I was a Beatles fan from a very early age. I remember coming home from school one day and putting the TV on, which I did every day in the hope that there’d be something on other than Peyton Place, to see a black and white film of four lads running around a park in madcap fast motion. My mother told me they were the Beatles, and I was immediately hooked. I only realised fairly recently that the film hadn’t been ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, but in fact the Dave Clarke Five film ‘Catch Us If You Can’. It doesn’t matter though – I thought they were the Beatles, and thus began a lifelong obsession. My parents had a few of their singles – Can’t Buy Me Love, Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever, and I Want To Hold Your Hand, if I remember correctly – which I would play over and over on our Dansette. I think they were more my mother’s than my father’s though – his music was more military bands, and male voice choirs. When I was seven or so, they bought me Sgt Pepper for Christmas, which I played so much the Dansette actually blew up. That would have been only a year or so after it came out. Pretty much the first grown-up book I read was Hunter Davies’ 1968 Authorised Biography, which mum borrowed from the library, and which I devoured avidly, over and over again. From this I learned the ‘facts’ not only about their stardom, but more importantly about their early lives, who they were, and how they had become the Beatles, from the beginnings of the Quarrymen at Woolton Church Fete, to painting sets for the May 1960 Gene Vincent gig at Liverpool Stadium because they weren’t considered good enough to play, to their time in Hamburg, and their endless gigging at tiny pubs and clubs like the Iron Door, the Morgue Club, the Casbah Club, and of course the Cavern.
However, in the fifty odd years since first discovering the Beatles, I have never once been to Liverpool to see all these sights, or in a lot of cases, what remains of them. The only time I went was a trip from Manchester Poly where I was studying to the 1984 Liverpool Garden Festival, but that was nowhere near anything Beatles. I spent six years in total in Manchester, but never once made the journey, mostly because I had no car, or money for the train.
However, our daughter moved to Liverpool last year, and ever since I’ve been itching to get up there to see her, and drag her round the sights. And today, I finally managed to do just that.
I have absolutely no interest in the official tourism stuff – the Beatles Story, and other assorted museums. I was going to venture down into the fake Cavern Club, just to get a flavour of what the original must have been like (minus the smell of stale beer, fags, cleaning fluids and piss), but as it happened Paul McCartney had decided to choose this day to play only his second gig at the Cavern since the Beatles last played there in ’63, so you couldn’t get in, or even get close to the place. I had had other plans for my first Beatle location, but I felt I ought to go to Mathew Street, just to get a photo of the crowds.
Not quite up to 1960s standards though…
However, now I was on Mathew Street, it seemed silly not to go into its other landmark, The Grapes, which seemed refreshingly unchanged, albeit with a liberal smattering of memorabilia.
In the Merseybeat days, the Cavern didn’t serve alcohol, only coffee, so the bands, and their fans, would repair to the nearby Grapes to get a drink before and after their sets. It was one of the Beatles’ favourite pubs, as this early photo attests:
This booth has been well-preserved, wallpaper and everything, and just in case you were in any doubt, there is a plaque next to it saying that this is where the photo was taken.
Well, it had to be done…
The beers, sadly, belonged to my daughter and her boyfriend. It seemed almost sacrilegious to drink anything non-alcoholic where (left to right in the photo) Paul, Pete, George and John had once sat, but it seems not even the Beatles can force me off the wagon.
But talking of Pete, Pete Best that is, the Beatles drummer from 1960 – 1962 (when, as no doubt as yet undiscovered Amazonian tribesmen probably know, he was ingloriously sacked from the band), it was time to set off on a bit of rather less traditional Beatles tourism. The Casbah Club.
Where, you say? The Casbah was the embryonic Beatles’ first regular gig. It was a coffee and rock and roll club set up by Pete’s mother Mona in the basement of her large Victorian villa in West Derby, inspired by a TV programme on the 2 i’s coffee bar in Soho, where the likes of Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard were discovered. How she thought she could recreate something so iconic in a well-to-do Liverpool suburb is anyone’s guess, but she did, and it was a huge success, probably because teenagers in the late fifties were so desperate for rock and roll they’d travel any distance for it.
It opened on August 29th 1959, and the first group to be booked to play were the rather un-rock and roll-named Les Stewart Quartet, who happened to have a sixteen year-old George Harrison on guitar. However, the group had an argument, and cancelled the gig, allowing George to persuade Mona to let his other band, the Quarrymen, play the gig. She agreed, but before they could play, they had to help finish decorating the club. So John, Paul and George took up paint and brushes, and started painting the various ceilings. Paul painted rainbow colours on the ceiling of the tiny performance area…
While John and George painted stars on the ceiling of the bar area…
The silhouette on the wall is of John, copied from a photograph by Paul’s brother Mike, and painted by Cynthia Powell, John’s art school friend and later wife. The tour guide told us that these ceilings have been valued at three million pounds.
So the Quarrymen played the gig, for fifteen shillings each. They had not been playing very long, and were only just getting any good – it would be another eighteen months before they played the Cavern after their return from their first Hamburg trip. The iconic photo of one of their performances takes on new significance when you finally see for yourself how small the space really was:
Later, Mona opened up one of the other basement rooms to make a bigger stage:
Mona died in 1988, and the house is now owned by Mona’s three sons, Pete and Rory, and ‘Roag’, her son by then Beatle driver and future head of Apple Neil Aspinall. The club was opened to the public in 1999, and is now Grade II listed, and has been given a plaque by English Heritage.
I’ve known about this club for almost fifty years, and have imagined those nights so many times, but to finally see it in the flesh was extraordinary. It is so unretouched, and original down to the last shabby detail, but because of that it has so much more atmosphere than the recreated Cavern Club could ever have. These walls have dripped the sweat of thousands of young fans, and of dozens, possibly hundreds of groups, and while the whole experience was a little sad – not just given Pete’s later betrayal by the band, and that the place was very much not a pristine five star tourist venue, but also because the tour was just the guide, myself and my daughter – it was almost more awestriking for it. There were no crowds of tourists here, for most of them don’t even know the place exists, even less it’s importance in music history, which is even sadder, but for me, this made the whole experience so much more of a personal journey. They didn’t know about the Casbah Club, but I did – I had found the house on the internet, and then found it for real. It had a sign at the gate, so we knew we were in the right place, but really weren’t sure what to do next. In the end, we hesitantly opened its metal gates, and found a home-made sign saying ‘all visitors’ nailed to a tree, next to a roughly scattered collection of white plastic lawn chairs, where we sat, waiting for the live-in tour guide to remember we were coming, which he hadn’t. I had to phone the number on the website, presumably Roag’s mobile number, who then phoned the tour guide, who eventually came out and apologised, and we were shown in with all the ceremony of an agent showing prospective tenants into a bedsit.
But this low key beginning to the experience was almost a relief – I didn’t want the showbiz trappings of the rest of the Beatles tourism industry, I wanted originality, and I got it. The tour guide knew his stuff, certainly, but in the hour it took to show us round a space barely bigger than an average flat, he didn’t tell me much that I didn’t already know.
But that wasn’t why I was there. I was there to walk in the footsteps of giants.