HUNTER DAVIES INTERVIEW

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Interview conducted in England in June 2002; first published in World Beatles Forum magazine


Hunter Davies was the Beatles' only authorized biographer. His book, The Beatles, is a portrait of the group at the peak of their creative powers. Granted extraordinary access to the band, Davies was in Abbey Road studios for many of the Sgt. Pepper recordings and sat in on several Lennon-McCartney songwriting sessions. He also spent many hours documenting, for the first time, the individual Beatles' own personal recollections. Released in 1968, when the group's future still seemed limitless, the book was an engaging and surprisingly honest firsthand account. Although he has added illuminating postscripts to subsequent editions, Davies never "finished" the book, sparing readers the excruciating details of the group's disintegration. It remains the most enjoyable of all Beatle biographies, and the core from which all others have been constructed.

The Beatles have taken on such mythic status, it must be amazing to have the memory of them as life-sized and ordinary. Have you been able to keep in touch with them on a personal level?

I'll get in touch with Paul and have tea with him now and again. It's his wedding today, and I sent him a card and a present. By chance it is my wedding anniversary, too. June 11, 1960, we got married, so hasn't he chosen a good day? As to their mythic status, nobody could have believed it would get so big and keep growing. I think the Beatles themselves, ten, twenty years after they split up, were bored rigid by being Beatles. Didn't want to talk about it and were fed up with the same old questions. It was only as they got older that they themselves looked back and realized that something really remarkable happened to them when they were young. Of course, you forget how young they were. They were finished by the time they were thirty.

There's a great photo in the "Anthology" book of you and Neil Aspinall at Abbey Road with earphones on, listening to a session.

I never got myself photographed with the Beatles at the time, though. It's strange that it didn't happen, but I have to admit that at the time I didn't think they'd be as big today, thirty years later. I expected they'd be bettered by an equally creative group who would come along, and that hasn't happened. People have sold more records, people have made more money, but nobody has had the consistency of output, have they? There's part of me, though, that still half-scoffs at the idea of "studying" the Beatles as you do, thinking "Has the world gone mad?" Why aren't you studying Classical Rome or Strauss or Beethoven? (laughs)

Was the atmosphere in the studio during the "Sgt. Pepper" sessions as magic as one would imagine, or more dull and tedious?

Oh no, it was riveting. At the time, I was just thrilled to be there. I felt privileged because, until Yoko came along, they didn't even let wives and friends into the studio. Obviously friends would come by. Mick Jagger would come and sit in the soundproof studio box with George Martin and look down, but I was sitting down there [in the studio] with them. I did think that even if I never get the book published, if we fall out or they chuck me out, I will have been there, watching the creative juices flowing.
They knew at the time that Sgt. Pepper was going to be bigger and better and different, with a new concept of the "album," all together and connected. Paul was definitely in charge of Sgt. Pepper. I was amazed when I discovered that Peter Blake had designed the cover. I thought Paul had drawn it, even though I knew Peter Blake and saw him at the cover photo session. It seemed to be all coming from Paul's house, and he seemed to be the total inspiration and the main motivator. John was becoming bored by the Beatles by then and was getting lazy and thinking of ideas and half-songs and not finishing them. So Paul forced him to finish things off, or to bring them to Paul half-done and they'd knock them out together. There was no resentment, though. He was just waiting Yoko or something else to come along in his life.

Paul often refers to the writing of "Getting Better" as a particularly fond memory of working with John.

That was the one I was in on from the beginning, walking with Paul on Primrose Hill the day he first came out with the idea. I went home with him and he then worked on four bars of it and then John came over. I can clearly remember sitting upstairs in the music room in Paul's house on Cavendish and hearing him and John writing "Getting Better," playing guitars and going "what rhymes with this?" and "can we use this word?" I also remember them writing "A Little Help from My Friends," and I wrote about it. But in the studio it would go on for hours and you can't really write that down because no words are taking place. It was all sound and "let's try it this way." And because it was 4-track I would just hear bits that they were listening to and bits they would chuck out and try again a different way. So I didn't describe that. Obviously with hindsight I should have tried harder to describe all of that. I was there at the time but I didn't follow the creative path the way it would have been useful for people today.

