The man who told the world about the Beatles
Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ press officer in the Sixties, witnessed history in the making. This is an abridged version of our interview with him, which is from Issue 3 of The Merseysider magazine. Photographs are from the Tony Barrow collection. Details of Tony’s acclaimed memoir of his years with the Beatles (recently re-published in an updated edition) are at the end of the article.
At the height of Beatlemania in the 1960s, a reporter asked John Lennon the secret of the group’s success. His reply? ‘We have a press agent.’
Lennon’s answer may have illustrated his famously dry wit, but it also contained more than a grain of truth. Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ press officer from 1962 to 1968, undoubtedly maximised the impact of a group who, when Brian Epstein first came to him for help, were an unknown Liverpool act still seeking a record contract. He carefully courted the British media during their rise then, once their home country had been conquered, shrewdly orchestrated the press and publicity campaigns which helped to ensure the Beatles became a worldwide phenomenon.
As a member of the Beatles’ inner circle, he also witnessed history in the making, and his memoir John, Paul, George, Ringo And Me (a new edition of which was recently published) is full of revealing stories and perceptive insights. He was there when the Beatles met a socially awkward Elvis Presley, saw John Lennon’s fear and panic when his remark that the Beatles were now more popular than Jesus threatened to alienate their American fanbase, and observed at first hand Brian Epstein’s tragic personal disintegration.
As Tony tells me, the origins of his remarkable career go right back to a school magazine he produced as a pupil at Merchant Taylors school in Crosby. ‘Without that, none of the rest might have happened. The official school magazine was pretty dull so I produced an alternative, “The IVa Flash”, named after the class I was in at the time. It was full of gossip and cartoons and sold like hot cakes. Even the teachers came to me for copies, mainly to see if they were in it.’ More formal recognition of Tony’s writing talent came when the school awarded him an essay prize. ‘I told them I wanted a journalism manual and when they said it was too expensive I paid them the difference and they got me the book.’
Emboldened by the success of his first journalistic venture, Tony approached the Liverpool Echo with a proposal for a record review column. ‘From an early age my two main interests were writing and popular music, especially jazz. I sent the Echo a sample column and was thrilled when they said they’d like to see me. I was 17 and still at school, so had to arrange my first meetings with them for the late afternoon. I used to stuff my school cap in my pocket and hope they wouldn’t realise I was just a schoolboy. I suspect they probably did know, because when they agreed to the column they asked me to think of a pseudonym. So the column appeared as Off The Record, by Disker. It started in April 1954 and continued until well into the Sixties.’
Tony’s youthful energy and entrepreneurial spirit also led to the promotion of gigs in and around Crosby. ‘While the members of the Beatles – then completely unknown to me – were gradually getting themselves together in various line-ups on one side of Liverpool, I was running jazz gigs and skiffle contests on the other side. I used local venues like St Luke’s Hall and Alexandra Hall. We called St Luke’s Hall the Hive of Jive, and Ringo Starr was actually in a group that entered one of the skiffle contests there – they came second. Another time I arranged for Lonnie Donegan, who was appearing at the Liverpool Empire, to come and draw the raffle. He was fine with the audience but in the car from the Empire kept complaining that he wasn’t getting paid anything.’
After he left school Tony went to Durham University, then after national service he wrote to several record companies in pursuit of a job, citing his Liverpool Echo column as proof of his credentials. ‘Decca responded and I moved to London to become what I believe was Britain’s only full-time sleevenote writer. I was still writing the Echo column, and between the two of them these experiences really broadened my taste in music. I was writing about everybody from Duke Ellington to Gracie Fields for Decca, and listening to a huge range of records for the column.’
It’s at this point that Brian Epstein enters the story. In December 1961 he wrote to ‘Disker’ at the Liverpool Echo, asking if he would feature the Beatles in his column. ‘He had no idea who I was, so must have been surprised when he got a reply from London.’ Epstein had not yet finalised a management deal with the Beatles, and Tony thinks he was trying to demonstrate to the group that he could raise their profile. Tony told him he couldn’t write about the Beatles until they released a record, but Epstein didn’t give up and arranged a meeting at Tony’s London office.
