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Interview with David Bedford, author of new book, Liddypool: Birthplace of The Beatles

David Bedford was born in 1965 and grew up in The Dingle, Liverpool, by the bottom of Madryn Street where Ringo Starr was born.  When illness forced retirement upon Bedford, he was advised by a doctor to find an interest to occupy his time.  Bedford began a quest to discover as much as he could about the history of the Beatles in Liverpool.  Almost a decade later, the result is Liddypool: Birthplace of The Beatles, a gorgeous coffee-table book published by Dalton Watson Fine Books and includes a foreword by drummer Pete Best.

“To understand The Beatles, you have to understand Liverpool,” Bedford writes, who is a tour guide and now, one of the most foremost experts on the Beatles early history.

Q:  David, what first sparked your interest in the Beatles?

DB:  Actually, the Beatles have always been a big part of my life.  I was a Beatles fan from a very young age, having grown up in the Dingle at the bottom of the road where Ringo Starr was born.  I even went to the same primary school that Ringo had attended some 25 years before. When I learned guitar about the age of 10 and really started developing my musical skills, I learned from the music book The Beatles Complete. After I married my wife Ali, we moved to the Penny Lane area.  Three children later they were enrolled into Dovedale school, where many years before John Lennon and George Harrison had attended. When Yoke Ono kindly donated £30,000 to the school for a project we were working on in 2000, I covered the story for the London Beatles Fan Club. This coincided with my doctor signing me off work with a condition I had been suffering from for two years: fibromyalgia. I was told that I would never work again. I was 35 with three young children. I was told that physically I would deteriorate quickly, but it was essential to keep my mind active. My doctor asked me what my interests were, and I said, “The Beatles.” Effectively he prescribed The Beatles as my therapy. I read the John Lennon Encyclopedia by Bill Harry, and began compiling a list of local places connected with The Beatles. However, when I read other Beatles books, there were discrepancies between the information given in the various books. I started devouring books for information, but my medical condition presented me with a problem: I have short-term memory problems, so I would read 25 pages and forget what I had read.  I started making notes to help me. I then realized I had lots of pieces of paper with notes, but they didn’t agree. I decided to visit and photograph these places and keep notes of the correct information which, at my wife’s suggestion, I decided to compile into a little book that I could write. That was nine years ago, and look what happened!

John Lennon (top center) at Dovedale School, 1951
(Photo courtesy David Bedford)

Q: In your foreword you write that most people who write books about the Beatles don’t understand or have never visited Liverpool.  Why is that important for readers of “Liddypool” to understand?

DB:  I was reading books written by authors from other cities or countries who, in some cases, had never been to Liverpool. I was reading their book and thinking: hang on mate, you are writing about my city and telling me anecdotes and historical facts, and getting it wrong. That really annoyed me and after a while it dawned on me: “To understand The Beatles, you have to understand Liverpool.” I wouldn’t dream of writing a book about growing up in New York because I have never experienced New York and would only be able to re-tell stories written by other people. You can only understand Liverpool by being immersed in the city – feeling the soul of the city and growing up in the city. Only then can you understand the idiosyncrasies of this unique place that was fundamental to shaping the Fab Four. If you have no understanding of what the city is all about, you will not be able to fully understand why only Liverpool could produce The Beatles.

Q:  How did you come up with the idea of just focusing the book on their years in Liverpool (1940-1964).

DB:  I literally have about 100 books on The Beatles and realized as I was constructing this book in my mind that to look up information I had to consult many different books.  There was not one book alone that acted as a reference for me. That’s when I decided that I should write about the places that I knew about – in and around Liverpool. I could tell the story of the formation of The Beatles, but I didn’t want to stray outside of the area because that was well documented. I wanted, as a Beatles fan, a book about Liverpool and The Beatles.  Much to my amazement there wasn’t one. I found a niche, and decided to concentrate on Liverpool.  I also wanted to finish at the pinnacle of their time in Liverpool on 10th July 1964, when 200,000 fans lined the streets to welcome home their favourite sons and give them a civic reception. It was an incredible moment in their life, and, although they probably hadn’t fully realized it, was one of the last times Liverpool saw them. It was in my mind a logical place to finish the book.

(Photo courtesy David Bedford)

Q:  Just in Liverpool alone, there were so many rumors, half-truths and speculation about the band.  Why do you think that is?

DB:  It’s the nature of the beast – people want to get as close as they can to history.  For this book, I decided to go direct to source wherever I could because there were so few books I could rely on. I interviewed The Quarrymen, Allan Williams, Pete Best, Julia Baird, Bill Harry, Alistair Taylor, Sam Leach and many more. I found myself reading the same stories over and over in the various books, right or wrong, as if there was one source which everyone used irrespective of accuracy.  But when I spoke to these eyewitnesses, they were sometimes giving me a separate story. That worried me because as well as the Chinese whispers theory where stories change every time they are told, memories fade over the years too. Plus, as with any phenomenon, some people who have a peripheral involvement suddenly see their opportunity and talk-up their part for their own ego, which then passes into folklore. I was determined to investigate everything I was told and corroborate it with as many sources as possible. Everyone in Liverpool it seems has their own Beatles’ story and are keen to tell you.  You have to be on your guard!

