The Beatles, the most famous, successful and influential pop musical group in history, have hundreds of millions of fans and besotted admirers around the world, more than 40 years after they broke up.
However, as the years pass, very few people remain who intimately knew the individual Beatles, and even fewer who knew them before they began their extraordinary path to boundless fame and fortune.
One of the most fascinating chapters of the Beatles' story involves a British poet and novelist named Royston Ellis, who met the group in Liverpool in the summer of 1960.
At that early period, the group (then called the ‘Silver Beetles’) comprised John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Stuart Sutcliffe. Well known in the Liverpool area, they were still just one of dozens of scruffy bands struggling to survive, and the odds were stacked against them. Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein, George Martin, London and Beatlemania would not emerge for another two to three years.
Ellis has kindly agreed to speak with International Business Times to discuss his experiences in Liverpool almost 53 years ago, when he met a group of young lads with big dreams and little hope.
Now 72 years old, Ellis currently lives in Induruwa, Sri Lanka.
IB TIMES: You went to Liverpool as a teenager in the summer of 1960 to give poetry readings. What was Liverpool like in those days? Was it really as grim and gloomy as we have been led to believe? Did the Irish Catholic culture predominate?
ELLIS: At the age of 19 and puffed up with the excitement of being a famous teenage television poet (I remember I traveled to Liverpool by first-class train, hammering away -- much to the annoyance of fellow passengers -- on my portable typewriter), I didn't notice any particular Irish Catholic culture, my mind being full of rock-and-roll and poetry back then.
However, Liverpool was certainly grim and gloomy and seemed to me, as a product of the [London] Soho street school of rock-and-roll, beatniks and jazz, to be unenlightened.
IB TIMES: Was your poetry heavily influenced by the American Beats like Allen Ginsberg and others? Did this genre enjoy support in the U.K.?
ELLIS: I started writing poetry and getting published in 1957 (at age 16) before I was made aware of the American Beats. It was the commentators in the 1960s who introduced (and compared) me to their work.
The poetic influence on me actually came from British poets like Christopher Logue (with Jazzetry, poems read to jazz) and Bernard Kops, both published by John Rolph of Scorpion Press, who introduced me to them and published my first book of poems, "Jiving to Gyp," in 1959.
IB TIMES: What kind of people generally attended your poetry readings -- students, radicals and intellectuals, or is that a stereotype?
ELLIS: When I appeared at university societies (such as Heretics, Cambridge, and debating at the Cambridge Union) they were indeed students and (pseudo) intellectuals. However, when I appeared at places like Battersea Town Hall (backed by Cliff Richard's group, The Drifters [later The Shadows]), they were working teenagers and happy layabouts.
When I appeared in 1961 at London's Mermaid Theatre with my regular guitarist, Jimmy Page (who later formed Led Zeppelin), they were cultured adults.
IB TIMES: How did you meet the Beatles and what was your initial impression of them -- as people and as musicians?
ELLIS: The meeting was by pure chance, as I have recounted elsewhere. I met a boy in the Jacaranda club (my first stop on arrival) and told him I was in Liverpool to perform my poetry, and he rushed me off to meet his buddies at 3 Gambier Terrace. I liked the bohemian atmosphere there (thanks to Stuart Sutcliffe's art works) and they [the Beatles] all seemed to like me (even though they were perhaps a bit overawed by the unexpected arrival of a famous beatnik teenager from London), so I stayed.
I bonded immediately with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Stuart.
IB TIMES: You were apparently closest to John Lennon then, sharing a passion for modern poetry. Was he the "leader" of the group? Did you find him to be a troubled soul?
ELLIS: John was certainly the one with the most energy and inquiring mind, eager to learn and always asking a lot of questions. The only "troubled soul" I sensed about him was the anguish of whether to continue at art school or to follow music full time.
I told him emphatically that he should quit art school and follow music, using my own career as an example. I told him I walked out of school as soon as I was 16, determined to become a writer. I hoped my successful career as a published poet and TV performer at 19 would help give him confidence to do the same thing.
He never went back to art school.
IB TIMES: The doomed Stuart Sutcliffe was a member of the Beatles then. Did he have any musical talent? Did you discuss art and poetry with him?
ELLIS: Alas, I cannot recall anything about his musical talent. I wouldn't have discussed art -- as I had no knowledge of it -- but we did have general conversations about what we wanted to do in life. I told them that I, as a poet, wanted to make my poetry popular, hence "Rocketry," poetry performed to rock music.
We once had a discussion about what we wanted to be and I said "I want to be a paperback writer," because being published in paperback was then a sign of popular success. (The phrase later became part of one of the Beatles' biggest hits).
IB TIMES: Did you attend any of the Beatles’ concerts at the Cavern Club and elsewhere? What was the atmosphere like? Did you have any inkling that they would ever become globally famous?
ELLIS: I went only to the Jacaranda, a scruffy, youth dive with a juke box. Yes, I did sense the Beatles had something special -- as people, as well as musicians -- which is why I invited them to come to London to back me on my TV performances. Before that happened they went to Germany, although John did invite me to go with them as a sort of poetic "compere."
IB TIMES: Is it true that you suggested the group change its name from "Beetles" to "Beatles" to reflect the "Beat" movement?
ELLIS: It was when I suggested to John that they come to London that I asked him his group's name. When he told me, I asked him how he spelt it. He said they got the idea from the nickname for the Volkswagen car (Beetle). I said since they like the "Beat" way of life, were "Beat" musicians and would be backing me as a "Beat" poet, I suggested to him why not spell the name with an "A"?
