Beatle houses

Posted on September 20, 2016

A column about a visit to Lennon & McCartney’s houses in Liverpool. Written for Guitarist, 2013.  

I WONDERED IF THERE MIGHT BE A GUITAR at John Lennon’s house. The National Trust now owns Mendips, John’s aunt’s house where he lived from 1945 to 1963, and organises a tour to see it along with Paul McCartney’s nearby childhood home. You might have seen that film Nowhere Boy last year that focussed on the story of the young Lennon, pre-Beatles. Curiously, it wasn’t filmed in Mendips or even a house that looked much like it. But this here is the real thing, a pleasant detached 30s house in a desirable bit of suburban Liverpool, with not a working class hero in sight.

John got his first guitar when he was here, in 1956, and he formed a skiffle group. It was a cheap acoustic, helpfully described on the label inside as “guaranteed not to split” and probably a devil to play. He ordered this Gallotone Champion by mail-order and had it delivered to his mum’s address, because Aunt Mimi disapproved of such time-wasting activities as playing the guitar. She thought it distracted John from his studies. John, of course, knew what was really important.

The custodian at Mendips today is Colin Hall, which means he has the job of living in the house and showing people around. Colin is the perfect host, with an affectionate, engaging but not overly reverent approach to the history all about him. At Paul’s house there’s the original piano in the small front room and a guitar of more doubtful origin. But I don’t see a guitar here at John’s. Colin’s wife Sylvia tells me that there was until recently a Gallotone in the house – not Lennon’s own, but one exactly like it – but that it’s been removed from display because the person who loaned it has sold it.

Some lucky visitors saw the guitar before it went. James Taylor was one of the lucky ones, and he apparently had a great time sitting on Lennon’s bed, singing and playing ‘Sweet Baby James’ on the resident Gallotone. Bob Dylan was another lucky one. He too grappled briefly with the guitar’s less-than-player-friendly charms, but it was John’s collection of Just William books that really grabbed the attention of Mr Dylan. It might be worth keeping an eye open some time soon for a band calling itself William Brown & The Outlaws and featuring a dodgy harmonica blower.

I’m not sure what difference a Gallotone lying around at Mendips would have made to my visit, but I never got the chance to find out. However, I have managed to hold (and secretly strum) a few Actual Beatle Guitars. The one that did it most for me was George Harrison’s psychedelic Strat. You know? The one he played on the Our World TV bash where they did ‘All You Need Is Love’; the one in the Magical Mystery Tour film when they do ‘I Am The Walrus’ in the middle of a Kent airfield; and the one on which George pinged that lovely signature harmonic for ‘Nowhere Man’.

When we photographed George’s Strat years ago for my book about 60s guitars, Fuzz & Feedback, I was prepared to be confronted with … well, just another Strat, to be honest. But when tech Alan Rogan arrived at the studio with the case and opened it up, I was completely taken aback. This was not simply another amalgam of wood, plastic, and metal from California. It was a remarkably moving experience. Honestly, it was. A special object like that one can do it to you – or at least it did for me.

The National Trust has done a good job of maintaining the period vibe of Lennon’s house and time-machining the experience with the clutter of everyday 50s life. But it’s just a house, you say, and so what? Well, just as with that guitar of George’s, I’d have to disagree. Objects, spaces, even bricks and mortar, can do it to you. Colin took us to the enclosed porch by the front door and explained that this was where John and his friend Paul used to play and sing – Mimi rarely let them do so in the rest of the house – and they called it their echo chamber. It still has an echo of the secret purposes of two ordinary yet special schoolboys and their cheap yet magical guitars.