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Maureen Cleave:Did I break up The Beatles?

Wednesday, 12.23.2009, 12:56am (GMT-5)

By Maureen Cleave
Last updated at 12:50 AM on 19th December 2009

We've just had another year of The Beatles. Who would have thought it? Two of them, John and George, are dead and Ringo and Paul are in their late 60s.

First there was the BBC documentary about their 1964 visit to the U.S., a nation that is still tapping its feet to their performance on The Ed Sullivan Show 45 years later.

Then their albums were digitally remastered and re-released. And now artist Sam Taylor-Wood has made a feature film about the young Lennon, called Nowhere Boy

All together now: Maureen Cleave with The Beatles photographed in a loo, the only place Ringo felt safe

He’s played by a tall handsome young actor called Aaron Johnson, not at all like the original Lennon whose looks were against him — that pointed nose, long upper lip, those small narrow eyes. How could someone who looked like this become a pop idol? And his clothes were all wrong: ‘Look at these trousers,’ he’d say, ‘must’ve sat in something.’

What mattered to The Beatles was their hair. ‘Get your hair down,’ was the first thing they said to Ringo when he joined them.

The writer Jonathan Miller thought that our fascination with them was attributable to the almost uncanny attraction we feel towards identical quads. How different they were, yet strangely alike.

Shaking their heads was a signal to the audience to scream even louder. They used to worry they would get too sweaty and their hair would stick to their foreheads, making them look like Hitler. They were accused of wearing wigs. ‘In that case,’ Lennon said, ‘mine’s the only wig with real dandruff.’

I first met him in 1963, alerted to The Beatles by an Oxford friend who came from Liverpool, the journalist Gillian Reynolds (now The Daily Telegraph’s radio critic). They wore boots, she said, and their appearance inspired frenzy. ‘They look beat up and depraved in the nicest possible way.’

The Beatles perform live on stage at the Washington Coliseum on their 1964 US tour

I was writing a column in the London Evening Standard called — horrors! — Disc Date. But I had a fringe and red boots, which was a good start. When they went to the U.S. for The Ed Sullivan Show, I suggested to my editor I go, too. He was scathing. Take rock ’n’ roll to America? ‘Coals to Newcastle?’ But I went.

Two days later I had a telegram from him: BEATLES POSTERS STOLEN ALL OVER LONDON. They soon became the most famous people in the English-speaking world.

For two years they were out of breath: they had to run everywhere to escape screaming mobs, of which they were understandably frightened. I used to wonder what would happen if one of them fell over. Would he be torn to pieces? Ringo used to say the only place he felt safe was in the lavatory; the Standard once took a photograph of them all with me in a loo, with Paul sitting on the washbasin.

People sometimes ask what they were like and the answer is — more fun than anyone else and terrible teases. The interviewer was outnumbered four to one: they might put your coat in the wastepaper basket, offer to marry you, seize your notebook and pencil, pick you up and put you somewhere else, demand you cut their hair. 

In hotel rooms, John’s favourite game was shuffling his feet on the carpet, then touching you on the cheek to give you a mild electric shock.

On the other hand, they were often kind, offering you cigarettes or a swig from their bottles of Coke, making sure you never got left behind. ‘Come on, Thingy,’ they’d bawl when it was time to move. They’d get you a taxi. Once I thought the driver was taking an odd way home, hardly surprising as they’d told him, ‘10 Downing Street.’

The band greet fans from the balcony of their Sydney hotel on their 1964 Australian tour. John Lennon's favourite game in hotel rooms was to give guests static electricity shocks from scuffing the carpets

What Aaron Johnson does catch on screen is the Lennon who was always the difficult boy in the back row, imperious, unpredictable, indolent, playful, charming and quick-witted, but nervy, too.

When they asked him to speak at the Cambridge Union, he refused on the grounds that he was a born heckler. He used to read the Just William books by Richmal Crompton. Like William, he battled against the odds and dreamed of empire.

One day, I picked John up in a taxi and took him to Abbey Road for a recording session. The tune to the song A Hard Day’s Night was in his head, the words scrawled on a birthday card from a fan to his little son Julian: ‘When I get home to you,’ it said, ‘I find my tiredness is through…’ Rather a feeble line about tiredness, I said. ‘OK,’ he said cheerfully and, borrowing my pen, instantly changed it to the slightly suggestive: ‘When I get home to you/I find the things that you do/Will make me feel all right.’

The other Beatles were there in the studio and, of course, their wonderful musical arranger George Martin. John sort of hummed the tune to the others — they had no copies of the words or anything else. Three hours later, I was none the wiser about how they’d done it, but the record was made — and you can see the birthday card in the British Library.

Three years went by. The novelty wore off, and The Beatles were fed up. ‘Here I am,’ said John, ‘famous and loaded and I can’t go anywhere.’ It was time for Rolls-Royces with black windows and lots of shopping at Asprey. Paul, always better at ordinary life than the others, stayed in London; John, George and Ringo, with wives and children, moved to daft stockbroker Tudor houses in the Weybridge-Esher area. 


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