When it comes to the birth of the Beatles and the Mersey sound, Liverpool’s Cavern Club exists as ground zero for the most profound, most transitory musical fusion of the twentieth century. Directed by Christian Francis-Davies and Jon Keats, The Cavern Club: The Beat Goes On documents in unforgettable style the venue’s heyday, tragic demolition, and incredible renaissance.
Narrated by Liverpool actor Paul McGann and deftly written by Bill Heckle, The Cavern Club: The Beat Goes On affords viewers with the most expansive telling yet of the rock club’s labyrinthine history. The Cavern found its origins in the visionary mind of Alan Sytner, who dreamt of owning his own jazz haunt after visiting Le Caveau Français Jazz Club in Paris. Seeking out a space to build out his dream, Sytner settled on a former fruit warehouse in the bowels of Liverpool’s Mathew Street that had formerly served as an air-raid shelter during World War II.
In January 1957, Sytner opened the Cavern to great fanfare with the Merseysippi Jazz Band topping the bill. While Dixieland and trad jazz were the orders of the day, it didn’t take long for Skiffle and its newfangled sound to make their way into the basement club. For a jazz purist like Sytner, Skiffle’s incursion was the stuff of blasphemy.
That August, John Lennon’s Quarry Men played their fourth gig at the Cavern. As a Skiffle group, the Quarry Men found it to be tough going in a club that catered to a jazz-loving audience. After Lennon turned in raucous renditions of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes,” Sytner famously sent a note to the stage in which he ordered the band to “cut out the bloody rock!”
At this juncture, The Cavern Club: The Beat Goes On takes on an understandably frenetic pace as Beatlemania begins looming on the horizon. For Sytner, rock ‘n’ roll made for a crude and violent noise. Even still, he could see—or rather, hear—the writing on the wall, and before long, he instituted the Liverpool Skiffle Championships at the club on Wednesday evenings.
In 1959, Sytner sold the club to Ray McFall, who block-booked the Cavern with blues and Beat bands. In a moment of inspiration, he began holding lunchtime sessions at the club, which altered the clientele as young professionals and area college students flocked to the Cavern. By 1961, McFall had installed popular DJ Bob Wooler as the resident emcee. With Wooler at the helm, the DJ dubbed his diehard audience as the Cave-Dwellers, and quite suddenly McFall’s new venture was off to the races.
As the story unfolds, Francis-Davies and Keats take great pains in setting the scene for the Beatles’ storyline as it takes its inevitable hold. When local record store impresario Brian Epstein descends into the basement club in November 1961 and hears the Beatles for the first time, the documentary takes a powerful, nostalgic turn.
For Epstein, there was simply no turning back. As he wrote in his 1964 autobiography, “I was immediately struck by their music, their beat, and their sense of humor on stage—and, even afterwards, when I met them, I was struck again by their personal charm. And it was there that, really, it all started.”
All told, the Beatles would perform 292 shows at the Cavern Club, often playing lunchtime concerts, from February 1961 to August 1963. In many ways, the venue exists as the band’s much-heralded birthplace—much like their musical proving grounds in the seamy clubs of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn. But as the documentary so powerfully demonstrates, Beatlemania’s onslaught accrued legendary status for the Cavern—and for a time at least, it also spelled the club’s impending doom when the Beatles left Liverpool for the greener pastures of superstardom. In the intervening years, it served as a much-sought-after venue for a host of top acts, including the likes of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Elton John, and Rod Stewart. But with the Beatles having permanently decamped, the Cavern, alas, was on much shakier ground by the advent of the 1970s.
In the film’s darkest moments, Francis-Davies and Keats trace the club’s lean years, culminating in a 1973 performance by Dutch act, the Focus. Shortly thereafter, the building’s basement was filled in during construction associated with the city’s underground rail system. The black-and-white imagery of the wrecking ball doing its worst makes for harrowing footage indeed.
But as The Cavern Club: The Beat Goes On movingly reveals, all was not lost. In 1984, the club was rebuilt using much of the original space—not to mention the Cavern’s brickwork—and it reopened intermittently until 1991, when Liverpudlians Heckle, Dave Jones, and George Guinness began operating the club on a permanent basis. In the ensuing years, it has become a popular tourist attraction, and in 1999, the Cavern famously served as a venue for Paul McCartney, who performed a set in support of his Run Devil Run album.
Clocking in at a brisk 70 minutes, The Cavern Club: The Beat Goes On makes for a swift, rollicking ride. With legend-making footage of the Beatles playing “Some Other Guy” back in 1962, not to mention more recent performances, including Paul McCartney’s “I Saw Her Standing There” and Adele’s “Someone Like You,” the documentary is a feast for the eyes and the ears. And as Beatles history goes, The Cavern Club: The Beat Goes On offers a thoroughgoing study of that fabled place where it all started—the basement club that Epstein exuberantly described as “a cellarful of noise.”
-Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. He is the author, most recently, of Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966) and Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Later Years, 1966-2016). His next book, Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles, is forthcoming in September 2019. You can learn more about Ken’s work at kennethwomack.com.
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