Think you know all about the Beatles? Wait till you read this mesmerising biography of Britain’s greatest band – by Britain’s greatest critic…
‘OK, there’s no more booze,’ said John Lennon. ‘Let’s talk about sex Jane,’ before asking her a creepily intrusive question.
The Beatles had first met Jane Asher, the 16-year-old actress and TV personality, backstage at the Royal Albert Hall that afternoon. The group were in awe of her, perhaps Paul most of all: ‘We had a photo taken with her and we all fancied her. We’d thought she was blonde, because we’ve only ever seen her on black-and-white telly doing Juke Box Jury, but she turned out to be a redhead.’
Jane Asher in 1969. After Paul McCartney and Jane Asher became boyfriend and girlfriend in 1963, Jane’s parents gave Paul his own little bedroom on the top floor of 57 Wimpole Street
Now Jane and the four Beatles, plus Shane Fenton – later Alvin Stardust – and a few others, were at a tiny flat in the King’s Road. Lennon had found a bottle of amphetamines and washed them down with Mateus rosé. Charged up, he became aggressive towards Jane. For John, thwarted sexual attraction could sometimes shrivel into spite.
‘I’m not going to talk about that,’ said Jane, shocked but cool.
‘You’re the only girl here and I want to know.’
‘You know, John, you can be very cruel sometimes,’ said Jane. She started crying and was comforted by George Harrison.
‘It’s the beast in me,’ replied Lennon.
Paul ushered Jane out of the room and away from John.
They sat on a bed together and chatted about food and books, Paul at one point quoting from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which they had both been taught at school. Jane seemed much more impressed by this than by Paul’s status as a pop idol, and this, in turn, impressed Paul. Dropping her off that night on the doorstep of the Asher family home, he asked for her phone number, and Jane happily gave it to him.
After Paul McCartney and Jane Asher became boyfriend and girlfriend in 1963, Jane’s parents gave Paul his own little bedroom on the top floor of 57 Wimpole Street.
Paul was to live there, as part of the Asher family, for the next three years, his bedroom filling up with the fruits of his extraordinary career: eventually he was to stow his gold records under his bed, and his MBE on a shelf, alongside two drawings by Jean Cocteau. It was at Wimpole Street that Paul received a letter from the Beatles’ accountant in 1965 informing him that, at the age of 23, he had become a millionaire.
The Ashers were a remarkable family in every way: remarkably accomplished, remarkably civilised, remarkably welcoming. Jane’s father, Dr Richard Asher, was a pioneering endocrinologist who in 1951 had named and identified Munchausen’s Syndrome, the mental disorder that drives individuals to fabricate symptoms of illness.
Her mother Margaret was a music professor. The whole Asher family involved themselves in discussions around the table, alive with erudition and curiosity and fun.
‘They would do things that I’d never seen before, like at dinner there would be word games,’ Paul told his biographer Barry Miles.
He remembered an argument over dinner between Dr Asher and his son Peter, Paul’s contemporary, over when the tomato was first introduced to England. This was not the sort of topic they discussed in Paul’s family home in Forthlin Road, Liverpool. Throughout his years with the Ashers, Paul was treated not as a pop star, but as one of the family: ‘It was very good for me, because in their eyes I wasn’t just the Beatle.’
Inevitably, Beatles fans would linger outside the house, ready to pounce. While Paul was away filming Help!, Jane’s father set himself the task of plotting an escape route for him. He climbed out of a back window and scaled his way along to the house next door, then tapped on a window to explain Paul’s peculiar problem to the occupier of the neighbouring flat.
Jane was more impressed that Paul knew Chaucer than by his status as pop idol
On Paul’s return to London, Dr Asher was thus able to present him with a secret route through to New Cavendish Street. ‘I used to go out of the window of my garret bedroom, on to a little parapet. You had to be pretty careful, it wasn’t that wide, it was only a foot or so, so you had to have something of a head for heights.
‘You’d go along to the right, which was to the next house in Wimpole Street, number 56, and there was a colonel living there, an old ex-Army gentleman. He had this little top-floor flat, and he was very charming. “Uh! Coming through, Colonel!” “Oh, oh, OK, hush-hush and all that!” and he’d see me into the lift and I’d go right downstairs to the basement of that house. There was a young couple living down there and they’d see me out through the kitchen and into the garage.’
If I could be any Beatle, at any time, I would be Paul in his Wimpole Street years, living with Jane, cosseted by her family, blessed by luck, happy with life, alive to culture, adored by the world, and with wonderful songs flowing, as if by magic, from my brain and out through the piano: I Want To Hold Your Hand, I’m Looking Through You, The Things We Said Today, And I Love Her, We Can Work It Out, Here, There And Everywhere, Yesterday.
