The Beatles were John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Star. They were just four regular lads from post-WWII Liverpool in northwest England that took the world by rock-n-roll storm. The Beatles are the bestselling rock band of all time with over 1 billion units sold.
Liverpool and suburbs, northwest England.
All Beatles fans have a favorite album and mine was the White Album. They were unwittingly chronicling life in the 1960s and early 1970s. No one can argue their impact on music, culture or entertainment. They were talented, funny, interesting, outrageous and moving. I remember as a young man hoping The Beatles would continue forever – song after song was a hit for years of my childhood. Listening to pop, hip-hop and rap today it makes me appreciate more how my parents felt when they heard Revolution #9 or I am the Walrus.
Liverpool had been a frequent business stop in my professional travels but I never had the time to see The Beatle sites. I woke up one brisk fall Saturday morning and knew it was time to visit Liverpool before winter began. My day started at the most historically significant place in in the area – the docks. Liverpool was an important port in northern England for hundreds of years but during WWII it played a key role in shipping and receiving goods needed by England for war against the Germans. Today the docks contain historical sites from past centuries as well as being the home to The Beatles Museum. It has a rather a non-descript entrance, across from a large Ferris Wheel, which leads down into the basement of a building. Once inside the magical mystery tour began.
The layout of the museum was chronological and lain out in three sections: 1) small areas about each of the individual Beatles as children, 2) The Beatle Years and 3) individual Beatle performers after the breakup. The first part of the museum was fascinating, the second memorable and the third section made me melancholy. I discovered that although John, Paul, George and Ringo truly loved one another they never overcame being a Beatle. The moth and the flame may be a good metaphor. The moth is drawn to the flame as someone may be attracted to fame, fortune and/or success. However the danger for the moth is being consumed by the fire to which it is attracted. It is also the biggest danger for us. Being a Beatle became all consuming.
They were war babies. Liverpool was still trying to recover from the intense and regular German bombing in 1940-1941 known as “The Blitz”. War had been over for more than a decade as The Beatles began their journey and life was beginning again for Liverpuglians. After two world wars back to back England and all of Europe still needed decades of healing. It was out of this unlikely period The Beatles were born. People were ready to put death and destruction behind and look for something beyond war.
John, Paul and George were drawn to each other in their teenage years. Ringo Starr would later join the band to make it complete. The core of The Beatles lived on and off in Hamburg, Germany from 1960-1962. This experience widened their reputation, taught them the importance of entertainment and led to their first recording which introduced them to Brian Epstein. Besides George Martin, Epstein would become the most important person in the life of The Beatles.
No one could have recognized the impact on the music world these four young, fun and talented young men would have on other people’s lives. Longtime producer of The Beatles, George Martin was contacted and asked to audition The Beatles. Unknown to him all the other studios had already turned them down. Against George’s better judgment he decided to sign them to a record deal. Why? Because of their personalities – they were very engaging. He wasn’t particularly impressed with their musical talent but found them irresistible and entertaining.
As I walked through the museum reading, listening and looking at the exhibits it reinforced the genius of George Martin. Although they were to become one of the most popular bands of all time George believed the key to their success was their humor and ability to entertain. They were engaging and difficult for anyone to ignore. It was these attributes, rather than pure musical genius, that helped The Beatles to become legend. They were having fun. They were Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band.
British humor is cynical and silly, more akin to the Three Stooges than Saturday Night Live. No subject is sacred and in fact it is the ability to subtly attack the obvious which makes British humor unique. To fully understand and appreciate it you might have to live in Britain for a period of time to fully experience it. Walking through the museum I asked how myself how I could have missed it. The Beatles were funny. Prior to my Liverpool trip The Beatles were rebellious crusaders influencing my life with their songs. Their music chronicled the spirit of the ‘60s and ‘70s either remaining one step ahead or creating the next phase. They were mystical, free spirited, unusually expressive for the time and covered taboo topics.