I don't know whether John had already considered that spelling but it was my encouragement that made him choose it permanently.
His often-quoted story of the name being given to him by a "man on a flaming pie" is a jocular reference to the evening I cooked a frozen chicken pie and mushrooms for dinner for the boys -- and girls -- in the flat and managed to burn the pie.
IB TIMES: The familiar story is that the Beatles did not use marijuana until they met Bob Dylan in New York in August 1964. But since Liverpool and Hamburg were both rough port cities, surely they must have been exposed to drugs before that time?
ELLIS: I don't know about marijuana. However, John himself reported in International Times (in 1973) that I was the first person to turn him, Paul, George and Stuart onto drugs by introducing them to the way to get high by chewing the Benzedrine strips inside nose inhalers -- as was the fashion then in London.
IB TIMES: How long did you live in Liverpool and where did you first go when you departed the city?
ELLIS: I didn't live in Liverpool. When I was 15 I lived in Malpas, Cheshire, near Liverpool, working on a farm (having run away from school for a few months), and visited Liverpool then. My next visit was when I stayed at Gambier Terrace. I can't remember how long; probably about a week -- but it was indeed a momentous week for all of us!
IB TIMES: After the Beatles moved to London permanently in 1963, did you maintain contact with any of them? Did you visit with them at EMI studios or their homes?
ELLIS: By 1962 I had retired from performing to concentrate on writing and I moved to the Channel Islands. I did see the Beatles performing in Shrewsbury (UK) and we spent time together then.
We re-bonded when they visited [the islands of] Jersey and Guernsey to perform, and John himself told Playboy that the song "Polythene Pam" [from the "Abbey Road" album in 1969] was inspired by a night he and I shared with a girl at my flat in Guernsey wearing black polythene. This was because John liked my poem "I long to have sex between black leather sheets ..." but we had no black leather.
IB TIMES: In 1963 you wrote a novel called "Myself For Fame." Was the chapter in Liverpool an account of your experiences with the Beatles?
ELLIS: Yes, and it probably accurately reflects what happened then as it was still fresh in my mind.
IB TIMES: As the 1960s progressed and the Beatles became not only internationally famous celebrities but also pop culture icons -- were you shocked by the magnitude of their success and influence?
ELLIS: Not shocked. I missed most of the momentum as I lived in the Canary Islands from 1963-1966, and then in Dominica [in the Caribbean] from 1966-1979, where their music did not mean so much -- and I was concentrating on my writing.
IB TIMES: Were you a fan of the Beatles’ music? Or were you more of a jazz, blues and classical music aficionado?
ELLIS: I liked their early music and indeed my tastes changed from the traditional jazz of my teenage years to their style of pop. However, I soon became heavily influenced by Caribbean reggae and Cadence music (and also managed bands from Dominica such as the Grammacks, Black Roots and Joy Juice).
IB TIMES: John Lennon referred to you periodically in interviews up until his death in 1980. Did you maintain contact with him during his New York years?
ELLIS: Contact was maintained through mutual friends and we once missed meeting each other in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, by an hour. However, I did meet Paul again by chance at Le Bristol Hotel in Paris in 2006 and he immediately recalled the poem I had performed with them and even recited the opening lines: "Easy, easy, break me in easy." He also recalled then that I had told him in 1960 that statistically one in five people were gay and he wondered which one of the Beatles and their associates was the "fifth man."
IB TIMES: When did you arrive in Sri Lanka and why did you decide to settle there?
ELLIS: While I was living in Dominica (during which time I wrote the several bestselling series of historical/slave novels called "The Bondmaster" as Richard Tresillian for U.S. publisher Warners) there was a hurricane in 1979 that blew down my hillside log cabin. Fortunately, three weeks before I had insured it -- so I took the money, put it in a briefcase, and set off to see the world. I stopped over in Sri Lanka on my way to Sarawak [Malaysia] where I was going to write a novel based on James Brooke, the "White Rajah" of Sarawak.
I did the research but returned to Sri Lanka as a peaceful place in which to write, in contrast to the Caribbean. I never finished that novel but instead wrote a historical trilogy set in Sri Lanka, as well as four historical novels set in Mauritius and one based on the life of the Maldives 16th century national hero, Mohamed Thakurufaanu.
I now concentrate on writing about Sri Lanka to encourage tourism as well as editing a tourism magazine and writing my weekly newsletter, Royston Reports, covering tropical topics with occasional sidebars on matters that might intrigue readers. It has a readership of just under 200,000 a week [www.roystonellis.com/blog].
IB TIMES: Have you been back to Liverpool since 1960? If so, what do you make of the enormous changes the city has undergone?
ELLIS: I have never been back to Liverpool, but may have to do so in the future as the interest in the Beatles seems to be increasing. I now get an average of four inquiries a week about those early days at the dawn of the "Swinging Sixties," and I refer people to my book first published in 1961, updated in 2010, called "The Big Beat Scene." [http://musicmentor0.tripod.com/book_big_beat_scene.html.]
This interest probably stems from the extraordinary connection I had through poetry and music with the trendsetting pop stars of the late '50s (Cliff Richard), the early 1960s (the Beatles) and the later heavy rock of Led Zeppelin. Incidentally, Jimmy Page and I have remained close and he has written the introduction to my "Collected Poems" being published soon in the U.S.
IB TIMES: Thank you, Mr. Ellis, it’s been a pleasure.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.