The Quarrymen Conquer America!

An indepth review of their first live performance in the U.S.

1998 by Alexandra Burack

(We thank Alexandra for allowing us to use this review.)

Copyright Notice: This article may not be reprinted, reposted, or reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.

Add 2nd July, 1998 as a red-letter day in the history of twentieth century popular music. For in the lounge-bar setting of Cinedrome 360 at Foxwoods Resort & Casino in wooded Ledyard, Connecticut, John Lennon's Original Quarrymen, reunited just a year and a day ago, played their first-ever American concert. Close to 100 whooping and whistling audience members cheered on the 22 song, 2-set concert, the first gig in a 10-day U.S. tour.

The tour, which will take the band through Connecticut, New York, and Maryland, is centered around remembrances of July 6, 1957, when, with John Lennon at the helm, The Quarrymen performed at the St. Peter's Parish Church Fete in Woolton and where the historic first meeting of Paul McCartney and John Lennon took place.

The existence of The Quarrymen's first American tour is down to the remarkable reunion of the five original band members at the 1997 recreation of July 6, 1957. Organised by Liverpool Beatlescene's own Jean Catharell, the event was an overwhelming success, drawing nearly 4,000 fans and members of the media from the world over to witness the first-ever reunion of The Quarrymen since the original group disbanded in mid-1959. The tremendous positive response engendered by the reunion not only renewed the deep friendship between band members, but led to the recording of their first CD, "John Lennon's Original Quarrymen Get Back Together."

The event also galvanised new world-wide interest in the band that gave birth to The Beatles. At a NY/NJ Beatlefest convention in March, Len Garry was approached by Thom Wolke, a Westchester, NY-based concert promoter and Beatles fan who offered to manage the group for a U.S. tour.

At the debut Connecticut concert the original 1957 to early-1959 Quarrymen, comprising Pete Shotton, Rod Davis, Len Garry, Eric Griffiths, and Colin Hanton, invoked with enduring gratitude and love the memory of their lost mate, John Lennon. Lennon's spirit infused every song, from the classic skiffle simplicity and charm of 'Maggie Mae' to Elvis numbers "That's All Right Mama" and "All Shook Up," right through to the McCartney-Harrison composition "In Spite of All the Danger" and the song Paul played for John on the day they met, "Twenty Flight Rock."

Still in fine voice and musicianship, the band led off with a first set of nine songs. Len Garry, on guitar, alternated with fellow guitarist Rod Davis on leads and harmonies, with Eric Griffiths maintaining a steady third guitar rhythm. Pete Shotton alternated on tea-chest bass and washboard, the latter reputedly the mended original one. Colin Hanton, on a drumkit provided by the venue after his insurance company refused to cover use of his now priceless original one, held the lively skiffle beat.

The set list began with Len on lead vocals for "Mean Woman Blues," followed by Rod's lead on Lonnie Donegan's rallying call to skiffle "Rock Island Line." Len then took on Elvis' "That's All Right, Mama," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Good Rockin' Tonight," and "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?," the latter an especially strong vocal presentation with lovely harmonies from Rod. Rod then led the band on a rollicking version of "Worried Man Blues," after which he uttered John's unforgettable line about the rest of us rattling our jewelry. Len ventured next into Elvis' "Sit Right Down and Cry," followed by Rod leading off in the set-closer "Maggie Mae," a Liverpool standard that The Beatles recorded on "Let It Be."

This first 45-minute set was followed by an hour-long interval, where The Quarrymen were extremely generous with autographs, chat, and picture posing. Available for sale were their CD (which contains 12 of the 22 songs performed in the debut concert plus 3 others), and the audiobook version of Jim O'Donnell's now classic book "The Day John Met Paul," recited on tape by none other than Rod Davis.

The second set, lasting about 75 minutes, began with the Carl Perkins' classic "Blue Suede Shoes," followed by Lonnie Donegan's arrangement of the haunting "Lost John," a title almost given to The Quarrymen's CD. This song was followed by Pete's poignant story about his lasting friendship with John, and how lucky Pete felt to have visited John at the Dakota for two days in 1978, the last time they saw each other.

Len then followed with lead on two Elvis numbers, "All Shook Up" and "I Forgot To Remember To Forget," the latter an occasion for some masterful solo work by Rod. Homage was paid again to Lonnie Donegan with the band's blues skiffling of "When the Sun Goes Down," and to Carl Perkins with Glad All Over."

The Quarrymen then set into a ripping rendition of "Come Go With Me" with Rod on lead, which included an ending tag-line of Lennon's famous made-up-on-the-spot 'penitentiary' wording.

The band then launched into Donegan's "Puttin' On The Style," notable for being one of only two surviving songs on the tape made by Bob Molyneux on July 6, 1957. (The other song on the tape, which along with Molyneux' Grundig tape recorder is now owned by EMI, is "Baby Let's Play House.")

Colin Hanton was then spotlighted with the McCartney-Harrison number "In Spite of All The Danger," which appears on "The Beatles: Anthology 1" with Colin on drums. This song (in addition to a version of Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day"), originally recorded in Percy Phillips' house in Liverpool in mid-1958, featured John, Paul, George, Colin, and adjunct band member John "Duff" Lowe on piano. Colin made a point of correction about this recording, which he states was made directly to vinyl, not taped first as long held, because John Lennon balked at paying the one pound extra for the taping. Colin also noted that the first time he heard the Paul-George composition was the very day they recorded it in Percy Phillips' studio.

