Lost in Liverpool, Birthplace of the Beatles

By Kevin Gibson

Walking into the rebuilt Cavern Club for the first time is an incredible feeling for a Beatles fanatic. During the day, Beatles songs are piped in, creating a warm and nostalgic atmosphere inside the basement club on Mathew Street in Liverpool, England.

Photo of Mathew Street at night
Photo By Sara Kraft
Mathew Street at night

Locals sit and talk, sipping pints of Guinness or Carlsberg and tourists come and go taking photographs on what is actually a dead-ringer for what is often called the world’s most famous stage.

The Cavern Club was closed and later mostly demolished many years ago as part of a city infrastructure project. The current Cavern is a replica made to spec from the original, with roughly 70 percent of the original materials and taking up 75 percent of the space occupied by the original club. Cynics argue that it isn’t really the Cavern Club – purists argue it’s the closest thing we’ve got. Me, I’m somewhere in between.

Whatever the case, on or very close to that site is where rock music as we know it truly came to life and being there is a feeling walking in, on and around that spot that would be impossible to convey in the written word.

It was the first stop my friends Rob and Sara and I made when we arrived in Liverpool on March 8. You might call our trip a pilgrimage as much as a vacation – most people choose sunny beaches or spacious mountains for their getaways. We chose a rainy English port city.

Photo of Phil, center, warns Rob,
Photo By Kevin Gibson
Phil, center, warns Rob, "Mind your head" as he walks into the Casbah Club with Sara close behind.

We weren’t disappointed, however. We took the obligatory tour and saw the houses where the boys lived back in their early days. We saw John’s house and saw where his mother was tragically struck and killed by a car driven by an off-duty police officer. We saw the gate at Strawberry Field, drove down Penny Lane and toured the Beatles Story museum.

But the best time we spent in Liverpool was spent soaking up the surroundings in places not quite as obvious.

Photo of The house Pete Best's mother bought on her horse race winnings. Note the Casbah Club sign on the front of the house.
Photo By Sara Kraft
The house Pete Best's mother bought on her horse race winnings. Note the Casbah Club sign on the front of the house.

For instance, casual Beatles fans may know about the Cavern Club, but may not know that the Jacaranda is commonly considered the place where the band first played regularly. The band’s first manager, Allan Williams, owned the then-coffee club and booked his group featuring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Stuart Sutcliffe to play downstairs. It was at the Jacaranda that Pete Best got his audition prior to the band leaving for its first stint in Hamburg, where it would cut its teeth and become one of the greatest rock bands in history. Williams would later happily hand over the band to the management of Brian Epstein, telling the former that the Beatles were “nothing but trouble.”

Photo of Pilgrims Kevin and Rob in front of the Jacaranda.
Photo By Sara Kraft
Pilgrims Kevin and Rob in front of the Jacaranda.

There’s still a mural John Lennon painted on the wall in the Jac (yeah, we went there enough times and drank enough pints to call it by its nickname) and when we walked in for the first time unsure of where to look and for what, the bartender was more than happy to help. We asked where the band used to play, where Pete had been auditioned.

“Right over there, mates,” he said, pointing to a corner spot where a table now sits, before drawing us a couple of pints.

Photo of Shades of 1962: A packed Cavern Club on Thursday, March 9, as local tribute band the Mersey Beatles play.
Photo By Sara Kraft
Shades of 1962: A packed Cavern Club on Thursday, March 9, as local tribute band the Mersey Beatles play.

Actually, Liverpudlians, for the most part, are happy to talk about the Fab Four and what they mean to the city. One of our friendly taxi drivers noted that he’d seen the band several times at the Cavern and still had his Cavern Club membership card (you had to have a card to get in back in those days). Another driver told us that his parents met there.

We followed the trail to the Grapes, where the Beatles used to get drunk after shows they played at the Cavern Club. (The Cavern sold only coffee and soft drinks in the early 1960s.) The Grapes still sits there, waiting for locals and tourists alike, serving cool pints and hot meals to all comers. One can almost envision John and Paul sitting near the entrance to the women’s toilets, where they positioned themselves so that they could make lewd remarks to the girls coming and going.

Photo of The sign marking Penny Lane (which has been stolen countless times over the years).
Photo By Sara Kraft
The sign marking Penny Lane (which has been stolen countless times over the years).

We sought out the Philharmonic Pub on Hope Street, where John and Cynthia Lennon (and presumably Stuart Sutcliffe and other band members) used to go to relax and have a pint or two. Or 12. Lennon is quoted as saying the price of fame was “not being able to have a pint in the Phil.” (Unfortunately, we never did make it to Ye Cracke, another favorite spot of the band that is purportedly just a few blocks from the Phil.)

But perhaps the best move we made was to book a tour of the Casbah Coffee Club. For casual Beatles fans, the Casbah is probably a footnote; for hardcore Beatles geeks such as my friends and me, it’s potentially more of a Mecca than the Cavern.