Halfway through the museum the story of The Beatles took a turn I wasn’t expecting. The breakup of The Beatles over forty years ago was hard for millions of fans and devotees. All great acts have to end but I always felt like The Beatles were less entertainment, more social movement. Their breakup left me feeling unfulfilled. I wanted more from The Beatles. I felt victimized by how they had allowed outside forces to penetrate the band and destroy them from the inside.
Yet The Beatles Museum allowed me to see for the first time how the fabric of the group began to unravel under the pressure of being “The Beatles”. As pressure to perform from the outside grew they lost their personal identity and became first and foremost a Beatle. Lost were the individual lives of John Paul, George or Ringo. It was during this time their earnest search began first as a group and then as individuals to find themselves again. It was the selfish desires of a generation of Baby Boomers that created an insatiable appetite for more “Beatles”. Life became impossible for these four young men from Liverpool. John, Paul, John and Ringo were being slowly suffocated by The Beatles. As I walked through the museum I recognized the pain, the frustration, even anger that permeated their music. Alcohol, drugs and sex can only numb the pain for a finite period of time.
The end of the museum was rooms which were tributes to John, Paul, George and Ringo; their lives after the Beatles. I walked from room to room and soaked in the differences of these four men who had for so long been identified as one. In the end they were like me, like us. They knew sorrow, loneliness, family dysfunction, failure, success and in the end just wanted to live an enjoyable life. None of The Beatles could have ever seen what was coming when they started. Paul and Ringo in particular had fond memories of The Beatles but John and George seemed to suffer for their role in The Beatles. Few people ever experience the crushing weight that fame can have on lives. These Liverpool lads did love each other; that much is obvious but in some ways they resented each other too. They became too close, their identities intertwined in each other in a way that may have been impossible to separate completely. The crushing pressure to perform, the intense gravity of their fans contributed to their breakup more than the selfish, internal struggles that I had always imagined.
As you leave the museum there is a room with a white piano in the center on which John Lennon was supposed to have written the song Imagine. A pair of his round, dark glasses sat on top of the baby grand as Imagine played softly overhead, over and over again. It was a haunting moment; my sadness surprised me. I came to the museum to celebrate a musical group that was part of my childhood. I left realizing the price paid by these four men to make music I enjoyed.
I felt emotionally drained walking up the steps and into The Beatles store. Buying something “Beatle” would make me feel better. The genius that was The Beatles continues as I spent $50 dollars on merchandise; it seemed to make me feel better. In the end they were less band, more marketing than I imagined.
The red double decker tour buses leave the docks regularly full of tourists from all over the world to see The Beatle sites in and around Liverpool. With limited time I found the addresses Paul and John’s youth on-line and took off in search of where it all began.
Finding John’s house wasn’t easy. Neither Paul nor John actually lived in Liverpool proper but in the suburbs. John lived with his aunt and uncle in Woolton. Paul lived with his family in nearby Allerton. On my way to John’s house I drove past Penny Lane before realizing it. It is an intersection where the lads got haircuts and caught the bus into Liverpool. It was nothing like I envisioned.
Once in Woolton I had trouble finding John’s home. I stopped and asked at least a half a dozen people of different ages in the area for directions. Surprisingly at least half of them didn’t know who John Lennon was. Finally I found John’s home on a busy street that I had already passed several times. The Lennon and McCartney home tours allow you to go inside their homes. Pulling into the small driveway I stopped my car outside the gate and took pictures. Standing in front of John Lennon’s childhood home was as inspiring as standing at Hadrian’s Wall or Stonehenge. That surprised me.
In searching for John’s house I came across Strawberry Fields accidentally. There was a busy road, a narrow street going up a hill behind John’s house. During John’s childhood Strawberry Fields was a Salvation Army home for orphans. It still is. John and his friends used to walk up the hill and play in the gardens (to the British a garden is more akin to “yard” in America).
