There was a time when The Beatles’ unity seemed in peril and a break around the corner. No, it wasn’t 1969 when John was in his love cloud with Yoko, neither was it 1968, when The Beatles came back from the India trip and had their ‘first’ quarrel, making Ringo to leave the studio only to return to find his drum kit full of flowers, decorated by George. It happened during unsuspected times, when The Beatles weren’t famous, and they weren’t even in the form we know them today. It happened in 1961, when John and Paul, running away for a secret trip to Paris, left their friends alone, astonished, and making Stuart believe they had broke up the band and left.
“Last night I heard that John and Paul have gone to Paris to play together – in other words, the band has broken up! It sounds mad to me, I don’t believe it…”
—Stuart Sutcliffe, 1961 – The Anthology.
George and Pete were so disgusted that they had been left in the lurch that both started looking around for other bands to join. Meanwhile Stuart Sutcliffe was in Hamburg and told Astrid Kirchherr and several other people that The Beatles had broken up. Surely John and Paul’s sudden decision to go to Paris in the middle of the band tour left their friends and bandmates shocked and disappointed.
But why did they decide to leave everything in the middle of the band’s formation and tour to escape to Paris?
Everything started when John, before turning 21, got the munificent gift of £100 from his aunt Elizabeth in Edinburgh, which was a huge amount for that time. And so he decided, on the spur of the moment, to spend all the money by going off to Paris. And who did he decide to bring along? It was Paul.
“Paul bought me a hamburger to celebrate. I wasn’t too keen on reaching twenty-one. I remember one relative saying to me, ‘From now on, it’s all downhill,’ and I really got a shock. She told me how my skin would be getting older and that kind of jazz.” – John Lennon, The Anthology.
George and Pete were naturally very hurt at being left on their own. In the Hunter Davies book “The Beatles: The Authorised Biography” John explained the reason of their trip:
‘We got fed up. We did have bookings, but we just broke them and went off.”
It’s not sure if both John and Paul had quarrels or discussions with Stuart, Pete and George, or if the several concerts made them exhausted and they decided to take a pause by going on vacation together. What is sure is that the decision wasn’t planned, but suggested by John who was immediately supported by Paul. For a brief moment, they both decided to leave music and guitars to go together to Paris. Paul added a tip that he had learned from a previous trip with George, that, wearing some distinctive garment or headgear was the surest way of getting lifts. Accordingly, the two just took off together, wearing matching bowler hats.
Their initial idea wasn’t to go to the French capital, though, but to hitchhike from England to Spain. But having crossed the channel by the Dover-Calais ferry, Paul and John decided to take the train to Paris.
“We’d never been there before. We were a bit tired so we checked into a little hotel for the night, intending to go off hitchhiking the next morning. Of course, it was too nice a bed after having hitched so we said, ‘We’ll stay a little longer,’ then we thought, ‘God, Spain is a long way, and we’d have to work to get down there.’ We ended up staying the week in Paris – John was funding it all with his hundred quid.. [..] We would walk miles from our hotel; you do in Paris.” – Paul McCartney, The Anthology
For the British, the French capital had always been the world capital of sex, and so it seemed to them, even after their Hamburg experience. With poor French skills – surprisingly for the future composer of ‘Michelle’ – at one point, they chummed up with some prostitutes and were wildly excited to be offered “une chambre pour la nuit”. But “une chambre” proved to be all that was on offer.
The room they were given wasn’t great, but for the two teenagers it was good enough to stay at. They had to sleep together in one small bed. The pictures taken by Paul during the trip reveals an intimate portrait of John: lying in bed, with a French bow hat on, looking surprisingly soft and innocent. Another
representative photo of the trip is Paul sitting on the WC with the same bow hat, pretending to read a French newspaper. Funny, cute, photographs that portray two dreamers wandering off to the French capital, hoping to, one day, become big stars.
They definitely dropped the idea of moving on to Spain when one of their Hamburg friends, Jurgen Vollmer, proved to be in Paris, studying photography. Jurgen gave them a guided tour of the city, showing them L’Opéra, where they danced around while singing mock arias and taking them to flea markets where they beheld their first pair of bell-bottomed jeans.
‘Jurgen also had bell bottom trousers’ says John in The Anthology ‘But we thought that would be considered too queer back in Liverpool. We didn’t want to appear feminine or anything like that because our audience in Liverpool still had a lot of fellows. We were playing rock, dressed in leather, though Paul’s ballads were bringing in more and more girls’
One night, they went to a concert played by France’s only rock’n’roll star, Johnny Hallyday, paying an astronomical seven shillings and sixpence each for seats at the L’Olympia theatre, little dreaming that they themselves would soon top the bill there.
While staying in Paris with Jurgen, John and Paul discovered that every cool young Frenchman seemed to have the combed-forward hairstyle, which Astrid Kirchherr had given Stuart Sutcliffe in Hamburg and which they had previously derided. Jurgen had one too and he was as handy as Astrid with the barber’s scissors. Stu had already experimented with the new style during his last days with the group, and the more they looked at Jurgen, the more his avant-garde style appealed to them. So one day, in his room at the Hotel de Beaune, they asked him to shear off their Teddy boy quiffs. It was only a tentative version of what would become the Beatle cut, but it transformed their faces, making John’s more challenging and mocking, but Paul’s even rounder and more baby-like and innocent.
They spent the rest of the days wandering around art-cafés, going to museums and taking in the local music scene. When they ran out of money, they came back to Liverpool only to find George Harrison and Pete Best ready to quit the band.
