Within weeks we were in Liverpool and I was being paid to sift through my past and in effect research my own project too. We visited all the birthplaces of the Beatles and their songs; I deliberately drove past the house where I’d been raised in the next road to Paul; visited Quarry Men round the corner, Quarry Bank, Strawberry Fields, Eleanor Rigby’s grave; stood outside the barber shop in Penny Lane and “the shelter in the middle of the roundabout” while they recorded every detail.
Interviewing Pete Best in the Casbah was particularly evocative. Just going down the steps at the rear was like entering a time-warp; the club, the basement of a large Victorian House, consisted of several low-ceilinged small basement rooms, festooned with amateur artwork, some done by the Beatles. Black walls with silver stars, murals, spider's webs and other embellishments.
While Pete answered their questions, I sat in the background and was once again a skinny, sixteen-year-old Billy Fury look-alike, sitting in the heat and smoke haze trying very hard to look three years older, trying very hard to look cool, and failing on both counts.
The highlight for them was the Cavern Club and a Beatles tribute band. Mathew Street in the ’sixties was an unremarkable crooked canyon of a street with a mixture of decaying fruit warehouses and one pub. Today it is much a more commercial dedication to what had been for many a life-changing period and old warehouses had become shops and bars.
I explained how the present club was a reconstruction, virtually in the same space. Inside, the ceiling was vaulted, creating three main chambers, the middle of which contained a stage at one end, just big enough to accommodate five band members at a push. Allowing for an absence of more years than I cared to remember, it was a reasonable reconstruction, only with more room for bars! The original Cavern didn’t have a
license to serve alcohol, so serious drinkers would tank up at “The Grapes” pub across the road first.
Once the music was playing, and in the name of research we’d downed a few beers to get in the mood, they asked me to try and recreate the scene, what my first impressions were of seeing and hearing the group and how it all had affected my life.
To try to understand them as probably the best live band I’ve ever seen, and create the environment for “Love Me Do”, I suggested they forget most of the post ’63 songs that they knew. The Beatles did covers of early rock, blues & soul in a raw exciting way that I’d never heard before. I collected imported 45’s and their repertoire was everything I liked, each of them taking turns on vocals.
As they grew in confidence as writers, they introduced their own songs, songs about even the mundane things in life. Their message was there’s nothing you can’t write about!
The very first time I ever saw them, Lennon in particular had a stage presence that seemed to say, “I don’t give a shit; I’m not here for the money but because I choose to be”. As the excitement grew with each number, the place gradually became stifling hot and when the group took a break, people fought their way to the back for a hot dog and a coke and a trip to the really primitive toilets. The humidity was really uncomfortable, condensed sweat ran down the walls in rivulets and there was always a strange smell, a mixture of powerful disinfectant, stale sweat, cigarette smoke, hot dogs and onions that had been cooked to death; it survived even a nightly sluicing. I broke off my story to ask, “Fancy a hot dog with mustard and onions?” there were no takers.
I continued with the best bit for me; I
recognized instantly the intro to Barret Strong’s “Money” but it was much longer, much heavier than the original and then Lennon’s voice came in, arrogant, anarchic, sneering, chewing the words before spitting them at the audience, “The best things in life are free but you can give them to the birds and the bees; I want money….” The voice was almost frightening, hateful and cynical but thrilling. And the backing vocals added to the mood, “That’s what I want…”
The performance sent a message to me that I’d only thought of on rare occasions when I was feeling very confident, very brave not when I was bull-shitting, trying to con myself; John Lennon could do anything he wanted and his message was: so can you. I remembered again lying in Calderstones Park, looking at the clouds drifting by and repeating over and over, and believing “I can and I will, I can and I will…”
Editor’s notes: Ken’s life was immediately changed by his visit to the Cavern, with John Lennon as an inspiration. The Beatles and the Mersey scene changed many lives throughout the world over a long period of time, another aspect of the legend of the Beatles which hasn’t yet been acknowledged.
Thanks to Chazz for supplying the image of Gerry & the Pacemakers at the Cavern.