As anyone involved with music in Liverpool since about 1975 has been keen to point out, there is a lot more to Liverpool culture than the four lads who shook the world. Even so, there’s still a great deal of pride that the single most important band in British popular music came from round ‘ere la. And of course, many, many people come to visit the city because of this, to see Where It All Began™, and this usually means a trip down to Matthew Street to see The Cavern.
But that’s not where it all began. The Cavern was a dingy dive The Beatles only played because they could get booked. It was only one of DOZENS of venues from Church halls to Ballrooms they played throughout the North-West. And by the time of their Cavern residency they’d already been to Hamburg and changed immeasurably from their native origins.
And this is quite apart from the fact that the place that currently calls itself The Cavern it’s even the real Cavern anymore. The original club was demolished in 1973 to make way for an extension to the city’s underground railway and the present building is a 1980s copy built to cash in.
To really understand what The Beatles were all about you’d also have get to Hamburg too, and India, New York and virtually everywhere else and perhaps especially to a small town in Denmark where this writer once spoke to an old man in a pub who, on hearing where I came from, said: “I remember hearing The Beatles for the first time when I was 15, everything changed after that. Everything”
But yeah, the ‘pool is where it all kicked off at least, but not in Matthew Street. If anything was born in that back alley near the business district it was Liverpool’s new wave music explosion in the 1970s and 1980s.
Along with The Cavern, Matthew Street was home to one of the first real punk clubs, Eric’s, where Joy Division, The Clash, Sex Pistols, Devo, XTC, Blondie and countless others played and even more were formed, with Echo and the Bunnymen, OMD, The Teardrop Explodes and The Icicle Works all emerging from its darkened corners, while nearby was the original Probe Records (Now Ted Baker) where the infamous Pete Burns once flogged vinyl in pre ‘You Spin Me Round’ days. Sadly, with drug and money problems this little enterprise was slammed shut by the police in 1980.
However, its brilliant yet short-lived combination of an independent club, record label and fanzine would be of great inspiration to a certain Anthony H. Wilson and friends at the other end of the East Lancashire Road. Yet its memory has largely been buried by a ’boutique’ shopping centre and a vast array of ‘McCartney’s Place’ type bars. Worth visiting still though, just to ponder how the celebration of one great history can so easily lead to the forgetting of another.
If you really want to see Where It All Began™ Beatleswise in Liverpool, then get the bus out of town to the suburbs in the south of the city, where most of them grew up, the home of Penny Lane and the recently-closed Strawberry Field Salvation Army Home. Like most of the people who travel from Havana and Tokyo and Cincinnati and God-knows where else to see the high street and the roads that run off it, filled with pleasant 1930s semi-detached houses, you’ll probably comment, “There’s nothing special about it is there?”
Indeed, apart from a good branch of Oxfam and a Beatles-themed cafe in an old public convenience, Penny Lane and its environs is just a middling, leafy suburb. No difference between it and any other in Liverpool, no different to any other in England in fact other than having the sort of quirky names that would appeal to a songwriter.
But before you ride the bus back into town, look across the road to the Emo kid with the silly haircut and the miserable demur and Americanised clothes holding a guitar case and waiting for the bus to take him to college in town to do his A-Levels, which he’ll probably sack off and go a cool poky pub with his mates and have daft conversations about Hunter S. Thompson and The Mighty Boosh and the latest sounds to the amusement of the locals and there, you’ll be looking at where The Beatles came from. Suburban teenage angst and the desire for the perceived glamour, freedom, understanding and identity offered such kids by rock music.
And instead of an Emo kid imagine the pretentious, witty, troubled, genius, lower middle class working class hero that was John Winston Lennon with a moody look and an odd haircut and his Americanised clothes and guitar case thinking similar thoughts and dreaming of taking on the world while waiting for the bus to take him to the art school in town and thinking of sacking it off and go to a cool poky pub with his mates and have daft conversations about Allen Ginsberg and The Goons and the latest sounds to the amusement of the locals.
That is where it all began, and where it all still begins.
By Kenn Taylor