04 June 2016

Liverpool, The Cavern Club and the Beatles

Liverpool’s Cavern Club was said to be the cradle of British pop music. But the photos show how grim and cramped it really was. The Cavern Club opened in Jan 1957 in a warehouse cellar at 10 Mathew St Liverpool. The original owner, a very young Alan Sytner, named the club after a Paris jazz club and planned for it to become the top jazz venue outside London. He wanted to create Liverpool’s first venue dedicated to live popular music, so top of the bill on the opening night was a local Jazz Band and the Coney Island Skiffle Group. 600 eager jazz fans crammed inside and hundreds more queued in along the footpath in Mathew St, hoping to get into the club.

I didn’t remember the term Skiffle which was a music genre with jazz, blues, rock and folk elements. Originating in the USA back in the inter-war era, the skiffle craze started in the UK in 1956 when British skiffle star Lonnie Donegan released the single Rock Island Line. Skiffle’s appeal for teenage groups was that they could use cheap guitars and domestic utensils; almost anyone could be a musician. One example was a very young Richard Starkey/Ringo Starr who made his profess­ional debut at the Cavern Club, playing drums with his own Skiffle Group that same year (1957).

The Quarry Men Skiffle Group made their first advertised appearance at the Cavern Club in Aug 1957. Band members included John Lennon, Len Garry, Rod Davies, Colin Hanton, Pete Shotton & Eric Griffiths. In the performance Alan Sytner told John Lennon to concentrate on jazz & avoid playing rock music, which may have been poor judgement on Sytner’s behalf. However the instruction didn’t deter Paul McCartney who made his debut at the Cavern Club as a member of the Quarry Men Skiffle Group in Jan 1958.

The Cavern’s lunchtime sessions were first introduced in April 1957, to cope with demand from teenagers who worked in local offices and factories. Grabbing their sandwiches in brown paper bags, the fans had wonderful times listening to the Beatles and others who did lunchtime performances at the Cavern.

Mr Acker Bilk’s Paramount Jazz Band was a huge success when they performed at the Cavern Club in Feb 1958. They became the first British act to top the American charts in the 1960s and their 1962 hit single instrumental, Stranger On The Shore, remained in the UK charts for well over a year.

The Beatles at the Cavern Club Liverpool, 1962
Time Detective Gallery
Audience members sat very close to the musicians

After all that hard work and success, Alan Sytner moved to London to manage the Marquee Jazz Club and sold the lease for the Cavern Club to new owner Ray McFall in Oct 1959. His opening night featured two American Blues legends, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. But the times, they were a’changing. Under McFall’s new ownership, the jazz ident­ity of the Cavern cooled and the growing beat music identity heated up.

The new decade saw a changing mood in Britain. The post-war British was growing well, rationing had ended and Swinging London would soon describe a youth-oriented phenomenon that was newer and freer. But in all that excitement, we need to ask how important the Cavern Club in particular had been.

Liverpool’s first jazz festival was hosted by the Cavern Club and included many of the great names in British jazz. In early 1960 the Beat Music scene in Liverpool exploded and the Cavern Club became the most publicised pop music venue in the world. In any case, a new musical mood was already gathering force across Britain, especially in Liverpool. This new sound with imported US influences had a distinctive Liverpool style and was named Merseybeat. The sound was strong and the Cavern’s atmosphere was exciting.

Fans queued outside the Cavern Club, 1962
10 Mathew St Liverpool

The Beatles first performance at the Cavern Club in Feb 1961 featured John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best. The Beatles may well have become a famous rock band wherever they had been, but it seems inevitable that being Liverpudlians and being the Cavern Club’s most famous act were the factors that truly forged their musical identity.

Liverpool businessman Brian Epstein, whose family owned a local record shop, visited the Cavern Club for a lunchtime session in Nov 1961 and saw his first performance by the Beatles. Epstein offered to become the band’s manager and by June 1962 had secured a recording contract for them. Soon after the contract was signed, Pete Best played his last performance with the Beatles and almost immediately Ringo Starr appeared at the Cavern Club as the Beatles drummer!

The Beatles played at the Cavern for the last time in Aug 1973, a month after recording their bestseller, She Loves You. But other rock groups from Liverpool continued as Cavern Club favourites eg Gerry & the Pace-makers, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, The Merseybeats, The Liverbirds, Cilla Black, and Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas. The Liverpudlian domination of British rock meant that decades later, I still remember every word of Wishin' and Hopin’, Ferry Cross the Mersey, Anyone Who Had a Heart, You're My World and Do You Want to Know a Secret? and many other songs.

I was receiving 5 shillings a week pocket money in August 1963. Since 45 RPM vinyl records used to cost 10 shillings and 6 pence each back then, I most certainly could not afford to buy my own records. Fortunately, friends often brought a 45 as a treasured birthday present.

By 1964 the Beatles had taken America and Australia by storm, leaving millions of screaming adolescents in their wake. Their huge success gave the Cavern Club a magical status, with both British bands and artists visiting from abroad. But nothing stays the same. The limited space at the Cavern Club made it more crowded, less comfortable and less popular with audiences. And despite its legendary status and the introduction of alcohol sales and a disco room, The Cavern Club declined somewhat.

By Feb 1966 the owner of the club was declared bankrupt and although subsequent owners tried their best, the original Cavern club closed in March 1973. Once const­ruct­ion work began on the Merseyrail under-ground rail loop, the teenagers’ beloved hangout space underground had to be filled in.

