Perhaps the most memorable character in Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s projected three-volume biography of The Beatles, is not a person at all but a place – Liverpool, England. Given the fascinating personalities involved here, that says a lot. But the fact is: funny, drunk, dirty, old Liverpool permeates every aspect of the book. One might even predict that the subsequent volumes of the project will be, more than anything, about the Beatles’ expanding geography after their rise in Liverpool – becoming, first, a national, and then an international phenomenon – the actual story of the four lads from Merseyside perhaps becoming, in the process, less interesting.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. In terms of the first volume, which covers the Beatles’ history from their births in the early 1940s to the late 1962 release of their first single, “Love Me Do” b/w “P. S. I Love You,” Liverpool sets the scene for everything here. Through Lewisohn’s meticulously researched but transporting prose, we explore the city in the pleasurable company of these four boys: skipping school, riding around town on the top of double-decker buses, cadging cigarettes, browsing records in downtown music shops, and chatting up girls. The only real competition for Liverpool as a setting here is Hamburg, Germany – where the early Beatles had several momentous musical residencies in 1960, 1961, and 1962. But it’s in their hometown, Liverpool, and especially in the Cavern Club downtown, that they consolidated the gains of those five Hamburg trips; and it’s from Liverpool that they emerged at the end of that period, on the cusp of conquering London, and, indeed, the world.
The curious thing about the book, though, is that there isn’t a single map in it! For anyone who has followed this blog so far, you can imagine my disappointment. I loved the book – and can’t wait for Volumes 2 and 3. And there are some wonderful photographs here. But I can’t be the only reader of these 800 pages who wanted more of a visual orientation to Liverpool, that famously working-class port city in northwest England, with its Irish tendencies and its raucous mix of music, alcohol, and “laffs.” We might think we know Liverpool from songs like “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”; but to really understand Lewisohn’s story, you have to know much more about the physical and social geography referenced here, from the Albert Dock and Pier Head to Wavertree and the Wirral, from Liverpool 8 and Toxteth to the Dingle and Sefton Park – the list goes on and on. I constantly found myself consulting atlases and wikipedia articles. Couldn’t the author and/or publisher have included a map or two?
Take just one moment in this story that would have been enhanced, I believe, by more visual attention to setting: the day when John Lennon and Paul McCartney met in the summer of 1957, when the boys were, respectively, 16 and 15 years old, both still learning to play the guitar, equally obsessed with the music of their American idols – Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and the rest – and already accomplished rock ‘n roll singers. That year John Lennon formed a musical group called The Quarrymen, really little more than backing for his antics in front of the microphone. Paul McCartney, more gifted instrumentally but less brash personally, knew that being in front of a microphone was where he wanted to be, too.
On July 6, 1957, the two met for the first time at a Saturday afternoon garden party in St. Peter’s parish, Woolton, in south Liverpool, where the Quarrymen were playing. There’s a famous photograph of John Lennon taken that day, already clearly possessed of enormous charisma, and staring right into the camera.
When Paul arrived, accompanied by mutual friend Ivan Vaughn, John was singing the Del-Vikings’ “Come Go With Me,” and botching the lyrics. “Down, down, down to the penitentiary,” he sang, Paul later claimed.
At the time, John Lennon lived with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George in a “semidetached suburban villa” called Mendips at 251 Menlove Avenue in Woolton. Paul lived with his father and brother a mile away, at 20 Forthlin Road, a “terraced council house” in Allerton, another south Liverpool suburb.
In the map below, you can make out St. Peter’s church close by John’s house. You can also see the Allerton Municipal Golf Course, which the two boys would soon be using as a short cut between their homes. By fall 1957, they were spending a great deal of time together: horsing around, teaching each other guitar chords, even writing their first songs. “Once I got to know John, it all changed,” Paul would later say (8).
By November, 1957, Paul was not just in the Quarrymen, he was standing with John at the front of the group. And he had convinced the other lads, including John, to invest in jackets and ties. (Note Paul’s upside-down guitar, the only way he could play it left-handed.)
When I look at this photograph, I wonder: are they playing Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock”? Gene Vincent’s take on Little Richard’s “Rip It Up”? Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day”? These were all favorite records of the boys.
