It was important for me to see John’s house, to physically occupy the same space as he had in the days I’d read about so many times in Hunter Davies’ biography. To stand in his tiny bedroom was particularly chilling, and I really could feel his teenage presence, playing the banjo chords taught to him by his mother, before his aunty Mimi banished him to the porch.
But musically, it wasn’t as important as 20 Forthlin Road, the house Paul grew up in, or 25 Upton Green, George’s house, bought recently by a fan, but not yet open to the public, because the Quarrymen weren’t allowed to rehearse at John’s house, whereas both Paul and George’s parents respectively put up with or actively encouraged the lads. But mostly it was in Forthlin Road that Paul and John first started playing together, and more importantly writing music. ‘Love Me Do’ was written there, and many others, including ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, often the opening song of their set, and the first track on their first album. I would argue it’s the greatest opening track of a debut album ever.
You can’t take photos in the house, but, again, the internet…?
Forthlin Road also has the benefit of a great many more photographs than Mendips, thanks to Paul’s brother Michael being a photographer from an early age. His photos are on the walls throughout the house, in the places where the photos were taken, which for those mental time travellers amongst us takes you right back to the moment they were taken, and suddenly you are there with Paul and John, an eavesdropper on history. So here are a selection, old and new.
It was very hot when we got there, and the poor tour guide looked like she was about to drop. Like the lady at Mendips, she had been there at the beginning, and had devoted much of her life to their memory. But if she was regurgitating a well-worn script, it didn’t feel like it – she had a genuine and deep passion for her subject. She hadn’t been there when Paul made an impromptu visit to the house a month or so ago while he was doing Car Pool Karaoke with James Corden, and you got the very strong feeling that had she been, she could have happily died right then and there, her life complete.
As a side note to this, as you may know, Paul played a small secret gig at the Phil during that show, but it might not have been – a few months before, the manager of the Shipping Forecast pub, where my daughter now works, got an email saying that a very famous person wanted to play a secret gig there, and would they be interested. The poor manager dismissed it as a hoax, but it had been real, and McCartney played the Phil instead. You have to feel sorry for the guy.
Ella had seen Paul before though, in Hyde Park on her thirteenth birthday. I had booked four tickets to see Neil Young play there, somehow not connecting the fact that the date was her birthday. Dyspraxia, what can you do? So we went, and Ella was very bored of Neil Young, until he did his encore, a cover of ‘A Day In The Life’. When it came to the bit that Paul originally sang, suddenly from the wings came Paul himself. Ella had been texting her friend at that point, and her texts went something like ‘I’m so bored, I’m so bored, I’m so – oh my god it’s Paul McCartney!’ In truth, she and her brother Fred hadn’t been that bored, because during one of the support slots, they wandered off to a side tent to see some new band no-one had ever heard of, who turned out to be Mumford & Sons. So they have that in their musical ‘I saw them before anyone knew them’ bragging rights. I have The Birthday Party, they have Mumford & Sons. But they have also both seen a Beatle.
I nearly saw a Beatle too once, when I was about their age. I was working in, living in and briefly managing a bar in Notting Hill called the Portobello Gold. It’s still there (although the mad genius that is Mike Bell, who set it up thirty two years ago, a year before I got there, has now finally given it up), and it’s still fabulous. So one Sunday morning Mike got a call from one of the many minor celebrity regulars, Legs Larry Smith, once of the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band. He asked if it was cool if George could come for Sunday lunch, and by George, he meant George Harrison. Mike of course said yes – he’d known George for a long time anyway, because he and his then wife used to live in one of the lodge houses on Harrison’s estate in Henley. I was a tad excited, as you can imagine, but I just about managed to keep my cool. The word got out very quickly, and by lunchtime the place was full of lesser celebs, with tables taken up with the likes of Twiggy, her husband Leigh Lawson, Kenny Lynch, Trevor Eve and his wife Sharon Maughan, then mostly famous for the Nescafe Gold Blend adverts. Chris Sullivan was there, formerly of the band Blue Rondo A La Turk, but by then owner of The Wag Club. Lemmy was in the bar, playing the fruit machine as ever, on a constant stream of JD & cokes, and Ian McShane, of course – he was a regular regular there. I once had a pair of his sunglasses that he’d left on the bar. He didn’t get them back. There were others too, but I forget who. I have a memory of Clapton and Jeff Beck being there too, but that may have been another occasion – those legendary long Sunday lunches when you closed the doors at three, closed the curtains and carried on were a bit of a blur. The glass-topped tables got a lot of use – it was the mid-eighties after all.
Needless to say, at the last minute, Legs Larry phoned to say George had cancelled. I forget the reason, but he may have got wind of the fan club waiting for him. It was a legendary lunch nonetheless.
Where was I? Oh, right, yes, McCartney’s house. There’s not much more to say, really. From July 1957, after the first meeting of Lennon and McCartney, history began to be created in that living room. Spike Milligan once said that Queen Victoria died in 1960, meaning that that was when England finally moved on from its dour authoritarian past. I think it happened earlier, at 20 Forthlin Road.
For me though, the greatest photo of all of Mike McCartney’s photos was apparently taken on a late November afternoon in 1962 in the front room. No-one realised the significance of the photo for a long time, the tour guide told us, until someone looked at it closely, and realised the nascent song in the notebook in front of them is ‘I Saw Her Standing There’.
There were many more landmarks to visit, but I’ll save them for next time. Allan Williams’ club The Jacaranda is still going, likewise the Blue Angel, also Williams’, where the Silver Beetles auditioned to be Billy Fury’s backing band. Renshaw’s (now operating under another name), next to the Central Hall, was where Cynthia Lennon claimed John and Stu came up with the name Beatles. There are other landmarks long gone, like the Morgue Club, Rory Storm’s club in the basement of another Victorian villa, and N.E.M.S., Brian Epstein’s record store and office building on Whitechapel, now demolished and replaced by a nondescript modern clothes store. The Iron Door club, another of the Beatles’ regular gigs, has also been replaced by modern buildings, as has the Liverpool Stadium in St. Paul’s Square.
And so our visit to the real birthplace of the Beatles was over, and the minibus took us back to the docks. Ella and I had lunch at the very un-Beatles Pizza Express, before I drove her back to her flat on Upper Parliament Street, which she now knows is just around the corner from a whole host of Beatle places.
There was one last stop to make, however, before heading for Manchester, my next destination.
St. Peter’s Church Hall, Woolton, where, sixty one years ago (!) on Saturday the 6th of July 1957, a fifteen-year-old Paul McCartney first met a sixteen-year-old John Lennon, after the Quarrymen had played the church fete. The rest you probably know.