How Beat and a British poet changed the history of rock music
by Simon Warner
Liverpool, at the start of a brand-new decade. There is a beat in the air, there are beat groups, too; soon there will be a sound christened Merseybeat and not long after a weekly newspaper called Mersey Beat to record this crackling creative scene. But in the city, in the spring of 1960, there were, as yet, no Beatles, only a five-piece act called the Silver Beetles, heirs to a skiffle group named the Quarrymen.
However, in June of that year, the hard-working but struggling combo, just one of hundreds of such groups in a port of imported rock’n’roll, thriving docks and transatlantic liners, would assume the name to carry them to national and international superstardom. The Beetles, during that auspicious early summer exactly 60 years ago, would become the Beatles, a calling card to the world. What prompted this small but significant transformation?
The youthful Svengali at the heart of this newly-minted identity was a remarkable young man called Royston Ellis, a performer described as a Beat poet, a rare British incarnation at a time of Angry Young Men and kitchen sink plays and novels. But Ellis was a most unusual English example of an American literary style that had set alight headlines in New York and San Francisco in the years between 1955 and 1959, delivered by a group of writers and friends dubbed the Beat Generation.
In the USA, poet Allen Ginsberg had read and then published a tumultuous long verse called ‘Howl’. By 1957, this excoriating vision of a powerful yet paranoid land – economically prosperous but living under the shadow of nuclear threat in an age of Cold War – had become the focus of an obscenity trial, its extraordinary fusion of sex and politics, jazz and drugs, a simmering threat to the sensitive WASP sensibilities of mid-century America.
That same year, a brilliant and radical novel called On the Road by Jack Kerouac, in which journeys on the highways of North America became metaphors for a personal quest for freedom and self-identity, hit American bookshops and the bestseller lists. The book distilled an essence of excitement and energy for its young readership: love and kicks on Route 66, thrills and spills from the cities to the hills, coast-to-coast adventures set to a fast and furious bop soundtrack, a westward search for a grail both holy and unholy. It became the Bible of a new hipster vision.
Two years later, the strangest of these explosive fictional voices was framed in William Burroughs’ sensationally experimental Naked Lunch, a disturbing and sometimes distressing portrait of a drug induced dystopia, in which the author made his powerful case against the prim conventions of quotidian life.
Back in Britain, Royston Ellis was a 20 year old with aspirations of his own, a tender-aged poet who began to gain exposure through his readings with a freshfaced community of US-influenced but Anglo-nuanced musicians. He appeared on UK TV reading his verse with Cliff Richard’s Shadows and, whether on stage or the small screen, Ellis happily accepted his nomination as a British Beat.
Soon he was on tour and appearing live at various pop music venues, which was how, in 1960, he came across John Lennon, Paul McCartney and co in their home city. He was a celebrity of the youthful pop scene; they were essentially unknown, barely even local, heroes of this time.
Ellis visited Gambier Terrace in the heart of Liverpool, a handsome but faded Georgian block in a declining area of the city, where Lennon lived with his friend Stuart Sutcliffe and other of their art school associates. The poet hit it off with this musical crowd and stayed for several days. He even introduced them to the highs possible if you bought Benzedrine strips over the chemist’s counter and transformed them into a substance to provide a lasting buzz and a cheap means to stay awake on the competitive live gig circuit.
But his legacy to Lennon, McCartney and Harrison was greater than mere cheap thrills. When he asked them about their band name, he enquired where they had sourced it. Lennon explained that it was a reference to the nickname for the popular Volkswagen vehicle. There were other hints that Buddy Holly’s Crickets had also been a related reason for the choice.
Ellis proposed that they might make a smart and hip amendment and subtly reference the American subcultural underground by switching the spelling to BEATles. The group’s de facto leader concurred and the rest is a history beyond histories.
Yet this story of smoke-filled bohemias – flats and bars and clubs – has other twists and shouts. Lennon, Sutcliffe and their pal Bill Harry, who would soon launch and edit the publication Mersey Beat in 1961, had already shown an interest in the Beat Generation writers as early as 1958.
The controversial ‘Howl’ trial, which eventually declared the poem was not obscene but possessed artistic value, had garnered newspaper column inches over in the UK, too. Lennon, who was specialising in calligraphy at the city’s famed art school, had previously published a humorous comic with the title The Daily Howl while at school in 1955, but this was more coincidence, a case of Zeitgeist, perhaps.
More pertinently, On the Road had been published in Britain the year after its US debut and the student trio would discuss such Beat topics in the hustling, bustling pubs around their college, at bars like the legendary Ye Cracke and The Philharmonic. So Lennon did not require a great deal of arm-twisting to follow Ellis’ tip when it came to adjusting his group’s name to accommodate reference to those admired Beat writers.
Steve Turner, who wrote a celebrated 1995 biography of Kerouac, Angelheaded Hipster, quoted the story of the name switch and also Bill Harry on Lennon: ‘He loved the idea of open roads and travelling. We were always talking about this Beat Generation thing.’
