Dave Morrell will never forget the night he got to “turn on” a Beatle.
It was October 4th, 1974, a cool autumn evening. And there, on a bed in his East 52nd Street apartment, was John Lennon, sprawled alongside Derek Taylor, the former Beatles press officer, and Mike McGear, Paul McCartney’s brother.
“What have you got?” John asked.
“I think it may be something you’ve never seen before,” said the lanky, longhaired 21-year-old Morrell. There was a hushed air of anticipation as Morrell and his 17-year-old sidekick, Ron Furmanek, got into action. They set up a 16mm film projector and aimed it at the white shade drawn across the expansive penthouse windows.
The movie that unreeled seemed anything but shocking or explosive; four moptops vainly trying to outscream an army of tonsil-baring teenage girls was an all-too-familiar memory, and the select audience was only mildly amused. Then suddenly, something unexpected happened. As John huddled with Paul and George around one microphone, their harmonies on “This Boy” soared above the pandemonium. By the time the cinematic John began belting out his plaintive solo in the song’s middle eight, the ex-Beatle had jumped from the bed to sit cross-legged on the floor, gazing up slack-jawed at his younger self.
“Wow,” he said, slumping backward as the lights finally went up.
The party had just begun. For the next few hours, the two Beatlemaniacs delved into their suitcase of memorabilia and regaled their hero with obscure Beatles tapes, newsreels and photographs. After they’d exhausted their supply of treasures, John turned the tables. He took the boys out onto the balcony and pointed to a spot over the skyline where he had recently sighted a flying saucer. Then, leading them through the rest of the apartment, he showed them his original drawings for the sleeve art of his just-released album, Walls and Bridges, before rummaging through his bedroom closet and emerging with a large envelope.
“I’ve lived all over,” John said. “I don’t carry a lot of things around in a trunk. You see my walls — there are no gold records. I don’t have my Beatles guitars. But I do have one thing with me.” And from an envelope within the envelope, he pulled an acetate of the Beatles performing “How Do You Do It?” It was the unreleased non-Beatles song that George Martin had the group record as a follow-up single to “Love Me Do” in 1963. The public got to hear it only by Gerry and the Pacemakers because John came up with “Please Please Me” instead.
“It was incredible,” Morrell says. “John was such a Beatle fan himself that after we turned him on with our stuff, he wanted to turn us on, too.”
David George John Morrell (his real given name) was a pioneer in what has since become the big business of collecting Beatles memorabilia. Today, the collectors can essentially be divided into three distinct groups: those with money, those without money and those to whom virtually everything the Fab Four touched is simply priceless.
The well-to-do group might be found on chic New Bond Street in London, placing bids at Sotheby’s auction galleries on memorabilia ranging from a gold record for Abbey Road (sold for $4000) to the 19th-century piano on which Lennon composed “A Day in the Life” ($12,500). The primary buyers, says Sotheby’s, are American, Japanese and British; the material put up for sale is often from the Beatles’ friends or the odd thief. Last year, Sotheby’s pulled from the auction block a gold LP for Band on the Run that rightfully belonged to Paul McCartney.
The group of collectors at the lower end of the income scale can generally be found at the various Beatles conventions and festivals held each year around the U.S. While these fans gather to discuss the joys and minutiae of their favorite band, the emphasis is more often on commerce than commentary. What you find, for the most part, are outrageously inflated prices for items that were once available at your local Woolworth’s. The byword of these conclaves might well be caveat emptor; fraudulent pieces are said to be rampant, and authenticity is often in doubt.
The final grouping tends to scorn the pretenders in the other categories. These men and women traffic in those things that were never intended to see the light of day: unreleased song and album tapes, diaries, unpublished writings and clandestine films. At times, their relentless pursuit of such things has unearthed material even the Beatles didn’t know existed; at other times, their detective work has been, shall we say, extralegal. While some collect solely for the sake of collecting, others, such as Dave Morrell, have loftier goals: sharing aspects of the Beatles legacy with the band’s millions of admirers around the globe.
You won’t find Dave Morrell at Beatles conventions. The sort of rarities he trades in — recording demos, outtakes, recorded conversations and interviews — is a highly confidential business.
“It’s sort of cloak and dagger,” says Dave, “but the dagger is made of rubber.” Dave is more forthcoming than most collectors. Driving from Manhattan to his home in New Jersey, he launches into a dissertation that’s underscored by a demo of McCartney singing “Come and Get It” (a hit he composed and produced for Badfinger) blaring from the car’s cassette deck. According to Dave, the sources for this kind of material are the Beatles’ assistants, the most notorious being a Lenono staffer who stole some of Lennon’s tapes and diaries in 1981; recording-studio personnel, including some well-known producers; and even the Beatles’ friends and fellow artists. Like a chain letter, an item is passed from collector to collector. All this activity inhabits a rather gray legal area, but it’s done privately and not distributed in quantity for commercial gain. Unfortunately, though, the copying of tapes is nearly impossible to control, so they sometimes filter down into the hands of bootleggers.