Leadbelly's classic "Midnight Special," in its Donegan arrangement, was performed next, with Rod commenting that Paul still used this song as a warm-up in concert rehearsals. Len went back to Elvis for "Don't Be Cruel" followed by Len's personal favourite, "You're Right, I'm Left, She's Gone." During this number two women from the audience popped up on the dance floor and the rest of the crowd enthusiastically clapped along.

The second set ended with the band rocking out on the very song Paul played for John in the St. Peter's Parish Church Hall on July 6, 1957, "Twenty Flight Rock." At the end of this number, The Quarrymen didn't seem too tired to rock, for after a boisterous standing ovation with many calls for more, they rewarded the audience with an encore of "Mean Woman Blues."

While The Quarrymen's history is now becoming more widely known, there were a few revelations offered both onstage and in my personal conversations with the band. Rod Davis admitted, in between Len's Elvis numbers in the first set, that he didn't actually have a banjo prior to joining The Quarrymen, but rather, went out and bought one the very day he joined the group.

Pete spoke about the genesis of The Quarrymen and recalled that the band's first rehearsal was in an air raid shelter in his back garden. Eric Griffiths noted that he and John had two professional music lessons, but because it felt too much like school, which they weren't too keen on, they quit. John Lennon's mother Julia played the banjo and taught them banjo chords and Eric said it wasn't until Paul McCartney joined the group that they began to use guitar chords.

One of the tidbits I found quite interesting was that Len mentioned onstage (and this was later confirmed during the interval in a chat with Colin) that The Quarrymen actually played quite a number of occasions at The Cavern. Mark Lewisohn, in his indispensable The Complete Beatles Chronicle, notes only two: their first (without Paul, who was at scout camp with brother Mike) on Aug. 7, 1957 (Paul's debut with The Quarrymen is down as an Oct. 18, 1957 gig at the Conservative Club), and a second Cavern appearance on January 24, 1958.

Colin mentioned that since positive documentation of the actual additional dates wasn't available, only the two confirmed dates were included in the book. Since Colin himself couldn't recall the actual dates, this area is now ripe for Beatles scholars to investigate. Colin also said he recalls only one gig at the Morgue Skiffle Cellar (which would have been March 13, 1958, at 7.30 pm by the way), but Lewisohn states they performed there at least five times, which Colin doesn't seem to remember. Further research on this might be indicated as well.

Len recalled that it was during The Quarrymen's attempt at Elvis' "All Shook Up," at Lennon's instigation, that John and the band were booted out of The Cavern. Len reminisced about John, remembering quite clearly John and Paul visiting him in hospital, where he was confined after a week-long coma brought on by tubercular meningitis. Apparently John and Paul didn't stick to the standard visiting hours schedule, showing up around 7.30 in the evening. Len says that when the nurse came in to take his temperature, John and Paul hid behind a curtain, acting up with wild gestures all the while!

Colin recounted the incident which brought his original tenure with The Quarrymen to a close. At a gig set up by George Harrison's father at Wilson Hall, Garston, for the Speke Bus Depot Social Club (Lewisohn cites this as January 1, 1959), the band managed to get through the first five numbers quite well. Then the curtain got stuck, which threw the band off a bit, and did a sixth song which didn't turn out as they'd liked, given the fact that an important music contact was reported to be in the audience.

In the interval, a bit of drinking ensued, and Colin reports this is the first time he saw John and Paul drunk together. The second set was "a disaster," according to Colin, which led to an argument and The Quarrymen's drummer marching off the bus, drumkit in hand, effectively leaving the group. That original drumkit is "still on the shelf at home," joked Pete during the concert, and couldn't accompany Colin on the tour for insurance reasons.

The 2nd July performance was remarkable and laudable not only for its historic nature as the first-ever Quarrymen concert in the U.S., but also for the down-to-earth friendliness and accessibility of all the band members. There was tremendous openness, personal attention and great fun-loving nature amongst all of them, and their genuine desire to both entertain and educate was communicated with confidence and generosity. The Quarrymen were genuinely having fun on stage, and this joy in making music together was clearly palpable.

I met each band member personally and was very touched by their kindness, their willingness to chat, and their appreciation for the interest of American Beatles fans in The Quarrymen. A mood of great comfort with long-time friends was steadfastly carried along the entire evening, as in between songs, band members joked around with each other and took turns telling stories about those early years of Cavern gigs, the magical Woolton fete, and being in a gang of great mates with John, Paul and George. And to the Beatles fans who made up the majority of the audience, the pithy Liverpudlian humour marking the on-stage banter between these old mates brought home the sheer fun and comraderie which still endures 41 years on.

For this music journalist, The Quarrymen can't be dismissed as just a "curiosity." The event of The Quarrymen's reunion is a restoration of a piece of that immense landscape that was the birth of the greatest band in popular music history. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the resurgent Quarrymen is its socio-psychological resonance. Who would have thought that 41 years on, a bunch of Liverpool mates thrumming guitars, tea-chest bass, and washboard to a skiffle drumbeat would recreate for all of us, as well as for the musicians themselves, the stuff of the best years of our lives?

This, to me, has always been the ineffable magic of The Beatles phenomenon, where everyone and everything in their vast orbit continues to be imbued with transformational power.The Quarrymen, in their lasting love for each other, the music they grew up with, the memory of John Lennon and the legacy of The Beatles, are a rare and luminous presence, a gift of joy and friendship, and a window into the beat that changed the world.

Alexandra Burack is an American poet, editor, and freelance music journalist