By Greg Buzwell, Curator, Contemporary Literary Archives.
‘Does anyone seriously believe that Beatles music will be an unthinkingly accepted part of daily life all over the world in the 2000s?’ wrote the philosopher and politician Bryan Magee in the February 1967 issue of The Listener. The passage of time has subsequently given a resounding answer to Magee’s question, and it turned out not to be the one he was obviously expecting. His comment highlights the now almost eye-wateringly unbelievable notion that, even after Beatlemania, several albums including A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul and Revolver - and on the verge of the Summer of Love and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - the Beatles’ lasting contribution to popular culture was still being questioned in certain quarters.
Someone else also pondering the Beatles and their legacy in 1967 was the journalist Hunter Davies. The British Library has recently acquired Davies’s archive of Beatles-related material consisting of photographs, press cuttings, concert programmes and ephemera together with the notebooks he kept when carrying out his research for his 1968 biography of the band – The Beatles: The Authorised Biography. Hunter interviewed dozens of people prior to writing his book, including of course John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, but also wives and girlfriends including Cynthia Lennon and Jane Asher, along with other key contributors to the band’s success such as their manager Brian Epstein; their producer George Martin; Astrid Kirchherr whose early photographs of the group were instrumental in defining their look, and their road manager Mal Evans along with many, many others. Among the collection there is also a draft of Hunter’s original letter to Brian Epstein suggesting the idea that he write an authorised biography of the Beatles and asking for Brian’s approval.
One of the points Hunter makes in the letter is that the book would provide a record of the Beatles phenomenon and allow everyone involved with the band to have their say while events were still relatively fresh in their memories. In essence the book would be, in Hunter’s words, ‘not a fan book, but a full study of what happened and why during the last five years’. Perhaps, even in 1967, this was ambitious. In particular the band’s recollection of their early days in Hamburg was already a little hazy. Unsurprising given the relentless nature of the gigs they had to play and the outrageous nightlife offered to those on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn where the clubs the Beatles played were situated. When talking to the Beatles about their Hamburg days Hunter’s notebooks contain details of John Lennon sleeping behind the stage and of Pete Best, the band’s drummer before Ringo Starr joined in 1962, being so exhausted he once collapsed over his drum kit mid-performance. Then again, all the more reason to have those recollections and thoughts put down on paper before they became even more lost in the haze between actuality and memory.
The highlight of the collection is undoubtedly to be found in one of the notebooks in which Hunter recorded his interviews with Paul McCartney. At one point Hunter asked Paul to describe how John Lennon and George Harrison looked back in their late-1950s pre-Beatles days with the band The Quarrymen. Paul duly obliged, but he also borrowed Hunter’s notebook and quickly sketched George and John: the former all boyishly innocent with upswept hair and bushy eyebrows and the latter with sideburns, glasses and a stare firmly focused on the future. There’s something touching about the sketches – an authenticity and affection that comes from Paul reflecting on two friends and the impression they made on him in the very first days of their friendship.
Also among the archive is the transcript of a television interview, the recording of which is now thought to be lost, between Hunter Davies and Ringo Starr dated December 15th 1970. A date by which point the band had effectively split. In the interview Ringo talks about how one of his childhood ambitions, at least according to his mother, was to be a tramp and to wander the world. There’s also a list of the questions Hunter is hoping to have answered in the interview, such as whether Ringo worries that film companies only want him in their movies so they can put his name on the poster; whether he still goes back to Liverpool to revisit his roots and whether his fame prevents him from ordinary pleasures such as evenings out in a pub with friends. Much of the interview comes across as a touching attempt to discover Ringo the private individual, husband and father beneath the surface glamour of Ringo the rock-star drummer.
At its heart though the archive is really about Hunter’s authorised biography of the Beatles. First published in 1968 and the only book about the group ever written with the backing of the whole band and those within their inner circle. As such it offers an invaluable insight into what made the Beatles tick, and how they managed to achieve so much in such a relatively short space of time. There have been, quite literally, thousands of books written about the Beatles and while they all offer something perhaps only a dozen or so are absolutely essential to anyone who loves the music and wishes to know more about how it all came about. Hunter’s book is definitely towards the top of that select list and his archive reveals a great deal about how he put it together.
To learn more about The Beatles: The Authorised Biography, along with the archive behind its creation and Hunter Davies’s long association with the Beatles, please follow the link below for details of an event on November 11th 2022 featuring Hunter in conversation: Hunter Davies: Writing The Beatles.