Paul McCartney and Jane with their sheepdog, Martha, outside the Golden Gates hotel in Glasgow, December 1967
But nothing lasts. On Christmas Day 1967, Paul and Jane announced their engagement; seven months later, in reply to a chance question from the TV chat-show host Simon Dee, Jane announced that it was all over: ‘I haven’t broken it off, but it is broken off, finished. I know it sounds corny, but we still see each other and love each other, but it hasn’t worked out. Perhaps we’ll be childhood sweethearts and meet again when we’re about 70.’
Over 50 years on, they both remain discreet about the break-up, speaking about it in nothing but the most general terms, leaving others to speculate. Some suggest Jane caught Paul in bed with an American woman called Francie Schwartz.
One or two of their acquaintances claim to have seen it coming. Marianne Faithfull never felt they were a natural fit: ‘I always thought Jane and Paul were very tense. I do remember very clearly an evening at Cavendish Avenue where she wanted the window open and he wanted the window shut. That really was like a Joe Orton play.
‘I sat there all night watching Jane get up and open it, and Paul close it, and… nothing was said. And quite soon after they split up, which of course I could have told anyone they would.’
But she fails to offer a reason why Jane would have wanted the window open. Might it have been to release the fumes of marijuana that were the necessary accompaniment to any visit by Mick and Marianne?
John hated the Stones’ rough reputation. He knew they were really just nice middle-class boys
The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were always being treated as rivals. They had first met just over a year before, at the Station Hotel in Richmond, Surrey. At that point the Beatles were far ahead, topping the bill on a nationwide tour, while the Stones were still playing in pubs.
Paul McCartney and Jane Asher returning from holiday in 1967, with a report on the Stones’ drug case
Keith Richards and Brian Jones with Paul McCartney at the premiere of A Hard Day’s Night in 1964
John’s fixation with the Rolling Stones lasted for years, not least because people like him tended to prefer groups like them
In the first week of May 1963, George Harrison was judging a talent contest at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, and found himself on a panel with Dick Rowe of Decca Records, who was already widely known as The Man Who Turned Down The Beatles. Rowe told George that he was still kicking himself for that mistake. Graciously, George replied that he had probably been right, as they’d done a terrible audition.
Sensing Rowe’s disappointment with the talent on show at the Philharmonic, George tipped him off about a great new group who played every Sunday in Richmond. Within days, Rowe had offered them a contract.
Ever competitive, the Beatles were distressed that the Stones had negotiated a better deal with Decca than they themselves had with EMI. They soon began to worry that the underdog was becoming the overdog. From then on, there was always an edge to their friendship.
One day, John and Paul were emerging from music publisher Dick James’s office on Charing Cross Road when they heard Mick and Keith shouting at them from a passing taxi. The two Beatles cadged a lift, and as the four of them travelled along, Mick said, ‘We’re recording. Got any songs?’
John and Paul thought of one straight away. ‘How about Ringo’s song? You could do it as a single.’ And so, from this chance encounter, the Rolling Stones gained their first top 20 single, I Wanna Be Your Man.
In some ways, John helped to fuel his own fears that the Stones were a more authentic version of the Beatles – the Beatles freed from Sunday best. Mick Jagger sang ‘wanna’, while John sang ‘want to’; the Beatles were happy to settle for holding hands; the Stones aimed to go the whole hog.
The rough, bluesy insolence of the Stones reminded John of the Beatles before they had been buffed and polished by Brian Epstein. In hip circles it had become fashionable to regard the Beatles as soft, pretty and artificial, and the Stones as tough, bullish and real.
John was increasingly riled by the comparison. ‘John went bananas about all the publicity the Stones were getting for being rough,’ recalled Bill Harry, editor of Mersey Beat. ‘He knew the Stones were middle-class boys from the Home Counties, not leather-jacketed Teds at all. While the Beatles had been swearing and whoring it in Hamburg, they had been attending trendy schools. John hated it. He really hated it.’
After the premiere of their film A Hard Day’s Night on July 6, 1964, John, Paul and Ringo went with Brian Jones and Keith Richards to the Ad Lib Club near Leicester Square. Paul left comparatively early – they had to mime on the next day’s Top Of The Pops – and Ringo left shortly after 4am, having stayed up to look at the reviews of the film in the early editions of the newspapers, but John was clearly in for the long haul, draining Scotch and Cokes one after the other.
‘His hand gripped his glass as if he were trying to crush it,’ noted one observer. ‘His eyes seemed hard, sharp and unsmiling. His upper lip sometimes curled as he talked, displaying hard white teeth.’
The more the night wore on, the fonder John grew of the two Rolling Stones present.
John Lennon’s hand gripped his glass as if he were trying to crush it. His eyes were hard, sharp and unsmiling
‘I love you. I loved you the first time I heard you,’ he said. But, even when drunk, he never plunged so deeply into sentimentality that he was unable to haul himself back out. ‘But there’s something wrong with you, isn’t there? There’s one of you in the group that isn’t as good as the others. Find out who he is and get rid of ’im.’
