The address ‘Phillips’Sound Recording Services at 38 Kensington, Liverpool L7’ isn’t going to ring many bells and it certainly doesn’t figure in the annals of popular music but it really should have its place because it was in this small and unsophisticated studio 60 years ago on 12th July 1958 that the Quarrymen a.k.a the Beatles made their first record.
They weren’t the first Liverpudlians to record there. They had been proceeded by others like rock ‘n’ rollers Billy Fury and Johnnie ‘Guitar’ Byrne, comedian Ken Dodd, and actors John Thaw, Richard Briers, and the ventriloquist Ray Alan
Percy Phillips had set up a recording studio in his house in Kensington, Liverpool in 1955. Before then he had sold bicycles and motorbikes, recharged batteries for radios and by the early 1950s was selling electrical goods and popular records.
In 1955, several customers asked if Percy could make demo discs, so he bought a 1/4 inch tape recorder, an MSS disc cutting machine, an amplifier, a 4-track mixer, three microphones (a Reslo, an HMV ribbon microphone, and an AKG), and three pairs of headphones for £400 from EMI Electronics. He set up the equipment and a piano behind his shop in the living room. In the cellar he installed an overturned tin bath as a reverb chamber. The recordings would normally be on tape, and then be transferred to acetate disc. Because of trams, trucks, and horses going up and down Kensington, Phillips had to hang heavy blankets over the studio door and a rear window to minimise the noise.
Phillips advertised the studio as ‘Phillips’Sound Recording Services’ and for the first couple of years made music compilation discs for local businesses such as the local ice rink and cinema and personal recordings of men singing songs for loved ones and children playing an instrument. One recording featured a neighbour’s dog howling along to piano accompaniment. By 1957, Phillips was recording more and more groups of young men with guitars, tea chest basses, washboards and drums, playing skiffle… and one of those groups were the Quarrymen. There were five of them - John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison on guitars, Colin Hanton on drums and John ‘Duff’ Lowe on piano.
It was George’s idea to make the record. He had been encouraged by his friend Johnny Byrne who had recorded a rock ‘n’ roll favourite ‘Butterfly’ there in June 1957. “You can’t imagine how impressed he was”, recalls Byrne. “He just kept staring at the record, then looking at it and grinning like a fool.” From that point all the Quarrymen wanted to do was make a record. They rehearsed a raunchy version of the Buddy Holly hit “That’ll Be the Day” and took themselves off to Kensington.
The studio was not what they expected… “a tiny, tiny room with some basic recording equipment shoved to one side”, said Colin Hanton, “with a solitary microphone hanging from the ceiling”. Percy Phillips was no better. “A naffy old man, grumpy and excitable, who insisted we settle up the bill - 17/6d (87.5p) before setting up the equipment.”
The group ripped through “That’ll be the Day” at such a pace that they were able to shave 7 seconds off the original version. The sound was rough but what were to become permanent features of the Beatles sound were already there - Paul providing an ‘ah’ backing and George taking the guitar solo through a tiny Elpico amplifier belonging to Paul. With Percy grumbling at them to get on with it and cut the B side - “For 17/6d you’re not here all day,” he snapped from behind the tape recorder and without any rehearsal - Colin and Duff Lowe had not even heard the song before, the group launched into “In Spite of All the Danger” a song written for the group by Paul McCartney with George Harrison credited for the solo. The song was overlong and by the time 3½ minutes had elapsed Percy Phillips, concerned that the tape was about to run out, was waving his arms at them to finish.
Some commentators say that McCartney used “Tryin’to Get to You” by Elvis Presley as a model for “In Spite of All the Danger” and he doesn’t really deny it!
Seventeen years later, in 1975, John Lennon recalled the session at 36 Kensington.
“The first thing we recorded was ‘That’ll Be the Day’ and it was a 78. I was such as bully in those days I sang both sides. I didn’t even let Paul sing his own song. That’s the first actual recording we ever made.”
The finished record was shared between the boys although John got it first (of course!) Over the years they all got to have it until it finished up with Duff Lowe who held on to it until 1981 when he sold the recordings to Paul McCartney. Their estimated value at the time was around £12,000. McCartney had the record remastered and the songs reappeared on The Beatles’ Anthology 1 album. In 2004, Record Collector magazine named the original pressing as the most valuable record in existence, estimating its worth at £100,000.
The finished 78rpm acetate record is an aluminium disc with a nitrocellulose coating, very soft, fragile and subject to wearing. Like all similar records produced at Phillips it had “Play with a light-weight pick-up” on the label, as this would increase the life of the disc, which would eventually wear out… as did the Quarrymen. Colin Hanson had a huge row with the others after the recording and walked away. Duff Lowe left a few weeks later. All that remained were 3 guitar players - Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison - and what was to become of them?
The first ever recording by the Beatles - and the record studio it was created in - will be celebrated in a special exhibition during a week of events honouring the group. That recording, now considered to be the most valuable record in the world, will be remembered at The Percy Phillips Studio Collection exhibition during International Beatle Week in Liverpool on August 26.
– from Martyn Day