All You Need Is Laughs

As in any country, there are regional differences between English people in terms of culture and characteristics, but something that unites us is our humour. Much of it is self-deprecating. Many outsiders may be puzzled by our use of sarcasm, often well hidden, and irony, and the fact that it is delivered in a deadpan style makes people wonder if we are joking or not. Although British people may enjoy the hi-energy, in-your-face, North American style of a Robin Williams or Jim Carrey, it’s not really where we come from. Add to that the fact that nothing is sacred – even sacred topics – it could be inferred that we intend to shock and offend, when the truth is that, for English people, humour is often a kind of medicine; something to fall back on when we feel threatened, when things go badly – a way of saying, “Everything will be OK, don’t take life so seriously”. In my opinion, this attitude of being able to laugh at anything, including ourselves, stems from a feeling of knowing who we are, being comfortable in our own traditions, and above all, from nearly a millennium free of the yoke of oppression of a conquering power.

One of the stereotypes of the regional differences in England is the “North-South divide”. Supposedly, the south, and particular London and its surroundings, is where the affluent people live in their mansions, living a comfortable carefree life – the “soft Southerners” to those born north of Birmingham – whereas the North is full of industrial cities, the textile workers of Manchester, the docks and immigrant population of Liverpool, and the shipbuilders of the North East. There is still an element of truth in this image – the cost of living, and buying a house in many parts of the north is still, on average, lower than in the south, but with the growing affluence of the middle class, and the decline of the British manufacturing industry, the difference is less marked than it was in the early to middle twentieth century.

71-1Maybe, then, it is no coincidence that a large proportion of England’s most famous comedians came from the North. If we zoom in on Liverpool, we see what was traditionally a rough, tough port, with few opportunities for advancement. Going with the theory of humour as a way of getting through life, we also see that in Liverpool, humour would be top of anyone’s list of the characteristics of the average ‘Scouser’. It might be thought that life was good for four lads from Liverpool, “living the dream” and boasting ever-growing bank balances, and to a certain extent it was. However, the pursuit of happiness through playing the music they loved, and not having to do a “proper job” had its major drawbacks, and the same scouse humour that kept them going through the lean years, and in some cases, difficult childhoods and adolencences, served them just as well through the years of non-stop touring, TV shows, personal appearances, and the inane questioning of a thousand interviewers.

John, in particular, developed an acerbic wit to cope with the absence of a wayward father, and the cruel, premature death of his beloved mother. The fact that he was quick-witted even while Julia was alive may be put down in part to her influence as a carefree, free-spirited woman, and John being torn between her, and the stricter, straight-laced Aunt Mimi. In the early days of the Beatles’ fame, he continued to have conflicting situations in his life. He felt that he had sold out by becoming the besuited, lovable, mop-top that Brian Epstein had insisted on, and it grated with his own self-image of the leather-clad, tough guy, leader of gang. Indeed, he probably felt that he was no longer the leader of the gang, and the group was being molded more in the image of Paul, whose eagerness to please, and recognition of the need to be more businesslike was more apparent. After the infamous incident at Paul’s twenty-first birthday party where he beat Cavern DJ, Bob Wooler, to a pulp after the latter made insinuations about the relationship between John and Brian, he recognized that he had to control his anger, and that his sardonic wit could be just as potent a weapon.

BeatlesSpiderGeorge Harrison, on the other hand had a largely untroubled childhood, and his humour tended more towards the sarcastic, rather than acerbic. The fact that he was the “baby” of the group, joining at 15 years old, against the older Lennon’s initial better judgement, and had to show that he could stand up to the jibes, probably brought out the innate wit gained from being part of a happy, fun-loving family. That he delivered the lines in a dry, flat scouse drawl added to the comic effect.

Paul McCartney’s brand of humour was rarely sarcastic or cutting. It was more the good-natured, knockabout variety that came from a large extended and loving family background that was used to getting together and having fun. He has always been the kind of person who likes to please people, the charmer, (Paul McCharmly, as Lennon called him) and although in his repartee with John he could give as good as he got, he usually shrugged off his partner’s more caustic barbs.

Perhaps Ringo’s sense of humour is the most typically British. He plays the “ordinary guy” to a tee, with a sense of the ridiculous and self-deprecation. It is well documented that he was a very sickly child, and the resultant shortage of formal education caused him to often use strange expressions or malapropisms, meaning he could often be assuming unintentionally. It is also hard to look past the fact that he grew up in the Dingle, one of Liverpool’s rougher areas. In the early days, he was often perceived as the genuine comic figure of The Beatles, due to his looks and his small stature, appealing to children, but equally to grandmothers who didn’t much care for that “noisy music”. His laid-back personality allowed him to take this on board, and play the willing butt of the jokes of his bandmates.

