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A Hairy Story

by Bill Harry, Beatles' friend and founder of Mersey Beat

Moptops? What do you mean!

I never noticed anything particular about John, George, Paul, Pete or Stuart's hairstyles in the early days -- apart from the fact that initially some of them sported the traditional Tony Curtis style that was popular in Liverpool in the late fifties. It was a style referred to as a d.a. (duck's arse, because of the way the hair curled at the rear).

I had mine done at Max the Mad Russian's, near the Majestic Cinema in town.

Nor did I notice anything specific about their hair when they returned back from Germany. Looking at the photos of the time, taken by Astrid and by Mersey Beat photographers, I couldn't see anything that was radically different from the style most Liverpool youngsters and group members sported.

Then, when Brian Epstein took them over, I noticed that not only did he spruce them up in mohair suits made by his tailor Beno Dorn in Birkenhead, but he took them to Horne Brothers at the corner of Lord Street and had lots of publicity photographs taken of them enjoying a new coiffeur by the unknown barber there. I say unknown, because no one these days could quote the name of the barber who gave them the style, on the instruction of Brian Epstein, when he took them to the fashionable barbers in April 1963. Dezo Hoffmann photographed them having their hair cut and was to comment, "The hairdresser was a friend of theirs who liked Astrid Kirchherr's idea of longer hair for the Beatles. He would groom and discipline their hair for them every week."

Despite Brian and his Horne Brothers publicity pictures to herald a new Beatles image (he took them to the Empire Theatre to watch the Shadows, in their mohair suits, and pointed out how they bowed to the audience at the end of their act. John and Pete didn't like to abandon their leather gear, but they were outvoted. Once suited in mohair, with tidy shirts and tie, John again tried to rebel by unfastened the top button of his shirt when they went on stage, but Paul always stepped forward to fasten it again. Brian gave them neatly typed sheets instructing them not to swear or smoke on stage - paving the way for the Rolling Stones to adopt the image of 'the savage young Beatles', that Brian had carefully smoothed away), their hair style began to change initially in Hamburg.


The Beatles in Hamburg

The first steps were between the lovers, Astrid and Stuart. Millie Sutcliffe, Stu's mother said, "As for the haircut, it started when Stuart's hair was falling down and sticking out. One night Astrid had been moaning about his hair and then took him into the bathroom and cut it."

Hunter Davies, in his authorised biography, writes: "Stu turned up at the Top Ten that evening with his hair in the new style, and the others collapsed on the floor with hysteria. Halfway through he gave up and combed his hair high. But thanks to Astrid, he tried it again the next night. He was ridiculed again, but the night after, George turned up with the same style. Then Paul had a go, though for a long time he was always changing it back to the old style as John hadn't yet made up his mind. Pete Best ignored the whole craze. But the Beatle hair style had been born."

Although it's the 'authorised biography', this is inaccurate but, as writer Bob Spitz was to recall: "During an interview I did with Paul McCartney in 1997 for the New York Times, he confessed that almost half of the official Beatles bio -- done with Hunter Davies in 1967 -- was made up to spare girlfriends, wives, and family from some of the grittier side of the Beatles' legend. All of the nearly 1000 books on the Beatles were embroidered from that myth."

As a result of the implication that Pete ignored the style, many people over the years suggested that this is one of the reasons that he was kicked out, that he was uncooperative by not adopting the hair-style. Yet Astrid states that she never considered attempting to adapt Pete's hair in that style because she considered it too curly. When I discussed it with Pete he said that he was never asked to try out the new hairstyle -- and he would have done so if he had been asked.

Even Ray Coleman, in his book 'John Winston Lennon' writes, "Stuart, the first to have his hair cut and styled by Astrid faced John's scorn when, one night, he arrived at the club for work with what later became known as the Beatle haircut... Paul, always more conscious than the others about his appearance, was the next to ask Astrid to style his hair... John was the last Beatle to succumb to the Beatle cut. Only Pete Best declined, retaining his quaff and Teddy Boy aura that attracted the girls." As the last sentence about Pete indicates, writers speculate, they make assumptions, which I always think is a dangerous thing for writers to do. What evidence did he have that Pete declined? None, because Pete was never asked and would have tried the style if that was the wish of the other members.

But Ray's claim that Paul and John then followed by getting Astrid to style their hair is also wrong. John and Paul didn't have Astrid fashion their hair. They returned to Liverpool with the same hair style they'd left in.

When John received a sum of money from his aunt Elizabeth for his 21st birthday, he invited Paul to join him on a trip to Spain at the end of September 1961. They set off, but never got further than Paris, where they stayed for two weeks. They discovered that Jurgen Vollmer, a friend of theirs from Hamburg, was now living in Paris. They both decided that they wanted their hair fashioned in the way Jurgen had his hair, which was the way a lot of French youngsters had their hair styled.