There are two entrances with small red, ornate gates leading into the small complex which were closed. One of the gates served as a memorial to The Beatles with letters, dried up flowers and notes outside the gate on the ground. The other gate was the main entrance by which people left and entered the property with their vehicles. The gate was framed by rock walls on both sides. One the stones read “Strawberry Fields”. I began to understand how their childhoods were transformed into songs that became bigger than life. They drew from creativity in ways I could never understand unless I had seen it myself.
John’s house was nicer than Paul’s, which surprised me. John lived with his aunt and uncle in a semi-detached cottage. While he was living at this house his mother was struck and killed by a drunk driving civil servant nearby as she walking down the road. I am not sure John ever got over it.
Although Paul lived in Allerton there was no real obvious geographic marker that would have told me they lived in different suburbs. Paul’s home would be better described as an apartment in America. Getting out of my car I read the small nondescript plaque near the street identifying it as Paul’s home. There was no one else on the street which I found strange.
There are large parks in and around the area where Paul and John grew up. It was a good 20 minute walk to John’s house from Paul’s which makes me think they probably rode bicycles from one house to another as young men. I would have.
Driving past Penny Lane on my way back to Liverpool I felt conflicting emotions. Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields were nothing like I expected but more real than ever. The journey became more personal than I expected.
I found a parking space in downtown Liverpool as the sun was getting low in the sky. Parking is a challenge all over England. No matter where you park you have to pay. Money is placed into a coin operated machine at the end of the street or parking lot. The ticket is then displayed on your dashboard. The fines for not doing so are pretty steep. It was a long day but it wouldn’t have been complete without seeing “The Cavern” firsthand. This is the night club where The Beatles played prior to becoming global celebrities. They became local and then regionally popular before becoming one of the top musical groups of all time. It was here, at The Cave, that they honed their craft, became popular and discovered their magnetism.
The Cavern is in a small alley in the night club district of Liverpool. The area was a popular night spot in the early 1960s and crowded even today. The entrance is similar to what it must have been decades ago when The Beatles were performing here.
There are three flights of circular stairs leading into a darkly lit basement. The basement is a large single room with the bar at the back. The bar to the right is the first thing you see when you walk into the basement. The bartenders serving patrons have the most direct view of the stage which is behind the line of people waiting for a drink. The central room is divided into three small rooms by a line of narrow brick columns leading to the stage from the bar. The ceiling can’t be more than 8 or 9 feet.
It takes some imagination to see how four people ever played on that tiny stage. The Cavern has been refurbished since the 1960s and is mostly a tourist location today. Over the years several former Beatles played at The Cavern to honor the early days. When refurbishing, the owners kept it as much like the original as possible so an observer could get a strong sense of where The Beatles started. Playing on the stage was a solo artist singing an old Beatle tune to a crowd that was beginning to form. Sipping a beer in the back I tried to imagine what it was like 50 years ago when The Beatles played here as young men.
Here is a video of the performer playing at the Cavern.
It was dark when I walked up the stairs, reentered the alley and headed to my car. The pubs along the street were full as people ignored the brisk night air to drink outside or smoke. Yet I was alone with my emotions, oblivious to the noise and laughter around me. Reaching my car I punched the button on my radio hoping to find a Beatles song on BBC Radio.
I still wanted one more Beatles album.
It has been over six months since I toured Liverpool. I tried to write about my trip but found myself only able to share a few tidbits, some pictures and video on Facebook. Keeping the rest to myself I needed to sort through what I experienced. It was about The Beatles but it was also about a young boy in Dallas, Texas 5,000 miles away who played Yesterday, Penny Lane, 8 Days a Week, I Want to Hold your Hand and Who Knows How I’ve Loved You over and over again.
Category Rating: A+
Overall Rating: #1
Comments: For me personally this ranked as one of the top days of my trip. The Beatles were such an integral part of my childhood and then to see it all in person was amazing. The Bronte Parsonage and Museum was a close second.