On July 6 1961, 45 years ago, art student Bill Harry and his 17-year-old girlfriend Virginia, borrowed £50 and launched a newspaper which was to radically affect the future of popular music.
Bill coined the phrase Mersey Beat as a name for the paper, based on his image of the entire area of Merseyside he’d cover. The name has now become an established phrase internationally.
The previous year Bill, together with John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe and Rod Murray, as ‘the Dissenters’, made a vow to make Liverpool famous. John was to do it with his music, Stuart and Rod with their painting and Bill with his writing.
John succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams with the Beatles, Stuart died tragically at the age of 21, but his artwork has survived and is internationally recognised, and Bill succeeded with his creation of Mersey Beat.
He launched the first issue with a story he’d commissioned John to write, which Bill titled ‘Being A Short Diversion on the Dubious Origins of Beatles, Translated From the John Lennon.’ This was John’s first published work and included the story of a man coming down on a ‘Flaming Pie’, which inspired Paul McCartney to compose his album and single ‘Flaming Pie’ decades later. John also spelt Paul’s surname as ‘McCartrey.’ We’ll never know whether this was a mistake or an example of John’s sense of humour.
Bill also collected a fashion piece from his friend Priscilla White and also wrote a feature on her in the first issue. Working into the early hours of the morning he forgot her surname, but remembered it was a colour, so he wrote, “Cilla Black is a Liverpool girl starting on the road to fame.” Cilla came into the office to tell him he’d got her name wrong, but said she liked it so much she was going to keep it, despite her Dad’s objections!.
5,000 copies of the first issue were printed and Bill took it round to all the clubs and record shops. He asked to see the manager of NEMS record store, Brian Epstein, who took a dozen copies, but found the demand in his store so enthusiastic that he ordered 12 dozen copies of Issue No 2.
This was the issue in which the entire front cover was dominated by the headline ‘Beatles Sign Record Contract”, with the full story of their German recording of ‘My Bonnie,’ together with Astrid Kircherr’s first published photograph of the black leather Beatles in Hamburg.
Epstein was so impressed with the newspaper that he became the record reviewer from Issue No. 3 on August 3 and his advertisements for Nems appeared on pages with the Beatles articles. Brian invited Bill to lunch at the Basnett Bar on a few occasions to ask all about the local scene, particularly the group who seemed to dominate the paper – the Beatles.
Bill featured the Beatles every issue which led Cavern disc jockey Bob Wooler to approach him to tell him that all the other groups were so annoyed at the saturation coverage that he should re-name the paper ‘the Mersey Beatle.’ Instead, he later introduced a regular ‘Mersey Beatle’ page.
Bob also approached him with a group called the Mavericks to ask permission to name them after the newspaper, as Bill has registered the name. He agreed, and the group changed their name to the Merseybeats.
John Lennon was so delighted with seeing his work in print that he came to the office and gave Bill everything he’d ever worked on – around 250 stories, poems and drawings, saying he could have them to do with what he will.
Bill decided to use the stories as a regular column in Mersey Beat using the pseudonym ‘Beatcomber’, stories such as ‘Small Stan’, ‘Around and About’ and ‘Liddypool.’ The writings were to inspire his first two books ‘In His Own Write’ and ‘A Spaniard In The Works.’
Mersey Beat immediately sold out and Bill and Virginia moved from their tiny attic office to the floor below, but during the move all of John’s works were lost. When they told John in the Blue Angel club, he cried on Virginia’s shoulder.
Paul McCartney was also closely involved in Mersey Beat and wrote to Bill whenever he travelled. He wrote about the Beatles backing a stripper called Janice, his trip to Paris with John to celebrate John’s 21st birthday and the Beatles first visit to Hamburg, which Bill also featured as columns, illustrated with photographs by Mike McCartney.
The full page feature on the Beatles by Bob Wooler in the 31 August issue, describing them as ‘rock revolutionaries, and ending with the words “Such are the fantastic Beatles. I don’t think anything like them will happen again.” Probably the most prophetic article about the group ever written.
Brian Epstein’s story that he first heard of the Beatles in October of that year when a young lad came into the store to ask for a copy of the record which Mersey Beat had been promoting is apocryphal.
As Paul McCartney was to write: Brian knew perfectly well who the Beatles were – they were on the front page of the second issue of Mersey Beat, the local music paper. Brian sold twelve dozen copies of this issue, so many that he invited the editor, Bill Harry, into his office for a drink to discuss why it was selling so well and to ask if he could write a record review column for it.
“He is unlikely to have missed the ‘Beatles Sign Record Contract’ banner headline, reporting their session with Tony Sheridan for Bert Kaempfert nor, with his penchant for rough boys, is it likely that he passed over the photograph of the leather-clad Beatles without giving them a second glance.”
In fact, as Epstein himself admitted, he phoned Bill Harry to ask him if he could arrange to smooth the way for him to visit the Cavern to see the Beatles during a lunchtime session. Bill contacted cavern owner Ray McFall to arrange it.
Towards the end of the year, Bill held a poll in Mersey Beat to determine who the leading group in Liverpool was. Counting up the votes, Bill and Virginia found that the outfit with the most votes was Rory Storm & the Hurricanes (with drummer Ringo Starr), but they cancelled 40 of those votes to make the Beatles the No.1 band.
Then they organised a Poll concert at the Majestic Ballroom, Birkenhead and when the Beatles appeared on stage, Bill presented them with their first-ever award, the Mersey Beat Shield – and the cover of Issue No.13 was to become an iconic image with its photo of the Beatles under the headline ‘Beatles Top Poll!’
A copy of this issue sold in America in March 2006 for $25,000!
To celebrate the 45th anniversary Mersey Beat has now gone online at www.mersey-beat.com featuring articles by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Pete Best. Brian Epstein writes of the Beatles first recording session and their first American tour. There are also almost 200 features on all the major artists of the era and never-before-seen photos of the Beatles and other artists.