He was the proto multihyphenate, serving as press officer, PA and confidante to The Beatles while still finding time to master journalism, launch The Byrds, brand The Beach Boys and fulfil a ‘promise to save mankind’. GQ discovers the remarkable hinterland of the Fab Four’s true plus-one
It happened quickly, Derek Taylor’s transformation. You can see it in three pictures, captured over four years. The earliest comes from 1964 when Taylor was The Beatles’ press officer. Accompanying the band on their first full American tour, the one stoked by Beatlemania, he was more like a circus ringmaster than a PR. The snapshot, taken during a Dallas press conference on 18 September, shows him dressed immaculately and negotiating the ensuing chaos – police officers, reporters and fans all pushing and grabbing. This was a timeless look, though the tab-collar shirts, thin-lapel Italian suits, mid-length hair now epitomises the Sixties. Taylor – then a 32-year-old whose background included national service and an educational stint on Fleet Street as a reporter – is in the eye of the storm with his long-haired charges, a solid phalanx battling as best they could.
Born in Liverpool in 1932, Taylor had got to this position through Brian Epstein, whom he’d met and profiled in the summer of 1963 for the Daily Express. As he would later remember, Taylor’s first impressions of The Beatles’ manager rested on stylistic considerations. Thanks to his “very soft appearance, [Epstein] didn’t look as if he did any exercise, but then a lot of people didn’t then”, Taylor said. “I certainly didn’t do any and I was very thin. Cigarette smoking; nervy; very well-dressed; very good suit; lovely shirt. These were [details that] made people different: the buckled shoes, monogrammed shirt and good short haircut.”
Epstein was also born in the Thirties and shared with the young journo many of the same ideas about how to live: the tailoring; the exquisite accessories; the expensive dinners in world-class restaurants such as Antoine’s in New Orleans’ French Quarter; the foulard scarves; the drinking; the smoking; the limousine with electric windows. This was the Rat Pack aesthetic, though in Beatles world it was often augmented with pills. The band’s management lived what Taylor recalled as “the high life. For us provincials, that was seductive.”
A mere year later, Taylor would have shed a skin. Leaving Epstein at the end of 1964, he moved to Los Angeles on a wing and a prayer, trusting that The Beatles’ magic would stick. He lucked out, becoming the PR for an as yet unknown group called The Byrds. In lieu of immediate payment, he accepted a share in the band’s earnings. When, within a few months, The Byrds had a worldwide hit with “Mr Tambourine Man”, Taylor found himself back in the eye of the storm.
It’s summer 1965: a formal situation, a press call perhaps. In the second picture of Taylor’s transformative triptych, he is seen sitting between Gene Clark and Chris Hillman of The Byrds. Both have impossibly long hair for that period and are wearing a mix of So Cal surfer and British mod clothing. Taylor is wearing what look like Levi’s, with an expensive suede jacket and a white shirt with a long “Slim Jim” tie. His hair is longer than before and slightly dishevelled. He looks as though he has just inhaled.
This was the year when the Fifties concept of the high life faded as an ideal. “Mr Tambourine Man” signalled the emergent drug culture’s indoctrination into the mainstream. Taylor was at the centre of the new, marijuana-smoking Californian cool that – once it was taken up by The Beatles – changed the nature of pop culture and youth style forever. You’ve only to consider the longer hair, red-rimmed eyes and corduroy on display in the band’s summer 1965 film, Help!, to acknowledge the shift.
Promoting The Byrds, The Beach Boys and Captain Beefheart, among others, Taylor found himself surrounded by the counterculture in 1966. He was behind the rebranding of Brian Wilson as a genius, writing in his regular Disc And Music Echo column, “Our Man In America”, that October, ‘‘[The] Beach Boys have a giant, monster, mountainous, world-topping, vast rolling ocean, mixed metaphor of a hit of hits in ‘Good Vibrations’, a record which, before the first copy is even in the stores, is named with total abandon, by disc jockeys, as a certain No1.”
In November 1966, the LAPD found it necessary to crack down on curfew violations on the Sunset Strip, there were violent confrontations over several weekends. Taylor went down to the demonstration and was shocked at the violence: “I saw my first police ‘flying wedge’ on Sunset Boulevard; saw how professional [policemen] can always crush amateur freedomniks if they have a mind to; saw a sheriff’s deputy spit on a woman; saw Peter Fonda in handcuffs; saw how bad things could be before they got worse, like now.”
