The Quarrymen: A Living Musical Milestone
introduction and interview by Daniel Coston
originally published by the Big Takeover Magazine, 2008
While the Beatles’ history has been written and re-written by countless fans and writers, the story of the group that spawned the Beatles continues to be clouded in mystery. John Lennon formed the Quarrymen in 1956, pulling in other classmates from the Quarry Bank School in Liverpool, England. Like many others at the time, they were in love with skiffle music (a revved-up version of American folk and blues music), and what was quickly becoming known as rock & roll. Then another Liverpudlian, Paul McCartney, went to a Quarrymen gig at the Woolton Village Fete on July 6, 1957, and the story of what became the Beatles began to evolve.
Fast-forward fifty years, and several other members of the Quarrymen are suddenly busier than ever. Comprised of original members Rod Davis, Len Garry, John “Duff” Lowe and Colin Hanton, the current version of the band has released two CDs of early rock and skiffle classics, has their own website (www.quarrymen.co.uk), and their tour schedule this year alone includes three trips to the United States, something Lennon and the others could have only dreamed of back then. The group will also be taking part in a 50th anniversery celebration of that now-famous Woolton show in July.
Reached via email from his home in Uxbridge, England, Rod Davis talks about the group that made him a part of music history, and is again a big part of his life.
BT: How did the current version of the Quarrymen come about?
Davis: In 1997 the Cavern held a 40th Birthday party to which we were all invited. It was the first time since we had played together that we were all in the same place at the same time, Pete Shotton, Len Garry, Eric Griffiths, Colin Hanton and myself. John Lowe, with whom only Colin had actually played, was of course also there. As a result of this meeting we were asked to play at the re-creation of the 40th anniversary of The Day John Met Paul at Woolton in July 1997, and things went on from there.
In 2000 Pete Shotton, who had some health problems, decided to retire and in 2005 Eric Griffiths died after a short illness. John Lowe seemed to be the ideal person to replace Eric and John has played piano for us since September 2005.
BT: Have you been surprised by the response that the band continues to get?
Davis: Yes, but I suppose if you can't get Sir Paul or Ringo to come to your gig, the Quarrymen aren't a bad substitute.
BT: How did you get into playing skiffle music, and playing the banjo?
I was not interested in rock 'n' roll but I was interested in New Orleans jazz and skiffle, which came about because a couple of the musicians in the jazz bands would fool around on guitars and banjos in the interval of their gigs and play blues. This resulted in the appearance of Lonnie Donegan's recording of "Rock Island Line", a very up-tempo version of a song by the black American blues singer Leadbelly (Huddie Leadbetter), which became a sensation and started the skiffle craze, which ultimately became the rock'n'roll revolution in the UK. In pride of place on my wall at home is a copy of this record which I bought from John Lennon himself for 2 shillings and sixpence in 1957, and has now been signed by all three musicians who appeared on it.
I wanted either a guitar or a banjo but they were very expensive, and eventually I learned of a friend of my uncle who was selling a guitar and a banjo. But [by] the time we contacted him the guitar had already been sold, so I bought the banjo for five pounds. I still own it and it is on display in the Beatles Story Museum in Liverpool.
The day after I bought it I went into school and saw Eric Griffiths and told him about it. He asked me if I wanted to join a skiffle group and told me who was in it. I said OK and that was it! He knew I couldn't play it but he shouted the chord changes to me and I quickly picked it up by ear.
BT: How did you meet John Lennon, and and how did you join the Quarrymen?
Davis: I knew John from the age of five or six as I went to St Peter's Sunday School in Woolton. Other members of my class were Pete Shotton [and] Ivan Vaughan. When John came to live in Woolton he joined this class. I did not know him very well as he lived on the other side of the village and there was plenty of mischief for me to get up to with my own friends.
However at 11 years I went to Quarry Bank School, and there were John and Pete [Shotton], and I also met Eric Griffiths, who it turned out, lived not far from me on my side of the village. I was never in the same class at Quarry as the others, but I was in the same "house". The school was divided into 8 sections, containing boys of all ages, based on the district of the city in which they lived. These groups played against each other at football and cricket, cross country running and swimming. We were of course, in Woolton House.
BT: Describe a typical Quarrymen rehearsal, or gig.
Davis: We normally had only one microphone which of course was always John's as he was the lead singer. The rest of us would join in the choruses although we had no mikes. We had no amplifiers so thrashed our instruments as hard as possible. John was continually asking Colin Hanton to play with brushes rather than sticks as he would drown us out. Colin is only just starting to realise that as we're all now amped up he can play as loud as he wants!
There were no instrumental solos, we could only play a few chords and anyway there was no way of making yourself heard playing single string stuff on a guitar. John would frequently bust a string in mid song and he would take my banjo (he played banjo chords on his guitar) and I'd change the string and have it ready for him by the time the next song began.
BT: What were your impressions then of John Lennon?
Davis: I always got on well with John but he was what we would call today a "disruptive pupil". Instead of getting on with his work he would be fooling around and spoiling class concentration and discipline, and sometimes bringing teachers close to a nervous breakdown.
