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Merseybeat and The Cavern - Sixties City
Merseybeat and The Cavern - Sixties City

The Cavern - The Beginning

Liverpool in the 1950s, like so many other cities in Britain, was recovering from the effects of the second world war. Liverpool had been, for over a century, the centre for merchant shipping and the area around the docks was the heart of a vast industry, employing thousands of Liverpudlians. From shipbuilding to commerce, Liverpool was a buzzing hive of activity where, similar to much of the country, young people were beginning to find a new identity. The post-war boom had seen incomes expand with jobs in plentiful supply and more disposable income in people's pockets. For the youth of the Fifties the new-found freedom from the harshness of war would soon manifest itself in a new culture. The youngsters of Liverpool were to become passionate about a different and exciting form of music from America called Rock 'n' Roll and a certain young singing truck driver called Elvis Presley. Very soon, the clubs around Liverpool, which had previously moved to the beat of music from the Big Band sounds of the Forties to the emergence of Jazz, would begin to take an interest in this wild, new-found sound from the USA Many were of the opinion that Rock 'n' Roll was just a passing phase, but they were so very wrong.

Merseybeat and The Cavern - Sixties City
Inside the 'best of cellars'
In Liverpool, one such club would soon be known the world over as the birthplace of the greatest musical revolution in history - The Cavern. The club can nowadays be found in a former basement cellar at number 10 Mathew Street, Liverpool 2, which is situated just off Liverpool’s city centre, but during the 1950’s no shopper would ever have wandered down this narrow byway.

It was then little more than two rows of seven-storey warehouses where, throughout the day, lorry loads of fruit and vegetables were off-loaded. During the war the basement at 10 Mathew Street had been used as an air raid shelter and was later utilised to store wines and spirits. In 1956 the main building was in use as a storage area for electrical goods, but the downstairs cellar was vacant . . . .

The man who created The Cavern club was Alan Sytner. Prior to The Cavern, Alan had owned two other nightclubs in Liverpool - the West Coast Jazz Club and the 21 Jazz Club. These were fairly successful, but Alan wanted to open a new and much more innovative establishment. He desperately needed an unusual idea for the new venture and, while on a holiday in France, he found it on a visit to Paris's Jazz district on the West Bank where many clubs were actually built into caves. Alan decided that the design for the new club would be based on one of the Paris clubs he particularly liked called 'Le Caveau'. The club resembled a series of caves, each small and damp but amazingly atmospheric. Sound travelled around the club beautifully, especially the sound of the jazz trumpet of which Alan was a great fan. Back in Liverpool, Alan began his search for a similar venue in the city centre, eventually setting his sights on a group of cellars in Mathew Street which seemed to be perfect. With small arches and lengthy vaults, the cellars hugely resembled the caves of Paris and Alan had found his venue.
Merseybeat and The Cavern - Sixties City
A rare picture of Mathew Street taken during the 1930s

The Doors Open

On 16th January 1957 the 'Cavern' club opened its doors for the first time. On the opening bill that night were 'The Merseysippi Jazz Band' - little did they know it, but they were playing the opening night of the 20th century's most famous nightclub. 2000 people queued up to get into the club on that opening night, with only 600 people being allowed in. The Cavern was an instant success - within 3 years membership totalled an unparalleled 20,000 people, bands came to play there from all over the world and the club became a national focal point in the UK Jazz scene. History was, in 1959, already being made. A single white bulb lighted the doorway into The Cavern and eighteen stone steps led you down into the cellar which was divided by archways into three long, dimly-lit tunnels.
The walls were painted black and there were no curtains or decorations. The first tunnel area was used to collect money and was also utilised as a cloakroom, with a room at the end which adjoined the stage that served as the bands' dressing room. The middle tunnel was the largest and contained the stage itself and rows of wooden chairs. All the lighting was concentrated onto the stage and, again, consisted of white bulbs. The third tunnel area was used for dancing.

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Inside the club temperatures were high and during 1957 the local council sent public health inspectors into the club to obtain air samples. Outside it was a modest 52 degrees Fahrenheit, but inside the club it was 82 degrees - a marked difference considering that the club had no heating! It’s also amazing that the club was such a success as The Cavern did not have a licence to sell any alcohol. Only soft drinks were sold inside the club, but many teenagers would smuggle in alcohol in small hip flasks. The place to go for a drink was just across the narrow street at 'The Grapes' pub, where the bands that had just finished their stint at The Cavern would often join other performers and their fans in a cooling drink or two.
While mainstream Jazz played centre stage at The Cavern in its early days, another musical genre called 'Skiffle' was forcing its way onto The Cavern's play list. "A type of folk music with Jazz and Blues influence", Skiffle music was a true home-grown form of music played on homemade instruments comprising of a washboard, a tea chest bass, an acoustic guitar and, if you were lucky enough to know someone who had some, a set of drums.

