Thursday, 2 June 2011

Derek Taylor: Fifty Years Adrift

Being what you might call a Beatles fan, I have read what I can only describe as a number of books about them. But until a couple of weeks ago one had always eluded me, and many others beside: Fifty Years Adrift, by the late Derek Taylor - one of the very few insiders whom all four of 'the boys' liked and trusted. As such 'Degs' (as they called him) had remarkable access to them for much for the 1960s and beyond, making it a key read for Beatle nuts. Sadly, however, only 2000 copies were printed in 1984, and quickly sold out. A lavish production aimed squarely at collectors, it has never been available since, and when copies occasionally surface they fetch well into four figures. It's magnificently produced and bound, to be sure, with plenty of woodcuts, rare photographs and ephemera breaking up the dense text. But the real pity of its rarity is that Taylor's writing is so enjoyable. A true fan of The Beatles, music and life itself, his enthusiasm, wit and warmth consistently communicate themselves, and because he was clearly a fastidious sort, his recollections are sharp and beautifully articulated.

Anyhow - here are a couple more titillating pictures of the book itself (as ever, click to enlarge):




And here's the flyleaf (signed by Taylor) and the foreword (signed by George Harrison, with whom Taylor had a special affinity):





And, for trivia gimps, here's the original promo flier for the book:


Taylor was born on May 7th 1932 in Liverpool, and grew up there, attending Calday Grammar School and becoming a journalist on The Hoylake & West Kirby Advertiser in early 1949. The book brilliantly evokes those far-off days of boozy local news-gathering, as well as his National Service, and his excitement becomes palpable when he joins the national press and enters what he calls 'the cradle of the sixties', as tastes and fashions began to change following the austerity of the post-war years.

Derek Taylor, 1964
As I have mentioned, although he was guilty of the cardinal sin of being 'old', Taylor fell for The Beatles the moment he saw them (at the Manchester Odeon on May 30th 1963, supported by Roy Orbison), and his love for them, their music and what they represented is a constant theme of the book. Here he describes his feelings in the pub immediately afterwards (to another, less enthusiastic hack):


Before long Taylor had persuaded his boss at The Daily Express to run a weekly column by George Harrison, but ghosted by him. This was something of a coup for the paper, and Brian Epstein was sufficiently pleased with the results to ask Taylor to ghost his memoirs, A Cellarful Of Noise, and to become his personal assistant. Taylor then served as press officer for The Beatles' first US tour in the summer of 1964, and the book offers fascinating insights into the white heat of Beatlemania - not least of all in the form of itallicised interjections by George. Here are a few examples:




The book is full of little insights into the world of The Beatles, written with sympathy and scrupulous fairness - which isn't to say it's anodyne, simply that Taylor understood the pressures the four were under, so his judgement of their actions is never harsh. Here's a touching passage about John:


Following one row too many with Epstein (whom he liked greatly but found exasperating, not least of all because of his inability to comprehend his need to spend time away from the Fab Four and with his wife and children), Taylor upped sticks to California, where he and his growing family lived the good life as he became Hollywood's most immaculately hip PR man, serving stars like The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Paul Revere & The Raiders and Chad & Jeremy, as well as underground heroes such as Captain Beefheart and Harry Nilsson. This period is dealt with in vivid detail, with plenty of trivia to entertain fact-hounds like me (did you know that Roger McGuinn's parents were the authors of a best-selling guide to child-rearing entitled Parents Can't Win?). At this time he also filed a weekly column for Disc & Music Echo, which is terrific reading if you ever find a copy, and wrote for underground rags like the enigmatic Royal's World Countdown.

A business card reproduced in the book
In the spring of 1967 Taylor was one of the principal organisers of The Monterey Festival, though he had yet to take LSD himself, being relatively slow fully to embrace the psychedelic lifestyle of his clients. Here's a (somewhat repellent) drawing he solicited from The Beatles for use in the official programme:


Happy though he was in LA (where he eventually became A&M's in-house publicity boss and an avid consumer of LSD and dope), he was lured back to the UK in the spring of 1968, when all four Beatles conference-called to beg him to become press officer for their exciting new venture, Apple. The dream swiftly curdled, as we all know, but his nostalgia for what briefly was and what could have been is plain. By this time The Beatles were pulling in different directions, and could be obnoxious. Here's an interesting snippet about Paul:


He also reproduces some intriguing paraphernalia from his sojourn at Apple, including documents relating to concepts I'd never heard of, such as a proposed Apple school ('John requested that all the arts, including music, dancing, theatre and films should be in the school timetable', runs the relevant memo. 'The art of propaganda in the advertising field must also be taught. With regard to religious teaching, all aspects must be dealt with - e.g. Gods of other countries... Games and physical exercise will be encouraged, but not enforced. No physical discipline of any kind... John stated that all attempts should be made to open the school by September.') And here's George on The White Album (note that he doesn't capitalise it...):


