Tony Barrow, who has died aged 80, worked as press officer to the Beatles between 1962 when they released their first single and 1968 when the disintegration of the group was already apparent.
His duties ranged from writing the liner notes that appeared on the back of their album sleeves to managing various public relations disasters, including John Lennon’s foolish boast in 1966 that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus. That summer he helped them flee from their ill-fated trip to Manila when the group inadvertently snubbed the Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos and his First Lady Imelda by missing a lunch at which they were the guests of honor.
Barrow became what would later be termed a “spin doctor” to the Beatles who, when their manager Brian Epstein first approached him for help, were an unknown Liverpool act still struggling to land a record contract. He was the first journalist to mention them in print in the mainstream media and coined the term “Fab Four” which has stuck ever since.
During their ascent to global fame, Barrow assiduously courted Fleet Street, as well as the regional and local British media, and later, when the Beatles went on to conquer the world, shrewdly orchestrated global press and publicity campaigns.
In October 1962 Barrow had a day job in London writing album sleeve-notes for the Decca record company, but he also wrote a record review column for the Liverpool Echo under the pseudonym “Disker” and noted the “exceptionally haunting harmonica accompaniment” on the Beatles’ debut single Love Me Do.
“There’s nothing startlingly distinguished about the simple repetitive lyrics,” he observed, “but [it] relies more upon punchy ear-catching presentation. There’s a refreshing do-it-yourself approach to the single.” Shortly thereafter, over a seafood lunch at Wheeler’s, Epstein offered Barrow the job of the Beatles’ PR man, clinching the deal by doubling his weekly Decca wage to £32.
Tony Barrow (holding microphone) with Brian Epstein (in sunglasses) and the Beatles
In the first flush of Beatlemania following the group’s first No 1 hit Please Please Me in early 1963, Barrow realized that of the four Beatles, it would be John Lennon who would give him the most trouble. At Epstein’s insistence, Barrow refused to acknowledge to reporters the fact that Lennon was married and, by May 1963, had a baby son, Julian, a state of affairs which Epstein was convinced would diminish Lennon’s popularity with his fans. Even when Lennon’s wife Cynthia was seen pushing a pram in Liverpool, Barrow would issue repeated “no comments” to a compliant press, which made little effort to uncover the facts.
At the same time Lennon took a 10-day holiday in Spain with Epstein – who was homosexual and had designs on his protégé. Epstein spent the trip picking up boys to make Lennon jealous. Barrow dealt with the fallout, which was triggered by a drunken remark at Paul McCartney’s 21st birthday party a few weeks later by Bob Wooler, the DJ at the Cavern Club, who announced that Lennon and Epstein had just returned from “their honeymoon in Spain”. Immediately Lennon leaped on Wooler, raining blows on him with his fists and, in Lennon’s own words, “beating the shit out of him”.
When the Daily Mirror got wind of the punch-up, Barrow sought to close the story down by spinning a line about an abject apology to Wooler from Lennon, headlined BEATLE IN BRAWL — SORRY I SOCKED YOU in the paper of June 22 1963, the first national press article on the Beatles, in which Barrow manufactured all the quotes from both participants.
He presided over damage limitation on a much bigger scale in 1966, first in July during the Beatles’ fractious visit to the Philippines to play a concert when their failure to turn up at a lunch at the presidential palace in Manila was interpreted as a diplomatic insult. Barrow helped to organize their escape through hostile crowds to the airport, an experience that resulted in the group deciding that their touring days were numbered.
But from Barrow’s point of view, worse was to come. A month later an American magazine picked up a quote that John Lennon had given the journalist Maureen Cleave during a profile published in the Evening Standard the previous March, but which had since languished unnoticed. “Christianity will go,” Lennon had told her. “It will vanish and shrink… We’re more popular than Jesus now.” Once Lennon’s incendiary quote had ripped through the American media, Beatles records were being burned in the Bible belt of the Deep South and local radio stations were banning Beatles airplay.
Before Lennon faced the American press ahead of a scheduled US concert tour on August 11, Barrow and Epstein briefed him in Epstein’s hotel room in Chicago. In front of the cameras Lennon, clearly rattled and distraught, pulled up short of a full apology, and during a concert in Memphis a few days later Barrow, standing with Epstein at the side of the stage, ducked as what sounded like a shot rang out. In fact it was a firework thrown on to the stage from the balcony by fans. “All of us at the side of the stage, including three Beatles on stage, all looked immediately at John Lennon,” Barrow recalled. “We would not at that moment have been surprised to see that guy go down.”