The talk turned to music: Jones and Richards argued that the Stones played genuine rhythm and blues, while the Beatles just played commercial pop. This was a sore spot for John, who abruptly changed the subject.
First, he looked at Jones. ‘Your hair makes it,’ he said. Then he looked at Richards. ‘Your hair makes it,’ he said. Then he turned to absent friends. ‘But Mick Jagger. You know as well as I do that his hair doesn’t make it.’
And so it went on.
John said, ‘In another year, I’ll have me money and I’ll be out of it.’
‘In another year,’ said Brian, ‘we’ll be there.’
John took a philosophic drag on his cigarette. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘but what’s there?’
John’s fixation with the Rolling Stones lasted for years to come, not least because people like him tended to prefer groups like them. At the same time, he resented them as copycats who stole ideas from the Beatles.
Like rival Elizabethan households, Britain’s two most illustrious groups operated a delicate rivalry, its wheels oiled by deference from the upstart towards the grandee. From George Harrison’s perspective, ‘Mick Jagger was always lurking around in the background, trying to find out what was happening. Mick never wanted to miss out on what the Fabs were doing.’
Jagger lived in Marylebone Road, a walk across Regent’s Park from Paul’s house in St John’s Wood. They would meet from time to time, but it was Jagger who would always come to McCartney, not vice versa. ‘I don’t remember him coming to us,’ Marianne Faithfull, Jagger’s then girlfriend, says of Paul. ‘Mick always had to come to his house, because he was Paul McCartney, and you went to him. Paul never came to us. I was always very curious about how Mick saw him, how Mick felt about him. It was always fun to watch. There was always rivalry there. Not from Paul, none at all. Paul was oblivious, but there was something from Mick. It was good fun. It was like watching a game on the television.’
McCartney and Mick Jagger en route to Bangor, 1967. Jagger lived in Marylebone Road, a walk across Regent’s Park from Paul’s house in St John’s Wood
Paul and Jane with actress Millicent Martin, Michael Caine and his girlfriend Elizabeth Ercy at the premiere of Alfie in 1966
In some ways, the two bands were mirror images of one another: Paul and Mick the savvy front men, always with an eye on the prize; Ringo and Charlie the older, unflappable blokes on drums; John and Keith the rogues, the hard men, the undeceived; and Brian and George the other-worldly ones, nursing resentment at their exclusion by the top dogs.
Beneath his brittle façade, John was scared by life. Nicky Haslam, who knew him and liked him, describes him as ‘a wuss’. Sensing this vulnerability, Keith Richards would goad him.
Like many bullies, John dreaded being bullied. He would try to get his dig in first, but unlike him, Richards was impregnable.
On one occasion John told Keith that his guitar solo in the middle of It’s All Over Now was ‘crap’. Keith remained unruffled: ‘Maybe he got out the wrong side of the bed that day. OK, it certainly could have been better. But you disarmed the man. “Yeah, it wasn’t one of my best, John. Sorry. Sorry it jars, old boy. You can play it any f****** way you like.”’
In the early days, Richards enjoyed telling John that he wore his guitar too high. ‘Got your f****** guitar under your f****** chin, for Christ’s sake. It ain’t a violin.’
‘Try a longer strap, John. The longer the strap, the better you play.’
‘No wonder you don’t swing, you know? No wonder you only rock, no wonder you can’t roll.’
As time went by, he would note with satisfaction the furtive but steady descent of John’s strap.
The day John threatened to kill his father
On July 10, 1964, John Lennon bought his first property, ‘Kenwood’, a mock-Tudor mansion on the St George’s Hill estate in Weybridge, Surrey, bang next to the golf course.
It cost the 23-year-old John £20,000, at a time when the average house in Britain sold for £3,400. He added a swimming pool, two 18ft sofas, a marble fireplace, a sunken bath-tub and a jacuzzi in the master bathroom. These cost a further £40,000.
Cynthia, Julian and John Lennon at their home in Weybridge in 1964. The home cost the 23-year-old John £20,000, at a time when the average house in Britain sold for £3,400
Each day, vans from the smartest stores delivered unimaginable quantities of merchandise: a gorilla fancy-dress costume, a suit of armour, a jukebox, a pinball machine, a vast altar crucifix and five televisions, which John liked to keep turned on, but with the sound down. He had two large attic rooms knocked together to make room for 20 different Scalextric model racing car sets, complete with landscaping. ‘If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it properly,’ he told a friend. The kitchen contained any number of cutting-edge gadgets, none of which John was able to operate. His wife Cynthia was similarly bamboozled, but managed to master the waffle machine. Tired of eating just waffles, John asked his interior designer to send someone to teach Cynthia how to work the other appliances.