Taylor also reproduces some interesting recommendations made by the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson regarding The White Album (dated October 24th 1968), including white double-decker buses to drive around London. Sadly, this never happened - as Richard DiLello writes in his terrific Longest Cocktail Party:


Another of J. Walter Thompson's suggestions indicates that The Beatles were well aware from day one that numbering the sleeves was a canny marketing ploy:


Though Apple ended in tears, Taylor expresses no bitterness over his experience, and is at pains to emphasise how unfairly The Beatles (especially John, of course) were treated by the media as the era of the malleable moptops receded into the distant past. Here's an amusing little note he found on his desk at Apple one day:


Following the collapse of The Beatles, Taylor went on to work at Warner Bros. for a number of years (where he produced Nilsson's 1973 A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night LP). Having conquered his alcoholism - which he describes candidly - he became a full-time writer in the 1980s, collaborating with Harrison on I Me Mine, amongst other things, before returning to Apple in the early 90s to oversee the marketing of The Beatles At The BBC, The Beatles Anthology and their remastered catalogue. A heavy smoker for many years, he died of lung cancer aged only 65 on September 8th 1997. Reading his book felt like spending a few evenings in the company of a lovely new friend - and, even better, one that would never tire of talking about The Beatles. It's hard not to emerge convinced of what a decent, intelligent and entertaining chap he was, and it's a crying shame that this terrific record of his life and times is (and seems likely to remain) unavailable to the vast majority of Beatles fans. 

12 comments:

  1. I hope some publisher eventually puts this out in an affordable mass-market edition, not a limited edition whose rarity and expense puts it out of reach of most fans and readers.

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  2. David Biasotti2 June 2011 at 21:59

    Thanks for posting this. I'd actually forgotten it existed, but, really, I can't offhand think of a music world memoir I'd rather read than this one. And I hope, as Richie wrote, that a mass-market edition appears not too long from now.

    ps: I actually have a copy of "Parents Can't Win." (Got it on eBay a few years ago.)

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  3. I had no recollection of this being published so thanks for the piece. I can only echo Richie's comments and hope an affordable edition is published.

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  4. It would be wonderful if an affordable edition were released. I was lucky enough to come across a copy for sale and just got it. I can't wait to read it, but I would much rather tear into a less expensive copy, rather than this one.

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  5. I happen to own a copy - a present for my 24st birthday from my dear father. Derek Taylor was, just like the Beatles were, unique. He was sincere, unafraid and gifted. He embraced the 60's and the 60's embraced him. On the surface he was a dedicated family man, a little "too old" (early 30's!), and a hard drinking hack reporter. But he was hip to everything going on and there's no mistaking his love for the music and the times. Of all the people that worked with/for The Beatles (excepting Mal & Nell), Derek was the only one to really befriend them socially. The book is a must read for any serious Beatle scholar and it is indeed a shame that no paperback version seems to be forthcoming.

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  6. Hi -wouldn`t it be a good idea to photograph all pages and compile a pdf for all Beatles scholars worldwide who can`t afford that much sought book?
    I love to read it.
    thorsten
    www.bravo-beatles-blitztournee.de

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  7. Hi Thorsten - only three problems with your idea. 1) it would take a huge amount of time 2) the book would be damaged in the process 3) it would be a massive violation of copyright. But a nice thought!

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  8. thanks for sharing.

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  9. One of the first Beatle books I read - many years ago - back in the late 70s I think, was the more affordable "As time goes by" written by Derek Taylor - I read and re-read that book countless times and I still hold that to be the best book on the Beatles as it seemed, somehow, to capture the spirit of the times - I especially likes the description of Paul, Tony Bramwell and him going to some country pub in 1968 and having a sing song - his choice of words and writing style absolutly amazed me. The book can still be bought on ebay and I asumme it is a poor man's "50 years adrift..." - which I don't have and, given the cost, unlikely to have....

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  10. THERE ARE COPIES OF THIS TOME IN LIMITED, SELECTED LIBRARIES WITHIN THEIR SPECIAL "RARE DOCUMENTS" SECTION. THE LAST TIME I CHECKED, WHICH WAS YEARS AGO, I RECALL THAT THE PITTSBURGH PA. PUBLIC LIBRARY HAS A COPY. I THINK YOU CAN VIEW IT BUT YOU HAVE TO PERSONALLY GO TO THE LIBRARY. I'M NOT SURE IF THEY WOULD LET YOU READ THE WHOLE THING IN MULTIPLE SITTINGS BUT IT MAY BE WORTH A TRY.

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  11. I live in Perth, Australia and was lucky enough to find a copy of this online in Sydney a number of years ago. The seller very kindly sent it postage free. At the time, Derek Taylor was still alive. Undoubtedly, the book is worth more now than what I paid for it back in the 1990s. Treasured possession.

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  12. I am lukcy to have a copy of this book, my copy is 125/2000 unfortunately I need to sell it just make up my mind this morning, the book is in perfect conditions, I am ready to hear offers if anyone is interested can conctact me at carlarmiguez@hotmail.com

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