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“How the Beatles really did come and keep their comrades warm … a fascinating lost chapter In their history.”—Philip Norman, author of John Lennon: A Life and Mick Jagger
"Forget the triumph of market capitalism. According to Leslie Woodhead, it was the subversive power of art and cultural connection that stoked the fires of freedom and popular revolution, which ultimately brought down the Iron Curtain. A deliciously appealing premise!"—Helena Kennedy QC, President of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University
“Fine on-the-ground reporting here … [A] worthwhile addition to the Beatles bookshelf.”—Kirkus Reviews
"Did the Fab Four bring down the Soviet Empire single-handed? It’s a wonderful thought … Woodhead’s book is rather more about Russia than it is about The Beatles, but it’s also about the most socialist of concepts, historical inevitability … In this story the true believers won, and they still believe. You’ll read the book with a smile on your face, and a song–possibly written by Lennon and McCartney–in your heart"—Daily Mail (UK)
"In 1962, as a young TV producer, Leslie Woodhead made a short film at Liverpool’s Cavern Club about a local pop group who had caught his eye. The Beatles, of course, went on to conquer the musical world. More startlingly, according to his new book, they might also have helped demolish the vast totalitarian edifice that was the Soviet Union … Could a few three minute songs really threaten a superpower? Suddenly the claims of Woodhead’s Beatlemaniacs – the Russians for whom Lennon trumped Lenin – don’t seem quite so absurd after all"—Mail on Sunday (UK)
"Effervescent … This tells the remarkable story of precisely how and why Woodhead explains, 'the Beatles came to mean more, and were more important, to that generation of Soviet youth that they were here, or in America – for several reasons'"—Observer (UK)
Four men in kilts stood outside "Lennon's bar," downing pints of beer on a warm summer's afternoon. They sniggered as a busker took a stab at "Day Tripper," and a drunk grabbed a pretty girl, jigging her to the music. Her boyfriend looked on, uncertain. "If you say the wrong thing," the busker told the boy, "he'll knock you out." It came to me that the little drama could be a vignette from "Penny Lane." It was always my favorite Beatles song, and now it played in my head: "In Penny Lane the barber shaves another customer ..."
I was in Mathew Street in the heart of Liverpool, where it all began for me and the Beatles more than fifty years ago. The narrow alleyway, no more than a gash between looming Victorian warehouses, still held hints of the tough backstreet I remembered. But now I had come back to a Liverpool refashioning itself in 2008 as "European City of Culture." The city I used to know in the early sixties would, I reckon, have had some caustic things to say about that lofty label hung around the neck of their raunchy old town. Still, there was something reassuring about the stories that had swirled around the culture carnival in the city—tales of twenty-million-pound debt scandals, of squabbling politicians, of last-minute panics. A local culture supremo caught the spirit. "Like a fractious family wedding," he said.
On Mathew Street, it was obvious that "culture" meant the Beatles. I was adrift in a Beatles theme park. I wandered into the Cavern Walks mall, past the Lucy in the Sky snack bar, and found myself in the From Me to You Beatles Superstore. A couple of deaf matrons with backpacks were having an excited discussion in sign language about a Yellow Submarine photo frame.
At the Beatles shop, they were playing "I Want to Hold Your Hand"—in German. I was drowning in Beatle stuff: an Abbey Road lunch tin; a facsimile of Paul McCartney's stamp collection; a red plastic Beatles guitar, 1963 vintage, "offers over £900." I needed some air.
And then, just down the street, the Cavern Club. I felt my own ghost, twenty-four years old with everything still ahead of me, looking over my shoulder. On a black metal door a sign proclaimed, the original entrance to the cavern club. I knew this was the place, but that featureless door seemed determined to seal up my memories.
A plastic-covered information sheet told me that the Cavern had been shut down in 1973 to make way for the ventilation shaft of an underground railway that was never built. There was more about the sad story of the site, filled in with rubble, used as a car park, exhumed in the early 1980s and then buried again. It read like a routine for a local comedian, a chronicle of Liverpool's hard times over the past thirty years, laced with droll mishaps.
