The Birth of Mersey Beat


My own involvement with the scene began in 1958, while I was attending Liverpool College of Art. I was asked to contribute to a magazine produced by the local music store Frank Hessy. Mr Hesselberg, the owner, insisted on the rather uncommercial title 'Frank Comments,' but gave complete editorial freedom in all other respects. I designed the covers and produced interior illustrations, reviewed local events, wrote about jazz legends such as Bunk Johnson and even penned a science-fiction jazz serial.

In the meantime, Stuart Sutcliffe and John Lennon were amongst my closest friends and we used to spend a great deal of time together, mainly discussing the subjects young people discuss - what the future held, the latest books and films, art, academic life and so on.

Billy J. Kramer and Virginia Harry at the opening of the new Cavern complex John had a group and two of its members, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, were pupils of Liverpool Institute, which was situated next door to the college. They used to come to our canteen during lunch breaks and also rehearsed in the life rooms. Stu and I were members of the Students' Union Committee and put forward the proposal that we use students' funds to buy a PA system, which John's group could use when they appeared at our college dances.

I referred to them as the 'college band' at the time and they were booked regularly for our dances as support to headliners such as the Merseysippi Jazz Band.

Skiffle music had been popular for the last couple of years and I used to study the history of American folk music and railway songs at Picton Library, in addition to producing a duplicated magazine at the college, simply called 'Jazz.'

With the experience of editing a number of fan magazines behind me, my involvement with 'Frank Comments', my association with their printers, James E. James and studies in typography, printing and newspaper design and layout at the college I had visions of producing a magazine called 'Storyville & 52nd Street.'

One evening we all went along to Liverpool University to hear a poetry reading by Royston Ellis. Later, at Ye Cracke, in a discussion with John, Stu and Rod Murray, I pointed out that Ellis, in common with a lot of other poets, was simply copying the American beat poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. My feeling was that people were more likely to stretch themselves creatively by expressing their own environment and experience rather than by copying someone else's. I suggested that we should use our creative talents to express what we were personally involved in, that we should take a vow to make Liverpool famous: John with his music, Stu and Rod with their painting and myself by writing about the city. I even suggested that we call ourselves the Dissenters.

At one time Stu and I were going to produce a book about Liverpool. I would write about interesting and unusual facets of the city and its people and he would illustrate it. We never did the book, but the seeds of 'Mersey Beat' were sown.

In addition to Ye Cracke, the college canteen and various students' flats, we would also hang around the Jacaranda coffee bar, run by a gregarious Liverpool-Welshman, Allan Williams. It was here in May 1960 that I met Virginia. She was 16 years old, was wearing black barathea trousers and a green sweater and had flowing auburn hair.

The lads were playing downstairs in the 'coal hole', while their girlfriends held broom handles to which their mikes were attached. In those days we were all skint, yet managed to get by, even when we didn't have the proverbial 'two halfpennies to rattle together.'

Virginia became my girlfriend and the visions of creating a magazine grew. I'd initially begun thinking in terms of a jazz magazine because there was a huge trad jazz boom and Liverpool was a thriving centre. There were clubs such as the Cavern, the Liverpool Jazz society and the Temple Jazz Club and promoters such as Albert Kinder regularly booked artists of the calibre of Chris Barber and Lonnie Donegan at the Empire and Pavilion Theatre. 

One local promoter said he'd advance me £25
to launch the jazz magazine, but he never did.

By this time my thoughts were developing in a new direction. My experience writing for 'Frank Comments' had taken me to places around Liverpool such as Wilson Hall, where local rock 'n' roll groups used to play. I began talking to members of groups who dropped by the Jacaranda and sensed that something unique was happening in Liverpool. The rock 'n' roll scene was larger than anyone - even the groups themselves - realized.

The little red notebooks I carried around with me began to fill up with information on venues, promoters and groups.

I decided to write to national newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, to inform them that what was happening in Liverpool was as unique as what had happened in New Orleans at the turn of the century, but with rock 'n' roll groups instead of jazz.

No one took any notice. Liverpool, it seemed, was isolated. It didn't have any media that could reach out nationally. The two main local publications, the Liverpool Echo and the Evening Express, didn't cover the local music scene.

Historically, Liverpool had lost a great deal of power and prestige when the Manchester Ship Canal was built, allowing a lot of trade to bypass Liverpool and go straight to Manchester. Manchester became the capital of the North and was home to both Granada Television and the BBC TV Studios, in addition to radio stations and the northern editions of the national newspapers. Most news on TV, radio and in the press had a Manchester bias. In comparison, Liverpool seemed to be almost a backwater. As a result, what was happening there developed without anyone realizing it and without any outside interference.

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