The characters that we see in The Beatles’ first movie, “A Hard Day’s Night” are pretty much The Beatles’ themselves. The scriptwriter, Alun Owen, himself a Liverpudlian, observed the members of the group, and wove into the script many things they said, as well as leaving room for them to improvise, something encouraged by the director, Richard Lester. It is difficult to imagine, for example, that Owen wrote Lennon’s subtle “coke-sniffing” scene into the script.

George Martin recalled that he wasn’t over-impressed by the Beatles as songwriters, when he first heard them. They were undoubtly, even as streetwise Liverpool lads, a little in awe of this older, schoolmasterly figure with the cut-glass accent, but when George Harrison dared to crack a joke against him, the others exchanged a few cautious glances, then joined in. Martin was instantly won over, and later admitted that he signed them as much for their personalities as for their musical ability, if not more so. He did, of course, later concede that their songwriting and creativity blossomed exponentially in a very short time. George Martin had worked with many top-notch British comedians at Parlophone, and despite a radically different background to The Beatles, really did share their impish sense of humour.

It took a while for their distinctive humour to seep into The Beatles’ compositions and recordings, given that their earlier career was carefully managed to establish, and then maintain, a clear commercial path. Only when it was obvious that anything they touched would turn to gold did we start to detect, for example, in “Girl” – George and Paul taking an adolescent-style delight it singing “tit-tit-tit”, or Paul’s mischievous contribution of the last verse of Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood”, suggesting the burning-down of the protagonist’s home: “So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, norwegian wood?” If this was just a case of dipping the toe into the water, they would later – to mix metaphores – let their hair down in songs such as, “All Together Now”, “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)”, and “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill”.

There is so much more to be written about the humour of The Beatles, as it touched every aspect of their lives, careers, and art. Suffice to say that The Beatles wouldn’t have been The Beatles without their humour. Of course they created some of the best music of the twentieth century which would stand alone as an achievement itself, but the aura that surrounds them is in no small part due to their infectuous personalities, and to a certain extent, we can thank the city of Liverpool for that.


© Copyright 2017 Philip Kirkland. No original part of this work may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.

I Read Fake News Today, Oh Boy!

One of my favourite books about success is ‘From Worst to First’ by Gordon Bethune, the erstwhile CEO and saviour of Continental Airlines, in which he documents the steps that he and his team took to turn an airline that had a regular appointment with the bankruptcy court into the best airline in the USA. When he talks about safety being paramount, whatever else is going on, he wryly notes that airplanes crashes are not too good for business. Of course, Continental eventually merged with United Airlines, under the latter carriers banner, and we now know that physically dragging passengers off the ‘plane against their will doesn’t go down too well, either. While reporting about, and documenting, the career of a rock band doesn’t come with the same life and death responsibilities, it is fair to say that many would-be Beatles’ chroniclers and historians, and including some established ones, frequently risk their reputations due to lack of research, faith in unreliable sources, or unfortunately, just from their desire for vicarious glory by way of the quick fix of just saying what everyone else is saying.

The thirst for knowledge about every facet of the Beatles’ lives and career is a subject every bit as intriguing as the phenomenon of the group itself, and has been the focus of many scholarly articles, but the fact remains that it exists, and while it exists, there will be a never-ending stream of books, articles, and new generations of enthusiasts trying to explain, deconstruct, reconstruct and generally arrange and rearrange the facts – and the myths – into a myriad of presentations of the Beatles’ story. This, of course, leads us up the garden path of the perpetuation of half-truths, myths, and downright lies.

I read the fake news just this last week – Oh Boy! – and I also read news about fake news from someone whose reporting is the antithesis of fake news, purely for the fact that, not only was he there when the facts happened, but he was actually part of the subject of the news. I speak of Bill Harry, of course.

Last week’s fake news concerned Giles Martin. Due to the impending release of the repackaged Sgt. Pepper, he was interviewed by Simon Mayo on BBC Radio. Because of one misinterpreted sentence, one early-bird blog picked up on a story that Mr. Martin would be remastering the ‘White Album’ next. This story then appeared near the top of Google News, where other bloggers might go to find their next scoop, and shamefully, appeared as a story by a well-respected UK music newspaper (established in 1952). In the age of the internet and social media, this kind of story can be ‘fact’ within an hour. The irony is that, while historical stories may be hard to verify, one only had to go to the BBC website to listen to the original broadcast to know that what Martin actually said was that the ‘White Album’ was the one that followed ‘Pepper’ in the original sequence of releases. He later went on to say that he didn’t know if he would be working on other Beatles’ albums, as it wasn’t his place to say, and that it was up to “them” (presumably Apple, Paul, Ringo et al). He later confirmed the meaning of his words on Twitter.

The culprits are not always amateur bloggers either. Bill Harry took to Facebook to lament the scandalous story propagated by a close relative of someone integral to the story of the early Beatles (I am not interested in the details of the gossip here) with the view that it is highly likely that, having produced two books about the person in question, the relative got greedy and started inventing sensationalist stories, stories that Harry was in a unique position to know weren’t true. Harry then went on to debunk a another couple of myths that are more or less taken as fact after all these years. Again, the details are not important for the purposes of this article, what is important is to recognize the source and motives of such stories.

