The Beat Makers by Anthony Hogan (Amberley Publishing)
Every now and then you read a book that you think deserves never to go out of print. Anthony Hogan’s The Beat Makers is one of those books. There have of course been hundreds of books about the Beatles (and we’ll be looking at another one shortly). There have also been a fair number of books about Merseybeat, usually focusing on the second tier of bands and singers – acts such as Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Searchers and Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas. But I don’t know of another book that looks in such depth at the careers of artists who were popular in Liverpool (and usually Hamburg as well) but who for a variety of reasons – sheer bad luck being the most common – somehow missed out on the real big time.
I can’t recall, for instance, a book that devotes almost twenty pages to Ted ‘Kingsize’ Taylor. A giant of a man (hence his nickname), he was also a huge talent. I remember seeing him on Ready Steady Go and rushing out to buy Somebody’s Always Trying. A powerful rhythm ‘n’ blues vocalist with a style reminiscent of Solomon Burke, he possibly slipped up by spending too much time in Germany (though falling out with Brian Epstein can’t have helped either). But on the other hand he lived happily in the country for a number of years, enjoying hit records and twice marrying German women.
There are also chapters on Johnny ‘Guitar’ Byrne (who played alongside Ringo Starr in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and is also thought to be the first Merseybeat artist to perform at the Cavern club, where he appeared in 1957), Geoff Nugent of the Undertakers (this chapter incorporates an account of his career that Nugent himself wrote before he died) and The Liverbirds, among others. The last of these were a truly groundbreaking act: probably the first all-female rock band, they showed tremendous spirit and determination in forging a career in such a male-dominated environment. They toured Japan and like Kingsize Taylor were popular in Germany, where they had a Top 5 hit. It’s shocking to read that they apparently didn’t have an official UK record release until a compilation of older recordings came out in 2010.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the book is the extended discussion of Liverpool’s African Caribbean music scene in the Fifties and Sixties. Hogan passionately believes this is an aspect of the city’s cultural history that has been shamefully overlooked, a passion that is perhaps reflected in the bold choice of a photo of little known guitarist Norman Frazer as the main image on the book’s cover. He evokes well the atmosphere of Toxteth clubs and pubs such as the Masonic and the Whitehouse, where John Lennon and Paul McCartney were often amongst the regulars enjoying acts such as the Casuals, the Valentinos and the accomplished jazz guitarist Odie Taylor. The Beatles actually backed the Chants, a superb Liverpool doowop group, when they appeared at the Cavern. Eddie Amoo, one of the Chants, went on to join the Real Thing, whose You To Me Are Everything was a No 1 hit in 1976 (you can read a lengthy interview with Eddie Amoo in Issue 4 of The Merseysider magazine).
There’s a whole chapter on Derry Wilkie, a black singer who for a time was a member of Howie Casey and the Seniors, the first Merseybeat group to have a record released (in early 1962). A real showman, Wilkie at the beginning of a performance would often materialize as if from nowhere in the middle of the audience and execute a mesmerizing slow motion walk to the stage. He had an eventful life, serving time in an Italian prison for possession of cannabis and being a member for a while of Screaming Lord Sutch’s backing group the Savages (when they performed Jack The Ripper Wilkie would dress up as a woman while Sutch chased after him brandishing a knife).
It’s interesting to read what became of all these artists after their Sixties heyday had passed. Kingsize Taylor returned to Liverpool and opened a butcher’s shop. Geoff Nugent sang on cruise ships. Johnny Guitar became a milkman and later an ambulance driver. Some of the performers are sadly no longer with us, but most of them returned to music in their later years, once again entertaining Liverpool audiences as they had forty or fifty years earlier.
The Beat Makers is well researched. Hogan, who’s also the author of a book on Rory Storm (click HERE to read our review), clearly has good local contacts and has spoken to numerous sources, including some of the artists themselves and friends, relatives and associates of the relevant acts. There are numerous photographs, both black and white and colour, many of which I imagine have never been published before. The book’s a treasure trove of information, but even so it probably wouldn’t be appropriate to describe it as a definitive study of the artists who feature in it. There are no discographies and the book doesn’t have an index. Occasionally it’s a little hazy over details. We’re told that Derry Wilkie turned down the chance to record a song that later became a hit for Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch, but not the name of the song. Similarly, Ben E King is said to have written a song for the Dennisons that they subsequently recorded, but the title isn’t given. But in fairness to Hogan he admits that he’s mining a rich seam that still has much to yield. At the end of his admirable chapter on the African Caribbean music scene he modestly concludes, ‘The book will surely one day come that will document in detail these amazing performers and all that they did.’ While applauding the sentiment we should also acknowledge the valuable contribution Hogan himself has now made to our understanding of the Merseybeat era.
Inevitably Daniel K Longman’s The Beatles’ Landmarks In Liverpool doesn’t have the same level of originality, though it’s still an enjoyable and informative read. Not only have there been countless books about the Beatles, Longman’s subject – Liverpool (and Wirral) locations that have strong associations with the Fab Four – has been tackled before in books with titles such as The Beatles’ Liverpool, The Beatles: Liverpool Landscapes and John Lennon’s Liverpool. What is probably new is his ‘then and now’ approach, which he’s previously employed in books on Liverpool and the Wirral. The written commentary on each location is accompanied by a period photograph plus a contemporary colour photograph (taken by Bob Edwards) to compare it with. It’s heartening to see how much of the city the Beatles knew still survives, but it can also be disappointing to see how much has been lost. In the latter category is the NEMS building on Whitechapel, thoughtlessly demolished just a few years ago. Here was the record shop managed by Brian Epstein, from where one lunchtime he made the legendary short walk over to the Cavern to see the Beatles for the first time. And upstairs were the offices where Epstein had meetings with the Beatles and other artists he managed. Gone too is the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton (where the Beatles played 27 times), but at least that fell victim to a fire and not an idiotic planning decision.
More positively, the Casbah club, in the basement of the West Derby house where the family of the Beatles’ first drummer Pete Best lived, is remarkably well preserved, and other locations such as Ye Cracke pub, the Liverpool Empire and St Peter’s Church in Woolton are little changed. Penny Lane still has ‘the shelter in the middle of the roundabout’ that the Beatles sang about. John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s childhood homes are now owned by the National Trust and George Harrison’s house in Speke, while less celebrated, still stands. One of Ringo Starr’s early homes in one of the ‘Welsh streets’ was recently saved after much controversy over its planned demolition.
The book has a rough chronological structure, enabling Longman to trace the Beatles’ lives and careers as he writes about the different landmarks. It’s a story that will be familiar to many readers but he tells it well. The period photographs are also very well chosen. There’s a striking one of St John’s Ambulancemen tending to hysterical fans in a side street by Liverpool Town Hall when the Beatles attended a reception there in 1964. Aside from an ugly pay and display parking machine this street looks much the same today.
There are one or two glitches – it’s a little odd to see Little Richard described as ‘an American singer-songwriter’ – but Longman has written a useful guide to a city that, as both these books confirm, is steeped in musical history.
The Beat Makers by Anthony Hogan and The Beatles’ Landmarks In Liverpool by Daniel K Longman are both published by Amberley Publishing, priced £14.99 each.