Liverpool makes the most of its claims on Beatles' fame

Penny Lane, made famous by The Beatles in a song of the same name, is a popular spot to stop and say hello for tourists in Liverpool, England.
Penny Lane, made famous by The Beatles in a song of the same name, is a popular spot to stop and say hello for tourists in Liverpool, England. ASSOCIATED PRESS

LIVERPOOL, England — When one thinks of momentous meetings that altered the course of history — Caesar and Cleopatra, Bonnie and Clyde, Hitler and Mussolini — one usually imagines them taking place in grandiose settings.

St. Peter Hall, the church recreation center in the village of Woolton, a suburb of Liverpool, hardly qualifies as such. Yet it was here on July 6, 1957, that the most famous meeting in rock and roll history took place: 17-year-old John Lennon, who was performing at the village fair, was introduced to 15-year-old Paul McCartney.

The two could not have imagined they would become half of a foursome that would ignite a global fan base that, with the exception of Elvis Presley, had not been seen before or since.

For Americans old enough to remember, the phenomenon of The Beatles began Feb. 9, 1964, when they first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. But as I learned during a recent trip to Liverpool, The Beatles' story began half a decade earlier.

Conventional wisdom has it that the foursome got its start at Liverpool's Cavern Club, but the group's real beginning was in the lesser known Casbah Coffee House.

The Casbah wasn't like the Greenwich Village coffeehouses favored by '50s beat poets. What was to become the hottest ticket in Liverpool — with hundreds lining up every night clamoring to get in — was a converted basement in the suburban house of Mo Best, mother of Pete Best, the Beatles' drummer before Ringo Starr.

It was here that the nucleus of the Beatles was formed — John, Paul, Pete and Paul's schoolmate George Harrison, who 14 but already an impressive guitarist.

"See those stars on the ceiling?" says Roeg (pronounced like rogue) Best, son of Mo and younger brother of Pete, as he leads me through the labyrinth of tiny rooms that make up the Casbah.

"Those stars were hand pressed on by John, Paul and George," he says. "When the London auction house Sotheby's came here a few years ago, it valued that ceiling at 1 million pounds."

Inside The Cavern

The Casbah was first, but The Cavern Club is the name most associated with the Beatles' beginning.

Inspired by cellar jazz clubs that proliferated in Paris during the 1950s, The Cavern was devoted to a musical combination of jazz, blues and folk called skiffle that was popular in Britain at the time. The Beatles' first appearance here in 1961 almost became their last.

After starting with a skiffle-style song, Lennon, obsessed with the music of Presley, instructed the band to switch to Don't Be Cruel. Enraged, the club owner pushed his way through the crowd and thrust a note at Lennon, ordering him to stop.

It was too late. The crowd loved it, as did future Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who was in the audience during one of their 292 performances here. The rest is history.

Hallowed ground that it is, The Cavern Club has resisted glamming itself up. The cellar, with its miniscule stage and three tunnels connected by archways, was used as an air-raid shelter during World War II, and its dark, dank interior only adds to the ambiance.

The stage — where the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Elton John, the Who and Queen also have played — now showcases 40 bands a week, the most popular being Beatles tribute bands.

Other Beatles' attractions

The Beatles are such an integral part of Liverpool's story that their legacy is everywhere. Two places fans won't want to miss are the "Beatles Story," an interactive experience at the refurbished Albert Dock, and Elvis & Us, a tribute to arguably rock and roll's two greatest influences.

The latter commemorates the 1965 meeting of The Beatles and Presley at his California mansion, and showcases the reverence the Fab Four had for the King.

My favorite Beatles experience was the Magical Mystery Tour, a two-hour journey through the early lives of the four. Boarding a gaily colored bus, visitors listen to Beatles recordings while seeing Liverpool through their eyes.

Along the tour route are their childhood homes; St. Barnabas Church, where McCartney was a choirboy; and the street called Penny Lane and the estate Strawberry Field, both which made their way into lyrics.

In between songs, the chatty tour guide regales us with tidbits. Starr was a sickly child, he tells us. It was on a city bus that Harrison auditioned, wowing Lennon with a virtuoso performance of the instrumental Raunchy. Lennon's aunt Mimi, who raised him, frequently admonished him to get to his schoolwork and forget the guitar, insisting, "You'll never make a living at it."

Ultimate fans can check into the Hard Days Night Hotel, which bills itself as the world's only Beatles-inspired hotel. Each room has a Beatles twist, and Blake's Restaurant honors pop artist Sir Peter Blake, who designed the album cover for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The restaurant's centerpiece is a collage of the iconic figures on that cover, from Marilyn Monroe to Oscar Wilde to Albert Einstein.

The hotel's Bar Four has a cocktail menu offering the Apple Records Martini, White Lady Madonna and, for the really big spender, the Fab Four (four shots of Louis XIII cognac, one bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal, four bitters-soaked brown sugar cubes and orange zest) for 500 British pounds.

Bar Four's ambiance is enhanced by oil paintings of the Beatles with their favorite instruments. They're by Paul Ygartua, who attended Liverpool Art College with Lennon and his first wife, Cynthia.

Beyond The Fab Four

As Beatles-centric as the city is — the airport is named for Lennon — there is plenty to do that doesn't involve Beatlemania. Founded in 1207 by a decree from King John, Liverpool reached its zenith during the 19th century, the peak of the British Empire, when 40 percent of the world's trade passed through its port.

Those riches led to another kind of wealth: The city has the greatest concentration of listed buildings, particularly Georgian, outside of London, and with its reign as the 2008 European Capital of Culture and a 5 billion-pound investment during the past decade, it's looking spiffier than ever.

The best place to see this is the beautifully restored Albert Dock, the most popular free attraction in the north of England. In addition to shops and restaurants in converted warehouses, this is Liverpool's museum central. Along with the Beatles Story, there's the International Slavery Museum, Museum of Liverpool and the Tate Liverpool, sister to the Tate London contemporary art gallery. You can't leave the dock area without taking the ferry across the Mersey River, which threads its way through the city.

A popular sight from here is the Royal Liver Building, with sculptures of its namesake liver birds atop it. The two cormorants, facing in opposite directions, were supposed to be watching commerce in the city and on the river. A modern, cheekier version has one bird, a female, looking toward the river to see if any handsome sailors are approaching, while her male counterpart looks toward town to see which pubs are open.

You also should wander the length of poetically named Hope Street, anchored at one end by the modernistic Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, nicknamed "Paddy's Wigwam," for its inverted funnel shape, and at the other by the magnificent 20th-century, Gothic Revival-style Anglican Liverpool Cathedral, the largest in Britain. It offers a spectacular view from its bell tower.

Also worth a look is the Art Deco-style Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, home to the city's orchestra and its celebrated Russian conductor, Vasily Petrenko. But in the long run, it's another kind of music that provides Liverpool's theme song, music made by four lads who will forever be synonymous with the city.


Liverpool, England

Getting there: Fly into London or Manchester, both of which are easily-accessible airline destinations. BritRail, the national rail system, has service to Liverpool.

Where to stay: Hard Days Night Hotel. Its 110 rooms, restaurant, two bars and public spaces are a tribute to the Fab Four.

Where to eat: Spice Lounge at the Albert Dock for excellent Indian cuisine; the London Carriage Works has ambiance (the 1860s Venetian-style palazzo was once home to a carriage builder), and the Panoramic 34 has out-of-this-world views (on a clear day you can see the Welsh Mountains.)

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