Aidan Smith: How I found my Beatles obsession again

The Beatles in 1963. Picture: PA
The Beatles in 1963. Picture: PA
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AIDAN Smith returns to his first love just as footnotes in the Beatles story continue to make headlines five decades later

Until it was discovered to be a myth, we all had a good metropolitan chortle whenever the newspaper headline “North-east man drowns at sea” was recalled – even if we didn’t live in a metropolis. We agreed that telling the story of the sinking of the Titanic in this way was world-class parochialism – if that’s not a contradiction in terms. And any time the opportunity presented itself we reworked the headline to make a knowing point about small thinking and self-interest.

But the other day, happening across “Largs man saw Beatles revolution”, I thought: “Respect.” The man was Stan Parkes, cousin of John Lennon. The pair had a Liverpool boyhood together, then when Stan moved to Scotland, Lennon kept the association going, journeying by bus to Edinburgh then squashing into a family saloon car for holidays in Durness. During the height of Beatlemania, Stan would try to spirit Lennon around Scotland incognito but invariably the blue Austin would end up covered in messages of love and lust, scrawled in lipstick.

The headline sat on an old story in the Largs & Millport Weekly News. Other Scots involved with the Fab Four are deserving of their own fanfares, such as “Dundee snapper shoots album sleeve – million conspiracies ensue”. This was Iain Macmillan, whose cover for Abbey Road was too long in the clammy hands of the nutter-fans who read everything into Paul McCartney’s gait, bare feet and ciggie, convincing themselves he was dead.

Last week could have brought “Glasgow film-maker allows Beatles to muck about with gym equipment – world’s first pop video results”. Ringo Starr swapped the drumkit for an exercise bike and George Harrison sang into a punch-ball when Joe McGrath was hired for a performance of I Feel Fine. Manager Brian Epstein didn’t like the mucking about, even less when the boys wolfed down fish and chips. “You look like real people, like the Rolling Stones,” he snorted.

But just as the fish-supper interlude was given its TV premiere – “I was the first director to make a promo video although I didn’t know it at the time,” remarked McGrath – we lost Andy White. “Stranraer tub-thumper rescues debut sessions from erratic Ringo”, might have been the headline for the drummer who played on Love Me Do, although you would have had to add: “Starr gets act together in time to help change course of musical history.”

With only an hour and three-quarters of studio-time remaining, session musician White, who died in New Jersey last week aged 85, was summoned by George Martin with the producer distinctly unimpressed by Starr’s efforts up until then. Although recordings featuring both men were eventually released, Starr was irked at being temporarily replaced. On the version featuring White, the solid, modest pro unfazed by the “red for record” light, Starr was required to shake a tambourine in the background, which he did violently. Of Martin he grumbled: “I hated the bugger for years.”

Who cares about all this now? Well, I do. I’m in the midst of a major Beatles obsession, the second of my life, only this one is not competing with ­concurrent obsessions with The Man from U.N.C.L.E., American Civil War bubblegum cards, the space race and Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC. I listen to their music all the time. I make my kids listen to it all the time and am thrilled when they shake their hair on cue and add Liverpudlian inflections (“The barber shaves another ­coostomer… ”) when required. Sometimes I worry this is akin to dressing them in old-fashioned clothes, the fustiest in the hand-me-down box, and would only be inviting significant playground abuse, but then I think what the heck, it’ll be character-forming.

Partly the obsession is guilt. Like anyone else who was six years old when She Loves You hurtled into the hit parade like a crash-landing space-capsule – propelled by Ringo’s drum trills no less – I grew out of such wanton, eager-to-please tunefulness, or thought I did. I sought out new sounds because they were deemed “cool” and “difficult”, performed by po-faced gits who clearly thought melodies were for jessies and that they knew the secret of life’s inner meaning. Now I’m the same age as Harrison when he died I may very well be regressing, but I also acknowledge that I made a mistake, a huge 45-year blunder. The Beatles: the best – and the most underrated.

The high/low point of my first Fabs obsession was the excruciating wait for my mother to return from the shops with the No 5 edition of the Beatles Monthly magazine, complete with free plastic moptop wig. Now, I must wait another five years at least for the second volume of All These Years, Mark Lewisohn’s epic history of the band.

The first volume took 946 pages to get to the release of Love Me Do and, well, I can’t wait to find out what happens next. As the journalist and self-confessed Beatles bore Mark Ellen put it, when you read that the 16-year-old Starr and 14-year-old McCartney were riding the same funfair dodgems intent on picking up girls but hadn’t yet met, you want to “reach into the book and introduce them to each other … ‘Come on guys, otherwise there won’t be a White Album’”.

At least I know how volume two, picking up from New Year’s Day 1963, will begin because on 3 January the Beatles played the Two Red Shoes ballroom in Elgin. Sandwiched between two sets by local favourites the Alex Sutherland Jazz Band, they left 80-odd farmers fairly unimpressed – yet Please Please Me would soon be storming the charts.

Scotland’s involvement may be modest. Edinburgh-born Stuart Sutcliffe, the “fifth Beatle”, is there, along with “the Duchess of Kirkcaldy” from Cry Baby Cry, probably the wife of the promoter of another early gig. Perhaps we get over-excited about the connections but that’s understable when this has been the greatest story.