Of course, you didn’t have to be there to be a reliable source. To claim that would invalidate the work of, for example, a Shakespeare historian. There are many highly-respected Beatles’ historians, authors and chroniclers around today who were too young to have been there, or were born during, or even after, the Beatles’ heyday, but are people who know how to select their sources, and know how to keep their mouth shut until they are completely sure of the facts. Equally, there are people who were there, but for various motives, perhaps jealousy or bitterness, chose to tell stories that were economical with the truth – to say the least.

All of this leaves us with the dilemma of just who to trust. While I have named names here, either directly or by implication, it may not be useful to the student of the Beatles to list specific names, as those people may be unfamiliar to them, and I would probably be doing a disservice to several others by omitting them. The task of selecting your sources can be as daunting as actually researching the history, so I’d advise working equally on this part of your research as on the actual collection of facts. A good way to start is to network with people who have gained respect in this field. This is easier than you might think these days, given that Beatle people tend to flock together, and even authorities on the subject are open to other perspectives, and are open to communication with like-minded fans. This will lead you to other people you might not have heard of, and will eventually allow you to construct your own list of reliable sources. Bear in mind also, that most successful authors work from primary sources, always the best way to obtain irrefutable evidence. There are always, of course, those whose ego is bigger than their ability to accurately communicate good information, but they usually get found out.

There is an audience out there that is genuinely interested in learning all there is to learn about the Beatles. Many of them are extremely knowledgeable already, but are eager for more and more information and will thank you for providing it. Your reputation rests not on being the first to impart that information, but on being the most accurate, and a reliable source. Even the most prominent people in this field, as in any other, make mistakes from time to time, but not for the want of trying.


© Copyright 2017 Philip Kirkland. No original part of this work may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.

More Important Than Life And Death? Not To The Beatles!

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”

Bill Shankly – Legendary manager of Liverpool F.C.

We are talking here, of course, about Britain’s national sport – the one played with a spherical object, and with the feet, and not the variety favoured by Americans, which someone recently hilariously suggested to me should be called ‘hand-egg’.

Although the redoubtable ‘Shanks’ – there is a hotel in Liverpool dedicated to him, you know! – was not a Liverpudlian, he understood the importance of the ‘beautiful game’, and its tribal nature in the city of The Beatles. He also greeted Brian Epstein’s request for tickets for The Beatles for the 1965 FA Cup Final against Leeds United with the acerbic response: “I’ve never seen any of the Beatles standing on the Kop (the stand in their Anfield stadium that contains the partisan fans) and any tickets I have spare will be going to my mates on the Kop.” And that’s the point. In a city where one story claims that newborn babies are thrown into the Mersey to see if they come out red (Liverpool F.C.) or blue (Everton F.C.), four of its most famous young men didn’t seem to have an affiliation to either of its great football clubs, nor any great interest in the game itself, nor in any other sport.

Maybe it was just for want of a good subject that an 11 year-old John Lennon chose to paint a picture of George Robledo scoring the winning goal for Newcastle United against Arsenal in the 1952 FA Cup final. He painted it just a month after the event, and almost certainly saw the photo in a magazine, as he got the shirt colours right. He also inadvertently captured an image of the legendary Newcastle No. 9 (yes, that No. 9 again!), Jackie Milburn, cousin of the mother of one of the greatest footballer of all time, Bobby Charlton. Lennon kept the painting, and it appeared on the cover of his 1974 album, Walls & Bridges.

StubbinsIt is said that John chose the only footballer to appear on the cover of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, Albert Stubbins, a Liverpool F.C. centre-forward who was part of the 1947 team that won the League Championship. John overruled Paul’s choice, Evertonian Dixie Dean, who still holds the record for the most goals (60) scored in a single season. Stubbins was blissfully unaware of the honour until he received a telegram, and a copy of the album, signed by all four Beatles saying:

“Well done, Albert, for all those glorious years of football. Long may you bob and weave”.

It appears, though, that he was no big deal on the Merseyside football scene, and he was chosen more for his name than for his sporting achievements.

Other factoids connecting Lennon and football include inspiring the parents of the current right-back of Cruzeiro, in Brazil, John Lennon Silva Santos, when it came to choosing his name, and the great Manchester United coach, Sir Matt Busby – an ex-Liverpool player – gets a namecheck on ‘Dig it’.

It is rumoured that the second cousin of Paul McCartney was a very well-known Everton footballer, although his identity remains a mystery (anybody?), but Everton seemed to be in the blood of the McCartney family – his father, Jim, was born in the Liverpool district of the same name. According to Paul:

“My dad was born in Everton, so I’m an Evertonian. Yes, I’ll cheer Liverpool on too. People say you can’t support them both but I got a special dispensation from the Pope (A reference to the fact that Everton was traditionally supported by Catholics, Liverpool by Protestants). But if it comes down to a derby match I would have to support Everton.”