Taylor ran the press team for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, which The Beatles did not attend. Shortly after, he and his wife, Joan, went to a party at Epstein’s Sussex country house, Kingsley Hill, where the couple took LSD in the company of John Lennon and George Harrison. “We saw wonderful things,” Taylor recalled in the 1995 multimedia event The Beatles Anthology, “and we changed.”
The third picture was taken in a Central London office. Five men stand in the background: they include Ron Kass, Paul McCartney and “Magic” Alex Mardas. Beatle intimate Neil Aspinall crouches down by the side of a large desk. In front, John Lennon swings round in a low armchair, touching a sitting Taylor with his left hand – a gesture both of tenderness and patronage. In the background is a large picture of The Beatles in their pop star uniform of suits and ties – an age and a world away.
Derek Taylor has transformed yet again and now looks a different person from the 1964 image. His hair is longer still, over his collar now, and he has a moustache. He is wearing just a shirt – no jacket – and slimline trousers. Lennon has changed too, with long hair parted in the centre, round “granny” glasses and a long-sleeved jersey. McCartney is wearing a jacket with a badge on the lapel and a jumper underneath – no shirt, no tie. It’s late summer 1968 and Taylor has become the press officer at Apple.
When this photo was taken, he was 36. In an age when pop culture and the music industry was still almost exclusively youth-oriented, he was at the heart of a utopian organisation that sought to turn the rules of show business and corporate practice on its head. Taylor called it “the promise to save mankind” and he would become its most public face throughout its unravelling and the unravelling of The Beatles themselves. In the eye of the storm yet again, he would be both participant and observer.
“Never trust anyone over 30” was the dictum of the moment among young activists, yet here Taylor was, way over the age limit, propagandising the counterculture. As he wrote in his Disc And Music Echo column, “Beards and jeans and lace cloaks, waist-length hair, tranquillity and underground literature – these will be the visual symbols of the ‘love in’. But beneath this lies a yearning for an end to America’s right-wingery, grey-conformity and war-involvement. Thank you.”
Taylor called the Sunset Strip Riots “the whole rotten issue of the old vs the young” and there was no doubt about which side he was on. He had crossed over twice: from Fleet Street into the heart of Sixties pop culture; from Fifties conservatism to hippie radicalism. Nevertheless, his training as a journalist and his talent as a writer made him an important and eloquent witness to these times, as evidenced by his books As Time Goes By and Fifty Years Adrift and in his interviews for and about The Beatles' Anthology documentary, albums and book.
Taylor was many things: an elegant writer who could flip into the crudest, earthiest language; a press officer who would go beyond the call of duty at the same time as he placed advertorial copy in the pop magazines of the time; a Beatle intimate taking remedial acid trips with John Lennon at the same time as he was an employee, if not a servant. He defined and extended what it was to be a PR at the same time as he retained a cool, journalistic eye. In the end, he preserved what was best about the high Sixties for future generations.
I met Derek Taylor in November 1996, when we shared a table at the Q Awards. That year, Tony Blair was in the ascendant; Jarvis Cocker mooned Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards; Britpop was at its peak and bad behaviour was definitely on the agenda. Taylor was back in the EMI fold after helping to promote the release of The Beatles Anthology and was in fine, rollicking form, dispensing insults, gossip and wisdom in a rapid, seamless stream. Even in his sixties, he was a master of the insider pop code.
Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Oasis and U2 were all in attendance. George Martin was presented with an award for the year’s best compilation/reissue (for his work on the Anthology discs). The person handing him the award was Peter Blake, who used the floor to complain about the fact that he’d only received £200 for his work on the sleeve of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. When Blake started musing about whether he owned the copyright, Taylor stated, very loudly and precisely, “Shut up, you pompous c***.” There was a sudden hush. Taylor owned the room.
At that point, Anthony Wall and I were in the preliminary stages of planning an Arena documentary about Epstein. The first task in any such situation is to talk to the rights holders. We knew we had to approach Apple, so some months later, in June 1997, we went to talk to Taylor at his home in Suffolk. By that time, he was already very ill (he would die, from cancer, that September), but he generously gave us a wonderful interview, full of insight and detail about a man who – despite all The Beatles’ books – was still an enigma, a fugitive and often maligned presence.
