Jacques Volcouve was a schoolboy fan of Jimi Hendrix in 1967 when his brother’s friend lent him a new album by a British band and urged him to listen to it.
The album was the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Volcouve loved it. It was the start of a 50-year obsession that has made the Frenchman one of the world’s greatest living experts on the Fab Four.
“The Beatlemania bug bit me and I was never cured of it,” Volcouve told the Observer.
“I listened to the album and I thought the music was incredible. From then on, I wanted everything to do with the Beatles: records; newspaper clips, posters, memorabilia … everything.”
In March, Volcouve, now in his 60s, will see his collection of 15,000 records, signed books, posters, autographs, figurines and memorabilia go on sale at the prestigious Drouot auction house in Paris.
To mark the occasion, the French tribute band We Love You Paul has been invited to play during the pre-sale exhibition of the thousands of lots.
For Volcouve, the sale will be a bittersweet occasion. He hopes that parting with what has turned out to be his life’s work will raise enough money to keep him in a comfortable retirement.
His career as France’s foremost “Beatles historian” began in the early 1970s, after he kept calling a French radio station to point out errors in a BBC series about the Beatles that they were airing, and was invited into the studio.
“What I wanted … was to share my pleasure and passion for the Beatles and in some way make sure that everything said about them was correct,” he said.
“I took in some of the recordings I had and the radio station had its archives, and we added material to the BBC series [The Beatles Story] so that the 12 hours that was broadcast in the UK became 18 hours of material in France. It was so successful that it was re-broadcast twice in the same year.
“From then on, I was introduced to everyone as the Beatles specialist.”
Even though the band had split up in 1970, Volcouve carried on collecting and promoting their “cultural importance” over the years while following the solo careers of the four members.
He founded the Club des 4 de Liverpool, an association that acted as unofficial press agency for the band in France and drew 1,500 members. He also published a magazine, which ran until 1984, and wrote nine books on the band.
Volcouve eventually met Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr in person, but never managed to meet John Lennon, although he said he had met the singer’s widow, Yoko Ono.
“The Beatles were a cultural renaissance. In my view, everything we have today in the way of artistic culture goes back to them,” Volcouve said. “For me personally, their importance is that while other musicians gave people pleasure, the Beatles gave people happiness.”
Nevertheless, his obsession with the British band has cost him dear, said Volcouve, who has had no formal “career” and now lacks an income or pension.
When his parents died six years ago he was forced to move out of the rented family home and find a smaller flat. That also meant packing up his huge Beatles collection and putting it into storage.
“I don’t want to sound bitter but I gave my life to them [the band] and I’ve never had any recognition or help, not even a free ticket to a concert,” said Volcouve, his eyes filling with tears.
“For many years I was insufferable because all I talked about was the Beatles. I tried to find a professional job but in the end I was always the ‘Beatles historian’, and every time I had any money I spent it on Beatles stuff.
“Still, George [Harrison] told me in 1977 that if just one person appreciates your work then it hasn’t been a waste of time, and I know the things I have done over the last 40 years have been important to many people.”
“John wrote a song for Ringo that was never published about life beginning at 40. For me, life will begin at 60. I will go on loving the Beatles but the collection had become like an octopus whose tentacles were strangling me.
“I hope the sale will give me enough money to live on decently until I die, and my collection will have a new life with someone else,” Volcouve said.
The auction of his Beatles collection will be held at the Hotel Drouot on 18 March.
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