The Beatles: What's In A Name?

Copyright 1994
By D. Persails (d.persails@genie.geis.com)

Many people ask what are Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles, how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision--a man appeared in a flaming pie and said unto them 'From this day on you are Beatles with an A'. Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him.

At least that was John Lennon's silly reply to the oft asked question, as it appeared in Bill Harry's paper, "Mersey Beat," from July of 1961. But the whole story of the Beatles' name began in 1957, when young Mr. Lennon assembled his skiffle group, first calling it the Black Jacks, and then the Quarry Men. The group went through several name changes, surviving monikers like Johnny and the Moondogs, the Beatals, the Silver Beetles, the Silver Beats, and the Silver Beatles, before eventually settling on the Beatles.

In March 1957, after acquiring a guitar, John formed a skiffle group with Pete Shotton and for all of a week, they called themselves the Black Jacks. The name was quickly changed to the Quarry Men, after their Quarry Bank School, partly tongue in cheek, and partly to give the group credibility, according to Lennon biographer Ray Coleman. Their school song, "Quarry Men, Strong Before Our Birth" was rather prophetic. Group members would come and go, but the Quarry Men tag lasted well into 1959, even after the skiffle craze was over. This was in part due to the fact that drummer Colin Hanton's kit was lettered that way. (In fact, Hanton remained a part of the group simply because he owned a set of drums!)

By October 26, 1959, the group was streamlined to just John, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, and the threesome decided to make a second go at Carroll Levis' TV show "Discoveries." They called themselves Johnny and the Moondogs just for these auditions, which they unfortunately failed. One can only wonder whether Johnny and the Moondogs might have become a household name if they had passed the audition!

In March 1960, new member Stuart Sutcliffe came up with the name Beatals, a play on Buddy Holly's Crickets. The name didn't last long, though, as band members went in their own directions for a brief period. George played with another group, while John and Paul played two dates, April 23 and 24, as the Nerk Twins.

Around May 5, 1960, the group became known as the Silver Beetles. Brian Cassar, the leader of another Liverpool group called Cass and the Cassanovas, suggested the name change in the first place. He proposed the name Long John and the Silver Beetles, but John would have none of the Long John bit. According to Ray Coleman, Long John Silver was once considered, but rejected outright.

For only one date, they called themselves the Silver Beats for a May 14 gig at Lathom Hall in Liverpool. They were advertised to appear one week later under that name, too, but that date was canceled.

In early July 1960, they billed themselves as the Silver Beatles, before finally settling on simply the Beatles, around August 16, 1960. Credit for the name goes to both Sutcliffe and Lennon, though it is not certain just which one came up with the "ea" spelling.

In more recent years, another theory as to the origins of the Beatles' name has been suggested by George Harrison and Beatles' press man Derek Taylor. In his second revised edition biography of the Beatles (1985), Hunter Davies intimated that Taylor told him the name was inspired by the film "The Wild One." A black leather-clad motorcycle gang is referred to as the Beetles. As Davies put it, "Stu Sutcliffe saw this film, heard the remark, and came back and suggested it to John as the new name for their group. John said yeah, we'll spell it Beatles, as we're a beat group.

Taylor repeated the story in his own Genesis book "Fifty Years Adrift."

At that time, Stuart was into the Marlon Brando type of method acting. There has always been a big thing about who invented the name Beatles. John had said he invented it. But if you look at a movie called "The Wild One," you'll see a scene about bicycle gangs where Johnny's (played by Brando) gang is in a coffee bar and another gang led by Chino (Lee Marvin) pulls into town for a bit of aggro. The film dialogue here shows how Stuart could have thought of the name Beatles.

Indeed, the film does show the Chino character referring to his gang as the Beetles. George Harrison, in a 1975 radio interview, agrees with this version of the name origin, and more than likely, he was the source for Taylor's re-telling of it. The following is an excerpt of George's interview with "Earth News."

John used to say in his American accent "Where are we goin' fellas?" and we'd say "To the top Johnny!" And we used to do that as a laugh, but that was actually the Johnny, I suppose, from "The Wild Ones." [sic] Because, when Lee Marvin drives up with his motorcycle gang, and if my ears weren't tricking me, I could've sworn when Marlon Brando's talking to Lee Marvin, Lee Marvin's saying to him "Look, Johnny, I think such-and-such, the Beetles think that you're such-and-such..." as if his motorcycle gang was called the Beatles.

The story is repeated once more in Pauline Sutcliffe's "BackBeat," (1994) with a slight twist.

[Stuart] also dreamt up a new name for the group. Buddy Holly had his Crickets, and, on a forthcoming month-long tour of Britain, Gene Vincent was going to be backed by the Beat Boys. How about "The Beetles?" One of the motorbike gangs in "The Wild One" was called that too. A brainstorming session with John warped eventually to "The Beatles" -- you know, like in "beat music."

Bill Harry disputes the "Wild One" story in his "Ultimate Encyclopedia," because, as he claims, the film was banned in England until the late 1960's and none of the Beatles could have seen it by the time they came up with the name. If that is true, surely the Beatles had at least heard about the movie (after all, it was banned), and might have known the storyline, including the name of the motorcycle gang. That possibility, added to the fact that George, who was there, first told the story, makes it plausible. But who knows for sure?

Throughout the days of Beatlemania, and even before, the Beatles were asked "the question" many, many times. Some of their responses were caught on tape by various interviewers, and they are transcribed here.