You were there for the "Getting Better" recording session when John took LSD by mistake...

Yes, but I didn't see him taking anything, He just disappeared and I didn't know what was going on. But at that time he was taking so much stuff anyway. When I went to see him in Weybridge he'd be sort of spaced out and for hours he'd be unable to talk or concentrate or say much. And it was also sort of spiritual as well. He was just bored by Cynthia and with life.

Were you aware of Yoko's presence on the fringes of John's life in 1967?

I interviewed Yoko before John met her. She rang me up and said. "I'm Yoko Ono and I'm doing a film and would like to appear in it?" I asked what the film was about and she said, "It's about naked bottoms." She started by saying, "I'm told you are the most influential gossip columnist in London." So she was very flattering. And in those days there only were the Observer and the Sunday Times, and I did the main column and she wanted publicity. So I went along and there were people queuing outside. Inside there was this roundabout going round and you stepped onto it and you dropped your trousers and there was one fixed camera she just filmed bottoms. She'd put an advert in The Stage, the actor's magazine, saying "Would you like to appear in a film? Your appearance is guaranteed," so all these out-of-work actors queued up, not knowing what was going to happen, so it was funny seeing their faces when they went through.
She also told me about this film she'd done about a match being lit, and how she'd filmed a box of matches being opened and a matchstick being struck and lit. It ignites, it flames, and the flame dies and that's the end of it. She filmed it and slowed it down to thirty minutes. And this is a symbol of life itself. I thought that was pretty cute, a nice idea. So I did a piece about her, a fairly mickey-taking piece, and the headline I put on it was, "On no, Ono," a joke everybody has used since. I thought she might be upset, but she rang up to say thanks for the plug, for the mention, and I never heard of her again until eighteen months later when I walked into Abbey Road Studio one night and there she was, sitting with John, with all the other Beatles going "who's this funny woman?"

This was during the White Album?

I don't remember which exact session it was, but it was early on and the other Beatles were still surprised. What is amazing, of course, is that all these Beatle fans know far more about the Beatles than me. They know the secrets, I don't know the secrets. There are people alive now, the Beatles Brains, who know more about the Beatles than the Beatles do. The Beatles get the sequence of events wrong. They can't remember, and they have their stories they've perfected over the years because people have asked them the same questions and they don't really know what the truth is.

It is funny to hear things like Paul talking about how they'd refused to go to America without a #1 hit, as if they were going to turn in their plane tickets if "I Want To Hold Your Hand" had only gone to #3.

I feel a bit the same way. You know "All You Need Is Love," the television thing [the "Our World" broadcast]? There have been books written in which I'm listed as being there, and because I've been listed as being there I believe I was there, because I went so many evenings. But then I did, not long ago, look in my diary for that evening and I hadn't recorded anything. So I wasn't there, but I've led myself to believe I was. I'm now convinced that I wasn't, or I would have written it in, because on other evenings I've written "Abbey Road 10:00 to 1:00" or "Paul's 6:00 to 10:00" or whatever. I've got my diaries somewhere, and I've got my notebooks, which I haven't looked at since 1968. I never did any tape recordings. If only I had. But I've got all these notebooks, and in some of them Paul has done drawings. When he was talking about when he first met John, he made a drawing of how John looked that day. Isn't that brilliant? And there are other things in there I've probably forgotten.

How did the White Album strike you when it came out? Were you still close to them at that point?

Paul came to visit us in Portugal in December 1968 and he brought the album with him. I remember him playing "Blackbird" and thinking what a beautiful song it was. Still one of my favorites. I'd never heard that one before, but a lot of the songs I knew because I'd heard early versions of them. Some of them had been around for a long time in different versions and incarnations. He also sang a song for me. He found out my full Christian name was Edward Hunter Davies, but I'd never been called Edward. He was so amused by this he started to sing, "There you go Eddie..." A few years ago somebody sent me a bootleg from the Let It Be period [January 1969] and it's there, and it's a good song!