Despite the fact that it could appear as a cheap, not magic-evoking trip, the Paris journey is a fond memory for Paul:
“We’d go to a place near the Avenue des Anglais and we’d sit in the bars, looking good. I still have some classic photos from there. Linda loves one where I am sitting in a gendarme’s mac as a cape and John has got his glasses on askew and his trousers down revealing a bit of Y-front. The photographs are so beautiful, we’re really hamming it up. We’re looking at the camera like, ‘Hey, we are artsy guys, in a café: this is us in Paris,’ and we felt like that.” – The Anthology
John and Paul would come back to Paris years later. In 1964 The Beatles did a concert at the Olympia Theatre, the same exact theatre where John and Paul, 7 years before, were attending a rock’n’roll concert, dreaming to be on that stage one day. This time, the dream became a reality. Paul remembered this concert as one that was connected to his trip he took with John some years before:
“ […] And me and John had been on a special visit to Paris before, so it was a nice return to Paris, which we always loved.”– Paul McCartney during the interview on French TV in 2007.
They both came back to Paris on September 1966: in fact it was exactly 5 years later from when their famous trip had taken place. John took a break from filming “How I Won the War” to meet Paul in Paris. This time, they weren’t with the band as The Beatles, but the two of them alone, echoing the beautiful days they spent wondering around the French capital. The difference this time was that they couldn’t, since they were now the biggest stars in the world. Paul decided to put on a bit of a ‘disguise’, and with a fake moustache and a pair of glasses, he wasn’t quite recognizable. In fact, it completely worked until John joined him, it was then when people started to realize it was Lennon and McCartney from The Beatles. This time, the free adventurous walks around the city weren’t so easy to accomplish. They ran way, escaping in the nearest safe place.
“It was an echo of the trip John and I made to Paris for his twenty-first birthday. They measure you and match the colour of your hair, so it was like a genuine moustache with real glue. And I had a couple of pairs of glasses made with clear lenses, which just made me look a bit different. I put a long blue overcoat on and slicked my hair back with Vaseline and just wandered around and of course nobody recognised me at all. It was good, it was quite liberating for me”. – Paul McCartney, Barry Miles “Many years from now”
This beloved trip has inspired Paul to write a song about the days when he and John happily wandered around Paris. The song “Café on the Left Bank” from his 1978 album ‘London Town’ has reminiscences of that trip:
Cafe on the left bank, ordinary wine
Touching all the girls with your eyes
Tiny crowd Of Frenchmen ’round a TV shop
Watching Charles De Gaulle make a speech
Dancing after midnight, sprawling to the car
Continental breakfast in the bar
English-speaking people drinking German beer
Talking far too loud for their ears
Cafe on the left bank, ordinary wine
Touching all the girls with your eyes
Dancing after midnight, crawling to the car
Cocktail waiters waiting in the bar
English-speaking people drinking German beer
Talking way too loud for their ears
Like ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘London Town’, the song deals with observation, this time involving people in Paris. In the first verse, Paul describes a café on the Left Bank of Seine River in which he observes people drinking ordinary wine and men watching women. In the second verse McCartney turns his attention to a group of Frenchmen watching Charles de Gaulle on television. Bridge one shifts the scene to people dancing after midnight and drunks sprawled over automobiles. Fortunately, continental breakfast awaits everyone the next day in the bar. In the last verse the singer describes a loud, boisterous group of English people drinking beer. The song is a puzzle of memories that pass through Paul’s eyes while writing, and it could be indeed his memories of the Paris trip with John.
This trip was a fond memory for John as well: in this interview made in 1980 John talks about it:
In this interview Paul mentions the fact that they used to sleep together in one bed:
In 1998, McCartney did an interview for French TV. He discussed his song ‘The End Of The End’ in which, for the first time, he writes about his own death. What could appear as a shocking and revealing song, it’s indeed one of his most mystical, sincere and emotional songs, a “journey to a much better place”. For Paul the song represents ‘the end of the end’, and when the journalist asks him “You mean a place better than England?”, Paul laughs and answers: “It’s a journey to France, or Spain through France. It’s a much better place Paris’. The answer seems to be vague, but for those who know Paul, his life, and what he holds dear, this statement, without any doubt, must be familiar and echoes the trip he took with John in Paris:
Paul knew exactly what he was talking about, and he also knew that the journalist would have never been able to understand the true meaning of that answer. It’s an answer that is not suspected, it’s saved only by a few curious.
Both Paul and John have always remembered the trip to Paris with a special warmth, and what appears to most as one of the many adventurous trip they ever took, became a significant, turning-point journey that bonded John and Paul more than ever. It was a trip they remembered and missed throughout their whole life: maybe it was the feeling of freedom that subsided with their fame, maybe the early teenage years which shaped them both musically and mentally, a one-of-a-kind moment which they both knew would never return. What has been stated is that no other trip was as important to them as this one, and they would greatly miss it later in their life.
After a late lunch, Linda launched into a long paean to the joys of living in England. When she was finished, she turned to John and said “Don’t you miss England?”, – “Frankly”, John replied, “I miss Paris”. – May Pang, Loving John.
During his concerts, before Paul gets on the stage, he entertains the audience with photographs of him during his 50 year music career, with special additions of pictures of private moments shared between his family and friends. Among these, it’s of a particular significance the addition of the photos he took of John during their trip to Paris. One of these shows John softly sleeping in bed: a picture taken off-guard, silently, a precious moment Paul holds dear to his heart.
Today, that photo hangs on the wall in Paul’s house.
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