The ground floor and basement apartment of 34 Montagu Square looks like any other in the area. However, the Chicago Tribune has called it ‘The ultimate rock n roll pad’. That’s because it had associations with three Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Chas Chandler and god knows how many other rock stars who passed though it non-descript front door.
Ringo Starr moved into the apartment in 1965 with new wife Maureen. The area has always been quite hip and Ringo had Mick Jagger and his then girlfriend Chrissie Shrimpton as virtual next door neighbours – they lived just around the corner in Bryanston Mews East.
Maureen was heavily pregnant when they moved in and gave birth to her first son, Zak, at Queen Charlotte’s hospital, Hammersmith, on 13th September 1965. Alf Bicknell, the Beatles chauffeur, remembers getting a call from Ringo at 2am that morning to come to collect Maureen from Montagu Square and take her to the hospital.
Ringo and Paul, who lived in nearby Wimpole Street, left from 34 Montagu Square to go to Buckingham Palace to receive their MBE medals, together with John and George.
The flat was decorated by Brian Epstein’s interior designer, Ken Partridge, in early 60s camp pop star style with purple watered-silk wallpaper, silk curtains and lead-streaked mirrors.
Ringo moved out of Montagu Square after only a few months and into a large house in Weybridge, but kept hold of the apartment as a London base and also so friends could use it. In 1966 Paul McCartney used the basement of the apartment to build a small recording studio.
In his book Paul McCartney – Many Years From Now, Barry Miles recalled that Paul was getting friendly with members of the avant garde and underground art movements. Paul wanted to start a facility for poets and avant garde musicians to record their work. That way a lively exchange of tapes would happen between these people. Paul often let his friends such as author William Burroughs, art gallery owner Robert Fraser, and filmmaker Anthony Balch use the studio to make their weird experimental recordings. Paul also used the studio to work on his own songs such as Eleanor Rigby. The tape operator of the studio was Ian Sommerville, a good friend of Barry Miles. Ian moved into the flat with his boyfriend Alan. In the end the idea for the studio fell through, as Ian got the idea the studio was only for Paul McCartney. The equipment was removed and Ian moved out of the flat.
On 6th December 1966 Ringo let the apartment to Chas Chandler, the former bass player of the Animals. Chas had just discovered a guitarist in a small club in Greenwich Village, New York, and decided to become his manager and bring him to England. His name was Jimi Hendrix. When Chas moved into Montagu Square with his girlfriend, Lotta, Jimi and his girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham, moved in too.
Jimi and Kathy had lots of rock star friends and would invite them to Montagu Square for parties. They also had a rather stormy relationship. After one spectacular row Kathy stormed out and didn’t return until the next day. When she came back she asked Jimi what he’d been doing while she was away. Jimi handed her a piece of paper with the lyrics of a song he’d written called The Wind Cries Mary. Mary was Kathy’s middle name, which she hated and Jimi only used it to annoy her.
After a while the neighbours started complaining about the noise coming from the flat and Jimi and Kathy were asked to leave.
After Jimi and Kathy moved out, the apartment was used by Lillian Powell, Cynthia Lennon’s mother. That arrangement changed when Cynthia caught John with Yoko Ono at their house in Weybridge, called ‘Kenwood’. Cynthia briefly moved in with her mother. Cynthia went on holiday to Italy, but was shadowed by a private detective, hired by John. Within five minutes of her arrival back at Montagu Square there was a knock on the door and a solicitor handed her a writ for divorce, citing HER adultery. Cynthia immediately counter-sued.
Finally, John moved out of Kenwood and into the Montagu Square apartment and Cynthia moved briefly back to Kenwood, which was eventually sold as part of the divorce settlement.
Soon after arriving in Montagu Square John and Yoko asked Apple assistant Tony Bramwell to come to the flat with a camera and go away before any pictures were taken. They then photographed themselves naked and put the pictures on the cover of their LP Unfinished Music Volume One, better known as Two Virgins.
Nudity on LP covers was certainly not common and when the Chairman of EMI, Sir Joseph Lockwood, was shown the photos, he was horrified. John and Yoko were summoned to explain themselves. When John was asked about his motives, he said it was artistic – shocking people was an art form. At this Sir Joe got really angry, he said to John, ‘If you were doing this for art you could at least put some better looking bodies on the cover – why not get Paul to do it – or use statues from a park!’
Time Out later lampooned the Two Virgin’s cover picture and drugs bust on one of their famous covers. Over John’s ‘private parts’ is a sticker that says ‘Member of the British Empire’ – the name of the medal the Beatles were given a few years earlier. Coming out of John’s mouth is a speech balloon that says ‘It’s no good officer – it won’t stand up in court!’
A few weeks later the apartment was raided by the police and John and Yoko were arrested for possession of cannabis. Apparently John received a telephone call from a journalist friend to tell him the police were going to come, so he called his old friend Pete Shotton to help him clear the apartment of anything incriminating.
The police still found some cannabis in the apartment. John later said the drugs could have been planted by the police – in fact the leader of the police team Sgt Norman Pilcher was later arrested himself for perverting the course of justice. It was also very suspicious that a press photographer was present to take a picture of John being led out of his flat by the police.
At the time Yoko was heavily pregnant with John’s child. However, in November 1968 Yoko was rushed from the apartment to hospital where she suffered a painful miscarriage.
John decided to plead guilty to the drugs charge to keep Yoko off the charge, as she could have been deported if found guilty of drugs possession. Also the police said they would drop the obstruction charges. John was only fined about £100 and thought it was the end of the matter but, when John and Yoko moved to America in 1971 the conviction came back to haunt him. He wanted to stay in the States, but the Immigration Service tried to deport him because of
Later it emerged that the Nixon administration were illegally trying to get John out of the country, as John was campaigning against the Vietnam war. John’s fight to stay in America lasted for four years until he was finally given his Green Card in 1976.
Regretably, after John’s conviction Ringo was forced by the landlords to sell the apartment, so ending the Beatles’ brief but extremely eventful time here.
In October 2010 Yoko Ono unveiled an English Heritage Blue Plaque to John Lennon at 34 Montagu Square. I was lucky enough to be invited to the unveiling. Hundreds of fans gathered to hear Yoko make a short speech, along with Beatles biographer Hunter Davies, and members of English Heritage, who sponsor the plaques.
The day before the unveiling, I was lucky enough to go into the apartment, and was interviewed about the history of the apartment for a DVD.
Blogger Richard Porter is a professional Beatles tour guide in London and owns the Beatles Coffee Shop. For more details of his tours, see http://www.beatlesinlondon.com
The article is adapted from Richard’s book ‘Guide to the Beatles’ London’ which is available from http://www.beatlescoffeeshop.com/shop/product.php/2/guide_to_the_beatles_london__guide_book_by_richard_porter