How was the Beatles' reaction when your book came out?

Well, I've written about that in the [newer editions of the] book. It was fine.

I enjoyed your stories about the conflicts with Mimi.

That was John. God knows how Mimi got hold of it. John must have left it laying around. So Mimi rang up John and moaned at John about the bad language. That was all it was, the bad language, and also saying he never stole things, which of course he did. So I went down to see her and calmed her down. I didn't take anything out, but I put in extra words from her saying, "John was as happy as the day was long." Which was her memory up to 11 or 12, and I'm sure it was true. It was only as a teenager he was a rebel. So he did, a couple of years later in the Rolling Stone thing [the 1970 RS interview], when asked about my book, rubbished it to say it was a whitewash, and that was very hurtful. I wrote to him and complained about that and he said, "Oh, I just said it." He was thinking about the whitewash idea, that I had to change things to keep Mimi happy. But I hadn't changed things. We have the drugs in there, have the first LSD trip. And I have appalling bad language, like the word "fuck," which in books in that period you never got. The reviews of the time said it was the most honest biography of pop people that had ever been. I didn't have the girls and the sex life because they all had wives or stable girlfriends, but apart from that it was true. And I had Brian described as a "gay bachelor." That was a code way of doing it.

Well, John lashed out at everything in that Rolling Stone interview. He hurt George Martin's feelings...

And Paul's, worst of all.

In Barry Miles' book, "All Those Years Ago," Paul seems pretty open about everything except his relationship with Jane Asher. She and Paul seem to have an agreement to not say much about each other.

She has never talked, ever, about the Beatles, and I admire her. Jane Asher and Neil Aspinall are the only two people close to them who have never given interviews or written books or in any way cashed in on the Beatles. I don't know whether it is an "agreement" or not but, he's never said awful things about her. He's made it, to me, clear between the lines that he was as much in love with her family and the house and the setup as he was with Jane. Coming from his council house background, he was enchanted by the lifestyle, how they lived in that big house with professors coming and going, and the way they lived in their vaguely middle-class Bohemian life. He was enchanted by it. It was so different from his own background, and in a way it was being socially mobile. He felt he'd moved up a class, moving in with these people. And the same when he started buying Magritte and these other paintings. He was bettering himself. So I think that was part of his love affair with Jane, and his move to Cavendish was part of it as well. The other three moved to the boring stockbroker, nouveau riche area, Weybridge. It's first-generation wealthy people who live there, whereas moving to St. John's Wood is up-market and classy. That's your intellectual area, and that was part of that syndrome.

Are you tired of being asked about the Beatles, or bothered by it?

Well, it is weird. I've written thirty other books since the Beatles, so I've got thirty other topics in my head. I went through a period of not talking about the Beatles, I got so fed up with it. I thought, "I've done all these other books, why can't they ask me about those?" Also, you want to talk about the book that's in your mind. And there's the other thing, where you don't want to be seen as cashing in on the Beatles, because it's so pathetic. Now, of course, as the years have gone on, and two of them are dead, I realize that I was the only person that did a book about them with their help. So I've now gotten to the stage where I feel honored, and that I have a vague duty... but on the other hand, I've got no insight, no knowledge that I haven't already shared. I feel a fraud in a way, because all my knowledge is about that sixties period. And every time there's a Beatle-type event, like today [Paul's wedding], they're ringing up all the time, and all I did was write about them. In fact, at the time I was dissatisfied and thought I'd thrown it down too quickly, as it was still happening. People doing later books were more fortunate in that they could look at the whole production and they could sit back and be sensible about it. I now realize that mine was different, because mine was as it was happening. It wasn't written with hindsight. They didn't know where they were going, and I didn't know where they were going either.

Well, it is a wonderful book. I read and reread it endlessly when it came out, and it still holds up really well today. Thank you very much for your time and memories!

PURCHASE DAVIES BOOK HERE: The Beatles


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