In spring 1963, Derek Taylor was 31 and a successful journalist at the Daily Express. “It was a very great, popular paper,” he told us. “It was towards the end of [proprietor Lord] Beaverbrook and it was a good time to be there. I’d now got the theatre job and you could get in anywhere if you were on the Daily Express, anyone would see you. Journalists weren’t nasty about people in the theatre in those days. The worst [that] anyone was called was a ‘hell-raiser’. They were always nursing a hangover and picking at prawns and spearing a cockle and all of these horrible clichés.”
Taylor’s conversion had come on 30 May 1963, when he reviewed The Beatles at the Manchester Odeon. “From Me To You” was at No1 and he smelled a story. “I’d always been very good on trends. I knew [that] this thing that was happening was something to write about.” As he filed after the show, “The Liverpool sound came to Manchester last night and I thought it was magnificent... Indecipherable, meaningless nonsense, of course, but as beneficial and invigorating as a week on the bench of the pierhead overlooking the Mersey.”
Behind the tabloidese, Taylor was bowled over. As he wrote 20 years later, “It has always seemed to me that the true essence of The Beatles is to be found distilled in ‘From Me To You’. Boy-girl love song it may have been, but it was also a universal offering, spelled out with Liverpool directness and warmth and picked up by a whole generation including, from that night on, Joan and me. Though maybe at the ‘wrong’ end of that generation, we were nevertheless open thereafter to the possibilities of being truly young in heart.”
In mid-June 1963, Taylor went to meet Brian Epstein. “So I did this interview with this amazing man, with his monogrammed shirt and his buckle shoes, and we got on awfully well considering what a front he had. He was awfully remote. He had this kind of sniffy front, but that didn’t fool me, because I was from Liverpool. I didn’t ask him anything very cheeky anyway. I just wanted to be nice about him and about The Beatles, because I was truly stunned by how marvellous they’d been at that concert.”
Rapport thus established, Epstein began using Taylor as a sounding board and, in turn, Taylor became more and more fascinated by Epstein’s charges. “I was drawn to knowing an enormous amount more about them. No newspaper man from Manchester on the Daily Express or the Mail should have been doing nearly as much as I was doing on The Beatles, in this depth, because you didn’t have to cover them. You could just cover the mania and satisfy the public, but I wanted far more, beyond journalistic curiosity.”
In early 1964, Epstein selected Taylor to ghostwrite his autobiography. “In the first lunch hour he said, ‘I’m going to have to tell you now, did you know I was queer?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I didn’t.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ’I am, and if we’re going to do this book I’m going to have to stop buggering about, saying I was with this girl, when I was with a boy. Does that make any difference?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘it does not make any difference. It’ll make it a lot easier, so you mustn’t worry any more, difficult as it may be to convince you perhaps, but I won’t ever let you down.’”
When the call came to become Epstein’s personal assistant, Taylor jumped. For all its esteem, Fleet Street was driving him mad. Having something of a piratical nature himself, he appreciated Epstein’s closeness with The Beatles. “This was what bound Brian and the boys together, they all did think big. Very high notions of themselves and very high expectations. He was prepared to sit it out with them, with all their cheek and impudence. In a way they had a lot in common, just the vernacular was different.” Taylor was hooked. He wanted in and he got what he wanted, the position of The Beatles’ press officer on their summer 1964 world tour and autumn American tour – the moment when Beatlemania was at its wildest. Living on a diet of brandy and a morning ritual of “two small yellow dexedrine tablets”, Taylor finessed the madness as well as he could while remaining an acute observer. Press demand was so high that, in lieu of the four Beatles or Epstein, he would find himself fielding quotes from within the eye of the storm.
“I’m obsessed with them. Isn’t everybody?” he told Al Aronowitz of the Saturday Evening Post that summer. “In Australia, for example, each time we’d arrived at an airport, it was as if De Gaulle had landed, or better yet, the Messiah. The routes were lined solid, cripples threw away their sticks, sick people rushed up to the car as if a touch from one of the boys would make them well again, old women stood watching with their grandchildren and as we’d pass by I could see the look on their faces. It was as if some saviour had arrived.”
Taylor had caught the quasi-religious fervour that surrounded and still surrounds The Beatles. Although he left Epstein’s employ at the end of the year – after an infernal argument about a limousine – he stayed in contact with the group, a member of the inner circle who was invited back when they decided to put the ideals of 1967 into practice with the formation of Apple Corps. As the go-to person for visitors to its offices at 3 Savile Row, he found himself besieged by a tsunami of supplicants, both legitimate and bizarre.