Tony has vivid memories of this first encounter. ‘He was very different from the kind of managers and show business agents I was used to dealing with. He was immaculately dressed, with a refined Oxbridge accent – you would never have dreamt that he was from Liverpool. I remember he had a dark blue, white spotted silk scarf; he carried on wearing that, or scarves very much like it, for years. He had a recording of the Beatles that he said had been made at the Cavern by Granada TV, though I think he’d actually made it himself. The sound quality was very poor and while it captured some of the excitement of the Cavern it really told you nothing about the musical talent of the Beatles. But I helped him get an audition for the group at Decca, who sat up when I told them he ran NEMS in Liverpool. As one of the most important record retailers in the north west, NEMS was important to them. Unfortunately the audition was a disaster, partly because Brian in his wisdom (or lack of it) saw Decca as a prestigious, upmarket record label and told the Beatles – I think these were almost his exact words – “None of those rock’n’roll ravers you play at the Cavern”. So the choice of material didn’t really help them to show what they were capable of. It’s not really surprising that other record companies subsequently followed Decca’s example and turned the Beatles down, because they were judging them on this audition tape.’
The breakthrough came when Brian Epstein met EMI’s George Martin, whose interest in the group led eventually to the release of their first single, Love Me Do, in October 1962. Epstein contacted Tony for advice on promoting the single, and after hearing his ideas asked him to put together a press kit for a one-off fee of £20. He also offered him a full-time job as the Beatles’ PR man, arranging for Tony and the Beatles to meet for a drink in a London pub, giving each party the chance to check the other out. They clicked; as Tony observes in his book, ‘Liverpudlians in exile tend to stick together. Like Masons, it’s a survival thing.’ Nevertheless, Tony was hesitant. He had a steady, secure job at Decca, had recently married his fiancée Corinne (also from Crosby) and had no experience as a press and publicity agent. But he was also warming to both the personalities and the music of the Beatles, and when Epstein said he’d double his Decca salary he agreed to join him.
As Love Me Do was followed at the beginning of 1963 by Please, Please Me (the Beatles’ first number one), Tony worked diligently to secure maximum media exposure for the group. He had several interesting strategies, including for example careful cultivation of the regional press. ‘I knew the power of the Liverpool Echo locally, and thought that other provincial papers probably had a similar influence. A lot of London-based PR people were dismissive of the regional press, but I always thought they were very important. I took the view that where press releases, photos and review copies were concerned, you were better off sending out too many than too few. I also arranged for the Beatles to do a lot of telephone interviews. In those early months they’d sit in my office for four or five hours at a time, talking to provincial journalists. Again it was something I’d picked up from my work with the Echo. Very few of the top recording stars of the time would bother to speak to me, but when they did I really appreciated it. Even at the height of Beatlemania we attempted to make the Beatles more accessible than many other big names were. We adopted the same approach when the Beatles were touring abroad: we’d have a massive press conference every day, at every new city we arrived in, and local journalists would be invited. Of course we had strong relationships with national newspapers and the music press as well. On the big American tours we’d have parties of British and American journalists and disc jockeys travelling on the plane with us.’
Looking back at this period, Tony is careful not to exaggerate his role in the Beatles’ meteoric rise. ‘It was the Beatles who made themselves big, by virtue of their personalities and their great records. It was the same when they took off in America: everyone from Ed Sullivan to [concert promoter] Sid Bernstein and a multitude of others have sought credit for breaking the Beatles in the States, but ultimately it was all down to the Beatles’ own talent.’
