The Beatles may have become the biggest band in the world, but John, Paul, George and Ringo started out as four travelling fishmongers from the sleepy fishing town of Liverpool on England's North West coast. Collectively they travelled the length and breadth of the UK, dispensing the freshest cod, whitebait and haddock to grateful housewives from the back of their colourfully painted Magical Mystery Van. But it wasn't just fish they supplied. Oh no. They did cockles and whelks as well.
Oh yes, and they also did Rock and Roll!
Influenced by the latest sounds from America, the 'Rollmop Tops', as they came to be known, rearranged, reinterpreted and eventually pioneered a whole new beat. Soon fans were flocking to see them as they toured the country, won over by their boyish good looks, their cheeky Liverpudlian humour, and their excellently priced plaice. It was only a matter of time before they were given the opportunity to make a record, and their first album, Please Please Me, was a top notch poperoony smash - thanks in no small measure to the free portion of hake given away with the first two thousand copies. Subsequent albums were promoted with similar offers: pilchards in brine came free with Beatles for Sale; a selection of prawns were shrink-wrapped to the cover of Help!; and Sergeant Pepper had crabs.
"Ay Ringo! This new fish van
is really gear!"
The Beatles became regular residents of EMI's Abbey Road Studios, where the smell of creativity was always in the air. Not just creativity, in fact. Other artists always knew that whenever the stale odour of fish swept through the building, it meant that the Beatles were once more pushing back the barriers of rock and roll fishmongering in studio 2.
They were driven by a sort of restless energy. That same verve and vigour that had once urged them to sell slightly dodgy wet fish to unsuspecting middle-aged housewives from the back of a van, was now leading them in new and more exciting musical directions. From the very outset it had been obvious that they were different from the majority of their peers in the retail trade - even the man in the butcher's had said so - but now their creativity was bursting at the seams. The pressures of running a fish van was becoming too much, and so, during a tour of the US, they decided to call it a day. Their last pitch was outside Candlestick Park in San Francisco, where they sold three turbots to a man called Barry.
Returning home, the Beatles sold their van to invest in a new fish restaurant in Soho. It was a bold new direction for the group, but ultimately it was doomed to failure, as Paul McCartney explains:
"What we wanted to do was open a new kind of fish restaurant. A restaurant founded on the ideals of the sixties - community, opportunity, brotherhood and a wide selection of exotic sauces. But we were very naïve. Oh, we knew all about fish, there's no doubting that. John knew more about bream than any man of his generation, and what George couldn't tell you about salmon simply wasn't worth knowing. As for Ringo, his tuna impressions made him an overnight star, and are still talked about today in parts of Finland, where the nights are long and they haven't got cable. But we weren't really businessmen. Sure, we knew all about pocketing change, and understood the value of a well placed thumb on a scale, but when it came to managing a restaurant we were all at sea. The trouble is, when people see you floundering like that - no pun intended - well, they're quick to nip in and take advantage. And we were taken advantage of something rotten. People would just come in, order fish, then leave without paying for it. Usually they'd take the cutlery as well, sometimes the salt and pepper, occasionally the tables, the chairs and even the pictures off the wall. We were gutted. Literally."
The Beatles suddenly found that their company was haemorrhaging money at an alarming rate. Drastic measures were needed to remedy the situation, so business managers were called in. They decided that the best way of preventing property and cash from going missing was to nail the doors shut. However, the pilferers were not to be deterred, and built an elaborate network of tunnels beneath the restaurant so that stolen goods could be spirited away without anyone even realising it. The group finally recognised that something had to be done when Ringo was stolen. Police were alerted and a nationwide manhunt ensued. George Harrison eventually found him at a jumble sale in Cambridge. The big nosed drummer was hungry, confused, but relatively unscathed, and a snip at only 11s 4d.
Controversially, the decision was taken to abandon the fish restaurant and turn it into a laundrette. Although it was seen as a risky move at the time, it turned out to be a tremendous success, and 'Beatleclean' is still in business today.
"'Ere Paul, d'ye reckon I can get
me new strides cleaned, whack?"
But if the group failed to make ripples in the business world, their music more than made up for it. Perhaps characteristically, their most influential and experimental work came as a result of adverse circumstances. For some time, musicians and technicians at Abbey Road had complained of the overpowering stench of fish from the Beatles' studio. EMI bosses were under pressure to remedy the situation, but didn't want to offend their most lucrative artists. And so, for a while, they got into the habit of dropping hints wherever and whenever they could: hanging air fresheners in corridors, leaving deodorant in the studio, and so on. The Beatles, however, failed to get the message until one young executive, driven to desperation by the pong, forsook any attempt at tact and told John Lennon that he stank like a trawlerman's butt crack.
And so the Beatles reluctantly agreed that, henceforth, they would record on the roof. Happily, once they were out in the open, they felt a sense of freedom, and were better able to experiment with their music. Most of the Beatles' later psychedelic output was recorded on various rooftops in and around London, as they battled with gales, downpours, hailstorms and the terrifying and ever-present threat of pigeon shit bombardment. Indeed, they felt so at home up there, that they rarely ever came down. They had a network of walkways built, leading from rooftop to rooftop, so they could wander the length and breadth of the capital, without ever having to set foot on the pavements below.
But whilst it was undoubtedly their most creative time, it was also the beginning of the end for the Beatles. Cut off from the rest of the world, the inevitable tension inside the group began to grow, spiralling out of control. Their final album (Abbey Road, initial copies of which came with a free commemorative mahogany lobster) was recorded on top of the Beatleclean building in just ten minutes, and subsequently elongated in the studio by physically stretching the tape. The Beatles went their separate ways. John Lennon forgot all about fish and moved to New York where he surrounded himself with small mammals and the occasional lizard. Paul McCartney went on to have a very successful solo career as a heating engineer, regularly fixing boilers in front of capacity crowds in stadia all over the world. George Harrison stayed on the rooftops, singing ancient European sea shanties for lost mariners. And Ringo currently runs a jellied eel stall in Camberwell, where he does a roaring trade at the weekends.
None of this is true, by the way.
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