The Next Page: Four Fab Signatures

Alan Pearce interviewed The Beatles -- and still has their autographs


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Five decades ago, I was a young reporter with what was then an unusual beat. It was my job to report on the emerging, soon to become phenomenally popular, rock 'n' roll scene in North West England. The beat was so new, and so different, in those days that I was not assigned to it full time. It mostly was weekend work, with occasional weeknights spent covering groups on tour.

For those who do not know this part of England, it includes the twin cities of Liverpool and Manchester, two industrial centers that were known then, as they are now, for major rivalries in Britain's most popular sport, soccer.

A new rivalry emerged in the early 1960s, when rock 'n' roll groups in the two cities began competing for fans.

Rock 'n' roll was an American import. In the 1950s, the popular music scene in Britain was dominated by Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard and other U.S. acts. Inspired by the success of such performers, copycat groups in Britain began to perform the American rockers' hits and eventually wrote and performed their own songs.

I interviewed, and enjoyed friendships with, a number of northern British rockers who became famous. I knew Graham Nash (later of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) who was then in The Hollies (with Allan Clarke, Tony Hicks and Bobby Elliott). I knew Wayne Fontana (of The Mindbenders), Gerry Marsden (Gerry and the Pacemakers), Freddie Garrity (of the Dreamers), The Searchers, Cilla Black and others too numerous, or too forgettable, to count.

I'm still close to my first cousin, Pete Maclaine, who introduced me to American rock 'n' roll in the late '50s. Pete formed The Dakotas in the early '60s and played the Cavern Club in Liverpool with The Beatles. He toured with Little Richard and the Rolling Stones. Pete also opened the locally famous Oasis Club in Manchester.

In the time that I covered the rock 'n' roll beat, I adhered to a journalist's Golden Rule: Never ask the stars (and none seemed to think they were or would become stars, anyway) for their autographs.

I broke that rule only once -- when I interviewed The Beatles in Manchester, my hometown, in November 1963. Because he knew them and I didn't, I took along my cousin Pete to help break the ice, so to speak. I should have known that with the four lads from Liverpool, an icebreaker was completely unnecessary. But Pete came anyway, along with my photographer.

None of us could have forecast that The Beatles would become universally famous or, in some ways, more successful today than they were during their collective heyday in the 1960s. And neither Pete, the real expert, nor I would have thought that an audience much wider than our immediate family ever would have been interested much in my interviews with John, Paul, George and Ringo.

I interviewed them separately and asked each to sign my reporter's notebook. I still have the notebook and the autographs.

My story was published Nov. 21, 1963, in the Bolton Evening News on an inside page (not page one) under the headline: "Bolton Next Year? We'd love to come, say the Beatles."

A few months before that interview, I graduated from the London School of Economics, where I was a year ahead of Mick Jagger. Mick was a political-science major and recognized as a rising rock star. On the occasions that I saw him, it was clear that he had mass appeal, especially with women. I knew that he would become successful sooner rather than later.

I didn't have that sense with The Beatles, and no one else did, either.

The Beatles that I interviewed -- before they embarked on their first U.S. tour 50 years ago this month -- were warm, friendly, cooperative, unrushed, funny, and without big egos because they did not believe that their fame would last. In fact, John Lennon hinted that they were merely a flash in the pan when he told me that most of their fans were early-teenage girls who were "fickle" and soon would move on to other crushes.

The other three agreed. Ringo told me, "We're crummy musicians, but we're popular. I can't explain it, and we just don't know how long it will last. Naturally, we hope to go on for a few more years." Clearly, Ringo had absolutely no idea that his 1960s work would be earning him significant royalties in the second decade of the Third Millennium.

Referring to the U.S. tour, John told me, "We've been working very hard recently and deserve a rest. Maybe we'll get one when we go to the U.S. next year. We're very little known there, and apart from George's sister [who lived in Illinois], we have few fans in the States."

As for "A Hard Day's Night," the group's first movie, which was filmed between the group's winter and summer visits to America in 1964, John added, "We obviously cannot act and can only hope that the film will be successful if we just relax and behave normally!"

He completely underestimated the "Beatlemania" reception that awaited them in America, including the 4,000 screaming fans who greeted them at Greater Pittsburgh Airport on Sept. 14.

The U.S. visits and "A Hard Day's Night" -- along with their rapid musical evolution that spoke to youth and contributed greatly to the culture of the 1960s -- propelled The Beatles to international stardom.

Yet perhaps they already were beginning to sense the pressure of fame. In the article, I wrote:

"The incredible success of this young group has not gone to their heads, but their lives are lived at such a pace that they often get confused.

"John told me that a few days ago when he was driving the group van in the south of England, he had to stop and ask the others where they were going. 'It might sound ridiculous but I'd really forgotten.'"

After my interviews, I stayed around for The Beatles' back-to-back performances at Manchester's ABC Theatre and made copious notes, including phrases such as "the riot police were out in force," "mass hysteria," "teenagers twitching, shaking, screaming," "police with earplugs," "weeping girl carried from the theatre" and "wild two-hour show with The Beatles overshadowing every other act!"

I still have vivid and fond memories of that Wednesday night. The 2,600-seat venue sold out both shows. Today, I wonder what happened to those 5,200 young people? And what about the members of the Manchester police on hand for crowd control?

After the second show, and before going to their next venue in Carlisle, John told me: "We've never had a reception like this before. We keep thinking that we've reached our peak of popularity and then something like this happens. It's fantastic."

Today, whenever I show friends my reporter's notebook with the signatures of John, Paul, George, and Ringo -- who were, according to my notes, all in their early 20s at the time -- they say the notes, autographs and article represent an important chapter in the history of rock 'n' roll.

My story on The Beatles was published one day before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. The Kennedy assassination was, and remains, a much more significant event than the fame of The Beatles. But from today's perspective, what they said to me, against the backdrop of what subsequently happened to the "Fab Four," is well worth recounting.

Their story lives on 50 years later. The Beatles can still sell, and set, records. They are a top group among fans who do not know or care that their rise to fame began in the early 1960s.

Cousin Pete still has a band and plays in clubs and pubs in Manchester. He still has a number of close friends in the business, including Graham Nash. Pete also appears occasionally on Britain's most popular and longest-running soap opera, "Coronation Street," which is set, of course, in Manchester. He also still has an incredible memory of the history of rock and roll on both sides of the Atlantic.

As for me, I left newspaper journalism in March 1964 and returned to London, where I worked for Independent Television News until August 1968, when I moved to the United States. From time to time, I still wonder, what would have happened if I'd stayed on the rock 'n' roll beat?

But no matter what, I still have my interview with The Beatles, a copy of the article that I wrote, and -- last but not least -- my reporter's notebook that contains those rare and invaluable signatures.

■ ■ ■ ■

Alan Pearce (iaepearce@aol.com) is president of Information Age Economics, a public-policy research firm in Washington, D.C., focusing on the telecommunications, information and entertainment industries. He sometimes visited Pittsburgh in his former job as chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission. He was also a contributor to the 1992 "Encyclopedia of Telecommunications," edited by University of Pittsburgh professors Fritz E. Froehlich and Allen Kent.


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