The original bricks were saved, treated and re-utilised in the re-building of the second Cavern, very near the original site. In 1984 The Cavern Club re-opened! But that is a story for a different time.


Anonymous said...

I can't understand how any music could be played in a brick basement and it be worth hearing. Maybe it is a about the layout that made the music acceptable to listen to. It took me a while to remember but yes, I've heard of skiffle bands.

Mandy said...

I had no idea that the Cavern I've been to wasn't the original club. It's okay there but my dad is always far more interested in taking me to the pubs where the boys used to drink.

Anonymous said...

Back in the day I loved another Liverpool group, The Searchers. Remember Sugar And Spice?


Hels said...


I am not sure the brick basement was _ever_ suitable! When the Cavern Club opened in Jan 1957, the city was still in a grim post-war condition and the entrepreneurial Alan Sytner would have organised his concerts anywhere. From the teenagers perspective, however, an underground bunker was perfect - hidden from their parents' prying eyes and ears :)

Hels said...


I wish I knew your Liverpool dad... he was in the right place at the right time, AND he wanted to share all his stories with you. Lots of parents are reluctant/have forgotten what happened in their lives between the ages of 15 and 25.

Hels said...


I do... I do. Plus "Needles and Pins" and "Don't Throw Your Love Away". The Searchers certainly played at the Cavern.

bazza said...

Hi Hels. I was there! As a teenager and friend and I went from London to Liverpool on a motor scooter. It took us two days to get there stopping overnight at a small Bed and Breakfast in Preston. It was the original Cavern and we saw a group called Dave Berry and the Cruisers who were from Sheffield. They had a couple of hits in the UK later on. The place was packed and there was an exciting, expectant, atmosphere. I also, as a schoolboy, saw the Beatles play live at the East Ham Odeon - they weren't even top of the bill!
A bit later on I used to go to the Marquee Club in Wardour Street, Soho, to see Manfred Man and the Yardbirds; wonderful memories.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Mandy said...

:) I think you'd like him. He loves telling stories and is passionate about music. His favourite story is about how he was a typical Mod but somehow managed to charm a bar full of Rockers and spent the night drinking with them. It explains how he went from liking mainly Mod music to Rock, which became the major musical influence in my life. I still have all his original Deep Purple and The Who records.

I'm loving the comments on this post. "Needles and Pins" is one of my top 5 songs ever (as well as "She's Not There" - Zombies and "For Your Love" - Yardbirds. I never rode between London and Liverpool on a motorbike but I frequently rode between the two on train and went to the Marquee right until it closed.

Hels said...


You got around!! Listening to a record at home was one thing; seeing the chaps perform up close was altogether another experience.

You should have been my guest blogger or co-blogger on this post. Not because I didn't know and love the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers etc, but because I never visited Liverpool. My first year abroad, for a Gap Year programme, was not until 1966 and by that time, the Merseybeat passion was receding somewhat. Fortunately spouse and I did live in the UK for two years (in London and Herts) in 1972-4.

By the way, did Manfred Man and the Yardbirds do Pretty Flamingo? That is all I remember.

Hels said...


it always amazes me how the major musical influences on our lives remain in place, even for decades. I went to a concert every Sunday afternoon with my parents at their retirement village and it was amazing to watch elderlies bebopping along to late 1930s and 1940s music. They remembered every note and every word.

Here are some more lyrics that still evoke the Merseybeat, by Gerry and the Pacemakers:
I like it, I like it
I like the way you run your fingers through my hair
And I like the way you tickle my chin
And I like the way you let me come in
When your mama ain't there

Mandy said...

I love that song! I'm singing along to it now! Silly story - a friend came to visit me in Liverpool once and I tried all day to get her on the ferry, to no avail. As she got on the bus back to London I said, "I can't believe you came all the way to Liverpool and didn't go on the ferry across the Mersey". She did a complete double take - "was that the ferry across the Mersey???" It was too late, of course.

Alexander Larman said...

After visiting the Beatles Story in Albert Dock, do pop into the Cavern Club in Mathew Street and enjoy some nostalgic tunes from the Cavern Club Beatles, the club's resident tribute band.

Just around the corner is the Hard Days Night Hotel, with Beatles-inspired artwork and suites. Nor will true fans want to miss International Beatleweek, a festival celebrating the Fab Four, with bands and fans from all over the world, which runs from 24-30 August this year.

Then there's the Magical Mystery Tour, which offers a two-hour whistle stop exploration of the city, including many of the places associated with the Beatles, such as Penny Lane and Strawberry Field. The National Trust also runs a special joint tour of the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Alexander Larman
Discover Britain
Aug-Sep 2016

Hels said...


Thank you, your timing is perfect. International Beatleweek Festival will be starting in a fortnight (24-30th August this year).

I had never heard of the Hard Days Night Hotel. But since all 110 rooms are elegantly furnished with specially commissioned Beatles-inspired artwork, have a look at the discussion on Art Hotels. The Liverpool hotel seems to fit in perfectly.

Philip Hadworth said...

Five years late, but the first photo is rather obviously not the Beatles, but (rather less obviously) the Escorts.

Hels said...

Many thanks Philip,

it is never too late :) It goes to show.... I should never accept references without checking the sources first. The photo I just inserted in the post looks fine.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that certainly is the lads — and George getting some attention on vocals (as well as at least one stink eye!)....