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Eight days a week in Liverpool
Here's your ticket to ride back to The Fab Four's glory days
A field guide to the heartbeat pop music capital of the world might read like this:
In an industrial city in the British midlands some young men meet by chance on a school bus, talk about their mutual love of music, form a band, hone their craft at a local club, take the world by storm and change the history of popular music.
It’s a story familiar to every fan of The Beatles. It’s also a tale deeply baked into present day Liverpool, a port city that has weathered hard times in the past but is repackaging itself as ground zero for Beatles fans. One of the best ways to become immersed in that musical past is by climbing aboard the hallucinogenic Magical Mystery Tour bus (cavernclub.org/the-magical-mystery-tour; £17 per person), one of the city’s Beatles-themed tours, for a trip down Penny Lane.
“It’s without a shadow of a doubt the most important house in rock ’n’ roll history,” says tour guide Neil Brannan, nodding toward the reddish brick terrace house at 20 Forthlin Road. It’s a modest home with utilitarian trim and a small front yard. There’s little hint that anything of historical note ever happened inside. The giveaway is the steady stream of the faithful who come on foot, by van and on tour busses to stand outside and gaze respectfully at what has become a shine.
“This is the home Paul McCartney moved into in 1955 and it’s where he was living when he met John Lennon,” explains Brannan. “Paul’s father was a musician himself and he encouraged the lads to come to the house to rehearse. More than 100 songs were written here — the majority in the bathroom, where the acoustics were better.”
McCartney spent his formative teenage years living on Forthlin Road, a decade during which the world’s most famous song-writing duo penned hits that defined a generation, including From Me To You, I Saw Her Standing There, I’ll Follow the Sun and their debut single Love Me Do. It was here that 14-year-old McCartney wrote When I’m Sixty Four. The house is now a protected National Trust site and Beatles aficionados can take an inside look at rooms frozen in time circa 1960 or just soak in the greatness vibe from the sidewalk.
Much of what made it to the page and mesmerized listeners was actually the mundane detail of the songwriters’ daily lives. “Paul and George were both at the Liverpool Institute; they’d travel from home on a bus, change buses here and then travel by bus into the city,” Brannan tells his riders at an intersection in the same neighbourhood as the small roadway, Penny Lane.
“The song Penny Lane was written about what was going round while waiting for a bus to school. What is now Sgt. Peppers Bistro in the middle of the roundabout was formerly the bus- and tram-waiting shelter where those pretty nurses sold poppies from a tray. What is now the Penny Lane Surgery was the bank on the corner where the banker never wore a mac in the pouring rain… very strange.”
The bus also stops at the boyhood home of John Lennon where he lived with his beloved Aunt Mimi. “When the band came around to rehearse they weren’t allowed in the house with the guitars,” claims Brannan. “They were only allowed on the porch because Mimi insisted ‘the guitar’s all very well and good, John, but you’ll never make a living at it’.”
It was the sound of a brass band emanating from nearby Strawberry Field — a Salvation Army Children’s Home — that caught the attention of preschool-age John Lennon, who could hear the music coming from over the garden wall. According to popular legend, it was these tunes that planted a love of music in the lad.
The Magical Mystery Tour pulls up to the brightly-painted Strawberry Field front gates, another spot where the faithful pause to remember the tunes of the 1960s. The original century-old, wrought-iron gates were removed by the city for safekeeping, replaced by handcrafted replicas able to stand up to the wear and tear of thousands of musical pilgrims. Lennon’s childhood memories were, immortalized in the band’s song Strawberry Fields Forever.
Egg and veggies play
The Cavern Club (10 Mathew Street; cavernclub.org) in the heart of working-class Liverpool is arguably the most famous bar of the 20th century. Fans still line up for performances of The Beatles tribute band, but mainly they come on a pilgrimage to what is the place where the band’s gig history began. At the time the group first started to play there, the club was in the basement of a fruit and vegetable warehouse packed to the rafters with crates of eggs and veggies. It opened its doors as the Cavern in early 1957 and within a very short space of time had transitioned through several music styles of the day — jazz and skiffle — before settling into rock ’n’ roll.
“Anyone who’s anyone in rock ’n’ roll played the Cavern over the years,” says Brannan. “The reason it became synonymous with The Beatles rather than any other band is because of how many times they played there. From the first Cavern gig as The Beatles in February 1961 to their last gig in August 1963, The Beatles performed at the Cavern a staggering 292 times.”
What would history be without a proper museum? The Beatles Story (Britannia Vaults, Albert Dock, Liverpool; beatlesstory.com; adults £15) situated in a renovated warehouse at the historic Albert Dock, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the waterfront, is just such a place. And for fans, it’s a treasure trove of Beatles memorabilia: George Harrison’s first guitar; props from the original Casbah Coffee Club; a reconstruction of the famous Abbey Road Studio including the original tape deck used for recording through the 1960s; Lennon’s eyeglasses; and archival photos and video footage including their arrival in America and their famous stint on the Ed Sullivan Show.
It was a sad day for Beatles fans when the group formally disbanded on April 10, 1970. A lucky few, including thousands of office workers on their lunch break, had been on hand on the street in central London for the band’s last performance on January 30, 1969 on the roof of the five-storey Apple headquarters at 3 Savile Row. The 42-minute concert ended with John Lennon quipping, “I’d like to say thank you. I hope we passed the audition.”
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