He has also attended a number of finals that Everton has been involved in, including the 1968 FA Cup Final, but explained his dual allegiance thus:

“Over the years I’ve become friends with Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool footballer, and later, coach) – he came to one of the first Wings gigs and really supported us … one time he brought the whole Liverpool team with him to a gig. He’s always given us a lot of support … You know what? I am just going to support them both because it’s all Liverpool.”

He also explained his interest in football in general:

“I used to enjoy football in the street, but by the time it got a bit formalised I wasn’t very good at it. That puts you off when there are always guys mightily bigger or better than you are. And that’s how it was with the Beatles, none of us was very sports-minded. I like watching the footie on the telly, I go to the occasional match but I’m not a massive fan.”

CNMW9knWIAAk3CVGeorge Harrison’s interest in the game appears to be even less than his bandmates. Although he appeared, aged 14,  in a newspaper photo among a group of people watching the 1957 FA Cup Final between Aston Villa and Manchester United on TV at the Speke Congregational Church Hall – and was named before he was famous! – when challenged to declare his allegiance, he replied with the typically witty:

“There are three teams in Liverpool and I prefer the other one.”

The third team, by the way, is Tranmere Rovers, based across the Mersey in Birkenhead, and currently languishing in the fifth level of English football – what Americans would call the Minor Leagues.

Ringo was apparently an Arsenal fan in his youth, as his Londoner stepfather, Harry Graves, took him to the London team’s matches when they were playing at Anfield, or Goodison Park, Everton’s home. Ringo’s sons, however, now have season tickets at Anfield.

As a footnote, The Beatles’ NEMS Enterprises stablemates, and fellow Liverpudlians, Gerry and the Pacemakers, forged a much stronger link with the Merseyside football culture. In 1963, they released the most successful cover of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s show tune, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, and it was quickly adopted by Liverpool F.C. supporters as their anthem – sung at all their games. The slogan even appears on Anfield’s main gates.

To come full-circle, when Bill Shankly appeared on the BBC Radio program, Desert Island Discs, choosing the eight records he would take to the fictional island, his eight and final selection was … ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

We are glad, of course, that The Beatles dedicated their efforts to music, rather than football!


© Copyright 2017 Philip Kirkland. No original part of this work may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.

An Appointment With Her Majesty

On 4th June 1917, King George V of the United Kingdom created a new order of chivalry, The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, rewarding contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organisations, and public service outside the Civil Service. It has five classes, starting at the lowest level with MBE (member), followed by OBE (Officer), CBE (Commander), KBE (Knight, for men, conferring the title ‘Sir’ and DBE, for women, conferring the title ‘Dame’), and the rare honour, GBE (Knight Grand Cross). The original intention was to reward outstanding service in non-combat roles during the Great War (WWI), but it was later divided into military and civil orders. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, a list of recipients has been published twice a year, at the end of the year, and on the Queen’s ‘Official Birthday’ in June (her real one is in April).

mbe-2The list of June 1965 contained the names of four young men who had been making a bit of a name for themselves over the past two years. John Winston Lennon, James Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Richard Starkey were to be awarded the lowest grade of the order. They would have received notice from Buckingham Palace some weeks before, asking if they wished to accept the honour, and with a plea to keep the award a secret until the official day of publication of the Honour’s List. McCartney, Harrison and Starr had no reservations, but Lennon was of a mind to refuse the award. Brian Epstein, as always keen to maintain the good public image of The Beatles, convinced him to go along with it. Lennon’s public pronouncement was:

“Lots of people who complained about us getting the MBE received theirs for heroism in the war, they got them for killing people. We got ours for entertaining. I’d say we deserve ours more.”

And complain they did. Many ex-soldiers returned their medals as a protest. A certain Colonel Frederick Wagg, who had fought in both World Wars, actually returned twelve medals he has earned in those campaigns, complaining:

“Decorating the Beatles has made a mockery of everything this country stands for. I’ve heard them sing and play, and I think they’re terrible.”

Another military man returned his medal, not wishing to be associated with “nitwits” and “nincompoops”. Even among the younger generation the reaction was mixed. In letters to the New Musical Express, one wrote: “In three years they have done more than a stuffy Civil Servant could hope to achieve in 100 years”, while another disagreed: “It makes mockery of the whole system, to award them medals just because they’ve made a million apiece.”

Honours are presented by the Queen, or occasionally by other senior members of the Royal Family, but are decided upon by a parliamentary committee. The Prime Minister then “recommends” those people to the Queen. The Prime Minister of the day, Harold Wilson, has been accused of courting popularity by recommending The Beatles, and called the ‘Beatle Prime Minister’. Whether or not this is fair, he is seen as the first “modern”, non-establishment PM. Perhaps it is no coincidence that, although he was born across the Pennines in Yorkshire, he later became Head Boy at the Wirral Grammar School For Boys, on the other side of the Mersey, and represented the Liverpool constituency of Huyton in parliament.