“It’s a shame,” says Dave, having switched cassettes to a very rare acoustic folk version of Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels.” “I hate bootlegs. It’s not what collecting is about. None of us wants that to happen, ’cause then the recordings are no longer as exclusive, and their quality is very poor.”
Another collector, who claims he’s had tapes stolen only to see them surface on bootlegs, puts it more bluntly: “Anyone who would prostitute his hobby is not a collector, he’s a crook.” And Dave agrees, although he says that in his discussions with Lennon, the ex-Beatle had a liberal attitude toward bootlegging and got a kick out of them. Indeed, Dave maintains that Lennon was the source of a major Beatle bootleg, Get Back to Toronto. It seems he gave a journalist a test pressing of the unembellished, pre-Phil Spector Let It Be LP, and it was eventually broadcast around 1970 for New York’s WBAI radio benefit, which was taped off the air and bootlegged. “I think,” says Dave, “that Lennon felt, ‘Well, this is the Beatles raw — let the world hear it.'”
There have been hundreds of lesser-quality bootlegs since then, and the latest is due any day now: a pirated recording of last summer’s show at Abbey Road Studios, which features a moving, acoustic rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the recently discovered “Leave My Kitten Alone.” The underground buzz credits the album to an enterprising visitor who slipped through the metal-detector security system with a plastic tape recorder.
Tales of such shenanigans don’t really rattle Dave’s antennae these days. But while unpacking trunks of memorabilia in the suburban home that was once a Beatles shrine in his more manic days, he remembers how he used to have the Beatles grapevine growing out of both ears. “I had to know about every new thing,” says Dave, “and I had to get everything, one way or another.”
“You’ve just won Mayor Lindsay’s legs!” These were among the first words John Lennon ever uttered to Dave Morrell. This is important. This is history. And Dave has it documented on tape. It was the summer of ’71, and John and Yoko were mystery guests on Howard Smith’s call-in talk show on New York’s WPLJ-FM. Like any fan worth his weight in Beatles bubblegum cards, Dave immediately sussed out the situation, plugged in his tape machine and telephoned in to join the fun. For his effort, John proclaimed that Dave had won the aforementioned prize. Spurred on by this off-the-wall on-the-air exchange, the teenager wrote to Smith, saying he had happened on to some early Beatles recordings he wanted John to identify. The response was as swift as it was surprising. Smith arranged for Dave to play the tapes for John at the studio where he was producing the David Peel album The Pope Smokes Dope.
The tapes in question were actually cuts that Dave had recorded from one of the earliest Beatles bootlegs called Yellow Matter Custard. “You might say I bluffed my way in,” admits Dave, “because it was a record that anybody could get. But I can honestly say I was the first person to play it for John Lennon. And he was totally knocked out. He identified them as the Beatles audition tapes for Decca. We later learned that they were really from BBC broadcasts of the same period. But John was so excited that he later told Howard on the air that he was sending copies to the other Beatles. He was very gung-ho.”
Dave had fully expected the bum’s rush from Lennon. But as it turned out, Peel had to interrupt the recording session; an astonished Dave and his girlfriend Mary Ellen (fellow fan and eventual wife, who married her collection to his) stayed and entertained John, Yoko, Smith and the studio staff with their bag of Beatles memorabilia. In return for Dave’s tapes, John sent for one of his “butcher cover” albums, which he signed for Dave with an autograph on the front and a sketch on the back. Naturally, it’s the crowning glory of Dave’s collection.
It was as if Dave had received the godfather’s blessing. The 18-year-old college dropout took this red-letter event as a sign to quit his job as a stockboy in Paramus and to continue his collector’s quest with an added impetus — to track down artifacts and tapes that even a Beatle would find interesting.
The self-appointed scout was well-prepared for his mission. Since age 11, Dave had steeped himself in Beatles lore. Whether it was the movies he shot with his home-movie camera of the band’s appearances on Ed Sullivan, or the photos he took at Shea Stadium (using his binoculars as a telephoto lens), he had to have it all.
These scratchy, grainy mementos from adolescence gave Dave bargaining power with the network of collectors that soon developed through his celebrity as “the world’s leading Beatlemaniac,” a title Howard Smith conferred upon him in an article in the Village Voice. Soon, he was overwhelmed by the hordes of Beatles freaks crawling out of the woodwork and heading his way. The weirdest case was that of a Beatlemaniac’s mother who wanted to touch him because he had met John Lennon. The nicest was a precocious 14-year-old named Ron Furmanek, whose expertise nearly matched his own; they teamed up to spread the gospel with one of the first collectors’ newsletters, Beatles for Sale. And the most intriguing response was from a mysterious man who lured Dave to Connecticut, promising to screen an amazing 35mm film of the Beatles’ first concerts in America. It was amazing. So was the price: $10,000 for the negative, $800 for a print. Dave knew he was in over his head, but he knew he was in.
