07 May 2009
The Beatles created their immortal music behind closed doors and far
from prying eyes. As his famous biography of The Beatles is reissued
in a 40th anniversary edition, Cumbrian writer Hunter Davies tells
Roger Lytollis about his year in the Fab Four's secret world
To millions of people in the 1960s it sounded like the best job on
earth: spend a year with The Beatles at the height of their powers.
Talk to them at home, meet their families, watch them at work in
Abbey Road studios as they conjure up the soundtrack to the 20th century.
Hunter Davies got the job. As The Beatles' only official biographer,
the Cumbrian writer had unparallelled access to the Fab Four throughout 1967.
It was a very good year. Already the biggest act pop music had ever
seen, The Beatles were recording what would become their most famous
album Sergeant Pepper when Davies first pitched up at Abbey Road
with his notebook.
He was there for the world's first global satellite broadcast as The
Beatles debuted All You Need Is Love. He was there when the wheels
started to come off as the band heard about the death of their
manager Brian Epstein.
And he was one of the very few outsiders to ever see John Lennon and
Paul McCartney writing together.
Just like The Beatles' music, Hunter Davies's book called simply
The Beatles has endured. It has never been out of print since it
appeared at the end of 1968 and a 40th anniversary edition hits the
In the mid-60s Davies, who grew up on Carlisle's St Ann's estate and
now has a house at Loweswater, was a young journalist living in
London and becoming as obsessed with The Beatles as the rest of the world.
He had interviewed Paul McCartney for the Sunday Times and decided
that The Beatles deserved a serious book, documenting their rise to
the summit and describing the view from the top.
McCartney agreed and helped him draft a letter to Epstein. The deal
was done. Publisher Heinemann paid a £3,000 advance, £2,000 of which
went to the author. Davies began work in January 1967, on his 31st birthday.
"It was exciting to meet them," he recalls. "But I worried that I'd
be asking them the same boring questions they'd been asked a million
times. So I decided to spend the first six months interviewing their
friends and relations, building up background before seeing The Beatles again."
He hoped that bringing them news and gossip from back home in
Liverpool would increase their interest.
"Unless, of course, they were now so fame-drunk and success-sodden
that they had ceased to have any interest in where they had come from."
They still cared, or so they said, about those they left behind.
Davies detailed the families who had to abandon their homes, such as
Ringo Starr's mother and stepfather who moved out when they could no
longer live with fans turning up at all hours, stealing their
letterbox and chipping bits off their front door. John Lennon's Aunt
Mimi moved away as well, and sent buttons from John's old clothes to
fans all over the world.
Davies tracked down The Beatles' first drummer, Pete Best, who was
sacked by Brian Epstein because none of Best's former colleagues had
the courage to tell him themselves.
Best was now slicing bread for £18 a week. When Davies told The
Beatles, "They showed little reaction, though Paul did make a face.
John asked a few more questions, but then forgot about it, and they
all went back to the song they were recording."
The Beatles, 1967 vintage, were richer, more successful and more
yearned for than any other men on the planet. The rest of us may be
pleased to hear that this didn't necessarily make them happy.
Lennon was bored and distant. He could be silent for hours, wondering
why even being a Beatle wasn't enough. He had forgotten how to use
the phone, having grown used to people making calls on his behalf.
George Harrison was absorbed by India and tired of hearing adolescent screams.
Starr was insecure about his future since the band had stopped touring.
Only McCartney seemed consistently content, but even he was grappling
with the end of his relationship to Jane Asher while trying to keep
The Beatles alive.
Davies says: "I looked forward equally to my conversations with each
of them, but perhaps enjoyed Paul's and John's company most. They
were also interested in my world, life at large, discussing topics of
the day, that's if it wasn't one of John's days for not talking to anyone.
"The most enjoyable part of doing the whole book was being present at
Abbey Road. I remember thinking when they were recording Sgt Pepper,
'If they fall out with me and I get chucked out, whatever happens
I'll be grateful for this experience.'"
