Just when you thought all the Beatles related anniversary shenanigans were over, along comes another one. Not as high profile as the “fifty years of ‘Sgt Pepper’s…” celebrations, but every bit as significant.
In the late fifties, if you were in a beat combo and you wanted to record your material, your options were fairly limited. Professional recording studios were out of the reach of a typical skiffle group and places where amateurs could make their demos were few and far between. In July 1958 however, a bunch of Liverpudlian lads made their way over to Percy Phillips’ Victorian terraced house at 38 Kensington, to make an acetate of two songs. They scraped together the 17 shillings and six pence (that’s about 87p in 2017) and dragged their motley collection of instruments to Phillips’ modest studio, set up in the living room of his house. It was their first recording session. The band comprised John Lowe (piano), Colin Hanton (drums) and three other lads on guitar…John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Whatever happened to those guys?
The Quarrymen recorded two songs at that session, the date of which is uncertain – the “official” date – i.e. the one that is etched onto the blue commemorative plaque installed on the front of the house in 2005, states, 14th July 1958, but some evidence points at it being two days earlier, on 12th July. What is for certain is that the five piece skiffle group knocked out a version of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” and an original composition – “In Spite Of All The Danger”, credited to McCartney and Harrison and sung by Lennon. In Marc Lewisohn’s excellent book “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions”, McCartney states, “It says on the label that it was me and George but I think it was actually written by me, and George played the guitar solo! We were mates and nobody was into copyrights and publishing, nobody understood – we actually used to think when we came down to London that songs belonged to everyone. I’ve said this a few times but it’s true, we really thought they just were in the air, and that you couldn’t actually own one. So you can imagine the publishers saw us coming! ‘Welcome boys, sit down. That’s what you think, is it?’ So that’s what we used to do in those days – and because George did the solo we figured that he ‘wrote’ the solo”.
The recording process was as basic as it could be. The band crowded around a single microphone and recorded straight onto a 10” acetate and aluminium disc – in the style of the “American Epic: The Sessions” recordings of 2017. The band couldn’t afford the extra time for overdubs, so it had to be performed live. Once again, from Lewisohn’s “Complete Beatles Recording Sessions”, McCartney says “I remember we all went down on the bus with our instruments – amps and guitars – and the drummer went separately. We waited in the little waiting room outside while somebody else made their demo and then it was our turn. We just went in the room, hardly saw the fella because he was next door in a little control booth. ‘OK, what are you going to do?’ We ran through it very quickly, quarter of an hour, and it was all over”. At the end of the session, the band found they were two shillings and three pence short of the fee and Phillips (a “naffy old man,” as drummer Colin Hanton later recalled) kept the record until payment could be made in full. One copy was made and the band agreed that each member could have it for a week. When it got to Lowe, he hung onto it for 23 years. He eventually sold it to McCartney in 1981 for an undisclosed sum. Possibly more than 17 shillings and six pence.
Some sources claim that the band returned to Phillips’ studio in early 1960 to cut a version of “One After 909”, but sadly, no copy of this can be found. Philips’ studio also hosted many other notable Liverpool artists, including Ken Dodd, Marty Wilde and The Swinging Blue Jeans. The recording of the two proto-Beatles songs is depicted in the 2009 film “Nowhere Boy”.
Both songs were made commercially available on “Anthology 1” in 1995 and “In Spite Of All The Danger” was a feature of McCartney’s live shows on his 2005 and 2016 tours. Hanton and Lowe still play as The Quarrymen – as for Lennon, McCartney and Harrison…they ended up, in the words of Ringo Starr, “sort of…unforgettable”.