But it seemed Liverpool resilience had saved the day. The sheet on the door told me there was a new Cavern Club just up the street, built from the reclaimed bricks of the original. Maybe I would find a whiff there of 1962 and my own Beatles epiphany.
Down the steep stairs, and for a moment a mirage of the old Cavern hung in the gloom. The low brick archways, like the crypt of an abandoned church, looked convincingly Cavernous. There was the tiny bandstand jammed against the back wall. But then the illusion collapsed. Geezers in sports jackets sipped lagers, tourists grabbed snaps with their digital phones. In the immaculate loo, the man peeing next to me said, "It's full of history here."
Back on Mathew Street, a fat man with a head borrowed from Nikita Krushchev rolled up to me. "Izvenite—excuse," he said, confirming my Russian hunch, "where I can get Dzohn and Yoko record?" I suggested the Beatles hypermarket just down the street, but I wanted to hear more from this Beatles nut from the former Evil Empire.
This was, after all, why I was back in Liverpool: on the lookout for hints and memories to refuel my search for Russia's "Beatles Generation." Now here was Anatoly from Saint Petersburg, summoned to transport me, like a herald from Beatlestan.
"So what brings you here?" I asked him. It was like opening my door to a Mormon missionary. "Bitles, for me were like Jesus Christ second coming," Anatoly said, "like Heaven." His big face was radiant. "They were flame of freedom," he crooned, "most important legend for my generation." I started to ask him something about how he first heard the Beatles, but he was like the Ancient Mariner, unstoppable. He grabbed my sleeve, and he had one more thing he needed me to understand. "Bitles killed Communism," he said. "Come to Saint Petersburg and I show you!" He rolled off in search of relics.
And then I saw something that took me back to the beginning of my own Beatles story. I spotted a little photograph stuck on a corner of the Cavern door. Black-and-white and grainy, it looked like a snapshot from an old family album. I would have recognized it anywhere: the Cavern, August 22, 1962. It was a still from my film, and the people in the photo were the Beatles.
"It must be dead glamorous being in TV," said the man in the pub.
The setting was a Liverpool drinking den near to closing time, a summer's night in 1962. My drinking companion was a jaunty young man with the eyes of a spaniel, implacably confident of its charm. He was keen to hear about television, I was more interested in what he did. His name, I gathered, was Paul McCartney.
I had been working at Granada Television in Manchester for just a few months. As a very raw researcher on a local TV show, I felt underequipped with evidence of TV glamour. It struck me that the startling performance by Paul and his chums that evening in a nearby cellar was easily the most exotic thing I'd come across in my brief and unspectacular showbiz career. I was still feeling a bit stunned by the banquet of noise the four unknowns had served up in that cellar.
I was aware that the sharp one called John would probably have a withering put-down, ready to pounce if I tried to impersonate a media fast-tracker. I mumbled something humble in reply to Paul's inquiry about my glamorous life, and bought the embryonic Fab Four some more beers.
My regular research beat involved persuading worthies and eccentrics, local officials or champion knitters to come into the studio for the early evening magazine show People and Places. My greatest coup to date had been managing to borrow the waxwork head of a recently executed murderer for the program, but the producer got cold feet and insisted that I return it.
Recently things had begun looking up a bit. I had been teamed with a bright young director and assigned to make a series of little films—three or four minutes at most—featuring the old and the new in our region of Northern En gland under the stolid title Know Your North. The notion was, I suppose, a faint hint of the stampede of change that was soon to invade the Britain of the early sixties. I was sent off to track down a crusty old cobbler who still made traditional clogs in a damp shed, and then pair him with a man building a chain of electricity pylons across the Pennine Moors. There had been other odd couplings: an old-style toffee maker and a gay young man designing frocks in a terraced house.
Along the way, I discovered a passion that changed my life and still crowds my dreams: the curious and obsessive trade of filmmaking. Somehow, the pleasures of recording bits of reality on celluloid, and then ordering them on an editing machine, grabbed me. Maybe it had the same appeal for me as assembling those plastic galleons and bombers that had sailed across the sideboards and touched down on the coffee tables of my parents' house in the 1950s. Maybe my passion for filmmaking also had something to do with the need of an only child of the Cold War to impose an order on an unpredictable world.
