In Autumn 2004 I was asked by The Word to trace the rise of Beatle tourism in Liverpool. it’s surely one of the bigger stories of the city in recent years. I took one of the new VLM flights from London City Airport (which were, alas, discontinued not long afterwards – underlining, I suppose, what a fragile recovery this really is). Still, the Beatle Story exhibition at the Albert Dock was definitely encouraging. Liverpool will need more than tourist dollars to restore its economic base, but the Beatles’ legacy is a huge asset, belatedly embraced.
Arriving in Liverpool is now a much more glamorous affair than it used to be. The new VLM flights from London waft you across the Mersey Estuary to the sleek John Lennon Airport (motto: ‘Above Us Only Sky’). Around the spacious terminal are placards of gratitude to the EU, whose munificence pays for a lot of things in Liverpool; here too are those squiggly portraits that Lennon drew of himself. Is he smiling gnomically behind his granny glasses? Probably. Lennon’s shiny airport sits provocatively in McCartney’s ancestral territory of Speke.
Before you leave you are unlikely not to notice that Liverpool is the birthplace of The Beatles. The city trades on their memory quite shamelessly. It took years for the penny to drop, but the city’s old indifference to its most famous sons has gone. In its place there is Beatle Tourism, which it’s hoped will help to compensate for all the economic life that drained away from the Mersey in post war years.
At least the trading is skllfully done these days. For a while it was confined to a sculpture above the entrance to Eric’s punk club in Mathew Street (the Cavern itself, a few yards away, had been needlessly demolished) which bore the legend ‘Four Lads Who Shook The World’. In nearby pubs, red-nosed gents of advanced years accepted drinks in return for anecdotes about the boys they knew, loved, and taught to play ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’.
The professionals have taken over now. The Cavern has been rebuilt, an eerily exact replica just inches from its original position. Only the stench of toilets and bad hamburgers has gone. Shops, conferences and tour buses cater for Beatle-smitten pilgrims from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The Cavern’s owners have been plotting a themed hotel next door – to be called, of course, A Hard Day’s Night.
The big news of the moment, though, is a re-vamped Beatles Story museum in the Albert Dock. Its director Jerry Goldman sits with me at a smart quayside café and we sip espressos where stevedores once toiled. ‘You look at these wonderful buildings,’ he says, gesturing to the waterfront and the two cathedrals, ‘and you think, Why shouldn’t this be a world class tourist destination?’ His museum is certainly a world class Beatle archive, displaying stage costumes, instruments and more in awesome settings that range from submarine interiors to cobbled ’50s streets. The re-vamp stars an audio guide narrated by Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird, devised by a company who did similar jobs for Alcatraz Prison and the Tower of London.
‘John’s people, and Paul himself, and Apple, each have their own ideas about Beatle history,’ says Goldman, ‘and I have to be aware of that. But Julia’s involvement opened a lot of doors.’ Her recorded talk includes conversations with McCartney and Cynthia Lennon. And Brian Epstein’s family presented a rare tape of the manager reminiscing in his strangely impeccable tones: ‘So I took a keb to Manchester Squarr‘ .
Goldman was in part inspired by the authorities in Memphis, Tennessee, who’ve used their musical heritage to great effect, evidenced by the recent hoop-la celebrating 50 years since Elvis Presley’s debut at the Sun Studio. ‘I was struck by the two cities’ linked history, via the cotton trade and so on,’ he explains. ‘but I was really impressed by the way they’ve transformed its tourist status. Until recently Memphis was widely known as the place where Martin Luther King was killed. Now it’s the town where rock’n’roll was born.’
Both Goldman and the Cavern’s owners are behind a plan to get Memphis twinned with Liverpool: the home of Elvis and the home of The Beatles. Ever since Liverpool was picked to be the European Capital of Culture in 2008, it’s the kind of idea that civic bodies are coming round to – a far cry from the times when they sent bulldozers down Mathew Street. The only danger is that the Fabs are allowed to crowd out every other Scouse achievement. A local artist, Fred O’Brien, hopes to put up a plaque at the site of Cavern neighbour Eric’s, the venue that spawned Echo & The Bunnymen, Julian Cope, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and more. ‘Books are fine,’ says O’Brien, ‘but a public, permanent marker is, I reckon, what’s needed. We all croak eventually.’