The Lost Lennon Years
Beatles historian retraces the roots of the Beatles
Back in October we had the 70th anniversary of John Lennon’s birth, with box sets, remixes, tribute concerts and all sorts of well-deserved hoopla surrounding the event.
But a fascinating little bit of Lennon history got somewhat overlooked. The Paley Center in New York City is hosting a major Lennon exhibit through the end of February 2011 (and it may go on the road to other major cities). “This Boy: John Lennon in Liverpool” is a look at the least-documented era of the Beatles – from Lennon’s birth to when he formed the Quarrymen, the band that eventually became the Beatles.
The exhibit is co-curated by Martin Lewis, an unabashed Beatles enthusiast who got his start as a fan in his teens when he researched the discography that accompanied Hunter Davies’ official biography of the Beatles. He also instigated and compiled the 1971 LP “The Songs Lennon and McCartney Gave Away,” a compilation of pieces they’d given to other artists. Lewis has overseen a number of Beatles projects to this day, including producing the DVD edition of “A Hard Day’s Night” and instigating NASA's beaming of the Beatles' "Across the Universe" into space on its 40th anniversary in 2008. He also curated the recent tribute to Paul McCartney at the Kennedy Center Honors.
Copyright 1958, Mike McCartney
Included in the Lennon exhibit are photos that fans have seen in the past, including the great color photo (above) of what would be the core of the Beatles, taken by Mike McCartney, brother of Paul. But Lewis and Quarryman Rod Davis dug deeper in “an absolute labor of joy” to find photos, artifacts and information that even the most hardcore Beatlemaniac has never seen. Lewis recently talked about putting together a new look at Lennon’s early life.
Paul McCartney sings to the future Mrs. John Lennon, the woman at far left (copyright Sam Leach)
The concept actually started with a website, Lewis said.
“We know the history of the Quarrymen, but we learned about it only after the Beatles were successful,” he said. He began imagining the Quarrymen as a stand-alone band, and hit on a notion: “Wouldn’t it be cool to see the website they would have created had the Internet been around then? They’d have to have a biography, they’d have to have photos, they’d have to have a blog, which Rod recreated from his diaries. We started constructing this website that is still online.”
Lewis decided to expand it to a museum exhibit, and the Paley museum quickly agreed to house it. Focusing strictly on the years 1940 to 1960, he began digging. Finding photos beyond the ones commonly known to exist was a priority. Back in those days a camera “was a luxury item. You didn’t take photos. It cost money. You’d take a photograph, maybe a second one, then put your camera away for six months. You’d take them down to the chemist to be processed maybe after a year.”
Copyright 1957, Geoff Rhind
While photos surfaced years ago of Lennon playing at the church fete on July 6, 1957, the day he met McCartney, Lewis found more – including photos of the band driving to the gig sitting on the back of the flatbed truck that would be their stage. He also found shots of Lennon on holiday as a child with his schoolmates and secured some rare childhood photos of Lennon from Yoko Ono.
To make the exhibit truly stunning he wanted the photos blown up to huge proportions with the best possible clarity. Few negatives survived, so they took the best prints available and scanned them in at 12,000 d.p.i., creating files so big they’d crash even the most powerful computer.
“We were scanning like it was fine art. I have a very powerful Mac and we couldn’t open the files. I want every dot there, then we could always scale it down. There’s a real clarity there,” Lewis said. He also found Lennon photos he’d never seen before, including one from 1955 where “it looks like it’s from the 1920s, with the shirt and collar open and the hair slicked back.”
However, “the image that really resonated with me was the class photo from 1957, two weeks before he left school. The look on John’s face is such a scowl. He can’t wait to get out of there. He’s had it.”
In that photo he’s wearing a striped school tie, part of the uniform of the day. Toward the end of his life, “he called his Aunt Mimi and said ‘Can you send me my old school tie?’” Lewis said. And in some photos taken by photographer Bob Gruenin 1980, “there he is, wearing it. I love the contradiction.”
One other photo that fans might enjoy involves Eleanor Rigby. McCartney swears to this day that he made up the name for the song, but a gravestone in a cemetery very near the church has the same name on it – and that Eleanor Rigby died almost exactly one year before Lennon was born.
“It’s there, just 200 yards from where they met – a coincidence?” Lewis asked.
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