With the 50th anniversary of The Beatles debut single Love Me Do on 5 October
promising celebrations, concerts and an attempt at the world’s largest mass sing-along,
there has never been a better time to visit the band’s hometown, Liverpool.
Half a century after Beatlemania rocked the world, the once gritty
English port has transformed itself into a giant emporium of Beatles-related
sights, a dramatic turnaround from the 1980s when the only object memorialising
the band was a modest statue in the city centre.
In fact, like many cities in England’s north, Britain’s fourth-largest
metropolis has done a complete volte-face in the last two decades, swapping
post-industrial dereliction for slick urban renewal. Central to the city’s
regeneration is Albert Dock, a line of
handsome red-bricked warehouses on the Mersey Estuary that once handled a
significant portion of the world’s trade and reopened in 1988 after more than
two decades of disuse. Since 1990, it has been home to The Beatles Story, an expansive,
chronologically laid out museum that tracks the band from their church fete-jamming
days in Liverpool to New York’s Carnegie Hall and beyond, complete with audio
commentary by John Lennon’s half-sister, Julia. Recently expanded to
incorporate a second site at Liverpool
Pierhead, the museum is chock-a-block with Beatles paraphernalia.
Highlights include George Harrison’s battered boyhood guitar, John Lennon’s
iconic specs and the drums of the band’s original stick man Colin Hanton. There
is even a mock-up of a yellow submarine and – at the new Pierhead site – an
extravagant 4D film showcasing Beatles music.
The Beatles Story anchors a web of band-related sites that lie scattered
around Liverpool and most can be seen via the two-hour Magical Mystery coach
tour, which departs three times daily from the Albert Dock. Hosted by
knowledgeable guides who colour their commentaries with sharp Scouse wit, the
tour breezes past myriad sites now etched in popular folklore. It is not every
day you get to fact-check The Beatles’ song lyrics, but after coasting down
Penny Lane, you will quickly discover that there really is a shelter in the
middle of a roundabout, a barber shop and – if you are lucky with the weather –
“blue suburban skies” too.
The guide’s anecdotes are pithy and amusing. One story claims that John
and Paul would likely never have met had it not been for mutual friend and
unsung history-maker, Ivan Vaughan, who introduced them in 1957 at St Peter’s
Church Hall in the suburb of Woolton (a landmark on the tour). Another recounts
that on hearing an early acoustic jam of She Loves You at the McCartney family
home at 20 Forthlin Road (another tour stop), Paul’s father thought the “yeah,
yeah, yeah” refrain sounded too American and suggested they sing “yes, yes, yes”
The tour also allows a revealing peek into the Fab Four’s cultural
backgrounds. Ringo was clearly the group’s working class hero. His terraced
childhood home in the rough-and-ready Dingle area -- a neighbourhood later used
as the setting for Alan Bleasdale’s bleak 1980s BBC drama, Boys from the Blackstuff
-- was recently saved from demolition
by a vociferous local community campaign. John, meanwhile, came from plush
middle-class Woolton. His semi-detached house still stands in leafy Menlove
Avenue with a blue plaque advertising its famous former occupant. You can visit
the interior of the house as part of a separate tour, bookable
through the National Trust (the tour also includes a visit to Paul’s childhood
home nearby). Around the corner in the shadowy walled domain of Strawberry
Field, a former Salvation Army children’s home, the young John once acted out
his Lewis Carroll fantasies climbing trees. He later eulogised the place in the
song Strawberry Fields Forever. The imposing gateway, now covered in graffiti,
is invaded daily by photo-hungry fans.
The Magical Mystery Tour terminates near the reconstructed Cavern Club, the
subterranean dive bar where The Beatles gigged 292 times between 1957 and 1963.
The club still hosts regular live music; Adele headlined in January 2011.
Another former Beatles hangout is the lesser known Casbah Coffee Club, situated
three-and-a-half miles northeast of the city centre in an old coal cellar once
owned by Mona Best, mother of early Beatles drummer, Pete Best. Pre-arranged
visits can be scheduled through Cavern Tours, a company that
can also organise taxi tours to other sites, including John’s art school and Eleanor
Rigby’s grave. The most recent addition to Liverpool’s Beatle memorabilia is a
metal sculpture in King’s Dock called the John
Lennon Peace Monument, dedicated on 9 October 2010, on what would have been
Lennon’s 70th birthday.
For serious Beatles aficionados, there are far too many sights to cram
into a single Liverpool day. If you need to stay overnight, the Beatle-themed Hard Day’s Night Hotel is encased
in a historic mercantile building adjacent to the Cavern Club in the city
centre. Refreshingly un-kitschy, the hotel’s luxurious John Lennon suite comes
complete with its own white grand piano. Imagine!