Johnny Guitar

The music shop’s bell clanged, and, with his habitual scowl firmly in place, the owner looked up from his accounts, catching sight as he did so of the unprepossessing young lout slouching his way through the door. Typical Teddy Boy – all greasy duck’s arse quiff, rolled-sleeve check shirt, and those bloody awful crepe-soled shoes – what did they call them? Oh, yes, ‘brothel-creepers’! Fat chance this lad would have in a brothel, the pasty-skinned, pimply little bastard. He couldn’t even stand up straight to meet a man’s gaze, let alone a woman’s.

The proprietor narrowed his eyes, watching as the lad fingered the sheet music, and stared at the instruments in the window. He was up to no good, the crafty skinnymalinks chancer, in here to try and nab something, as soon as his back was turned, there was no doubting it.

The boy approached the counter. The owner stared at him fiercely. The boy, or rather the young man, to give him his due, for he was at least sixteen, lifted his liberally Brilliantined head, and stared fiercely back. Without a word, he reached into his jean pocket, (indecently tight, noted the owner, and filthy to boot), and pulled out some extremely grubby ten-shilling and pound notes, and a fistful of coins.

“Alrigh’, mister.”

This relatively benign greeting took the proprietor somewhat aback.

“Alrigh’,” he said, adding “Ta” belatedly, as through his application of Occam’s Razor*, he was still suspicious of the boy’s motives in enquiring after his wellbeing.

“I’m after a new guitar… I’m well gutted cos me old one got nabbed by someone down church hall, and we’ve got a gig coming up next month, see.”

The owner looked at him, sharply.

“Ye wha’?”

“A gig. Yer know, we’re playin’. Our band. Professional like.” The boy tried to look nonchalant, but the cool was slightly spoiled by a shit-eating grin which threatened to make its way round one side of his head, and meet his mouth on the other, like a can of tuna being opened.

The owner sniggered. “Oh, right, well, yes, I see, you would need a new guitar for that, then, wouldn’t, you, a gig, you called it, right. Well, what sort of guitar are you after then? One with ‘Fairy Steps, Learn How To Play Guitar, Lessons One to Ten’, p’raps?”

He shook his head, and laughed again. “Gig. Never heard such blaggin’ in me life!”

The lad looked at him. The grin was gone.

“It ain’t blag, and if you don’t want me ackers, I’ll take me custom elsewhere. Ta ra, then.”

He started to cram the money back into his pocket. The owner saw he’d misjudged a serious, if slightly insane, sale opportunity, and hastily backtracked.

“Ah, wait, go on, I was just havin’ a lend… now, then, what model were you after, young sir?”

His potential customer halted their money-stuffing efforts, and turned back to the counter. His eyes lit up as he pointed out the guitar he was after, hanging in all its glossy new glory behind the owner’s left ear.

“I’m after the Gallotone Champion, mister. With the sunburst finish.”

“Ah, the good old Gallo eh – ‘guaranteed not to split’ – yes, she’s reliable, right enough. I suppose you want to try it out, and all?”

“Yeah, ta” the boy said, and the surliness and attitude were gone, his eyes shining as he reached out for the guitar. The owner held it back, behind the counter, his right index finger raised.

“Show me you’ve got the ten quid it costs, and you can try it out to your heart’s content.”

The boy pushed the money at him impatiently.

“Here, take it. It’s all there, I promise.”

“Just cool yer engines, lad. Let me count it, reet?”

The boy tapped his fingers impatiently on the counter, as the owner counted his way, it seemed interminably, to the ten pound total. He finally acknowledged with a grunt that it was all there, and handed the guitar over. Surprisingly, the boy took a pair of heavy-rimmed black glasses out of his shirt pocket and put them on, and started tuning the guitar.

“You got gozzy problems then lad?”

“Can’t see a thing like” the boy answered absent-mindedly, all his concentration on the guitar. “But I bluddy hate these things. Ugly as sin, I look a right twat in them.”

The owner said nothing, mainly because he couldn’t disagree, and didn’t want to break the fragile détente between them. The boy finished tuning, and swung the guitar around with a flourish. Then, he started to play, and after the bars of the intro to Rock Island Line, began singing.