The garden was filled with statuary, much of it covered in psychedelic colours after John and his friend Terry went wild with the spray paints. Later, a giant boot, eight feet high, from the film Help! stood at the bottom of the garden. Four garages, all in a row, provided shelter for three shiny new cars – a Rolls-Royce, a Mini Cooper and a Ferrari.
For most of his life, the only space John had had to himself was his cosy little bedroom in Mendips, the house where he’d spent most of his childhood. It is understandable, then, that rather than expanding into Kenwood’s 27 rooms, he spent most his time confined to the modest sunroom, scrunched up like an embryo on a tiny yellow sofa which had, naturally enough, been a gift from his Aunt Mimi, who had raised him after his parents split up.
He also found his staff hard to manage. He liked his amiable daily, Dot, but she got on badly with the cook, whose handyman husband wouldn’t stop flirting with the guests. Before long, the cook’s daughter started making passes at John.
Meanwhile, household items kept disappearing and Cynthia was informed by a nosy neighbour that John’s smelly, chain-smoking chauffeur was living in the back of the Rolls-Royce. ‘I was hopeless when it came to standing up to people,’ admitted Cynthia. Eventually, Brian Epstein took control, sacking the cook, her husband and the chauffeur.
One day, when Cynthia was alone in Kenwood, she opened the door to ‘a tiny man with lank grey hair, balding on top’. He introduced himself as John’s long-lost father, Fred, a claim confirmed at first sight: ‘He looked as unkempt and down-at-heel as a tramp – but, alarmingly, with John’s face.’
For some reason John had failed to tell Cynthia that, just a few weeks before, he had met his father for the first time in 17 years. He had been six years old when Fred had tussled with John’s mother Julia over which of them would look after him.
Fred had gone to sea for four years, working as a ship’s steward. On his return to England he had smashed a shop window and was arrested while waltzing with a mannequin. He had been imprisoned for six months. By 1963, Fred was working as an itinerant washer-up in hotels. He had given up any hope of seeing his son again until a fellow worker pointed out that the leader of The Beatles was called Lennon, and looked just like him. Fred despatched a series of letters to John, but they went unanswered. In time he contacted the Daily Sketch, which, sensing a cracking story, engaged in negotiations with Brian Epstein for a meeting between long-lost father and famous son. At last, on April 1, 1964, the two met at Epstein’s offices.
John’s dad Fred pictured washing dishes in 1965. John’s relationship with Fred would swing between love and hate
John’s first words to Fred were testy, to say the least: ‘What do you want, then?’
Fred replied that he didn’t want anything. ‘I told him that he got his talent from me,’ he told the Daily Sketch, adding, with familial tactlessness, ‘I don’t want to sound boastful, but I was doing what John is doing 25 years ago – and better!’ In his seafaring days, Fred had entertained his fellow crew members with selections from the musicals.
From that moment on, John’s relationship with Fred would swing between love and hate, their reconciliations often ending in arguments requiring fresh reconciliations. Yet John financed Fred’s existence, albeit on a modest level, giving him a one-bedroom flat in Kew and £10 a week.
While employed washing dishes at the Toby Jug Hotel in Tolworth, Surrey, Fred became engaged to a student called Pauline, 35 years his junior. He then turned up at Kenwood with Pauline, asking if John and Cynthia might give her a job and somewhere to live. ‘She lived with us forCraig Brown a few months, but it was a nightmare,’ recalled Cynthia. ‘She was constantly in tears and arguing with her mother over Alf [Fred]. She slept in the attic, and we’d hear her screaming down the phone and sobbing up there.’
For her part, Pauline did not take to John: ‘His table manners were the most atrocious I had ever witnessed. He said little, but as he munched I noticed him sizing me up with those penetratingly suspicious eyes.’
Finally, remembers Lennon’s friend Pete Shotton, ‘Freddie exhausted the limits of even John’s tolerance when he attempted to seduce his daughter-in-law. Cyn was so distraught that John threw his father out of the house, and refused ever to see him again.’
John’s relationship with his father finally came to an end in 1970, when Fred mentioned that he was planning to write his autobiography. An irate John said, ‘I’m cutting off your money… Get out of my life – get off my back!’
It emerged that John’s post-Beatles ‘primal scream’ therapy had triggered violent feelings against his father. ‘Have you any idea of what I’ve been through because of you? Day after day in therapy, screaming for my daddy, sobbing for you to come home!’
Grabbing his father’s lapel, he added, ‘If you tell anyone what happened here today… I’ll have you killed.’
This threat worried Fred so much that he gave a statement of their conversation to a solicitor, with instructions that it be made public if he should ‘disappear or die an unnatural death’.
‘One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time’ by Craig Brown is published by Fourth Estate on April 2, priced £20. Offer price £16 (20 per cent discount) until April 30. To pre-order go to mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155. Free delivery on all orders – no minimum spend