The Skiffle Era

Though well-established in the US since the 1940's, Skiffle only really became popular in the UK during the late 50's. One such young Skiffle band who performed there on 7th August 1957 were The Quarrymen, whose leader was 17-year old John Lennon from Woolton. The band had just recently acquired a new member, 15-year old Paul McCartney from Allerton, but Paul did not perform with them on this particular night as he was away at scout camp! Paul had met the band on 6th July that year at the Woolton Church garden fete. Bandleader John Lennon was impressed by the young McCartney’s knowledge of song lyrics and his talent on the guitar and asked him to join a few days later.
The Quarrymen’s set list on this night consisted of a number of standard Skiffle songs such as ‘Come Go With Me’, originally recorded by the Del-Vikings. However, Lennon’s attempt to throw in songs such as ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ by the young emerging American singer Elvis Presley were greeted by a note sent to the stage by Alan Sytner which read ”Cut out the bloody rock!”. The Quarrymen returned to the club in 1958 on the 24th January, this time with Paul McCartney performing guitar duties. The following month the Quarrymen had another new member - 14-year old George Harrison from Speke, a school friend of Paul’s.

The Quarrymen would soon disband and out of the nucleus of that band would be formed a new group containing John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, a band that was at the time without a drummer. That was until the three met up with 18-year old Peter Best from West Derby. The embryo Beatles were born.Skiffle grew and grew at the club until it was decided to use the Skiffle bands as a launching pad for a new lunchtime opening. The lunchtime sessions were created to target city centre workers who would, during the night time, prefer to socialise in their own respective areas outside the city centre. The sessions proved a huge success and even attracted school children due to its daytime opening and no-alcohol policies.

Beat is Born

In 1959 Alan Sytner decided to sell The Cavern after moving to London with his new wife. The buyer was a man called Ray McFall, an accountant and an avid Jazz fan, but notably a person who hated 'Beat' music - the very music that was about to take the world by storm. By 1960 The Cavern was losing a lot of new customers to its competitors around the city - competitors who mainly played Beat music. McFall had a major dilemma on his hands. Should he continue to keep The Cavern as a predominantly Jazz club and lose custom or adopt the Beat phenomenon and attract a younger crowd with more money to spend?
The latter was the decision, but initially only as an experiment.

Merseybeat and The Cavern - Sixties City
Dancing in The Cavern 1960
Beat was allocated one night a week (Wednesdays) while Jazz continued to be played every other night. The first Beat night on the 25th May 1960 was headlined by 'Rory Storm and the Hurricanes' whose drummer was a young man from the Dingle area of Liverpool called Richard Starkey, know to his friends as Ringo Starr. The night was a huge success, even though the event was boycotted by the club's older members. Ray McFall realised that a new era was taking shape and he put into operation plans to convert The Cavern into a full-time Beat club.

The year is 1961 and Beat has now taken over Tuesday nights, some lunch times and Wednesdays at the club. Jazz and all its genres is slowly fading in The Cavern, and on Thursday 8th February 1961 it is practically 'put to sleep' when The Beatles make their Cavern debut in a lunchtime session. They were paid the princely sum of £5 for this performance which was the start of what was soon to be called Mersey Beat and a sound that was to take over the world.

The Beatles, who at this time also included John’s school friend Stuart Sutcliffe on bass, had just returned from Hamburg, Germany, where they had technically come on leaps and bounds in their playing. All, that is, except for Stuart whose performance on the bass was very limited, his fingers more attuned to fine art than picking out riffs on his newly-acquired Hofner President bass guitar. However, he looked the part and to John Lennon this mattered just as much as the music - the rest of them could cover for him. He was a 'Beatle' and they were all going places - all for one and one for all.

The somewhat 'workhouse - like' German clubs demanded that bands play up to eight hours a night, every night, which in anyone's terms is an awful lot of playing. Their time in Hamburg was, without a doubt, beneficial to the band's overall appeal. They looked better (leather clad), sounded better and essentially discovered how to pull in a crowd. Their debut was an instant success with the locals and accordingly they were booked again and again. The band was immediately given three to four lunchtime slots per week, as well as most weekends.

Very quickly The Beatles began to develop a strong rapport with the audiences who just couldn't get enough of them. In fact, in a matter of weeks, The Cavern had to introduce pre-purchased tickets in an attempt to keep the Mathew Street queues at bay. This backfired somewhat on McFall in that the exclusiveness of tickets quite simply increased interest and, thus, the number of those hanging around outside the club. The Beatles had acquired their first prize - Liverpool.
Merseybeat and The Cavern - Sixties City
Cavern queue - Mathew Street 1961

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