In the face of such hostility, and in fear for their lives after death threats, the Beatles decided that their closing concert of the tour at Candlestick Park in San Francisco at the end of August would be their last. At Paul McCartney’s request, Barrow made a cassette recording of the show. As their aircraft took off afterwards, George Harrison sank into the seat next to Barrow, closed his eyes, smiled, and announced: “Right, that’s it. I’m not a Beatle anymore.”
Anthony Frederick James Barrow was born on May 11 1936 in the affluent Liverpool suburb of Crosby and educated at the nearby Merchant Taylors School where he edited a student squib called The Flash, an irreverent alternative to the school’s official magazine. When the school awarded him an essay prize, he asked for a journalism manual and when told it was too expensive, paid them the difference and secured his prize.
Tony Barrow (right) with Brian Epstein CREDIT: REX FEATURES
While still at school he approached the Liverpool Echo with a proposal for a record review column, sending them a sample which, in April 1954, resulted in his own regular column Off The Record. He decided to call himself Disker, and included in the column a chart of the bestselling singles on Merseyside.
After reading Modern Languages at Durham University he did National Service in the RAF, and on his discharge in 1960 joined the Decca record company as Britain’s only full-time sleeve note writer. He continued to write for the Echo as a sideline, and in December 1961 received a letter and then a personal visit from Brian Epstein who asked him to feature the Beatles in his column. Barrow pointed out that they would have to release a record first, and arranged for Decca to audition the group.
When Decca turned them down and the Beatles were signed by EMI instead, Epstein asked Barrow for advice about promoting the band’s first single Love Me Do. For a one-off fee of £20 Barrow put together a press kit which so impressed Epstein that he offered him a full-time job as the Beatles’ PR man.
Before making a decision, Barrow met the four Beatles for a drink in a crowded pub near EMI’s headquarters in the West End in November 1962. “If you’re not queer and you’re not Jewish,” asked John Lennon loudly, “why are you coming to work with Brian Epstein?” Despite this, Barrow warmed to them and when Epstein offered to double his Decca salary he accepted the job.
Recalling the impact of his column in the Liverpool Echo, Barrow developed a strategy of courting the provincial and regional press as well as Fleet Street. Making the Beatles available for telephone interviews with local as well as national journalists led to maximum exposure for the group, who followed Love Me Do with their first No 1 Please, Please Me early in 1963. Barrow maintained the same approach at the height of Beatlemania, even when the Beatles were touring abroad, arranging a press conference every day in every new city, to which local journalists would be invited.
He also came up with the idea for the Beatles’ Christmas records, cheap flexi discs distributed to fan club members from 1964. This was an exercise in damage limitation and a goodwill gesture designed to compensate for the fact that the small team running the fan club were struggling to cope with a huge backlog of unopened mail, much of it containing postal orders for membership, all unacknowledged.
As well as coining the phrase “the Fab Four”, he wrote LP and EP sleeve notes, and was the ghostwriter for many magazine pieces attributed to individual members of the Beatles and compiled the strip cartoon for the Magical Mystery Tour album package.
During his six years with the Beatles, Barrow kept his professional distance, of the four probably getting closest to Lennon, who initially had been hostile towards him. “I think essentially he was afraid of everybody, and considered everyone an enemy until they’d proved themselves a friend,” Barrow recalled many years later.
“He had this surface bravado but underneath was very unsure of himself. The rather cruel sense of humor he had was one of the ways he coped with this, and in the early days he certainly directed it at me.” Their relationship turned a corner over a late-night drink together at the Speakeasy, a London nightclub, when they chatted about non-show business matters. “I remember us talking about mortgages — needless to say, his was rather more substantial than mine. Anyway, that night really broke the ice and after that we got on well.”
In 1968, a year after Epstein was found dead, the victim of an accidental drug overdose, and with the Beatles beginning to go their separate ways, Barrow left to set up his own PR company.
During the 1970s Barrow represented many British acts, including Cilla Black, Helen Shapiro and the Kinks, and handled publicity for many American stars on their European tours. In 1980 he returned to freelance journalism, and edited a group of magazines linked to annual trade events in Cannes, relishing his regular trips to the south of France.
He published a memoir, John, Paul, George, Ringo And Me, in 2005, and contributed an article on Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.