With The Beatles: My teen band days with Lennon and McCartney
David Clensy meets the Yatton man who performed alongside John, Paul and George in The Quarrymen – before they hit the big time as The Beatles 50 years ago
THE record lay at the bottom of a drawer for more than 20 years. A dusty old acetate, hardly ever listened to, which "sounded like it was being played with a rusty needle" – it lay in a drawer at John Duff Lowe's home as the years passed by throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
John enjoyed a successful, busy career as a stockbroker in Liverpool and London, and later moved to Yatton for a peaceful retirement in the West Country – but John, always known to his friends as Duff, hardly ever thought of the extraordinary record he had buried in his drawer.
But it was a little slice of music history. The record was a one-off, cut at the backroom home studio of Percy Phillips in a Liverpool suburban terraced house on July 12, 1958, by a little-known skiffle group made up of a ramshackle collection of teenage would-be rock 'n' roll stars. They called themselves The Quarrymen.
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Duff was the pianist in the band, but had no idea then that fellow band members John, Paul and George would go on to form the most successful band ever – The Beatles.
The youngsters were simply excited to "cut their first record" at the vanity studios, after saving up diligently to pay the 17/6d for their one-hour recording slot.
One side would be a cover version of the rock 'n' roll song made famous by Buddy Holly, That'll Be The Day, while the other side would feature In Spite Of All The Danger – the first song to be recorded by an unknown young songwriter called Paul McCartney.
"You can see the label," Duff tells me, handing me a replica version of the disc. "It's written in Paul's hand, and he's given a McCartney-Harrison credit beneath the title – but in fact, George only wrote the guitar solo. It was Paul's song really."
McCartney himself later recalled: "We shared the record. I kept it for a week, George kept it for a week, John kept it for a week, [drummer] Colin Hanton kept it for a week, then Duff kept it for 23 years."
"I never really valued it," Duff admits. "It was just there in the bottom of the drawer. After I left the band, nobody asked for it back – for a long time I forgot it was there. Of course I followed the Beatles' success avidly, and was always pleased for them, and so proud to have been a part of their early days – but I never thought much about the record.
"It was my wife, Linda, who was later more conscious of its historic value – she used to insist on taking it with us when we went on holiday, because she was terrified of it being stolen. It truly was a one-off."
But in 1981, Duff agreed to sell the disc to McCartney for an undisclosed sum (though the record was valued this week by music industry magazine Record Collector at £200,000).
"I was happy for Paul to have it back, and he was kind enough to offer me some money for it," he says. "But I was just pleased to see that EMI were able to clean it up and include it as part of the Beatles' Anthology CDs that came out in the 1990s."
Duff recreated The Quarrymen in the 1990s, after making contact with Colin Hanton and two other original performers who had played with Lennon in the band in 1957 – Len Garry and Rod Davis.
The band is in demand at Beatles festivals and skiffle festivals around the world, and next month they will be coming to Bristol to play The Thunderbolt in Bath Road.
Duff was a pupil at the Liverpool Institute alongside Paul McCartney when the future Beatle first invited him to join The Quarrymen in 1958.
"Paul knew I could play the piano, as we were in the same music class at school, and he approached me one day in the playground to talk about music. I remember him asking me, 'Eh Duff - how do you get from the key of C to E?' and I told him the best way was to use a Bminor7 chord.
"It's funny to think that the same sequence of chords would later be used in the opening of his most famous song, Yesterday, which has been recorded by more than 2,000 artists.
"Paul went on to tell me he was in a band called The Quarrymen, and asked if I would be interested in playing piano with them."I said I would, and made my way across Liverpool to Paul McCartney's house in Forthlin Road on the following Sunday afternoon for my first rehearsal with the band. It was six miles and two buses – I had to change at Penny Lane, funnily enough. There was a shelter in the middle of the roundabout where I could wait for my next bus.
"John Lennon had formed The Quarrymen in 1957 with some pals from Quarrybank High School. I can remember being nervous about meeting John that Sunday, but Paul must have had his permission to invite me to join the band, and John – who was a little older than us [he would have been 17], seemed friendly enough.
"He wasn't there when I first arrived at Paul's house, but then I saw him through the window – he was coming through the gate, collar turned up on his overcoat, strumming a guitar.
"I can also clearly remember the last time I met John – it was in the Cavern Club in 1960, after I'd left the band. I was by then a trainee stockbroker, and approached John at the back of the club. He was talking to someone and I walked up to say hello. Quick as a flash, John turned to his friend and said, 'This is Duff, he breaks stock.' It was a typical Lennonism.
"Then I remember that day in 1980 when he died. I was sitting on the edge of the bed when I turned the television on and heard the news that John had been shot in New York. I was devastated."
The 70-year-old adds: "People always ask me, 'Do you ever think you missed out on being a Beatle? Do you ever think it could have been you?' But I've never felt like that. After all, if I had been a Beatle, it could have been me getting shot on a New York street rather than dear old John."
The Quarrymen play The Thunderbolt, Totterdown, on December 8. Tickets are £10 in advance. To book call 0117 929 9008.