October 4, 1963, from "Ready Steady Go!," with an appearance by Dusty Springfield.

DS:     John, this is a question which you've probably been asked a thousand
        times before, but you always, all of you give different versions,
        different answers, so you are going to tell me now.  How did the
        Beatles get their name?

John:   I just thought of it.

DS:     You just thought of it...?  Another brilliant Beatle!

John:   No, no, really.

DS:     Were they called anything else before?

John:   Called, the uh, Quarry Men.

DS:     Oooh.  You rugged character.


December 10, 1963, Doncaster. Included on 'ROUND THE WORLD and BEATLES TAPES VOL. II: EARLY BEATLEMANIA 1963-64 interview discs.

Paul:   John thought of it, first of all, just for a name, just for a group,
        you know.  We just didn't have any names.  Oh, yeah, we did have
        a name, but we had about ten of them a week, you know, and we didn't
        like this idea, so we had to settle on one particular name.  And
        John came up with the Beatles one night, and he sort of explained
        how it was spelled with an e-a, and we said "oh, yes, it's a joke!"

                  ===========================


1964 -- Open ended interview, as heard on Let It R.M.B.

John:   I had a vision when I was twelve, and I saw a man on a flaming pie,
        and he said "You are Beatles with an 'a'," and we are.

1964 interview.

George: John got the name Beatles...

John:   In a vision when I was...

George: ...ages ago, you know, when we wanted, when we needed a name, and
        everybody's thinking of a name, and he thought of Beatles.

Interviewer:  Why the B-e-a, instead of the B-e-e?

George: Well, naturally, you know...

John:   Well, you know, if you left it with B, double-e... It was hard enough
        getting people to understand why it was B-e-a, nevermind, you know.


February 10, 1964, Plaza Hotel in New York.
Included on THE BEATLES TAPES VOL. II: EARLY BEATLEMANIA 1963-64 CD.

Ringo:  John thought of the name Beatles, and he'll tell you about it now.

John:   It's just that it means Beatles, isn't it, you know?  That's just a
        name, like "shoe."

Paul:   "The Shoes."  See, we could've been called "The Shoes," for all you
        know.


February 1964, in a phone interview, as it appears on the album THE AMERICAN TOUR WITH ED RUDY. Part of it is included in Geoffrey Giuliano's "The Lost Beatles Interviews" on page 16.

George: We were thinking of a name a long time ago, and we were just
        wracking our brains for names, and John came up with this name
        Beatles, and it was good, because it was sort of the insect, and
        also the pun, you know, b-e-a-t on the beat.  We just liked the name
        and we kept it.

                  ===========================


August 25, 1964, with Jim Steck.
Included on HEAR THE BEATLES TELL ALL.

John:   Well, I remembered the other day when somebody mentioned the
        Crickets at a press conference.  I'd forgotten all about that.  I
        was looking for a name like the Crickets that meant two things, and
        from Crickets I got to Beatles.  I changed the B-e-a because it
        didn't mean two things on its own -- B, double-e-t-l-e-s didn't mean
        two things.  So, I changed the 'a,' added the 'e' to the 'a', and it
        meant two things, then.

JS:     What two things, specifically?

John:   I mean, it didn't have to mean two things, but it said...  It was
        beat and beetles, and when you said it people thought of crawly
        things, and when you read it, it was beat music.

                  ===========================


August 1971, in an interview with Peter McCabe, printed on page 89 in
"John Lennon: For The Record," and later aired in the radio
documentary "John Lennon: The Lost Tapes."

John:   I used to write a thing called "Beatcomber," like, I used to admire
        "Beachcomber" in the "[Daily] Express," and I used to write a column
        every week called "Beatcomber."  And then they asked me to write the
        story of the Beatles, and that's when I was in Alan Williams' club
        "Jacaranda."  I was writing with George, "A man came on a flaming
        pie...," cause even then they were saying "How did you get the name
        Beatles?"  Bill Harry said, "Look, they're always asking you that,
        why don't you tell 'em how you got the name?"  So, I wrote this:
        "There was an certain man, and he came..." -- I was still doing like
        from school, all this imitation Bible -- "and he came and said 'You
        are Beatles with an a... and man came on a flaming pie from the sky
        and said you are Beatles with an a.'"

                  ===========================


April 1990, in an interview with KTXQ-FM's Red Beard, Dallas Texas.

Paul:   When we first heard "Crickets"...  Back in England, there's the game
        cricket, and we knew about the little chirpy, hoppity-goes-to-town
        type crickets.  So, we thought they'd been brilliant, they'd really
        got this amazing double meaning name, of like the game and the bug.
        We thought this was brilliant, we thought, well, we've got to do
        this.  So John and Stuart came up with this name that the rest of us
        hated, this Beatles, spelled with an "a."  We said, "Why?"  They
        said, "Well, you know, this is a bug, and its got a double meaning,
        just like the Crickets.  We were influenced in many, many ways.

                  ===========================


November 1991, in an interview with Bob Costas on "Later."

Paul:   We were asked, for uh, somebody said, "How did the group start?"
        And instead of saying, "The group started when the boys got together
        at Woolton Town Hall in 19...," John sort of stuttered away "We got
        a vision.  A man came to us on a bun, and we had a vision."
                  ===========================

Dave Persails
(d.persails@genie.geis.com)


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