Day I cut John Lennon's first record
Sam Wright looks back at the Lancashire music maker who turned down The Beatles
“Just a bunch of youngsters, banging away on guitars, hoping to get somewhere.”
One Oscar, 10 Grammys and more than 1bn album sales later, Derek Marsh may have revised his first impression of The Beatles.
At the height of the post-war entertainment boom, Marsh and his record label, Deroy Studios, existed as a minor Mecca for ageing crooners and ambitious upstarts in the mid-20th Century.
It all began in 1947, when a young Derek Marsh ended his days with the RAF by handling Voice of the Forces, a small, war time recording service in India.
Air force personnel,
unable to get home for a family occasion or special celebration, would transmit their respective greetings and messages on six-inch records courtesy of both the War Department and Marsh’s technical expertise.
The service coupled primitive recording equipment with fervent enthusiasm,
becoming a forces’ favourite in the process.
With this post war gratuity, and passion for contemporary music, Marsh returned to his family’s private hotel in Riding Street, Southport,
Infused by the spirit of invention he had kindled in South Asia, he set up a little recording studio on the top floor.
Armed with a £90 disc-cutter and an appetite for musical ingenuity, Marsh expanded his operation to much larger premises; an independent studio in Ormskirk, to be exact.
Along with his wife, Betty, the couple relocated to the West Lancashire market town, knowing little of the impending musical revolution that was about to blow up just a few miles down the road.
The Merseybeat phenomenon was around the corner, but Marsh’s late fifties operation, flourishing as it may have been, proved a little slow on the uptake when it came to spotting emerging talent; namely, those pesky schoolboys ‘banging away’ in the region’s caverns.
“They weren’t The Beatles then,” Marsh explained in an interview with Evening Post in 1973. “They were called The Quarrymen, and not much good either. Just a bunch of youngsters banging away on guitars, hoping to get somewhere.
“I recorded a demo disc for them and that would have been the time to take a professional interest.
“But I didn’t. I’m a recording engineer, not a fortune teller,” he said sullenly, recollecting that slightest of judgemental errors.
Yet according to ex-Quarryman Colin Hanton, Marsh would not have been the only one to overlook a group of youngsters that, in his mind, ‘weren’t going anywhere anyway’.
“What The Beatles achieved was incredible but when I was with them we were just young men having a lot of fun,” said Hanton who was the band’s drummer from 1956 to 1959.
“The way it started, if you had an instrument you were in.
“John (Lennon) and his school friend Eric Griffiths started The Quarrymen while they were learning to play guitars.
“I knew Eric well and as soon as he heard that I’d bought a small drum kit he asked me to go down to his house to meet John and the other lads and from that moment on I was in the band.
“I basically qualified because I had a drum kit.”
Hanton credits Paul McCartney with improving John and Eric’s guitar skills and remembers George Harrison as a ‘very quiet, very modest man, and a great, great guitarist’.
The demo disc recorded with Derek Marsh would come years after Hanton had left the band, something he says he does not regret.
“To be honest I’d had enough by the end,” he admitted.
“We didn’t have cars in those days so I was on and off the bus with my drum kit. I was concentrating on my apprenticeship and I’d already developed a relationship with the lady that’s still my wife.
“But you can’t have any
regrets can you, you’d go mad if you thought like that.”
Far better than The Quarrymen, in Marsh’s opinion, was young Gerry Marsden whose band, Gerry and the Pacemakers, would also walk on to transatlantic mega-stardom after recording their first demonstration disc at the Ormskirk studio.
Eventually Derek’s business outgrew its Ormskirk premises and, after a brief spell in the slightly more
ostentatious surroundings of a Hest Bank mansion, the business settled in
Marsh’s studio was, at the time, the nation’s only independent stereophonic record cutting centre outside of London, though the dominance of Decca and the now defunct EMI was never threatened.
Deroy’s output was modest, turning out records for everything from school choirs to crematoriums to racing drivers to steam engine enthusiasts, and even one amiable individual who, every year, would send out personal festive greetings on ten-inch discs specially prepared at Deroy.
Its humble Hawk Street home may not have held the majesty of Maida Vale, nor the grandeur of Gold Star, but that, says Marsh, was the studio’s beauty.
“We never spent or indulged ourselves as we built up the business.
“You can’t afford to indulge yourself and still expand, can’t plan for tomorrow when you still don’t invest in the present.”
Just what became of tomorrow, little is known. Marsh and his business associate brother-in-law, Roy (hence, Deroy Studios), mooted a move further north, to Newcastle. Though expansion, however feasible, was never fundamental.
Marsh and his self-effacing enterprise held their own in the big, bad world of the music business, providing a worthy alternative to the big boys in the capital.
Though as far as his quandary over The Quarrymen is concerned, perhaps he, as The Beatles later sang, Should Have Known Better.