Brian Epstein’s delight for his charges’ elevation to the order was tempered by the news that there was to be no award for him, as the man that brought the group to the public consciousness. Both Paul and George opined that the initials ‘MBE’ stood for Mr. Brian Epstein.

The day of the investiture was scheduled for 26th October. The still-reluctant John Lennon had to be stirred many times from the land of slumber to arrive in time for the 11:00AM appointment, but eventually joined his colleagues in his own chauffered Rolls Royce (a black one, not the later psychedelic number!) for the journey to the palace. Beatle legend, or at least John’s mischievous sense of humour, has it that, due to their nerves, they went to one of the palace bathrooms to smoke a joint of marihuana. George set the record straight some years later, claiming that they only smoked regular cigarettes during their time in the palace.

mbeThe Beatles were instructed on the correct protocol, such as not turning their backs on the Queen, only speaking when spoken to, and pronouncing ‘Ma’am’ as ‘Mam’, not ‘Marm’, until it was their turn to step forward to receive their individual honours. Their usual humour didn’t desert them, despite the stiff formality. The non-Rock and Roll Queen asked Ringo if he had formed the group, to which he answered: “No ma’am, I was the last to join… I’m the little fellow.” Her Majesty also asked how long the group had been together, to which the 25 year-old Ringo replied: “About forty years.” The Queen was amused. During the ceremony, around fifty other recipients asked for, and received, autographs from The Beatles, although one ruined the moment by telling Paul that: “I want it for my daughter, although I don’t know what she sees in you.”

John found a good use for his medal. He visited his Aunt Mimi, and pinning it on her, told her: “You deserve it more than I do.” Mimi kept it on top of her television for the next four years, until the day that Lennon sent his chauffer, Les Anthony, to claim it back for his infamous protest against “Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and (rather invalidating his protest) against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.” Lennon said later that he was glad he had accepted the award, as it enabled him to make the protest by returning it, although even later he changed his mind again, accepting that the the protest was “a mistake.” 

Despite the return of the medal, once conferred, the title remains to be used, so that he was officially ‘John Lennon MBE’ for the rest of his days. The abandoned medal now resides in a vault at St. James’ Palace, along with the presentation case with John’s name on it, and the protest letter. Some Beatles fans have campaigned to have the medal returned to Liverpool, either to ‘Mendips’, or the ‘Beatles Story’ museum. A spokesman for the Chancery Department of the Royal Household explained:

“The Central Chancery would, without question, return any insignia to the original recipient if they request it during their lifetime. If a recipient had not asked for insignia back before they die then it is assumed that they did not wish it to be returned, and any request from any other person for its return at a later date would be going against the original recipient’s wishes. The Central Chancery would therefore only consider releasing insignia if they had a direct approach from the recipient’s legal next of kin.”

This is, in fact, a confusing statement, as the term has no legal definition in the United Kingdom. An individual can nominate any other individual as his/her next-of-kin. There is no requirement for the nominated person to be a blood relative or spouse, although it is normally the case. It is quite likely that, if he nominated anyone, it would be Yoko Ono, and in the event of her eventual death, it would revert to his oldest son, Julian.

The other Beatles proudly held on to their medals, and Paul and George displayed them on their Sgt. Pepper uniforms two years later.

John, of course, was never promoted to a high grade of the order, possibly because he never set foot in the country of his birth after 1971. Paul was elevated from the bottom of the order to the top in one step, being appointed a knight in 1997. To clear up a confusion among some people, in short form he should be referred to as “Sir Paul” (without the surname), and his successive wives, Linda, “The Other One”, and Nancy as “Lady McCartney” (without the given name).

Despite the secrecy of the honours system, it is known that George Harrison was offered a promotion to Officer (OBE) in 2000, a year before his death, but turned it down. According to journalist and biographer, Ray Connolly, George felt that a promotion of just one grade was an insult to his contribution to The Beatles, given that Paul had been knighted three years before.

As for Ringo, he remains on the bottom rung as an MBE. Whether that is because he has never been offered a promotion, or whether he has refused further honours is, of course, unknown. Given that he has always seemed proud of his original award, I suspect it is the former. Time will tell.


© Copyright 2017 Philip Kirkland. No original part of this work may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.

A Book That Bode Not Boot

I am sure that 99.9% of Beatles fans reading my articles will recognize the reference in the title of my blog. A few may say, “He’s illiterate, why is he writing a blog?”, and a few more may look at the title of this article and ask, “Bode not … what?” To them, I highly recommend reading the first solo work by a Beatle, John Lennon’s excellent 1964 book of surreal prose, poetry and original drawings, “In His Own Write”.

