The Beatles, John Lennon, Paris, 1965
(Credit: Bent Rej)

The moment The Beatles’ John Lennon nearly beat a friend to death

 “I was beating the shit out of him, and hitting him with a big stick, too, and it was the first time I thought, ‘I can kill this guy.’ I just saw it, like on a screen – that if I hit him once more, that was going to be it.” – John Lennon

“Really sorry Bob STOP terribly worried to realise what I had done STOP what more can I say,” read the telegram John Lennon sent Bob Wooler. Replace ‘Bob’ with ‘Yoko’ and this line could have been taken from any number of John Lennon’s songs from the mid-part of his solo career. Instead, it’s a plain-spoken paean of regret to one of the people most responsible for The Beatles’ rise on the Merseyside Beat scene of the early ’60s after an accident nearly turned tragic. 

By the 18th June 1963, The Beatles had already clawed their way out of the Liverpool music scene and onto national acclaim. They’d hit the charts with ‘Love Me Do’ and had number one’s with ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘From Me To You’ (depending on which chart you looked at) and were less than a fortnight away from recording the monster smash, ‘She Loves You’, the single that would change everything and launch the group into worldwide stardom.

Still, the chirpy, down to earth Scouse lads weren’t too big for their boots to celebrate a milestone birthday the old-fashioned way. They gathered under a flimsy marquee in an aunty’s suburban back garden and got ready to cut a rug with their families, even if it was the future Sir Paul of McCartney’s big 2-1.

By now The Beatles had knocked up 292 Cavern Club shows, alongside an untold number of performances at venues across Liverpool like the Casbah and slightly further afield, in Aintree and beyond. But it is the Cavern for which their Liverpool reputation hangs, and at nearly each and every performance was their friendly, affable and much-loved dweller at the best of cellars, resident DJ and alliteration fan, Bob Wooler. 

Bob, known for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the local music scene started off his foray into popular music when he became an erstwhile manager of a skiffle group, The Kingstrums. He took them all the way to a talent contest, where they were bested by eventual winners, The Mars Bars (who later shed their wrappers to become Gerry & The Pacemakers). Gradually, he started working as a DJ, working for a local promoter who’d get him gigs at dancehalls all around the city. 

His fact-finding skills became increasingly in demand as the burgeoning scene caught fire in all parts of Liverpool, before being offered a position of resident DJ at the Hamburg inspired Top Ten Club by Alan Williams, the self-proclaimed Beatles manager and local entrepreneur. Alas, the Top Ten burned down shortly after opening, in what some may claim ‘suspicious circumstances’, but we’ll leave that to Alan. Ahem.

It was his next position as compere at the Cavern that Wooler met and became pals with The Beatles. They, John, in particular, were often found chatting animatedly with Bob about music, bands and whatever else. Lennon, a fan of a Preludine or two, would occasionally spike straight-laced Bob’s drink with a couple of ‘floaters’ to “get him talking”. Lennon would do this to many people over the years. Lennon was also a big fan of Wooler’s cheesy but relentless alliteration and puns when announcing or promoting a local act.

Some of Bob’s ‘Woolerisms’, which would invariably ring out across the crowd at the Cavern, “Hi all you Cavern dwellers; welcome to the best of cellars”, (a nice pun on the Cavern and the Peter Sellers album, released in 1958). Another one was “The Panda footed prince of prance” and “The Sheik of Shake”—all of which provides a fairly accurate image of slightly square but wholly affable man.

So when The Beatles announced that they were throwing a shindig for Macca to celebrate his 21st in Liverpool after their early successes, it created a buzz around the city. Local band The Fourmost were asked to play and anyone who was anyone on the scene was invited to crack open a beer with Paul’s Aunty Gin. Cilla Black, local rival bands, friends, relatives, sneaker-ins and more all had a proper Liverpool party. And, other than music, laughter and drinking, there’s something else that Liverpool parties are famous for…

Cynthia Lennon remembered the evening well. She’d had baby Julian by this point, and had married John on the proviso that he’d leave his violent rage behind him, which he had. She’d left him after he’d slapped her at a party some years before in the wake of his mother’s death, and, so far, he’d kept his word. 

Only, when she’d had Julian, instead of the family convalescing at home together John had decided to go on a brief Spanish sojourn with friend and manager, Brian Epstein. Nothing too odd about that, but in 1963 Northern England, nipping off for a quiet break with a homosexual older man, when there were a wife and baby at home—well, it raised an eyebrow or two. John, never one for holding his tongue had to fend off more than a few barbs upon his return. It was a strange thing to have done, whether he had a little lust-for-power affair with Brian or not. A derogation of his duty as a man, father & husband is quite something and was a decision he renounced later in life. 

Wooler, having not seen John for some weeks, was keen to pick up on their well-established repartee. John, known for being a god-awful drinker, was not prepared for that eventuality. “I was out of me mind with drink. You know, when you get down to the point where you want to drink out of all the empty glasses, that drunk,” remembered Lennon.

Bob asked John, with a wink no doubt, if he’d enjoyed his ‘honeymoon’ with Eppy. Lennon exploded. The reports differ: from a black eye and bruised ribs, to broken ribs, broken nose, chipped teeth and being beaten unconscious with a spade or a stick, it might be wise to take words from the horse’s mouth: “So I was beating the shit out of him, and hitting him with a big stick, too, and it was the first time I thought ‘I could kill this guy.’ I just saw it, like on a screen – that if I hit him once more, that was going to be it.”

Onlookers, friends of Lennon and his wife, Cynthia, were appalled at so savage a beating being meted out on such a passive, gentle soul. It took Lennon more than a few days to calm down (most likely and hopefully from shame and guilt) to send Wooler the telegram quoted above. Next time he saw Wooler, he’d offer a more direct “sorry about that, Bob.” Luckily for Lennon, people didn’t seem to stay mad at him for long.

“He swore he’d never do anything like it again and, to my knowledge, he didn’t. Certainly for as long as we were together,” remembered Cynthia Lennon of the incident. Regardless, Bob Wooler was rarely as confident and assured in company again. He himself a homosexual, led a largely guarded and private life. He was from the generation that much less frequently was able to come to terms with his sexuality (he was some years older than he claimed to be), even after criminalisation had come to an end in 1969.

The story appeared in the Daily Mirror, a national newspaper, but was hushed up as the boys were on the cusp of the first serious, and permanent, wave of Beatlemania. That it didn’t become a national scandal in the UK like the ‘Bigger than Jesus’ story was in the USA a few years later says everything about the attitude toward violence, domestic or not, toward homosexuals in 1963. 

Bob Wooler has his place in several chapters of The Beatles’ story. He is credited as the writer of the first name order billing of ‘John, Paul, George & Pete (later Ringo),’ which in itself is a valuable piece of pop culture iconography.

Bob would appear at Beatles conventions in later years, and died in 2002. Thank you Cavern dwellers, and thank you Bob Wooler – the best of fellas.

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