Fast forward: in spring 2020, Jerry Cimino, director of the Beat Museum In San Francisco, and I had a conversation emerging out of the then widening lockdown, as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe. The museum was closed, my own live dates with a Beat theme had been postponed, and the two of us had a Skype chat about projects we were trying to develop in the wake of the new restrictions.
The imminent anniversary of the re-christening of the Fab Four as the Beatles cropped up. The story of poet Ellis and his Beat prompt to Lennon had fascinated both of us for many years. Cimino’s curatorship of the long-running institution celebrating the Beat writers and my own keen interest as a writer in that fertile intersection between those US novelists and the culture of Anglo-American rock from the mid-1960s, gave us both an enthusiasm to re-visit this seminal story in that long-ago Liverpool.
It did not take long to re-connect with Ellis himself. Close to six decades on from his inspired re-branding of the century’s most famous band, he remains an active writer, domiciled in Sri Lanka, that exotic South Asian island off the coast of India. It’s been his home for many years and he has led quite a few different lives since his brief flame of fame as pop poet at the cusp of the monochrome Fifties and the Technicolor Sixties.
Now aged 79, Ellis had his first book of poems published when he was only 18 in 1959, a collection entitled Jiving to Gyp. It was one of the reasons he became something of a media star over the couple of years that followed, an embodiment of a subcultural style that was raising interest among youth and fears among the general public. The beatniks, a subversion of Beat popularised by an American journalist Herb Caen, became bêtes noires in the UK as well.
Talking now of his 1960 encounter with Lennon and friends, he comments: ‘My suggestion to John that he spell Beetles as Beatles was in response to him telling me he liked the Beats of the USA and, since I was a Beat poet and they played beat music and were going to come to London to back me in my next TV and stage performances, I said Beatles would be appropriate.
‘Of course, it’s possible that John had already thought of the alternative spelling but it was my inspiration that he use it,’ he adds.
Ellis also recalls advising Lennon to forget any art school ambitions. He explains: ‘I said to him that since he liked music and was good at it, he shouldn’t bother returning to college’, a course of action the guitarist speedily took.
So this encounter would prove highly influential in various ways. The group, who had a regular residency at the Grosvenor Ballroom, Liscard, on the Wirral peninsular over the Mersey from Liverpool, during that early summer 1960 would undergo a transformation halfway through the booking. On June 5th, they were the Silver Beetles; six days later, they were billed as the Beatles.
There is another relevant story, too, linked to the name change which appears to verify Ellis’ own memory. As Jerry Cimino himself relates: ‘During my own research I’ve found Yoko Ono has been quoted a number of times how John Lennon “had a vision” that he personally shared with her.’
Lennon had told her that ‘The man with the flaming pie said unto me you will now be known as Beatles with an “a”.’ Cimino explains: ‘Ellis claims one time when he went to John and Stu Sutcliffe’s flat he brought a chicken pot pie – and it caught on fire! And decades later Paul McCartney released a 1997 solo album called Flaming Pie.’
It wasn’t only future rock star Lennon who would become Ellis’ friend and confidant. Jimmy Page, who would go on to play with the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin of course, was also an associate of Ellis at this time. The poet shared texts like ‘Howl’ and On the Road with Page to begin a lifelong love of the Beat writers.
Page, who was one of the very few musicians to attend the groundbreaking International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall In 1965, has been a regular visitor to the Beat Museum. In 2017, he was photographed by Jerry Cimino holding up two of my books, Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture and the then recently published Kerouac on Record: A Literary Soundtrack.
However, for Royston Ellis, in many ways, the Beats are an intriguing detail wrapped in the mists of another time. He has gone on to be a successful writer internationally over many, many years – novels, poetry, travel books and more – and his fortuitous meetings with musicians who would later rule the planet are just fragments of memory.
But for fans of the group and for followers of the Beat Generation, his linkup with Lennon and his friends back in 1960 was a crucial moment in sealing a lasting connection between the divergent worlds of rock’n’roll and literature in the re-spelling of that resonant, indeed legendary, name: the Beatles.
Author’s note: The term beat has been adopted in various ways and with different meanings. The Beat writers drew on US street slang, rooted in the jazz world, in which the term meant ‘beaten down’ or ‘weary’. The later beat groups of the UK were making a particular reference to the strong rhythmic qualities of their transatlantic-influenced sound, but there was no evident connection to the earlier use made by the American poets and novelists. Mersey Beat, the music newspaper, clearly acknowledged the localised Merseybeat style of Liverpool, but also drew attention to the idea of a police beat, a specific area patrolled by the forces of law and order.
SIMON WARNER is a writer, broadcaster and researcher in popular music at the University of Leeds in the UK. A one-time live rock reviewer with the Guardian, he takes a particular interest in the ways the American Beat Generation writers – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and others – helped to shape subsequent rock culture. His 2013 book Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture (Bloomsbury) was followed by a co-edited collection, with Jim Sampas, entitled Kerouac on Record: A Literary Soundtrack, also issued by Bloomsbury, in 2018. It considers the ways in which Kerouac is a writer who was influenced by music, particularly jazz, and how the On the Road author had a lasting impact on a range of major rock figures, from Dylan to Tom Waits, the Grateful Dead and Jim Morrison to Janis Joplin, Van Morrison to Patti Smith.