He wasn’t brilliant; he fumbled a few of the chords, there were some dropped notes, and his voice carried the nasal overtones of a typical Scouser – but there was something – something indefinable that made the music shop owner shiver like a cat does just before an electrical storm. A spark in the hands, dancing along the cheap guitar’s strings. Something in the way he moved, perhaps – he shook his head. He was being fanciful. He cleared his throat, and it was just another Teddy Boy, strutting with a guitar, moving into Be-Bop-A-Lula like he thought he was Elvis Bluddy Presley.

“Well, lad, you and that guitar seem like you have a bit of a time ahead of you, eh. Where’s this er, gag of your’s taking place then? I mayhap come along and have a gander.”

The boy looked at him, a bit dazed, then swung the guitar round onto his back, and stuffed the glasses back into his pocket and grinned, a genuinely joyous, happy smile. It changed his whole face and took him from sulky, pimply teenager to mischievous fallen angel.

“Gag? I’m telling yer, mister, it’s gig. Strawberry Field, it’s at – y’know, up Woolton. Saint Peter’s Church Fête, we’re playing. Me band’s the Quarrymen. Reckon you’ve heard of us. But we’re thinking of changing the name, like, to something a bit snappier, more rock and roll. Me aunt Mimi keeps saying I won’t make a living from it, but I’m of the opinion we’re in with as much chance as the next man.”

He swung out the shop door, yelling over his shoulder –

– “We’re on the lookout for a decent bass player, if you happen to know of anyone! Just tell them to ask for me. Ta ra, mister.”

The man yelled after him:

“Well, what’s yer name, yer daft whopper?”

“John” came back faintly. “John Lennon.”

The man went after him, and turned the sign to closed, making a mental note as he did so to speak to his next door neighbour Jim McCartney about his young bloke, that music-mad bugalugs Paul, and send him along to Woolton.

If nothing else, it would stop him practicing his god-awful songs at home day and night.

*Occam’s Razor in this instance meaning that if someone looks like a lout, and smells like a lout, chances are, they’re a lout. So don’t turn your back, because they’ll have their mitts in the till before you can say “Money (That’s What I Want)”.

 left: John Lennon, at 16 years of age, in 1957, with his Gallotone Champion acoustic guitar. right:  The Quarrymen , playing their now famous gig at St Peter’s Church Fête, July 1957.

left: John Lennon, at 16 years of age, in 1957, with his Gallotone Champion acoustic guitar. right: The Quarrymen, playing their now famous gig at St Peter’s Church Fête, July 1957.

Kato’s Handy Historical Notes for Nerds:

John Lennon’s first guitar, whilst in truth being a Gallotone Champion, and yes, being purchased in 1957 for £10, was not bought from a music store in Liverpool, and was also not purchased due to someone nabbing his previous axe.

It was bought via mail order from Reveille, and although opinions vary on whether John himself bought it, or it was bought for him by his estranged mother, Julia, it was delivered to her house rather than that of his Aunt Mimi, where John lived, and Julia – who was tragically killed in a hit and run by an off-duty policeman in 1958 – was the person who first taught him to play, primarily on the banjo, and then on said Gallotone guitar.

The Gallotone Champion was a cheap(ish) beginner’s acoustic guitar, made by the Gallo Africa company of South Africa. Guaranteed ‘not to split’, it was wildly popular after it became known that John Lennon had learned to play on it. Jimmy Page, founder of Led Zeppelin, is also known to have had a Gallotone in his early years.

John and of course George and Paul are probably best associated with Rickenbacker guitars, especially the 325 Capri and the 360/12 FG 12 String, which became a massive part of the Beatles’ sound, although Paul preferred his Höfner 500/1 bass to that of Rickenbacker’s, and has used this almost exclusively in his solo career.

The Quarrymen, at the time they played the Woolton gig (from the back of a lorry) was comprised of John, Pete Shotton, Eric Griffiths, Colin Hanton, Rod Davies and Len Garry. The St Peter’s Fête is of course where John and Paul McCartney first met, and where Paul was invited to join the band.

Paul was 15 years old; John, 16.

Pete Shotton eventually became the first Managing Director of the Beatles’ record label, Apple Corps. He left the Quarrymen after John smashed his instrument (a washboard) over his head at a party when he admitted he really didn’t like playing.

John’s Gallotone Champion guitar he was playing that fateful day sold at auction at Sotheby’s in 1999 for £155,500. It’s the earliest of the Beatles’ instruments to ever come on the market.

Included with the guitar was a 1957 copy of Play the Guitar: a Self Tutor.