A quick guide to some of Liverpool’s Merseybeat locations. This was written for a feature on local music scenes (other writers tackled east London/grime and Bristol/trip-hop), printed in The Observer, 27 April 2014.
The new Liverpool can boast its shiny waterfront towers but in their shadows are the ghosts of that scruffy old seaport where, in two years from 1963, the Merseybeat sound revolutionised pop music.
The Cavern, Mathew Street
In its original guise the Cavern was a 1950s jazz club that liked to pretend it was on the Paris Left Bank, and not beneath a dingy warehouse in Liverpool city centre. By 1962 the Beatles and their peers – including the Cavern cloakroom girl Cilla Black ¬– had made this sweaty cellar the Pentagon of Pop, inventing a sound that transformed rock across the world. Strangely it was demolished, in 1973, to build a railway ventilation shaft (which itself was duly cancelled). But in those days nobody saw pop culture as a heritage opportunity. By the 1980s the Cavern was rebuilt on site, using the old bricks. Since then it’s been the centre of a swelling trade in music tourism, luring the pilgrims from every continent. Down here and in the partner pub across the street they can hear live music of all descriptions – and dodge the madding crowd of stags and hens who have made the neighbourhood a weekend Sodom and Gomorrah.
NEMS shop, Whitechapel
Brian Epstein was the gifted middle-class misfit who ran his family record business here. In 1961 he nervously crossed the street to the Cavern, found the Beatles and offered to steer their careers. Then he signed Cilla, Gerry & The Pacemakers and mop-topped combos by the hundredweight. At a time when “British rock music” was still an oxymoron, Epstein turned NEMS into a management phenomenon, the nucleus of a global pop takeover. The building where he created his showbiz empire was not an architectural masterpiece, and saw out its final years as an Ann Summers store. But real history had been made there. In 2012, careless Liverpool had the place demolished, deciding what the world really needed was another branch of the fashion chain Forever 21. When that’s gone, they’ll probably rebuild NEMS in replica.
The Everyman Bistro, Hope Street
Up the hill and above the clamour of central Scouseland is a tranquil, dignified thoroughfare named Hope Street, with a cathedral at either end and Georgian houses all around. An old chapel, the Hope Hall, became a cinema and then a pioneering theatre called the Everyman. Its basement rooms were the venue for beatnik “happenings” that featured the poet Roger McGough and Mike McCartney (Paul’s brother) in their band Scaffold, the painter Adrian Henri and a raft of boho drifters from the nearby colleges. The Everyman basement was the Cavern’s artier cousin and, renamed the Bistro, served generations of aspiring hipsters. The Everyman Theatre re-opened this year after a bold rebuild, and the downstairs Bistro is back in business – a little upmarket from the raffish dive it used to be, but still a good starting point for a trawl of Hope Street’s cultural treasures.
The White Star, Rainford Gardens
A tiny Victorian pub in the same maze of warehouse backstreets as the Cavern, the White Star makes a modest nod towards its Beatle history (the band drank here, as well as in the nearby Grapes). But the connections are downplayed to an extent that can leave some overseas visitors confounded. Beyond a Lennon plaque here and a Macca pic there, it’s basically the same Scouse alehouse it was when beat groups came to divvy up their share of the takings. Pubs like this were the natural HQ for hustlers without an office to their name, and Guinness might keep the dreams alive when it felt like yours was the only band who hadn’t clambered aboard that London-bound train. Nowadays the re-branded “Cavern Quarter” looks like a Fab Four theme park. But inside the White Star, on rainy Northern nights amid the gilded fittings and the shipping line memorabilia, ancient mariners and wizened bass guitarists still detain the traveller. “The Beatles were rubbish after they left Liverpool,’ says one. “They were OK,” says another, “but I always had more fun on shore leave in Valparaiso.”