Q:  What was the biggest rumor you’ve corrected in the book?

DB:  Probably that Pete Best was dismissed because he was a rubbish drummer.  There are so many theories that can be dismissed quite easily such as his failure to change his haircut!  As no explanation was ever given to Pete, we have to gather the opinions of those who were there at the time, with no definitive answer available. I was not satisfied by any of those theories offered and eventually came up with a theory of my own. In the group’s history there were various musicians who were discarded along the way, not often by their own choice.  When necessary John, Paul and George took the decision to jettison a band member for, in their eyes, the good of the group. One particular occasion involved the night at The Casbah when Ken Brown couldn’t play with The Quarrymen because he was ill.  John, Paul and George played without him. When Mona Best paid the group their money, John wanted to know why the money was still split four ways when Ken hadn’t played that night.  John, supported by Paul and George, demanded Ken’s share of the money or they wouldn’t play at The Casbah again. Mona wouldn’t back down, so John, Paul and George walked out without Ken.  When I looked at the events between June 1962 and August 1962, it was clear that George Martin was not going to use Pete Best to drum on the records.  However, Martin didn’t see the need to replace Best. When you look at the reason how Ringo joined the group, it was clear that he was employed on a fixed fee per week for a probationary period, and would not enjoy the royalties accrued by any records at the time. The record revenue, at one penny per record, would therefore be split three ways – between John, Paul and George – with Ringo not receiving payment. This reminded me of the situation involving Ken Brown, and worked around that as a basis for my theory. The more I delved into the details surrounding Pete’s dismissal the more it seemed to fit.  As yet, no one has been able to dismiss my theory because no one is willing to talk about it.  To this day Pete still doesn’t know why he was dismissed.  Sadly, I don’t think he’ll ever know the real truth.

Q:   I was amazed to discover how many incarnations of the group there were.  Talk about how many times they broke up or morphed into something else, and how fate played a hand in all of this.

DB:  Like many fans, you start at the beginning of your interest knowing that The Beatles were John, Paul, George and Ringo, managed by Brian Epstein. You then find out that manager Allan Williams gave them away, and that they used to be called The Quarrymen. I started reading more about how John started The Quarrymen, and how there were different names being mentioned and I set out to find every musician who had ever played with the various groups, and the different name changes too. This, I assumed, was a simple task. It turned out to be one of the most challenging aspects of the book. The story of the “Fab Four” eventually became the “Fab 27” and includes one-off appearances by people like “Ron the Ted” and Rory Storm, to more important musicians like Ivan Vaughan and Stuart Sutcliffe who are integral to the story. I found that before they were called The Quarrymen, they were called the Blackjacks, which was also the same name of Ken Brown and Pete Best’s first group. The biggest surprise was to find out that when The Quarrymen were down to only John, Paul and George, they disbanded in January 1959 when George Harrison left to join The Les Stewart Quartet. When The Casbah was due to open in August 1959, The Les Stewart Quartet with George Harrison on guitar, were booked for opening night.  A few weeks before this event Les Stewart – or more precisely his girlfriend – decided that they shouldn’t do the gig! Ken Brown and George Harrison stormed out and promised Mona Best that they would get a band together to open the club.  George rang two old friends of his – John Lennon and Paul McCartney – and re-formed The Quarrymen to open the club as John, Paul, George and Ken.  What would have happened if the Les Stewart Quartet had opened the club?

Q:  Liddypool also pays tribute to Mona Best and The Casbah Club’s importance in the group’s development.  Talk about the club and why has it been overlooked through the years?

DB:  The biggest surprise to a Beatles fan growing up in Liverpool was to discover the “hidden gem” that is The Casbah. All I knew about was the legend of The Cavern where they made more than 300 appearances. But was it the “birthplace of The Beatles? I assumed it was.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I discovered The Casbah in a book, The Beatles: the True Beginnings. Was it for real? I had to find out so I contacted Roag Best who gave me a guided tour. Here was the true birthplace of The Beatles.  It opened in August 1959 by Mona Best who was a true visionary. This club was like stepping back in time because it is still how it was when it closed in 1962. The ceiling is hand-painted by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and with stars painted by John, Paul, George, Ken Brown, Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe.  Just walking into the place you can feel an incredible buzz. When the earliest Beatles books were written, Mona and Pete Best were not keen to discuss the success of the group that had dismissed Pete on the threshold of fame because, rightly so, they were bitter.  And so those books just didn’t mention The Casbah. This goes back to the reason for starting this book: not relying on other people’s books to re-tell the same old story. If you have a book that claims to tell the real story of The Beatles and doesn’t mention the importance of The Casbah, then you are not reading the real story.  This is where they first played outside of Germany as The Beatles, before they became famous, and before The Cavern. That is why there is a whole chapter just on The Casbah: it is a phenomenal place.