Nevertheless, Tony’s assiduous efforts behind the scenes clearly helped. Along with much else, during his time with the Beatles he coined the phrase “the Fab Four”, wrote numerous LP and EP sleevenotes, was the ghostwriter for many magazine pieces attributed to individual members of the Beatles and compiled the strip cartoon for the Magical Mystery Tour album package. The famous Beatles Christmas records (flexidiscs distributed to fan club members) were also his idea. This was actually a damage limitation exercise, a goodwill gesture intended to compensate for the fact that the small team running the fan club were struggling to cope with huge quantities of mail.
During his six years with the Beatles, Tony spent a lot of time in their company, though he was careful to avoid too much mixing of business and pleasure. ‘Inevitably there were occasions when the two overlapped – often enjoyably – but I thought it was important to keep a degree of professional distance. I never went out of my way to become intimate friends with them, and it’s interesting that those who did often came off worse in the end. I was probably closest to John, which is ironic because he was initially very hostile towards me. I think essentially he was afraid of everybody, and considered everyone an enemy until they’d proved themselves a friend. He had this surface bravado but underneath was very unsure of himself. The rather cruel sense of humour he had was one of the ways he coped with this, and in the early days he certainly directed it at me. Our relationship turned the corner when we had a late night drink together at the Speakeasy, a London nightclub. We chatted about things outside of show business. I remember us talking about mortgages – needless to say, his was rather more substantial than mine. Anyway, that night really broke the ice and after that we got on well.’
Paul was more welcoming from the off. ‘I got to know Paul fastest, because he had a flair for public relations himself, and always had a co-operative attitude. He was the showman within the group and he’s still a showman, from his bone marrow to his fingertips.’ Tony remembers George as good-natured and easy-going, but also as the Beatle who kept a close eye on the money, regularly asking Brian Epstein for updates on their financial situation. As for Ringo, Tony thinks he never fully recovered from being the last to join the group. ‘When Ringo became a Beatle the others had already been playing together for several years, and he always struck me as a little bit of an outsider. There were other factors as well – he’d missed out on quite a lot of schooling through ill health, and I think that gave him something of an inferiority complex. He tended to be quiet at press conferences, and in the dressing room as well, but he could be the master of saying it all in a very few words and came out with some great one-liners.’ The Beatles’ songs A Hard Day’s Night and Eight Days A Week are both said to have been inspired by phrases originally used by Ringo.
Within the space of a few years, Tony saw the Beatles’ enthusiasm for touring wane, and in August 1966 they performed their last public concert, in San Francisco (Paul McCartney asked Tony to make a cassette recording of the show). A year later Brian Epstein was dead, the victim of an accidental drug overdose. Tony continued working with the Beatles, but the individual members were now beginning to go their separate ways, and as a group they were seeking increasing control over their own affairs. In 1968 Tony felt it was time to bow out and he left to set up his own PR company.
Through the Seventies Tony represented many British acts, including Cilla Black, Helen Shapiro and the Kinks, as well as handling the publicity for numerous American stars on their European tours. In 1980 he returned to what he describes as his ‘first love’, freelance journalism. This included working as the editor of a group of magazines linked to annual trade events in Cannes – a task which enviably involved six trips a year to the south of France. He’s also written books, notably a very successful guide to working in the music industry and, of course, his Beatles memoir John, Paul, George, Ringo And Me – unquestionably one of the most accurate and authoritative books on the Beatles, as well as an absorbing, entertaining read.
Tony now lives with his wife Corinne in Morecambe. ‘It’s a perfect spot,’ he says. ‘Five minutes from the sea in one direction, and five minutes from the M6 in the other.’ A journey which took him from Crosby to London, and around the world with the most successful music act ever, has now brought him back to the north west, not too far from where a young teenager once thought it would be a good idea if his school had a more interesting magazine.
Photographs from the Tony Barrow collection.
Tony Barrow’s memoir, John, Paul, George, Ringo And Me is published by Andre Deutsch.
The full version of this article is in Issue 3 of The Merseysider magazine.