A pilgrimage to Liverpool to see the origins of the boys next door who became global icons
Many arrive here every day, buying tickets to the hop-on double-decker bus tours and visiting the spots associated with the band
Arriving in Liverpool, a port city filled with beautiful Victorian buildings built at a time of wealth, when ships brought in tobacco and rum and took back textiles, I feel as though I have reached ground zero. This is where the members of my favourite band were born, where they went to school and started their musical careers. This is the home of The Beatles, the greatest band in musical history, who wrote over 200 songs and released 13 albums and four films in just eight years.
Many like me arrive here every day, buying tickets to the hop-on double-decker bus tours and visiting the spots associated with the band. According to the Liverpool City Council, Beatles tourism brings in as much as £80 million (around ₹696 crore) a year.
One of the first places I visit is the Jacaranda Club on Slater Street. The coffee club that opened in the 1950s is steeped in Beatles history and is even today a rite of passage for young musicians. “Those days, it was a place with old-fashioned juke boxes and records, where young Liverpool students loved to hang out and listen to American music," says Ray Mia, the former Universal Music executive behind Jacaranda Records.
This was where John Lennon and his art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe used to hang out. They got permission from owner Allan Williams to perform here and use the basement as a rehearsal space. Their first manager, he took them in a van to perform in Hamburg in 1960. The colourful murals that Lennon and Sutcliffe had painted have been restored and visitors can see them on the walls along the staircase and in the basement.
Between the bars and pubs of Mathew Street, 10 minutes away, I find a statue of Lennon leaning casually against a wall. This is where the famous Cavern Club opened in 1957 as a jazz club in a dank and smoky cellar three floors below street level. The Beatles performed here 292 times, including the time they first played as a group called the Quarrymen. This was also where local record-store owner Brian Epstein first saw them perform in 1961. He became their manager—and the rest is history.
Though the club closed in 1973, it was reopened in 1984, lovingly reconstructed with the original bricks and plans, including the bricks on stage signed by 100 musicians from the 1960s. Today, it is a vibrant, busy place, with live music through the day and night. There’s an energy in the air as the crowd sings along to a Beatles tribute band playing Hey Jude.
Around the corner is the Hard Day’s Night Hotel, a Beatles-themed property with statues of the band members on its façade, their music playing in the lobby around the clock, and rooms decorated with a selection of original Beatles artwork. The special Lennon suite has a white piano, and the bar serves drinks named “Honey can’t buy me love".
The next day, I take a Beatles tour with guide Paul Beesley, who tells stories from The Beatles’ childhood, including the fact that both Lennon and Paul McCartney lost their mothers at a young age.
The first stop is Penny Lane, a leafy street that The Beatles, especially McCartney, passed every day on their way to school. As I pose for a photograph, Beesley says that for years the street signs were stolen as souvenirs, until the council decided to simply paint the sign on the wall. He shows me the barber shop, “the shelter in the middle of a roundabout", and the bank building, all mentioned in the famous song about the street.
We stop next at the iconic red iron gates and Beatles graffiti-covered wall of Strawberry Fields, an orphanage from 1936-2005, owned by the Salvation Army. Lennon, who lived close by with his aunt Mimi, often scaled the walls into the property. The song the place inspired has a nostalgic, dreamy ring to it. After being abandoned for over a decade, the site is set to open in September with a visitor centre, a chance to walk through the gardens and woods, as well as a vocational centre for learning-challenged youngsters.
Close by in Woolton is the St Peter’s Church where McCartney first heard Lennon and his friends playing music at a school fete. That moment signalled the start of the greatest songwriting partnership. As I wander through the church grounds, I discover a grave to an Eleanor Rigby—a scullery maid who died in 1939. Though there are different versions of who the Eleanor Rigby the song was named after really was, and McCartney claimed that he made her up, I like the fact that there is a gravestone with that name at a church frequented by The Beatles.
We stop at 251, Menlove Avenue, a semi-detached house in a quiet neighbourhood, with a small garden and blue plaque above the window. This is where Lennon lived with his aunt and uncle from 1946-63; it was later acquired by his wife, Yoko Ono, and donated to the National Trust. Close by is McCartney’s home, at 20, Forthlin Road, where The Beatles composed their earliest songs. The houses remind me of their middle-class origins, the boys next door who went on to become world icons.
The last stop on my pilgrimage in Liverpool is The Beatles Story, a new Beatles museum located within the red-pillared warehouses of Albert Docks. It plots the trajectory of The Beatles’ career, with Lennon’s White Room and even a replica of the Pan Am plane the group took to the US. It’s filled with Beatles memorabilia, from Lennon’s famous round spectacles to George Harrison’s first guitar, and has reconstructions of everything from the Cavern Club to Hessey’s Music Shop.
From the upper floor of the hop-on bus tour, I glimpse the larger-than-life statues of the Fab Four at Pier Head, near the ferries sailing on the Mersey river. They were installed in 2015 by the local Cavern Club to mark the 50th anniversary of the band’s last gig in Liverpool. The bus driver says, “There’s a Beatles song for everything in your life," and quips, “Almost everyone you meet here was an early Beatle!"
I wasn’t quite ready to let go, so I continued the trail back in London, where The Beatles lived and worked. Their scrawled lyric sheets are at the British Library and I see their guitars and suits at the Hard Rock Hotel, where I am staying. I take a tour with guide Anthony Robbins that starts in Soho, the centre of the swinging 1960s and a popular haunt of The Beatles. This was where McCartney met Linda, his future wife, at the club then called Bag o’Nails on Kingly Street. Close by is Old Compton Street, where the tailor called Millings & Son made the distinctive collarless suits that The Beatles were famous for. Anthony says fans used to gather outside the shop to see The Beatles coming to collect their clothes.
We pass the Prince of Wales theatre where The Beatles performed during the 1963 Royal Variety show, with Queen Elizabeth II in the audience, This was where, while performing Twist And Shout, Lennon famously asked people in the cheaper seats to clap their hands and the rest to rattle their jewellery, with the queen laughing and waving in response.
Our next stop is 20, Manchester Square, which used to be the address of EMI, the music company that took The Beatles international. The stairwell here was featured on the album cover of Please Please Me and when the company moved its offices to Hammersmith, the stairwell was dismantled and moved too. No.3 at Savile Row was the site of Apple Records, the label launched by The Beatles, and is today a branch of Abercrombie and Fitch. This is where the band had their last live rooftop performance in January 1969.
Finally, I visit Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood. “Bus drivers hate the album cover that has been causing traffic jams for years," Anthony says. I add my signature to the wall covered with messages and lyrics left by thousands of fans; it has to be repainted every two weeks to make place for new messages.
The studio, once owned by EMI, today belongs to Universal Music and still hosts top music acts. Before we leave, Anthony helps me recreate the famous cover of The Beatles album crossing the road. As I walk down the zebra crossing, the traffic stops, some cars honk, and Anthony clicks a photograph, freezing the moment forever.
Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai based freelance writer who writes on travel, architecture, art, culture and food.