Everything Fab Four: The Beatles Underground

beatles cavern club

In January 1957, Alan Sytner opened the Cavern Club at 10 Mathew St. in Liverpool. Dreaming of owning a jazz club in the tradition of the basement Le Caveau Français in Paris, Sytner founded the Cavern in the cellar of a former fruit warehouse. During World War II, the location had served as an air-raid shelter. But by the mid-1960s, the underground Cavern Club would enjoy international prominence as ground zero for the Beatles’ pop explosion.

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By August 1957, John Lennon’s skiffle group the Quarry Men had managed to talk their way into playing a set at the jazz club. For his part, Sytner was worried about irritating the Cavern’s jazz-loving audience with a beat band. Events would prove the club owner to be correct. As a skiffle group, the Quarry Men found it to be tough going in a club that catered to a traditional jazz audience. After Lennon turned in raucous renditions of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes,” Sytner sent a note to the stage in which he ordered the band to “cut out the bloody rock!”

By the time that Lennon returned to the club with the Beatles in February 1961, Sytner was gone, having sold the Cavern to Ray McFall in 1959. The club’s jazz rotation had been replaced with beat-band music, including the likes of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, one of the city’s most popular groups. The Hurricanes were renowned for the musical exploits of their flamboyant drummer Ringo Starr, who would often be featured in a solo spot that came to be known as “Starr Time.” In 1961, Bob Wooler joined the Cavern as the resident emcee and organizer of the club’s famous lunchtime sessions.

For their part, the Beatles quickly emerged as one of the Cavern’s most popular lunchtime acts. The venue would hold a special place in their hearts, as it was where, in 1961, future manager Brian Epstein first came into the bandmates’ orbit. By August 1963 when they played their final show there, the Beatles had notched 292 shows in the famous cellar.

While the change in ownership with McFall had proven to be a great boon for the Cavern’s fortunes, it was short-lived. In April 1966, McFall sold the club for £5,500 to restaurateur Joseph Davey.  Under Davey’s stewardship, the Cavern began a slow decline culminating in the club’s 1973 closure. Not long afterward, the Cavern’s basement was filled in during construction associated with Liverpool’s underground rail system.

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In 1984, Liverpool FC player Tommy Smith spearheaded the Cavern’s rebuilding steps away from its original location. The club was rebuilt using much of the original space—not to mention the Cavern’s brickwork—and reopened intermittently until 1991.  At that time, Liverpudlians Bill Heckle, a schoolteacher, and taxi driver Dave Jones began operating the club on a permanent basis. In ensuing years, it became a popular tourist attraction. In 1999, the club served as a venue for McCartney, who performed a set in support of his Run Devil Run album.

While the Cavern’s revival has played a central role in Liverpool’s tourism industry, its 1973 demolition calls into question the ways in which cities so easily shed civic heritage for short-term objectives. In recent years, Liverpool has thankfully witnessed a rage for historical authenticity.

Just a few miles to the east of the Cavern Club sit Lennon and McCartney’s well-preserved boyhood homes. And not too far from John’s old bedroom lies Strawberry Field, the old Salvation Army home made famous by his ethereal song. The folks behind the Strawberry Field project — including Lady Judy Martin — are doing it right, blending historical authenticity under the backdrop of twenty-first-century cultural education.

Kenneth Womack

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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