Every now and then, there comes a time when, as self-professed lovers of all things music, we revisit some of music history’s most defining points. Today, we are looking back at possibly the most impactful moment in the history of popular music — the cultural equivalent of the big bang, you could say. Any guesses on what this could be?
The meeting of Richards and Jagger? The day Jimi Hendrix flew over to London? Woodstock ’69? Close. Today we are re-examining the moment that John Lennon and Paul McCartney first met. This would set the wheels in motion for a cataclysm in music, culture and society as a whole.
Together, the pair, alongside future friends and bandmate’s George Harrison and Ringo Starr, would become the most successful band of all time. They compiled a back catalogue that has influenced everyone from Nirvana to U2 and even Black Sabbath. Before the band’s formation in 1960, and everything else that followed, came the chance meeting of Lennon and McCartney, in the most unlikely of places, July 1957.
The garden fete of St Peter’s Church, Woolton, Liverpool. This is where the two unlikely rock gods would first meet — let that sink in. The irony of two of rock’s progenitor’s meeting in the hallowed setting of a Church.
John Lennon’s first band, a skiffle group the Quarrymen, were playing on stage behind the church. After all, they were simpler times, and the church had more of a prominent role in communities than it does now. Perhaps, this decline in influence can be attributed to the explosion in the medium of popular culture and the defiant atheism that the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll brought.
In the Quarrymen was the lead vocalist and guitarist John Lennon, guitarist Eric Griffiths, Colin Hanton on drums, banjo player Rod Davies, percussionist Pete Shotton playing the washboard and Len Garry on bass. Amongst all the cake stalls, games, police dog demonstrations and the traditional crowning of the Rose Queen, the stage the Quarrymen were playing on was on the back of a lorry. How very typical of the age.
John Lennon’s younger sister, Julia Bird, remembered the day in her 2007 book Imagine This: “The entertainment began at 2pm with the opening procession, which entailed one or two wonderfully festooned lorries crawling at a snail’s pace through the village on their ceremonious way to the Church field”.
Bird’s account transports us back to the halcyon days of the ’50s: “The first lorry carried the Rose Queen, seated on her throne, surrounded by her retinue, all dressed in pink and white satin, sporting long ribbons and hand-made roses in their hair,” she added. “These girls had been chosen from the Sunday school groups, on the basis of age and good behaviour.”
In what almost seems like a cultish affair, with the people of Woolton paying their dues to an imaginary Queen, Bird remembers Lennon and his rag-tag bunch of merry men making their appearance. “The following lorry carried various entertainers, including The Quarrymen. The boys were up there on the back of the moving lorry trying to stay upright and play their instruments at the same time,” Julia continued, before adding: “John gave up battling with balance and sat with his legs hanging over the edge, playing his guitar and singing. He continued all through the slow, slow journey as the lorry puttered its way along. Jackie and I leaped alongside the lorry, with our mother laughing and waving at John, making him laugh. He seemed to be the only one who was really trying to play and we were really trying to put him off.”
After their daytime set, the Quarrymen were also pencilled in to play that evening. In between sets, the boys would take in turns with their friends and other locals to play popular numbers on their various different instruments, a ’50s version of a musical open house. During this break, sometime Quarrymen member, Ivan Vaughan, introduced the Quarrymen to one of his friends from the Liverpool Institute, a “confident” fifteen-year-old named Paul McCartney.
Two years younger than Lennon, McCartney actually showed Lennon how to tune his guitar properly. He then proceeded to smash through renditions of hits by the contemporary rock ‘n’ roll stars such as Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Little Richard. This took the Quarrymen by surprise, who were over the moon with the talent they had just witnessed. This was the moment that Paul McCartney truly burst onto the scene.
In 1995, McCartney gave his own account of the event: “I remember coming into the fete and seeing all the sideshows. And also hearing all this great music wafting in from this little Tannoy system. It was John and the band,” he said.
The soon to be Beatles bassist remembers first laying eyes on John Lennon: “I remember I was amazed and thought, ‘Oh great’, because I was obviously into the music. I remember John singing a song called ‘Come Go With Me’. He’d heard it on the radio. He didn’t really know the verses, but he knew the chorus. The rest he just made up himself.”
He gives great insight into the pull of the raw talent that the young John Lennon exuded: “I just thought, ‘Well, he looks good, he’s singing well and he seems like a great lead singer to me.’ Of course, he had his glasses off, so he really looked suave. I remember John was good. He was really the only outstanding member, all the rest kind of slipped away.”
By February 1958, the Beatles’ core trio of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison would be crystallised. From there, they would travel the globe and change the face of music forever, and McCartney and Lennon would form a beyond that transcended the earthly realm. However, that is a story for another day.
Listen to McCartney talk about Lennon, below.