As with any artform that strays from the conventional, and especially with anything produced by The Beatles, the press tried to intellectualize the work, looking for meanings that were never intended, while the author looked on with amusement, and counted the money – the book sold 50,000 copies in the first day in England, and had an initial print run of 90,000 in the USA. In a 1968 interview, Lennon explained the origins of the book, or rather, his style of writing:

“That was just a hangover from school, you know. I mean, I used to make the lads laugh with that scene, talking like that, and writing poetry. I used to write them and just give them to friends to laugh at, and that was the end of it. So when they all go down in a book, when it turns into a book or a play, etcetera, etcetera, it’s just my style of humor.”

388_large_1John actually produced a kind of homemade magazine when he was at Quarry Bank School called “The Daily Howl”, which was indeed passed around his fellow students, and often confiscated by the teachers … who, by all accounts, found it amusing, too. It can be assumed, then, that compiling the book was not difficult for Lennon, given that it was probably just a compendium of his work of more than ten years, with a few updated tweaks here and there. The result is a highly entertaining read, made up of unconnected short stories and poems, all with a style derived from the use of puns, free association, creative bad spelling (Princess Margaret becomes “Priceless Margarine”), and the whimsical imagery of the author’s fertile mind. All the pieces are very short, and often fail to come to a logical conclusion, something else explained by Lennon in the same interview:

“I typed a lot of the book, and I can only do it very slowly with a finger. So the stories would be very short because I couldn’t be bothered going on … all I’m trying to do is tell a story, and what the words is [sic] spelt like is irrelevant, really. But if they make you laugh because the word used to be spelt like that, that’s great. But the thing is, the story. And the sound of the word.”

As for the inspiration for his writing, John mentioned one of his childhood favourites, Lewis Carroll, especially the poem, Jabberwocky, while some reviewers suggested James Joyce, to which Lennon answered:

“So, the first thing they say — ‘Oh! He’s read James Joyce,’ you know. So I hadn’t. And so the first thing I do is buy Finnigan’s Wake and read a chapter. And it’s great, you know, and I dug it, and I felt as though he’s an old friend.”

John’s wordplay even extended to interviews, showing a natural talent for improvisation. A pretentious interviewer asked him, “Do you make intentional use of onomatopoeia?” to which he replied, “Automatic pier? I don’t know what yer on about, son!”

It is probably true that Spike Milligan’s scripts for ‘The Goon Show’ were another inspiration, given that the show started when John was nearly 11 years old. Even Milligan’s own explanation of his name, “Spike Milligna – The well-known typing error”, is very Lennonesque in its creativity, and the later song, You Know My Name (Look Up The Number), bears comparison with the Goons’ own Ying-Tong Song.

It’s also true that the book was very much of its time. It kicks straight off with the story of Partly Dave, in which the final sentence, ‘But would you like your daughter to marry one? (a person of african origin) a voice seem to say as Dave lept off the bus like a burning spastic’, would probably offend many a 20th-century ear on two fronts, although to people of my generation who went to school in the 1960s and 70s, that was precisely the kind of language we used, rightly or wrongly.

John was known to be an inveterate reader as a child, and his literary knowledge often seems to be at odds with the picture we have of him as a couldn’t-care-less, cruel hooligan. In his poem I Wandered, he takes inspiration from William Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud’, substituting the title phrase variously as, ‘I Wandered Happy As A Jew’, ‘I Wandered Hairy As A Dog’, and ‘I Wandered Humply As A Sock. 

At a time when his songwriting was mainly limited to conventional love songs, Lennon also showed an awareness of the emerging British satire boom, typified by the recently-graduated Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, and others, in their show, Beyond The Fringe. In the (very) brief passage, ‘You Might Well Arsk’, Lennon lampoons establishment figures, such as Prime Minister Harrassed McMillion (Harold Macmillan) and the Duck of Edincalvert (Duke of Edinburgh).

This work will not appeal to everyone and as Paul McCartney inferred in the introduction, not everyone will ‘get it’, but as also pointed out by the more enlightened critics and reviewers, “It is worth the attention of anyone who fears for the impoverishment of the English language and the British imagination.”

Lennon himself recognized this, so I leave you with his own explanation in his inimitable style:

I was bored on the 9th of Octover 1940 when, I believe, the Nasties were still booming us led by Madolf Heatlump (who only had one). Anyway they didn’t get me. I attended to varicous schools in Liddypol. And still didn’t pass — much to my Aunties supplies. As a member of the most publified Beatles my (P, G, and R’s) records might seem funnier to some of you than this book, but as far as I’m conceived this correction of short writty is the most wonderfoul larf I’ve every ready. God help and breed you all.


© Copyright 2017 Philip Kirkland. No original part of this work may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.

I Speak British, Me!

Love, love me do, you know I love you, I’ll always be true, so…

And so begins the Beatles assault on the world of popular music. “Music” and “world” are the operative words in this sentence, as it is the exciting music that first hooked the world, regardless of native language or culture. Great as the first songs were, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were never going to be candidates for the Nobel Prize for Literature at this point … indeed, popular music was going to have to wait more than fifty years for that honour, and in the shape of a poet not from the land of Shakespeare.

