The Quarrymen attempts an unusual experiment. It’s a music book about men who never were serious musicians – a rock history about men who never became rock stars – a footnote in pop history which stayed just that. Its success lies in the fact that it manages to tweak the parameters of the rock biography genre to become something much more interesting.
The Quarrymen was John Lennon’s first band – a group of schoolmates and local boys cashing in on the 1950s craze for Skiffle groups – the first musical phenomenon where it didn’t matter whether you could play your instrument properly or not. On a historic day in July 1957, as the Quarrymen played the Woolton Church Fete, John Lennon was introduced to Paul McCartney, who was interested in joining his group. Later, a younger than the others, slightly annoying, but undeniably talented George Harrison was allowed to join. A famous photograph of The Quarrymen at that Woolton Church Fete still survives as documentary evidence of the day which saw the beginning of one of the most significant partnerships in pop history. But what of the other Quarrymen? Reduced to footnote status? Could their future lives ever have been as interesting as the glamorous career of the Beatles? Hunter Davies sets out to investigate.
Davies is fully aware and tongue-in-cheek about subverting the classic "rise to fame" structure of the rock biography. Hunter Davies was the author of the only official Beatles biography ever written. In this new book, he is delving into an aspect of the research which he would have left untouched in the 1960s, and expanding his original Quarrymen footnote into a parallel account of the men whom fame left behind. And because of the extent of his self-awareness about this project, he strives all the more to make this parallel history interesting and significant.
It’s a difficult task, because who would want to know? Would Beatles fans be interested in the people John Lennon left behind? Are these men interesting for themselves, or because of their tenuous connection with the Beatles? Is an ordinary life as significant as a life lived in the limelight? These are all questions raised by Hunter Davies’ story.
Ultimately, Davies is successful because he strikes a middle ground. He does this in terms of the subject matter and the book’s structure. There is plenty of interesting Beatles-related detail, not only in relation to the foundation of the Quarrymen, but in the account of Pete Shotton’s continuing association with John Lennon up to his death. The story of this continuing friendship is interwoven with the accounts of the other Quarrymen’s more mundane ventures. But the ex-Quarrymen’s future lives and choices give an interesting portrait of the social climate of Britain from the 1960s to the 1990s, and give the book real substance. The ex-Quarrymen’s careers cross the social spectrum – from Pete’s amazing success as a business tycoon and Eric’s rise as a higher Civil Servant, to Colin’s quiet stable life as a furniture upholsterer, and Len’s unsuccessful migrant experience in New Zealand. Indeed, one of the most striking and sometimes jarring aspects of the book is its over-awareness of class divisions. Hunter Davies inserts his own observations and experiences of class divisions into the narrative whenever he feels like it. When he describes the social and educational background of the Quarrymen, it seems as if he is almost jealous of the fact that John Lennon got a full grammar school education, whereas he didn’t.
This book was only made possible by the fact that the Quarrymen decided to value their own significance and contribution to Beatles history, and to value their own possibilities as performers. The final section of the book follows the reformed, now middle-aged, Quarrymen, through their tours of Beatles conventions, a tour of America, and a reconstruction of the famous Woolton Church Fete of July, 1957. And while they may only have been marginal in Beatles history, their Beatles connection has given them a chance to enjoy what they had given up once again.
The Quarrymen is above all a warm and engaging read. Hunter Davies is clearly fascinated with the group, and the parallels and comparisons between their ordinary everyday lives, and the lives of their famous former friends. What might The Beatles have done if they hadn’t become famous? How might the ex-Quarrymen fit into the Beatles personas? Obviously, this book will be of interest to Beatles fans, but it isn’t necessary to be a Beatles aficionado to appreciate the book’s human portraits of real people, and its interesting reflections on the nature of celebrity and fame.
– Anne Sheridan