High from spearheading a revival of Beatlemania, Dave entered a short but frenzied period of obsession that he now looks back on with something less than pride. Usually accompanied by a couple Beatles pals, he’d loiter outside John and Yoko’s Village apartment, waiting to exchange a few remarks with the godfather and turn him on to a new acquisition. Or, decked out with cameras and tape machines, he’d play reporter and interview John as he emerged from his immigration hearings downtown. He even managed to crash the party following Lennon’s One to One benefit concert at Madison Square Garden. Dave and Ron became more aggressive New York versions of the female “Apple scruffs” who kept vigil at Apple’s home office in London. Befriending the small, laid-back Apple crew on the 41st floor of 1700 Broadway, they insinuated their way into the closest approximation of paradise they could imagine — a storage room brimming with Beatles records, tapes, films, photos and a wealth of promotional gadgets.
Things were pretty hunky-dory in fanland until one day, as Dave and Ron were boarding the elevator, Apple-bound, “an arm reached in and pulled back the doors,” relates Dave. “It was John with Yoko. It was incredible. We were wired to the teeth with hidden mikes and recorders, and we pressed all the buttons so the elevator would stop at every floor from one to 41!” Then they launched into their collectors’ spiel. But no, John didn’t need any more copies of “She Loves You” in German. And no, this bootleg of “Have You Heard the Word” was not really the Beatles — it was a fake, a hoax. And why was the elevator stopping at every bloody floor! When it finally reached its destination, the boys didn’t have the nerve to follow John and Yoko.
Dave came to a sobering realization. Among fans, there are echelons, and the fans who haunt doorways and pull elevator pranks are several notches below those who receive a special audience with their idol, something Dave had already done. Dave decided to wait for his next invitation.
It would be two years before it came. By that time, Dave was a promotion man at Warner Bros. Records. During one crazy week in October, while working with Derek Taylor on a Mike McGear project, Dave found himself with Ron in Lennon’s apartment, turning him on with their latest finds. The next day, Dave took a copy of the oldie “Just Because” to the Record Plant, so John could learn the song’s lyrics to lay down his final vocal track for the Rock’n’ Roll album. And a few days later, at John’s 34th-birthday celebration, Dave gave John an Elvis button. Dave, of course, can show you photos of John wearing that button on several other occasions.
“I’ve never concerned myself with Lennon’s politics or his personal life,” says Dave, fiddling with the tape deck that’s been blasting out one ear-opening rarity after another. “I’ve only concerned myself with his music. You see, everything I did to get what I have was done out of some basic instinct to preserve pieces of history. The Beatles themselves were too busy living it to collect it. And the people working for them were too careless or unorganized to realize the worth of what they were entrusted with. But the fans and collectors knew. We always knew. So I have no regrets. Now I see myself as more of a Beatles curator than a collector.”
Beatles curators of Beatles archives for Beatles scholars? Dave’s face is one big grin, but he’s dead serious about the archives: a nonprofit collection of Beatles tapes, films, videos, photos, periodicals and documents that would be open to fans, musicologists and pop-culture historians. For starters, he says, he could use his own collection — and he definitely has the goods. Above all, there are the tapes: priceless, unpolished and spontaneous performances, like Lennon accompanying himself on guitar on “Grow Old with Me” (a version of which is on Milk and Honey) and “You’ve Got to Serve Yourself” (never released in any form); or the approximately 80 hours of outtakes from the Let It Be movie soundtrack. To complete the archives, Dave says he’d call a grand summit meeting of top Beatles collectors and ask them to donate materials.
Obsessions do indeed shape professions. After years of hyping artists for the likes of Warner Bros., RCA and Arista, Dave has landed feet first at Capitol. It is, of course, the U.S. label responsible for bringing the Beatles sound to the New World for the past two decades — and a fitting place for a grown-up Beatlemaniac.
“You know,” Dave says, “when Sgt. Pepper came out in ’67, I was so bummed out. I couldn’t deal with the fact that the Beatles were never gonna play live again, that they were wearing mustaches and burying the old moptops. I couldn’t grow up. And after they broke up, I was always dreaming they’d get back together. But I finally realized how selfish that was. Now, it means more to me to talk about what kind of person John Lennon was rather than what type of shoes he had in his closet. I couldn’t sit around with my collection gathering dust, with the blinds closed, shutting out reality, trying to keep time at a standstill. My windows are open.”
Then he pauses, with a quick glance down, and smiles: “But I’ll probably die with my Beatle boots on.”