Once the Beatles realized that they could write in third person, and about just about anything that took their fancy – something that was to a great extent influenced by the same American Nobel Laureate – they produced a body of work more diverse than any artist before or after, and became subject to an almost academic dissection of their lyrics. Even in their active career, Lennon got wind of the fact that the English master of his alma mater, Quarry Bank School, was analyzing the words of the school’s most disruptive and educationally-apathetic recent student, and set about composing ‘I Am The Walrus’ to confuse them.

Academically or not, millions of people, with dozens of mother tongues, have augmented their study of English with a smattering of Beatles’ lyrics, while others have learned English initially to be part of the phenomenon of the Fab Four, and its legacy. Even if we take lightly Lennon’s claim to have tried to challenge his successors in the hallowed benches of his old school, if does seem that, by design or more likely by coincidence, the Beatles canon provides an authentic and progressive course of English language and culture for the non-native speaker. The following infographic about the words used on Abbey Road, especially the data at the bottom, seems to point to a reinforcement of everyday language – a key factor in a good quality EFL/ESL course, leaving us to consider more the impact of the cultural references in the later works.

infographic

Given that one of the Beatles’ biggest foreign markets was, and is, the USA, and taking into account that many countries, especially the enormously Beatlemaniac Latin American ones, take that variety of English as their source, we are immediately drawn to the neccesity to explain that some phrases used in the Beatles’ lyrics may not convey the same meaning originally intended by their streetwise and quintessentially British composers. There is scope for a complete Anglo-American dictionary and/or glossary of Beatles’ lyrics, but in this brief article, I will limit myself to pointing out just a few of the more interesting, and possibly for many fans, confusing ones.

All Together Now: “Can I bring my friend to tea”. While apparently an invitation to take a cup of Britain’s favourite beverage, “Tea” in this instance in lower-middle class England refers to a light, but hot, meal taken anytime from 4-6pm, and not the “high tea” of the upper classes, which consists of the drink taken from the best bone-china, together with delicate sandwiches and cakes. In fact, lower-class “tea” may not even include the infusion of the same name, but rather a glass of cold milk, or soda.

Come Together: “Wonky finger” – Wonky is British slang for something that isn’t functioning properly – for example, “a wonky computer”. “Ono sideboard” – Two meanings; the piece of dining-room furniture for glasses, plates, cups, etc., but also the British word for “sideburns”.

Day Tripper: Although the song is reputed to refer to a drug-user, the “innocent” references may need explanation. The title refers to someone taking a short trip, maybe like a “road trip” in AmE. “Sunday driver” is often used as an insult for an incompetent driver that annoys other drivers, referring to the fact that he/she probably only uses the car once a week, and purely for leisure purposes. “She took me half the way there” means that their sexual encounter didn’t reach the conclusion he desired!

Good Morning Good Morning: “…and meet the wife” (which should be capitalized) is not an invitation to make the acquaintance of one’s spouse, but a TV sitcom of the same names, aired from 1963-66, and starring the very British, indeed very Northern, Thora Hird.

I Am The Walrus: “Waiting for the van”. “Van” in BrE refers to a small truck, the kind that makes local deliveries, not an SUV. In this song, the van would transport people to a mental hospital. “Corporation t-shirt”, belonging to a local government, not a large business entity. “Let your knickers down”. Not something that Payne Stewart might have worn on the golf course, but women’s panties. In my personal interpretation, “Semolina pilchard, climbling up the Eiffel Tower” is best left for another X-rated article … which brings me to…

Penny Lane: “Selling poppies from a tray” refers to the custom of celebrating Armistice Day, on the Sunday nearest November 11th, and remembering the soldiers that fell in the two World Wars, and subsequent conflicts. In the weeks before the event, paper poppies are sold, to be worn on the lapel, with the funds being given to various charities connected with the servicemen and their families. The person selling them would be standing in the street with the cardboard tray of poppies strung around the neck. On a more prosaic level, “A four of fish and finger pie” is a curious phrase, combining three concepts. Firstly, given the prices of those days, one would ask for “a four of fish” (four pennies-worth of fish) in a Fish & Chips shop, with the “finger pie” sounding like an alternative type of pie also available there, although in reality, it is a play on the word “fish finger”, breaded bars of fish popular in children’s meals. However, the real hidden meaning is a prime piece of vulgar scouse slang: an adventurous teenage boy making out with his girlfriend in the cinema would try to get his kicks by inserting his digit in … well, you know!

Taxman: One for you (the taxpayer), nineteen for me (the tax collector)” refers to the exhorbitant, and pre-decimal, tax-rate of 95% applied to non-salaried income in those days, i.e. nineteen shillings out of every twenty (one pound) was surrended to the treasury. “Mr. Wilson” refers to the then self-styled ‘Beatle’ Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who courted popularity by recommending their MBE awards, and “Mr. Heath” to the then Leader of the Opposition, and Wilson’s succesor as PM, Edward Heath.