Q:  Give us a brief thumbnail of the Merseybeat scene in the late 1950s and who were some of the bigger groups at the time?

DB:  When the Lonnie Donegan-inspired skiffle craze hit Britain in 1956, skiffle groups like The Quarrymen sprang up across the nation. Skiffle didn’t last long but by then Elvis was shaking his hips and Buddy Holly played in Liverpool, who incidentally, were watched by John, Paul and George.  They were inspired by the real thing – rock ‘n’ roll. When The Quarrymen had morphed into The Silver Beatles, they were not particularly good.  If you wanted to see a top group, then you followed Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Derry and the Seniors, The Searchers, The Swinging Blue Jeans, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes among others. The Casbah played host to all of the top Merseybeat groups.  By 1962 there were an estimated 300 rock ‘n’ roll groups in Liverpool playing at clubs across the area. I have charted the clubs played by The Quarrymen or The Beatles, and there are over 100.  Alongside rock ‘n’ roll was a thriving jazz scene in the fifties, plus country and western and folk clubs, too.

Q:  Of the four Beatles, only Paul McCartney seemed to be sentimental about Liverpool and its colorful roots.  Why did John, George and Ringo not feel the same way?

DB:  When I interviewed John’s half-sister Julia Baird, it was clear that in the 1970s John was homesick and had asked for some mementos from home.  His visa problems in the US meant that any trip home was impossible for many years.  Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t been killed?  I suspect he was going to return one day to Liverpool.  George kept contact with some of his family and supported some Liverpool projects, most notably the restoration of the Victorian Palm House in Sefton Park, to which he contributed a sizeable donation. Ringo has supported some projects in The Dingle, especially his old schools – St. Silas and Dingle Vale Secondary Modern.  But he had desired to live in America since childhood and has never really seemed to miss Liverpool. These efforts pale into insignificance when you see what Paul McCartney has done for his home town, both in public and private donations, most notably the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts.  Paul still makes regular visits to his family here and has demonstrated publicly his love for Liverpool.  He is without a doubt the city’s favorite son.

Q:  Yoko Ono emerges from your book as one of Liverpool’s biggest contributors and has preserved a lot of the Beatles history.  What are some of the things she’s done over the years?

DB:  When you talk about Paul McCartney’s contribution to Liverpool, it has been covered quite well in the media. Yoko Ono has never enjoyed the same response from the media, and she hasn’t always courted that media interest, either. She has contributed to Dovedale School, both publicly and privately, and bought Mendips and then donated it to the National Trust.  She also supported Strawberry Field Children’s Home and agreed to the new name change for Liverpool John Lennon Airport.  She has supported and promoted Liverpool whenever she can. One of her most recent acts has been to set up the “Imagine Appeal” at Liverpool Children’s Hospital at Alder Hey.  She’s allowed them to use a drawing by John as the logo and supported the raising of funds for medical equipment for the children of Liverpool. She has not had to do anything for Liverpool but she carries on in John’s name, and that makes her a hero in my book.

Q:  You end Liddypool with the Beatles triumphant return to City Hall in July 1964.  It appears as if Liverpudlians understood from that point the Beatles belonged to the world.  Give us a historical perspective of how important the Beatles are to the legacy of Liverpool and how they are viewed there today?

DB:  The Beatles left The Cavern in August 1963 promising to return, but never did. Liverpool’s fans knew that they were leaving for good, and had to share them with the world. Simply, the Beatles put Liverpool on the map and cemented the city in the minds of people everywhere. If you say you are from Liverpool, then people in most places of the world will reply: “Yes, The Beatles.” With the decline of the port’s fortunes, leisure and tourism has become an integral part of the life of Liverpool in the 21st Century, and most of that is down to the legend of The Beatles.  Fans make their pilgrimage from all corners of the earth to visit Penny Lane, The Cavern, Strawberry Field and other equally famous places.  Liverpool is the birthplace of The Beatles but is also an 800-year-old town that has some of the finest architecture in Europe; a World Heritage Waterfront; some of the finest museums and art galleries in Britain and the Liverpool Football Club (still the most successful British football team). These are gems you discover when you get here but it is The Beatles that get you here in the first place.  Liverpool: there are places you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

Liddypool is published by Dalton Watson Fine Books and can be ordered by going to www.daltonwatson.com.

Marshall Terrill is the author of a dozen books and is a long time contributor to Daytrippin.com.

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