So there it is, then; The Cavern. 10 Matthew Street, Liverpool 2. Where Brian Epstein first heard and saw The Beatles perform their lunchtime session on Thursday 9th November 1961. You know it’s not exactly the same Cavern that the Beatles used to play in, but even so…and, anyway, it’s the closest thing you’re ever gonna get. It’s cleaner than expected from the descriptions in countless magazines and books – though is that the smell of stale beer drifting up the stairs, subtly mixed with cigarette smoke from outside and, wait, just a hint of ripe perspiration? Heck, it’s a club! The Cavern only sold soft drinks in those far off, heady, days; but the pre-owned fag-smoke and sweat would have been there in abundance.
Downstairs are what look like the famous brick arches you’ve seen in all the grainy photographs and archive footage. It’s certainly packed with enough people, straining toward the tiny stage at the end of the tunnel, barely big enough for a solo performer, let alone a band of three leaping leather clad lunatics and their drummer. There aren’t too many beehive hair-dos, but the main difference is that it’s in colour. Because, as everyone knows, the Beatles played in black and white. It was a laff; a lorra lorra laffs.
The old Cavern opened its doors as a jazz club on 16th January 1957. Three brick arches under a warehouse in the warren of cobbled lanes leading up from Liverpool’s docks. The owner, Alan Synter, named it after a Paris jazz club, Le Caveau de la Huchette, and booked the greats of British jazz, the likes of George Melly, Humphrey Lyttleton and Acker Bilk, to play there. The odd skiffle band was booked too. Skiffle, it was reasoned, was a child of jazz. The sound was popularised in Britain by Lonnie Donegan, who became known as the King of Skiffle, but almost anyone with a cheap guitar, banjo, T-chest bass and washboard could play it. John Lennon’s schoolboy skiffle band, the Quarrymen, got a booking at the Cavern in the August after it opened. Typically, in defiance of the club’s ban on rock music, Lennon started playing a Chuck Berry number (some sources say it was Presley’s Don’t Be Cruel). He was handed a note and said to the audience, “We’ve had a request.” He opened the note, which read: “Cut out the bloody rock ‘n’ roll.” Paul McCartney didn’t play that day; he was away at scout camp.
Ray McFall, previously Synter’s accountant, took over the Cavern in 1959. By 1960, skiffle was ‘out’, jazz music wasn’t making money, beat music was ‘in’ – and the Cavern started to put on lunchtime music sessions. The first beat group to play there was Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, featuring a certain Ringo Starr on skins. The Beatles’ debut was on 9th February 1961, with Stuart Sutcliffe on bass and Pete Best on drums. First to arrive for the gig was a young George Harrison, just short of his 18th birthday and clad in jeans and leather jacket. He was challenged by the immaculately dressed doorman, Paddy Delaney. “I’m in the Beatles”, said George, and was allowed in. Ray McFall wasn’t impressed with the way the Beatles looked and suggested they should smarten up; the Beatles suggested what McFall could do. However, the club’s owner was very impressed with the door receipts. Recently returned from cutting their teeth on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, the band had an extensive repertoire, skill, attitude and style that blew most other acts away – and a growing fan base. By noon, when the lunchtime sessions began, a queue of office and shop workers, most of them young girls, snaked along the street, surging forward when the doors opened. Downstairs, McFall raked in the cash and an aspiring singer called Priscilla White looked after the cloakroom. By all accounts, the ambience of the Cavern was unique. The bricks ran with condensation, which dripped onto hair-dos, instruments and electrical equipment; the air was an aromatic blend of hot people, cheap scent, stale sweat, mould – and cheese from the warehouse next door. The back of the club was known as the Deep End, because the toilets often used to overflow. Resident DJ, Bob Wooler, would announce: “Remember all you cave-dwellers – the Cavern is the best of cellars.”
So this was where Brian Epstein, manager of his family’s local record shop in Whitechapel, came after a customer, Raymond Jones, had asked for a recording of My Bonnie by a local group, The Beatles, who Epstein had never heard of. By early December, he was their manager. In all, the Beatles made 292 appearances at the Cavern, the last being on 3rd August 1963. By that time, their first LP (album), Please Please Me had been released and the world lay ahead. The club was of course a venue for other local talent too, with bands like the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Big Three attracting huge followings. Then they all came – the Kinks, Stones, Yardbirds, Who – anyone who was anyone in the British pop scene of the 1960s.
The original Cavern was entombed in 1973, to make way for a rail development. It’s like pouring concrete into the Houses of Parliament to build a motorway isn’t it? But you know there’s a reasonably happy ending to this. In 1984 a new Cavern rose, phoenix-like from the old, using about 15,000 original bricks, more or less on the same spot. After various vicissitudes, it’s still there, apparently successful, and more or less a required stop on any visit to Liverpool.
Today’s Cavern Club offers live music every day of the week. These days, in addition to the front stage there’s a second one, the ‘Live Lounge’. And as well as local acts and the inevitable tribute bands, it has played host to the likes of the Arctic Monkeys, Adele, Jessie J – and so on. Opposite is the Cavern Pub – another live music venue. Just outside is the Cavern Wall of Fame, with the names of almost 2,000 acts that have played there etched into the bricks. It also features 54 Liverpool-based musicians who have had UK No 1 chart hits since 1952. Slouched nearby is a watchful John Lennon statue. A few steps away is The Grapes pub, where John, Paul, George and Ringo would grab a pint or two between sets. But that’s another story.
Liverpool has proudly capitalised on its four famous sons and nowhere is this more obvious than the Mathew Street area, which has been branded the Cavern Quarter. Here, you will find, amongst other things, Beatles’ souvenirs aplenty in the Beatles’ Shop, a Rubber Soul Beatles’ Bar, a Lennon’s Bar and Fab 4 Pizzas. It is brash. At night, it can be raucous, a destination for stag and hen parties, the inebriated, the loud, the mildly fractious and, sometimes, the downright violent. Round the corner in North John Street is the Hard Days Night Hotel. In nearby Stanley Street is the statue of Eleanor Rigby.