I could go further, and mention the impact of George Harrison uttering the world “grotty” in the movie A Hard Day’s Night, the punning wordplay of the phrase Rubber Soul, and the Lear/Carroll/Goons/Stanley Unwin-influenced scribblings of John Lennon in In His Own Write (now, where have I heard the phrase before!), and A Spaniard In The Works, but suffice to say, while The Beatles produced a body of incredible music, their impact on the beautiful and complex English language should not be under-estimated … even if they did manage to repeat the word “na” 217 times in Hey Jude!

© Copyright 2017 Philip Kirkland. No part of this work may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.

Turned Out Nice Again!

Free As A Bird is coming to an end, and the video cuts to a back view of a ukelele player on stage, strumming George Harrison’s short instrumental passage. A low voice, thought by many to be John Lennon’s, mutters some words, there is a polite applause from the audience, and the song ends. I’ve been told time and again that the spoken phrase is something played backwards – it isn’t. The voice, probably George Harrison’s, as this doesn’t appear on John’s original demo, quite clearly says: “Turned out nice again…he! he! he!”, just as the great George Formby would at the end of one of his highly successful movies.

Maybe it isn’t surprising that this is misunderstood by fans from outside England, or even by the younger generation of Brits. George Formby, and his act, was something quintessentialy English … nay, quintessentialy Northern English. Born in 1904 in Wigan, Lancashire, roughly halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, and a massive star between the 1930s and 1950s – the best paid British actor of his time – it is not surprising that the Beatles grew up with a diet of Formby and became big fans, especially John and George (Harrison).

While his act is difficult to describe to someone not familiar with the north of England, it is fair to say that the Beatles as well as millions of British fans saw something of their everyday life in his movies, as well as the characters that surrounded them. His unique physiognomy lent itself to the characterization of a socially inept, but likeable, working-class fool. In the words of media historian, Brian McFarlane:

“Formby portrayed essentially gormless incompetents, aspiring to various kinds of professional success … and even more improbably to a middle-class girlfriend, usually in the clutches of some caddish type with a moustache. Invariably he scored on both counts.”

A vital part of his act was the inclusion of comic songs, many of them laden with double-entendres, extremely risqué in their day, all accompanied by George on his ukelele, or banjolele. Formby was a virtuoso uke player which was a stunning contrast to the uselessness of the characters he portrayed. Some experts consider that there hasn’t been any player before or after him with the same level of skill, and Joe Cooper, writing in New Society, said that

“Nobody has ever reproduced the casual devastating right hand syncopation, which so delicately synchronised with deft left hand chord fingering”.

John Lennon, whose mother Julia played the banjo and ukelele would exit a George Formby movie, telling the world: “Me mam can play like George!”.  John often travelled with his much older cousin, Stanley Parkes, on a double-decker bus from Preston to Fleetwood, literally passing the Formby’s house in Lytham St. Annes on the coast. According to Parkes:

“He and his wife Beryl would be sitting in deck chairs in their garden at the front on the house, and they would wave to us on the bus and we would wave back at them.”

George Harrison remembered that his mother, Louise, used to sing George Formby songs at home, and he himself became a life-long fan of both Formby and the ukelele, and attended meetings of the George Formby Society of Great Britain. He also collected the instruments, the pride of his collection being a gold-plated Dallas banjolele possibly once owned by Formby. I say possibly as there’s apparently some argument as to whether this is true or not. However, Harrison later felt it belonged with the Formby family and offered to gift it back to them. The fact that Formby’s nephew insisted on paying for it does lend some credence to the story. The ukelele now resides at the ‘Beatle Story’ museum in Liverpool.

In the video of the ‘Anthology’ series, George can be seen in the gardens of his Friar Park home, playing a uke while he, Paul and Ringo sing ‘Ain’t She Sweet’, and he plays one again, not so prominently on ‘Real Love’. Finally, as a tribute, during the ‘Concert For George’, Paul McCartney comes on stage and launches into a solo rendition of ‘Something’, accompanied only by his own uke, before the full band enters to complete the song.

Listen to Free As A Bird again, guys. It really isn’t a backward phrase, no matter what they tell you! It’s George on George, and the solo from one of his most famous songs, ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’.

Here’s George the Elder. Turned Out Nice Again!

© Copyright 2017 Philip Kirkland. No part of this work may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.

A Great Rock and Roll Band

John Lennon was once reported as saying:

A lot of our best stuff was never recorded. The best music we played was in and around the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg

While that comment disregards the fact that The Beatles could never be pigeon-holed into one single genre, and that their later work involved taking inspiration from other types of music, molding it into something new and fresh, and astounding the world with their innovation, it does seem to me that, apart from a few lucky Liverpudlians and Hamburgers, most subsequent fans of the group missed an important part of their development. The oft-derided 1977 semi-official release, Live! At The Star-Club In Hamburg, Germany; 1962 gives us an insight into how it must have felt to be there, although by this time, the group had already been signed up, booted and suited, and had released their first single.

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