One of the book's most fascinating sections describes Lennon and
McCartney meeting at McCartney's house, just around the corner from Abbey Road.
Davies watched as they sat in the work room at the top of the house,
writing With A Little Help From My Friends. Singing lines to each
other, scribbling them on the backs of envelopes, making musical history.
The author would sometimes pick up these scraps from the studio
floor, with The Beatles' permission. He's since given many of them to
the British Museum and his will bequeaths the remainder to the nation.
The nation should be grateful. Last year Lennon's lyrics for A Day in
the Life were auctioned in New York for £1.3 million.
Davies spent just over a year in The Beatles' lives, until the spring
of 1968 when they went to India with their spiritual guru Maharishi
Writing up a year's worth of material was complicated by an
uncomfortable trade-off. Unprecedented access was granted on
condition that the book's principal characters could demand changes
to the manuscript.
References to the girls and the drugs were toned down. Brian
Epstein's homosexuality was concealed, at the insistence of Epstein's mother.
Davies was upset years later when in an interview Lennon described
the book as 'bull****". Much of the toning down had been done to
appease Lennon's Aunt Mimi. Lennon had insisted that there should be
nothing in its pages to upset her. He wrote to Davies before
publication, warning "Mimi is worried SICK."
Despite its few splashes of whitewash, the book was well-received.
Thousands of Beatles books have been published in the 40 years since
but Davies's work remains the definitive text. The band broke up a
year after it appeared. Never again would an outsider bring back news
from The Beatles' secret world.
Davies remained on friendly terms with his subjects, especially Paul
McCartney. In December 1968 Davies and his wife, Carlisle-born
novelist Margaret Forster, were living in Portugal.
McCartney turned up one night with his new girlfriend, Linda Eastman,
and her daughter, Heather. They stayed for a fortnight.
In 1981, five months after John Lennon's murder, McCartney rang
Davies and spoke at length about his frustration at being accused of
For more than 20 years Davies refused to talk about his best-known
book. "I just got sick of it," he says. "It was as if it was the only
book I've ever written.
"In 1966 my first novel, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush was
published. That was a major event for me. It's never that exciting
again after the first book.
"But that's not in print 40 years later, while The Beatles book is.
I've three books that have been in print constantly. The Beatles
book, The Glory Game [his 1972 book about a season at Tottenham
Hotspur] and A Walk Around the Lakes.
"The success of The Beatles was about 95 per cent down to them. I
just did a straightforward hack job. I got it out of them. That's the
first stage, which is harder than people might think. The second
stage is knocking it into shape.
"Over the years hundreds of lines from it have been used in other
books without any credit. They just lift lots of quotes as if they
were the ones talking to them. It used to annoy me. Now I just blank it.
"I'm proud of the fact I did the book. It's not brilliantly written.
It's a bit staccato and a bit jagged but it goes like the clappers.
At the end I didn't stand back and sum up because it was still going on."
To their fans, it still is. Davies himself remains rapt by The
Beatles's music and by the way these four young Scousers changed the world.
He has amassed hundreds of pieces of memorabilia, from concert
tickets to bubblegum cards. In 1975 Davies was burgled and one of the
items stolen was a copy of the Sergeant Pepper album, signed by all
four Beatles. He claimed £3.50 on the insurance. Today a signed
Sergeant Pepper is worth about £50,000.
The new edition of his book includes an introduction by Davies,
bringing the story up to date with Harrison's death and McCartney's
marriage and divorce.
There's also the handwritten lyric to a lost Harrison song which
Davies found in a drawer, and a photograph of The Beatles in a lift
at Carlisle's Lonsdale cinema in 1963.
"I could spend the rest of my life going around giving talks about
The Beatles," he says.
"But I say the same thing I said to The Beatles when I was persuading
them to let me do their biography.
"I said 'From now on, whenever anybody asks you a question, you can
just say 'It's all in the book'."