Filming was a primitive business back then, involving clockwork cameras and vast hair-frying lights. But charging around the North West of En gland in my pale blue Mini in pursuit of those little films with my mentor—a documentary-film obsessive himself—gave me a running seminar on the magical mechanisms of filmmaking. I was instantly hooked.
It had been decided that our series needed a musical contrast. In a village hall smelling of beer and potted meat sandwiches, I arranged to shoot with the Brig house and Rastrick Brass Band. We filmed a rousing march, a rich blast of traditional Northern music making, returning to Manchester well satisfied that our music film was half done. But what about the other half? I cast around for something to contrast with the men of brass. Rock 'n' roll was an obvious candidate, but that was happening in London with Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele or in America with Elvis. Where would I find it in the orbit of Manchester?
"There are these kids making a lot of noise in some cellar in Liverpool," a fellow researcher told me. Dick Fontaine was the coolest human I had ever met, effortlessly in touch with trends beginning to stir in the early sixties. I was in particular awe of his jacket—a striped job with narrow lapels, obviously imported from London. It was rumored that Dick had been to America, and had even got to know some black people. Of course he would know about those kids in Liverpool. "They haven't made any records yet," he said, "but they're supposed to be a hit with the local teenagers. Why don't you ring up a man called Brian Epstein?"
A few days later I was sitting with Dick in the grand foyer of the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, waiting for Epstein. It was the poshest place in town, a palace of civic pride where self-made businessmen would gather to carve out a deal over a brandy and a cigar. It seemed an unlikely hangout for a rock impresario. This evening the vast lobby was almost deserted. After a while, I began to wonder if our man would turn up. I looked across again at the dapper businessman in a three-piece suit who also seemed to be waiting for someone. This was hardly my idea of a rock 'n' roll manager. "Mr. Epstein?" I inquired. "Let me take you to see the boys," he said.
As Epstein led me down the dungeon stairs into the Cavern Club, a visceral noise surged up to meet me. Tangled up with a woozy cocktail of disinfectant and sweat, it felt physical, dangerous, like an assault. Now, de cades after rock 'n' roll became the default soundtrack for generations of kids and their rock-marinated parents, it's hard to recapture the raw shock of my first contact with the Beatles. I stood behind the crowd of kids packed in front of the tiny stage, and the sound came up through the soles of my feet, into my guts. Through a fug of smoke and bodies, I saw four lads crammed against the end wall under an arch of bricks. Their natty waistcoats, white shirts, and ties—and those odd, floppy hairstyles—seemed to be mocking the music that was roaring out of them. It was exhilarating, unsettling. I felt sick.
This was not my music. I was—and am—a modern jazz fanatic. My parents had a music shop in Yorkshire, and since my early teens I had been excavating their treasure trove of jazz albums. Seduced by those cover pictures of well-groomed jazz folk creating cool sounds in Californian Shangri-las, I had discovered a special passion for West Coast jazz. The velvety blending of French horns and oboes with the little-boy-lost trumpet of Chet Baker had become my musical drug of choice. From the mid-fifties, I had been horrified by the first rock 'n' roll upstarts to invade my parents' little record shop. The raucous gang led by Bill Haley and his honking Comets had elbowed aside the bland crooners—the Dickie Valentines and Guy Mitchells, and Ruby Murrays—who had ruled the British turntables. I fumed about Elvis and Cliff, deploying the sneering disdain and portentousness of the teenage jazz convert. I loathed rock 'n' roll.
And now I was stuck in a cellar with the Beatles. "Roll Over Beethoven," "Kansas City," "Money"; the kids in the waistcoats and floppy hair belted out a rock 'n' roll assault. For some reason, I found myself taken with the chugging strut of a song called "Some Other Guy." Their connection with the teenagers packed into the Cavern crypt was electric. Singing those American songs in their thick Liverpool accents made the music fresh, gave it a seditious hint of music hall. They chatted with the audience, trading jokes and cheerful insults. They were charged up with sexual juice. Faces glowed, sweaty and adoring. For sure, something was happening here. Despite myself, I was caught up in the noise and the energy, and the arrogant, fearless confidence of these four young men.
