Milestones: Author Barry Miles recalls relationships with Beatles, Burroughs and Swinging London
If something interesting was happening in London during the 1960s, chances are Barry Miles was part of it.
Although his experiences straddled many social circles, Miles was primarily associated with The Beatles. He ran Zapple, the spoken-word division of the band’s Apple record label. He witnessed numerous recording sessions, attended the “Sgt. Pepper’s” photo shoot and took part singing in the live “All You Need is Love” television session (that’s him to George Harrison’s left). He introduced Paul McCartney to hash brownies and, rather notoriously, helped introduce John Lennon to Yoko Ono.
Best known as a journalist and biographer, Miles was a key player in the gloriously influential and decadent Swinging London of the 1960s. Considered as culturally significant as any time and place of the 20th century, Miles claims he’s yet to run across a comparable scene.
“But the period when you’re young is always the most interesting and influential, isn’t it?” Miles admits.
“When I was a kid we looked back to Paris in the ’20s – how amazing it must have been with James Joyce and Hemingway and Picasso. That was 40 years earlier. Now people look back 40 years to the ’60s scene and think how amazing it must have been to bump into Mick Jagger at The Speakeasy. It was great. But whether it was that great, who knows? It could be the London punk scene of the ’70s was more interesting. And bands like The Clash were in their way as great as most of the things coming out of the ’60s.”
Miles came to the states this month to present a speech about The Beatles at Harper College near Chicago. But it also afforded him the excuse to spend the last week in Lawrence, catching up with friends he met through William S. Burroughs. Miles is responsible for several biographies on the late Lawrence-based author.
“It seemed like a good excuse to visit James Grauerholz,” Miles says of Burroughs’ personal secretary and longtime companion. “He’s been struggling with a biography of William for 11 years. Initially we were going to collaborate and write the book jointly. Now we’ve decided that I’ll write it and he’ll provide the research.”
The 67-year-old Miles says he initially became fascinated with Burroughs’ work when attending Cheltenham College of Art in 1959.
“‘Naked Lunch’ was a book that people would sit around and read aloud from, and I found it so funny,” says Miles, interviewed at the William Burroughs House at 1927 Learnard Ave.
“He already had a mystical quality as this super-cool individual who was so anonymous – he looked just like a banker or something. But he had those outrageous ideas. And he was everything straight society didn’t like: He was gay, a junkie, he shot his wife. He ran around Paris doing the most extraordinary things, but nobody noticed because he was so anonymous.”
Miles eventually met Burroughs in 1965 while the American author was living in London (“We got to be quite good friends,” he says). It was during this stretch that Burroughs began intermingling with The Beatles – one of the reasons he earned an appearance on the cover of the classic album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Fresh out of art school, Miles first encountered John Lennon and George Harrison in July 1965 during the heyday of Beatlemania.
“(Poet) Allen Ginsberg was staying with me in London. It was his 39th birthday, so we organized a party for him in somebody’s basement flat,” Miles recalls. “Unfortunately, by the time they arrived, Allen had enjoyed a few drinks, and he was naked with his underpants on his head and a Do Not Disturb sign hanging around his (genitals). John and George looked around and made sure no photographers were around. Because the last thing they needed was a picture of them with that.”
Soon after this meeting, Miles launched The International Times, regarded as “the first European underground paper.” He also opened Indica Books and Gallery, where Yoko Ono famously met Lennon while presenting a show there. Miles’ partners in the avant-garde venture were John Dunbar (husband of singer Marianne Faithfull) and Peter Asher (brother of McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane Asher). McCartney was living with the Asher family at the time.
“Paul was in a little bedroom with a single iron bed and big brown wardrobe. Bulging out from under the bed were all these Gold records,” Miles says. “When he was living there I remember him showing me a letter from his accountant that read, ‘Thought you might like to know you’re a millionaire.'”
From this point Miles also began routinely attending Beatles studio sessions. Did he ever influence a Beatles recording?