From the Apple clothing shop through “Hey Jude”, the White Album, Yellow Submarine, “Get Back”, “Let It Be” and The Beatles’ anguished disintegration, Taylor was again in the eye of the storm. In April 1970, he gave the official word on The Beatles’ split. “Spring is here and Leeds play Chelsea tomorrow and Ringo and John and George and Paul are alive and well and full of hope. The world is still spinning and so are we and so are you. When the spinning stops – that’ll be the time to worry. Not before.”
Those two and a half years at Apple sorely tested his patience and his belief, but again he remained both a participant and a keen observer. These skills were displayed for all to see in two wonderful books, As Time Goes By and Fifty Years Adrift which, published in 1973 and 1984 respectively, are essential reading. Taylor had a sure sense not just of stardom and its fascinations, but also the other people who greased the industry’s wheels: the producers; the PR men; the radio DJs; the promoters; the fans who brought along their scrapbooks and told their life stories.
With his lust for life also came a sure sense of absurdity. He tells several stories against himself in these books: about being forced to apologise by John Lennon when he finally cracked at Al Capp’s rudeness at the June 1969 bed-in; having to admit to an insanely jealous Brian Wilson that The Beatles were always No1 for him and that The Beach Boys could never compete; being roasted by all four Beatles in February 1965 when he turned up with a tape recorder for an unofficial series of interviews in the Bahamas during the filming of Help!
Role strain was, indeed still is, common in the music industry. In Los Angeles, Taylor worked as a PR, a confidant and a writer for the expanding pop press, contributing to Tiger Beat, Teen and Disc And Music Echo. “Clean, honest opinions and views made up the bulk of it and in this way I was able to drop in the name of clients who weren’t making any waves with their music.” He was able to finesse most situations, but when his then employer, Bob Eubanks, asked him to presume on his relationship with The Beatles to get hot quotes, he fell off the high wire.
It was an excruciating encounter. Paul McCartney was particularly brutal. “‘Bloody hell,’ he said when he saw me. ‘Bloody hell, Derek. You with a tape recorder asking us questions?’ Oh, yes, me with a tape recorder. The thing was, [what did I represent]? Their friend or a journalist or their ex-publicist, Brian Epstein’s ex-personal assistant or a puppet of Bob Eubanks or a man in search of a career in American radio or what?” After enough ritual humiliation, Taylor was readmitted to the fold, where he would stay for the rest of his life.
The 1973 publication of As Time Goes By coincided with renewed interest in The Beatles’ reputation, which had plummeted after their acrimonious break-up in 1970. That year, the two “Red” and “Blue” double album compilations were released to heavy sales. Over the next decade, EMI would continue to release various compilations and “new” material, including the 1977 No1 album The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl, but the full rehabilitation would not occur until the Eighties.
Taylor had remained close to George Harrison, who contributed addenda to 1984’s Fifty Years Adrift, a limited-edition book that expanded the Sixties’ coverage of As Time Goes By. March 1987 saw the first part of The Beatles’ reissue programme on CD (Please Please Me up to Revolver) – a major phase of digital reissues – with the big event scheduled for the 20th anniversary of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in June. It was a huge hit, reaching No3 and staying in the charts for 49 weeks.
Taylor contributed to the celebrations with It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, an oral history of Sgt Pepper, the summer of love, Monterey pop and the psychedelic explosion that accompanied a summer 1987 Granada TV special. By the mid-Nineties, he had become the keeper of the flame, the public custodian of The Beatles’ legacy. Along with George Martin and Neil Aspinall, he was one of only three nonmembers of the band to be interviewed for the Anthology documentary.
Taylor’s revelation within the walls of the Manchester Odeon was binding for life. There was no turning back. Before anyone else, he understood the importance and the power of The Beatles as a cultural and social phenomenon that went way beyond the then traditional status of pop stars. As an insider, he was savvy enough to both keep notes and write down his memories before they faded. He both participated in the full possibilities of the late Sixties and remained an eloquent witness to the freedom and promises of those now-distant times.
What I love about him is that he was a true believer. As he wrote in 1964, on the inside sleeve of Beatles For Sale, “When, in a generation or so, a radioactive, cigar-smoking child, picnicking on Saturn, asks you what the Beatle affair was all about – ’Did you actually know them?’ – don’t try to explain all about the long hair and the screams! Just play the child a few tracks from this album and he’ll probably understand what it was all about. The kids of AD 2000 will draw from the music much the same sense of well-being and warmth as we do today.”
Although he may not have realised it at the time, his decision to throw his lot in with The Beatles in 1963 would have a lifelong, and longer, impact.