He was of course a brilliant cartoonist and some of his practical jokes at school were very funny. The best one I heard about was that one day he persuaded his entire class (not my class) to appear at a Religious Instruction class wearing clerical collars made from white cardboard. The master could not believe his eyes when he walked into the classroom to find 30 vicars waiting for him.
BT: July 6, 1957 has become a famous day in music history. What are your recollections of the show that day (or that day in general), and of Paul McCartney?
Davis: I remember the day very well as the Quarrymen were up there on stage playing in front of all our friends, and especially the local girls, whom we were out to impress. I had been to the Woolton Rose Queen probably every year since I was three years old, when I was younger taking part in the fancy dress parade and competition.
I don't remember meeting Paul at all that day, but I seem to remember Ivan Vaughan, whom of course I had known for many years. Paul himself has the best recollection of that day. He remembers that we were playing "Come Go With Me" (a Del Vikings' number) when he first set eyes on John. He was impressed with the way John was "improvising lyrics". What Paul didn't know was that we had had some difficulty getting the proper words of this song and that John had added a line or two of his own about a "penitentiary" and that we always sung it that way.
Later Paul apparently played "Twenty Flight Rock" using either John's or Eric's guitar, which he retuned from banjo tuning to guitar tuning and played the chords upside down, as of course he was left-handed. This was very impressive and later that night John asked Pete what he thought of Paul and whether should be asked to join the group. Pete fortunately approved and the rest is history.
BT: Your bio says that you dropped out of the Quarrymen after John left the Quarry Bank school. Were you the only one to leave during this time?
Davis: The Quarrymen was becoming more rock'n'roll orientated, which didn't interest me as much as the county and blues aspects of skiffle. A banjo has no place in a rock band and anyway I was starting to work very hard at school to get into university, so I didn't have so much time. Pete Shotton also left around the same time, (August 1957), he was fed up of playing the washboard which was becoming less cool, and anyway he started to attend the Liverpool City Police Training College, which by coincidence was just behind Paul's house.
Eric left the Quarrymen because the others wanted George Harrison, because he was such a good guitarist. This would have meant four guitarists, so Eric was asked to buy an electric bass and amp, he refused as it was too expensive, so they asked him to leave.
BT: Did you stay in contact with John, Paul or George Harrison after that?
Davis: I met John from time to time but there was no continuous contact. The last time I met John was in 1962 I think, in Liverpool. We talked about what we had been doing, by this time I was in my second year at Cambridge University. He asked me if I could play drums and if I wanted to come and play with him in Hamburg. Another good career move on my part!
I only met Paul very briefly just before he joined the band, although I did meet him in the street near his house in Hove two years ago and we had a brief chat about 1957. Of course he did not recognise me but said, "You must have been on stage at St. Peter's in 1957".
BT: Why did you say no to John’s offer?
Davis: If you had known how hard I had worked to get into Cambridge University, basically three years of slog, and the fact that my mother would have killed me for giving up half way through my degree to go to Hamburg with "That Lennon," as she referred to him. Not only that, I had never sat behind a drum kit in my whole life and didn't know one end of it from the other. And I didn't actually like rock'n'roll. Mind you, if I'd known what they were getting up to in Hamburg I might have been tempted.
BT: Duff and Colin stayed on with John and Paul (and later George) for another year. What are their re-collections of that time, and why did they eventually leave the band?
Davis: Duff was brought into the group (we always called it a group rather than a band) by Paul, who was a friend from Liverpool Institute High School. Paul knew [Duff] could play like Jerry Lee Lewis and was keen to improve the sound. He played a number of times with the Quarrymen, but he lived on the far side of Liverpool from the rest of them and had to take two buses to get home. His father was very strict about his 11.30 curfew and so John often had to leave the Quarrymen still playing on stage to make sure he got home in time.
His father did not know he was playing in a rock'n'roll outfit. [Duff] would leave home with his ordinary trousers over his tight trousers so his father would not suspect. Eventually the hassle got too much for him, often the pianos he had to play were in a terrible condition and he had also discovered girls, so he threw it in.
Colin continued to play with the Quarrymen but he eventually got fed up with carrying his drums around Liverpool on the bus, none of them could afford to buy a car, and after an argument one evening he decided to leave and put his drums on the top of his wardrobe, where they remained for years.
BT: What are their recollections of playing on the first (future) Beatles recording (That'll Be The Day, and In Spite Of All The Danger")?
Davis: Colin said he didn't remember rehearsing "In Spite Of All The Danger", although [Duff] clearly does. They turned up at Percy Phillip's studio and he asked them if they wanted to record on tape first, or go straight to the acetate, which was cheaper. They decided to go for the cheaper method. Percy had trouble with Colin's drums being too loud in the mix, so he sat him as far away as possible and made him place his scarf over the snare drum to deaden it.
There was of course only one actual disc made and it was passed around the group members, eventually ending up with Duff and he kept it in a sock drawer for many years until he decided to sell it by auction, whereupon Paul got in touch with him and made him an offer for it he couldn't refuse.
BT: What is it like to have people (including myself) still wanting to talk to you abou something you did fifty years ago?
Davis: It amuses the hell out of my kids and keeps several old men off the streets!