“Indirectly,” he says. “John Lennon came by looking for some Nietzsche, of all things. In the meantime I gave him a copy of Timothy Leary’s ‘The Psychedelic Experience,’ which had just come in. John curled up with this thing in our bookshop, and right there in the introduction Leary says, ‘Turn off your mind, drift downstream.’ So John just lifted the lyrics straight out of Leary’s introduction for ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.'”
On Jimi Hendrix coming to London …“Hendrix was the most fantastic thing I remember from the ’60s. Jimi was astonishing. Then I knew something special was going on. He would just pin your ears right back. The stuff he was doing just blew everything away. … I remember sitting around smoking dope with him. He was very quiet and inarticulate. Everything came out through the music. He had some strange mystical notions which were quite hard to follow. He certainly liked girls, and they certainly liked him. He was mostly a ladies man.”
On the rock musicians of London in the ’60s …“There was a pecking order among musicians in London. The Beatles were the top, then came the Stones. Beneath them were The Who and Moody Blues and all the other bands. It was on the strength of the music, not on record sales. They did work with each other. Jagger and McCartney always planned the release of a new single so they were never fighting each other for the number one spot.”
On the introduction of John Lennon to Yoko Ono …“In ’67 there was an art symposium. … Within about six weeks of Yoko coming in, we had a show of hers. We gave her her first European show – it might have even been her first gallery show. Lennon came around the day we were hanging the show. There were about 10 people there. …
John Dunbar introduced John to Yoko and she showed him around. I think she was a bit suspicious because Lennon famously said, ‘Avant-garde is French for bull(expletive).’ He always had a chip on his shoulder. He obviously liked the show, and there was one item there that was a stepladder you had to climb up. On the ceiling was something written so small you couldn’t read it. Hanging there was a chain with a magnifying glass.
So you wobbled about on the top of this ladder, and it said, ‘Yes.’ He thought it was going to say some negative thing like ‘(expletive) off.’ He was very pleased with the fact it was a positive message. He always claimed that was what changed his mind about Yoko.”
Miles also got to “appear” on the recording of that revered “Revolver” track, which features the first use of tape loops in a major studio release.
“All through EMI and Abbey Road Studios they patched various tape recorders from various mixing suites. All of us stood in these places with jam jars or pencils with a tape looped around a playback head. All this stuff was being fed into the main mixing desk. (Producer) George Martin was literally pulling stuff in and out. The completely random mix was the final one. You could never do it again. One felt that one was involved.”
Here, there and everywhere
Miles was certainly not just limited to his involvement with the Fab Four. He’s responsible for more than 50 books during his career, many of which focus on legendary musical artists such as Pink Floyd, David Bowie, The Police and Frank Zappa.
His latest work is “London Calling: A Countercultural History of London Since 1945” (Atlantic Books), released in the U.S. on March 1.
“Barry Miles is a thoroughbred, and he has given us lasting books about unforgettable people,” says Grauerholz, who met Miles during a trip with Burroughs to England in 1982.
“I admire Miles’ discipline and work ethic … especially since it’s deployed in the general area of changing the world through works of literary and musical art that he feels are the most historically potent, and which he greatly helps the world to understand and adopt.”
What goes on
Helping the world to understand Swinging London seems to be a constant demand of Miles.
“It was a much smaller scene than people think. The entire city wasn’t swinging. There were only a couple thousand people,” he says.
“A lot of people associate it with ‘The Avengers’ and James Bond and stuff. That was the earlier Swinging London. Then came the sort of hippie scene that became much more drug-oriented. The drug community is by nature self-enclosed because it’s illegal, and you try and keep police informers out. Regular Swinging London was just a very hedonistic place. Finally after gray London with bomb sites everywhere, young people had a bit of money. Only a little bit – just enough to buy records and clothes. But out of that came the English rock and roll scene.”
And out of that came The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Cream and others whose members became everyday business partners and drinking buddies with the soft-spoken Miles.
Is it odd to see these folks pass into legend?
“Sure,” he says. “Because you just don’t realize it at the time. Had I been smart I would have made a note after each Beatles session. It never occurred to me I might forget what I’d seen. I just assumed it would keep on going forever.”