beryl, her brother, Barry Chang, and the band’s Trinidadian mentor, Lord Woodbine.
They picked up an interpreter, Herr Steiner, en route and took the Hook of Holland ferry, driving from there to Hamburg. I have only ever seen one blurred picture. It shows a Commer van, luggage strapped to its roof, being hoisted up in the air, whilst John Lennon watches from the quayside.
The trip was the beginning of 106 exhausting nights performing in two separate Hamburg nightclubs. The band lived on cornflakes, supplemented by beer and Preludin slimming tablets. They were befriended by prostitutes and gangsters. Their marathon stint culminated in disillusionment and deportation at the end of November. They’d left England as a ramshackle semi-pro beat group. When they returned to the Liverpool stage in December they were a fearsome gigging machine, ready to take on the world. By 1963 I was only one of millions of piping-voiced, whey-faced boys suddenly uninterested in anything that our parents, teachers or any other previously-salient figures in our daily lives had to say. I was now concerned only with growing a fringe, from beneath which I could peer out quizzically, and in trying to obtain a guitar or drum kit. I read, or watched on TV everything I possibly could about The Beatles and I preoccupied myself solely with my ideas of the world in which I assumed they lived.
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It was as if four pied pipers had come into town. When they left I was among the horde of children who followed them out of the town gates – never to return.
My wildly romantic notions of what life in The Beatles at that time might have been like were turbo-charged still further by my watching their 1964 film, A Hard Day’s Night. The film was in sharp monochrome, slickly jump-cut between electric trains, TV studios, white-lipstick pretty blondes and hotel rooms with pianos. Director Richard Lester in his attempts to serve up something witty, quick and yet satisfying – and within budget – had unintentionally made a brilliant vignette of the moment that the 1950s shimmied into the 1960s.
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A Hard Day’s Night, after its decade ended, fell swiftly out of fashion and for many years was rarely shown. Re-appraised now, it seems impossibly stylish and historically cherishable. The music, of course, is perfect. Almost 50 years on, both film and album remain among my desert island necessities. I still have to ask myself, however, why it is that, five decades after they began, I and a huge chunk of the rest of the world retain such an abiding passion for those Beatles and their music. There still exist, however, lofty entities who’ll tell you “I never liked The Beatles.” Or “I always preferred The Stones.”
The Beatles changed my life for the following reasons: if I hadn’t seen A Hard Day’s Night and thought, “Wow! That’s the job for me,” then I might never have learned guitar, grown my hair and started going out with bright arty girls. If I’d never met those girls, who, unlike me, stayed on in education, I’d probably have carried on reading only comics and the music press.
Now, however, I began reading proper books – if only to stop them out-arguing me the whole time. If I hadn’t read a lot and argued with these women, I may never have started writing. If I’d never started writing; you wouldn’t be reading this. If it weren’t for The Beatles, in fact, I’d probably be in a pub, moaning about the spud harvest. So there.