When it was over and the audience had yelled itself hoarse, Epstein led me behind the stage to meet "the boys." In a tiny space not much bigger than a cupboard, they were smoking and joking. "This is John," Epstein said, pointing me at a Beatle who was wringing out his sweat-soaked shirt into a bucket. John said "Hi" and continued wringing. "Why don't we have a drink," I offered.
So I found myself in that Liverpool pub with the fledgling Beatles. They were funny and approachable, but I had no doubt they were sizing me up for my potential as a gatekeeper into TV. We chatted for a while, and Paul told me, "We've written all these songs, but nobody really wants to hear them." I felt he was sure they soon would. John said they had been down to London a few weeks earlier for an audition with Decca records. Now they were waiting to see if anything would come of it. A spot on TV would clearly help. I made encouraging noises.
A couple of weeks later I fumbled my way down the steps into the Cavern Club, with a film crew trailing behind me. With Dick I had lobbied a dubious producer into accepting the Beatles as the second half of our film with the brass band. We were there to shoot a couple of numbers during a lunchtime session.
Hundreds of fans were already queuing down the street, a parade of beehive hairdos, duff el coats, and black stockings. Epstein had clearly made sure to spread the news of the Beatles' first TV appearance. I spotted the poster on a wall in Mathew Street:
AT THE CAVERN CLUB, WEDNESDAY LUNCHTIME THE SHOW WILL BE FILMED BY GRANADA TV CAMERAS FEATURING THE NORTH'S TOP GROUP: THE BEATLES
Filming in the Cavern was going to stretch our primitive capacities. The lead brick of a camera, powered by a car battery and anchored on a big wooden tripod, could only peer at the stage, through a lens with optics that might have failed to impress Galileo. The sound was to be recorded via a single microphone onto a magnetic stripe welded to the black-and-white film. The heat from the lights turned the Cavern into a sauna. The crew, more used to shooting local news items with sheep farmers, were ill at ease.
I had chosen a couple of songs for the filming: the raw, loping "Kansas City" and the song that had caught my fancy a few weeks earlier, "Some Other Guy." With the crowd packed around us, we filmed as the Beatles belted out the two numbers. Unfazed by the looming camera and the harsh lights, they were stunning. I was surprised to see that they had a new drummer, a humorous looking lad with a big nose who seemed a bit out of place. A boy next to me in the crowd told me they'd just dumped their drummer, Pete. The new Beatle was called Ringo, and he'd joined the group just four days earlier. "We hate him," the boy said, gazing ferociously at the drummer, and spitting out, "They dumped Pete Best." Then he yelled, "Pete forever, Ringo never!"
After the band finished playing "Some Other Guy," John shouted, "I suppose we'll have to do it again!" The kids screamed, and they did. The sweaty cellar was stifling now under our lights. We filmed the second song, a searing version of "Kansas City," and then our cameraman climbed onto the stage with a handheld clockwork camera to shoot silent pictures of the band in close-up: faces, guitars, those trendy Cuban-heeled boots. The close-ups would have to be edited somehow into the songs to try and capture something of the atmosphere. In less than an hour, we had shot the first film with the Beatles.
But we were not finished yet. As we wrapped up our equipment and the kids dashed back to their jobs, a gang of burly men took over the stairway to the street. "You should hang on a bit," said the head bouncer. "There's some scallys up there who fancy their chances. They want to rough somebody up about Pete Best and Ringo, and you could be in the firing line." Somebody said George had already been given a black eye by a furious fan. It was an abrupt lesson in the passions of Merseybeat in the early sixties, and in the fierce loyalties the Beatles were already stirring. After a while, I saw a couple of the bouncers slipping iron bars into their sleeves and heading up the stairs. Soon, we heard a shout. "OK, you can come up now."
Driving back to Manchester down the East Lancashire road, I felt glutted with the overload of stuff the Beatles had served up in the Cavern. Abruptly, I had to stop the car and be sick in a ditch.
Excerpted from HOW THE BEATLES ROCKED THE KREMLIN by LESLIE WOODHEAD. Copyright © 2013 by Leslie Woodhead. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
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