Paul Howard, biographer of Tara Browne, the 1960s peer, scenester and alleged subject of the Beatles song A Day in the Life, is chatting to film-maker and writer Gerry Harrison. Howard knows his Beatles, but Harrison actually knew the Beatles. John Lennon drove him around in his Rolls Royce. Ringo Starr sang Lady Madonna to him at a party in Joan Collins's house. He helped film Magical Mystery Tour, and videos for McCartney's Mull of Kintyre and Lennon's Imagine. Of the latter he says: "Yoko was sitting on the floor being a bit of a nuisance and I said to her, 'Why don't you go around the room and open the shutters?' "
It’s an iconic scene now. “It is,” he says. “I wish I got one cent every time it was shown.”
Harrison was 24 in 1967, the summer of love. "I lived in Notting Hill Gate, which was quite cool, not full of millionaires like it is now. I was a humble assistant director working on feature films, and one day the phone rang and Andrew Birkin [brother of Jane] said, 'What are you doing next week?' I thought it would be a Corn Flakes commercial. He said 'It's a film with the Beatles.' I was a jazzer. I play tenor sax. I'm the John Coltrane of Co Clare. So I was a bit disdainful of that music at first. I thought it was a bit 'yeah, yeah, yeah'."
Harrison asks Howard how he became interested in Tara Browne. "I remember listening to A Day in the Life and my brother said it was about an Irish guy," says Howard. "In 2006 I wanted to write a story about his life and went to meet [his brother] Garech and I just thought, 'Wow, what an extraordinary life and times'."
Muse and scene-maker
He talks about how Browne was a muse and scene-maker for people such as Paul McCartney. "He was kind of a Forrest Gump figure, present for a lot of very significant moments. Their mother was Oonagh Guinness, the brewery heiress. She was one of the bright young people in the 1930s. Evelyn Waugh wrote about her. She knew the queen mother, Beckett, Brendan Behan. A lot of incredibly sophisticated people were in her drawing room and Tara was there, aged eight, absorbing it all. If the 1960s was anything it was an echo of the 1930s."
“The difference was that the 1930s was all about a social elite with money,” says Harrison. “The Beatles helped to democratise that. We were all smoking dope. I became left-wing because of the way the police were busting all my friends. That really radicalised me.”
They discuss the working-class roots of the art collective Binder, Edwards and Vaughan, who painted a psychedelic mural on Browne’s car. “There’s this great Pathé news footage of Browne driving it up a ramp and down a ramp again into Robert Fraser’s gallery,” says Howard.
“I remember gawping in the window at that car,” says Harrison.
Cars were ultimately the death of poor Tara Browne. “He drove very fast. I met some people in Roundwood [near Browne’s family home, and they used to say]: ‘Be careful out there, Tara Browne is home’,” says Howard. “I met a couple who said, ‘he killed our chickens’.” He lost his licence. When he got it back “he just wasn’t used to being behind the wheel. A van pulled out of a side street and he pulled the wheel to save the life of his passenger.” Browne was killed at the age of 21.
McCartney had been close friends with Browne, but it was Lennon who wrote the lyrics based on a news report of his death.
It was during a period when McCartney and Lennon had become interested in the cut-up experiments of William Burroughs. Harrison connects the Beatles to the Beats person by person.
"Paul was going out with Jane Asher. Her brother Peter was an up-and-coming singer the Beatles pushed. Peter had a friend called John Dunbar, who was married to Marianne Faithfull and he had a bookshop called Indica where John Lennon met Yoko. I think Indica introduced Paul to that Robert Fraser/Tara Browne scene . . . and through Indica, Paul met Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, and Burroughs was doing these cut-ups. John said that that's how they started to write songs, cutting things out of newspapers."
By the time of Magical Mystery Tour, says Harrison, Beatles manager Brian Epstein had died "and Paul filled that vacuum. I think John was a bit begrudging. George was very introverted. Ringo was depicted as the joker, but I thought he was quite wise. I spoke to them all about Brian Epstein's death and Ringo said some quite perceptive stuff. He gave it a meaning.
"I liked them. There was a myth about the Beatles that they were all working- class lads but they weren't. If you ever see an interview with John's Aunt Mimi, she was very posh. If you go to their homes, which are all National Trust monuments in Liverpool, they're all in pretty suburban areas. It [the working-class image] was a myth that people like Brian Epstein wanted to create. Paul was the social climber. He definitely wanted to get away from that. The others were more content with it. They were four very distinct individuals."
Was it a regular film set? "No, they wanted to do something very different from Help! or A Hard Day's Night. They wanted to do something much more fly and mobile and lightweight, but it was a disaster. There was no real budget. They hadn't booked a hotel to stay in. They had a bus full of people only put together a couple of days before they set off."
“I take it drugs were involved in some way?” asks Howard.
Harrison laughs. "I want to talk about LSD," he says. "Will Trinity College allow that?" (Harrison is giving a lecture there this evening.) "It's probably on the curriculum now," says Howard.
"Well, you know The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test?" says Harrison, referring to Tom Wolfe's non-fiction book about Ken Kesey and a travelling bus filled with LSD- obsessed hippies. "That's what Magical Mystery Tour was. It was a trip. It was a colour film but it was shown on BBC2, which didn't broadcast colour. The British public weren't aware that the Fab Four had changed."
Acid in Belgravia
By then the Beatles had all done acid. "Paul took it for the first time in Tara's flat in Belgravia," says Howard. "Nicky, Tara's widow, told me that she was there and it was just the three of them. Tara didn't take it because he wanted to make sure he was lucid in case Paul had a bad trip. She [Nicky] said it was so dull. He just sat there for four or five hours staring at this art book. She said 'I really don't think he turned the page the whole time'."
"My first question for Paul [on Magical Mystery Tour] was 'Is there a script?'," says Harrison. "He gave me this circular diagram. He wrote the story out as a circle. I had it for years. Later I sold it to [Beatles biographer] Hunter Davies because I needed the money."
He was blown away by the songs. "At one point [during filming] I noticed Andrew Birkin was bootlegging it with a little cassette recorder. A week later I borrowed the cassette. There was a hippy place called Middle Earth. The DJ was John Peel and I said, 'Stick this on.' I remember him playing I Am the Walrus for all these people with the lights and the fog of marijuana. I thought it was extraordinary. I realised that this was significant music."
Gerry Harrison talks about the Magical Mystery Tour tonight at 7pm in the Trinity College Long Room as part of the Beatles in 12 Movements lecture series. His book, The Great War Diaries of Charlie May, will be published shortly by HarperCollins