Photo of The drums used by the Quarry Men on the day John Lennon and Paul McCartney met in 1957.
Photo By Kevin Gibson
The drums used by the Quarry Men on the day John Lennon and Paul McCartney met in 1957.

Best’s mother, Mona, bought the big house at 8 Haymans Green – which is far outside the City Centre, by the way – after hitting it big on a horse race. She wanted to turn the basement into a place where her son and his friends John, Paul and George could relax, play and entertain their friends, but her husband was against the idea. When she won on the race, she bought the house anyway.

The Beatles then proceeded to help her fix up the new “club” by painting murals on the ceilings and walls and generally helping get the place ready.

Photo of Kevin Gibson sitting on the stage at the Cavern Club
Photo By Laura Roberts
Kevin Gibson sitting on the stage at the Cavern Club

When we arrived by taxi to 8 Haymans Green, a fellow named Phil greeted us at the gates. He introduced himself and Rob and I immediately recognized him. After a few seconds we realized he was Phil Melia, a guitarist in Pete Best’s new band – which Rob and I had seen play in Bloomington, Indiana, last May.

I had assumed there would be a number of people going on this “tour,” but instead it was just us – me, Rob, Sara and Phil. The Casbah Coffee Club signs still adorn the house in front and at the side and the entrance to the club is at the back of the house. Phil led us in and none of us was expecting the Casbah to be as preserved as it actually is. But it was.

Just inside is the original ticket counter where Mona used to check club passes (yes, just like at the Cavern). Inside the first room, with the ceiling painted in mosaic designs by John (Mona vetoed the original pot-bellied pigs John painted there), was an impressive display of photos, posters, business cards, flyers and more from the early 1960s. Pete’s immigration papers from trips to Hamburg were included and soon Phil directed us to a spot on the wall where John had carved his first name. Phil told us that John’s action drew a smack on the back of the head by Mona – she didn’t want anyone messing with the walls.

Photo of The Grapes, where the Beatles used to drink after shows at the Cavern. It's just down Mathew Street and across the cobbled road, about a block and a half away
Photo By Sara Kraft
The Grapes, where the Beatles used to drink after shows at the Cavern. It's just down Mathew Street and across the cobbled road, about a block and a half away

The next stop was the original “stage,” which is actually a small room off to the right that is no bigger than a walk-in closet. The famous photo of Paul taken on the opening night of the Cavern was taken in this small area and the photo doesn’t quite do justice to just how small it is. Apparently, their friends would sit on benches next to the musicians and gather in the doorway and listen.

As time went by, however, the crowds grew and the stage was switched to the very back of the basement club, where Pete had painted a huge spider web mural. In the club’s heyday, there were 1,500 or more members and crowds got as big as 700 people per night. As these facts were given to us, we could scarcely imagine that many people in the small, shallow basement. It’s the kind of thing a fire marshal would never allow today.

But the “spider” stage is still there just as it was. Phil admitted that the paint had been touched up, but for the most part it is all still just as it was – pretty much untouched in the years following the club’s closing.

Another item of interest we saw (and couldn’t photograph – no photography allowed inside, unfortunately) was an old phonograph and radio combo. Phil casually told us that the radio was what the boys were listening to when they first heard one of their songs (presumably “My Bonnie,” recorded with Tony Sheridan) on the radio. He said the requisite celebration followed, right there in that basement club. Amazing.

A piano sat near one wall, as well and Phil noted that it was the original piano placed there for the bands, including the Beatles, to use. There’s a very old photo of Paul sitting on it, looking cooler than cool. The piano has since been converted to a wet bar (thanks to one of Pete’s uncles), but it’s there just the same.

Phil also took us into the house and showed us the studio where the Pete Best Band is currently working on an album of original songs in between tours. We talked about Pete’s being famously kicked out of the band on the recommendation of producer George Martin once the band signed to Capitol Records in 1962; this opened the door to Ringo Starr joining the Beatles just before they shot to stardom.

Phil noted that Paul had especially wanted Pete out of the band prior to the record contract. Another fact many don’t know is that Pete was the good-looking Beatle – many of the young female fans crowded into the Cavern and the Casbah specifically to see Pete Best and according to Phil, Paul sought the spotlight.

“They came to fisticuffs on several occasions,” our guide said.

The best thing we learned, however, is that any bitterness Pete Best may have had toward the other Beatles has long since passed. He is a retired government worker for the city of Liverpool and still lives there. Thanks to becoming a multi-millionaire with the release of Beatles Anthology back in the mid-1990s (10 tracks on the first installment featured Pete’s drumming), he was able to retire early and buy a new house.

Now, he and his band – which is quite an outfit to behold on stage, by the way – spend their time touring and recording music and Pete and Phil are also set to release a DVD about the life of Pete Best.

Perhaps Pete Best never found fame, even though he had several bands following being ousted from the most famous rock band ever and even had a recording contract in the mid-1960s. But one thing he can say that the other Beatles can’t: He can have a pint at the Phil anytime he wants.