He was to say "I gave both of them their first 'Beatle' haircut in my hotel room on the Left Bank" and later confirmed, "I gave them the haircut. It was their idea to have it the same as mine. They left Paris, and never brushed their hair back again. That's the real story of the haircut. Don't let anyone tell you different." And in an interview when George Harrison was asked how the Beatles haircut came about, he said, "I only brushed my hair forward after John and Paul came back from Paris."

In 'The Beatles Anthology,' John is quoted as saying, "Jurgen had a flattened down hair style with a fringe in the front, which we rather took to. We went over to his place and there and then he cut -- hacked would be a better word -- our hair into the same style."

While Paul confirmed, "He had his hair Mod style. We said, 'Would you do our hair like yours? We're on holiday -- what the hell!"

The hair style didn't raise any eyebrows on Merseyside, where it wasn't actually radically different from the hair style of the other local groups. Looking at photographs of the Beatles at the Cavern that I asked Dick Matthews to take for me I notice that John and Paul's hair was off their foreheads, while George's hair covered his forehead -- and John still had his sidies!

In their first interview for a major British publication, London's Evening Standard, journalist Maureen Cleave mentioned their 'weird' hair: "French styling, with the fringe brushed forwards." But it barely raised any attention in the British media.

However, it caused a sensation when the Beatles arrived in America in 1964. The affectionate term 'Moptops' was created and almost every comedian in the country cracked gags about their hair style. Hundreds of thousands of Beatles wigs were manufactured and it eventually led to the American youth growing their hair longer than had been previously acceptable for a young male.

Personally, I thought the wigs were more akin to the hair style of Mo Howard from the Three Stooges.


Ed Sullivan in a Beatles wig

When the group first arrived in America photographers and journalists kept tugging their hair, asking them if they were wearing wigs.

Wigmania took off! New York radio station WMCA ran a competition for listeners to paint or draw someone in a Beatlewig -- either celebrity pictures clipped from newspapers or photos of friends. The most popular subjects were: Nikita Krushchev, Mayor Wagner, Alfred E. Newman (of Mad magazine), Brigitte Bardot and the Jolly Green Giant.

Capitol Records instructed all their staff to wear Beatle wigs during the working day until further notice and issued a memo: "Get these Beatle wigs around properly, and you'll find yourself helping to start the Beatle Hair-Do craze that should be sweeping the country soon."

On their arrival in February 1964, the New York Herald Tribune reported: "The Beatles' hairstyle is a mop effect that covers the forehead, some of the ears and most of the back of the neck.

During their first American press conference the group was asked questions such as 'Will you be getting a haircut?' and 'What's the greatest threat to your career -- dandruff or nuclear warfare?'

Such questions continued throughout the press conferences during their autumn tour: 'What excuses do you have for your collar-length hair?' 'What do you do with your long hair in the shower?' 'Do you have any plans for a hair cut?' 'Does you hair require any special care?' and so on.

When Paul was asked 'Do you ever go unnoticed?' he replied, 'When we take off our wigs.'


A 60's joke picture: The Beatles "as we'd like to see them"

The American fervour about the hair style swept the world and in Sweden it was referred to as the 'Hamlet' cut and in Germany it was described as the 'mushroom.'

So far I haven't found out who was the first person, or publication, to coin the phrase 'moptop.'

I was intrigued many years ago when I noticed a full page feature in a major British women's magazine which claimed that the Beatles hair style was based on a photograph of Agnes Flannery, mother of Joe Flannery, a Liverpool manager who was a close friend of Brian Epstein.

Joe claimed that when the Beatles visited him at his Aintree flat early in their career they noticed a picture of his mother when young. Apparently, John fell in love with it.

Joe says, "John picked up the photo, admired the hairstyle and said to Paul McCartney, 'That's the way I want my hair to look.'"

Joe continued, "Compare the photo of my mother and John Lennon and the hairstyles are remarkably similar. I have spoken on a number of occasions with Astrid and she has told me that she never ever said she created the hairstyle. In fact the group went to a barber's at Horne Brothers at the corner of Paradise Street and Lord Street."

Agnes said, "The picture that intrigued John was taken at a studio in Bold Street, Liverpool, when I was just sixteen, two years before I married... I'm sure many folk will be thrilled to learn the true story of how the Beatles came by their distinctive hairstyle which, incidentally, I'd created for myself by washing and trimming my own hair in that particular way."

Pull the other one! Virginia and I used to go to Joe's flat when the Beatles were there, but I can't give any credence to this story.


Bill Harry, born in Liverpool, attended Liverpool College of Art with John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe. He coined the phrase Mersey Beat and launched a newspaper of that name. He later moved to London where he became personal press officer to over 30 major acts including Hollies, Kinks, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. He was the first person ever to write regularly about the Beatles and has written more about the group than anyone else in the word.


This article is Copyright © 2006, Bill Harry, and may not be reproduced on other web sites or in print, in whole or in part, without expressed permission.



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