Regardless of the song, by late 1957, the story of John Lennon and Paul McCartney was quickly encompassing not just an ever-expanding American playlist but an ever-widening Merseyside geography, as the two roamed the city, looking for gigs, meeting other rock ‘n rollers, and continuing their search for the best new records. In the map below, you can see how Allerton and Woolton fit into the larger Liverpool scene. (The green of Google Maps is deceptive here: Liverpool in this era, even in these upper working-class “suburbs,” was – in Mark Lewisohn’s telling – a dark, dreary, urban landscape, replete with crime, unemployment, and alcoholism. For teenagers on the loose, however, at least in the late 1950s, it was a rich backdrop for adventures, musical and otherwise.)
In the lower right hand corner of the map, right above today’s Liverpool John Lennon Airport, you can see Speke, where 14-year-old George Harrison lived (actually 25 Upton Green) – he was a friend and schoolmate of Paul’s. George ate, slept, and dreamt guitars, and by early 1958 he was a key part of John and Paul’s musical plans, the other members of the Quarrymen drifting away, one by one.
Seventeen-year-old Richy Starkey, meanwhile, lived in a grittier part of Liverpool, in the Dingle, near Toxteth along the upper left-hand edge of the map (actually 10 Admiral Grove). He wouldn’t join the other three until late 1962, when the group (or Brian Epstein, acting on their behalf) got rid of Pete Best, having finally found the “fookin drummer” they’d been looking for.
After John, Paul, and George linked up in early 1958, the next two years were full of fits and starts musically, as the three pursued their dreams of rock ‘n roll fame while trying to hold down jobs and/or attend school. We need a whole other map of Liverpool to represent those years, featuring such sites as the Casbah Club in north Liverpool, really the basement of future drummer Pete Best’s home, where the group had a regular Sunday gig playing for other teenagers. And then there’s downtown Liverpool itself, including not only the Institute High School and adjoining Art College, where John, Paul, and George all found themselves from 1958-1960, but also the Cavern Club on Mathew Street where Beatlemania would begin in earnest in 1961, the Jacaranda Coffee House, where the boys relaxed when they weren’t playing the Cavern, and NEMS music store on Whitechapel Street, whose owner, Brian Epstein, would become their manager at the end of 1961.
There are various maps available of the Beatles’ Liverpool; the best, in my opinion, is this spread designed by David Atkinson, which appeared in Q magazine in 1995.
But the story of the Beatles from 1957-1958, when John, Paul, and George began playing together, to 1961-1962, when the band began to take off, is not a uniformly happy one. By mid-1960, in fact, the boys had stalled as a group – they had competing demands on their time and energy, the cost of instruments and equipment was high, and it was hard to find well-paying gigs. On top of all that, they were far from being the best rock ‘n roll band in Liverpool – and any wider reception seemed a distant dream.
That’s when the boys suddenly landed their first “tour.” The story of that trip is one of my favorite parts of Tune In – and it’s another place in the narrative where I badly wanted a map!
Here’s what happened: in early May, 1960, the newly christened “Beatles” (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Stuart Sutcliffe, John’s friend from art school, who was just then learning the bass) heard about an opportunity to back a singer in Scotland for a week – for pay. So, on Tuesday, May 10, they auditioned in a club in downtown Liverpool, borrowing a drummer, Tommy Moore, from another group.
At first, they didn’t get the gig. But, a week later, on May 18, when every other group auditioning ended up unable to go, the tour promoter, Larry Parnes, asked the Beatles if they could do the job after all – and be ready to leave for Scotland the next day!
That night, writes Lewisohn, was “the turning point in their lives” (306) – it was the moment when the Beatles committed, once and for all, to really being a rock ‘n’ roll band. Each of them was either in school or had a job: to drop everything on such short notice and go to Scotland for a week, to back a pop singer, was to jeopardize whatever progress they’d been making in the other parts of their lives – and to enrage parents, guardians, teachers, and employers in the process.
John Lennon was 19 years old at the time. Fiercely intelligent but never a good student, he had failed his O-Level exams two years before. But he had impressed one teacher enough to get a letter of recommendation to Liverpool Art College downtown. There, he met Stuart Sutcliffe, also 19 and heading for what many thought would be a brilliant career as a painter. But Stu, like so many others before and after him, was under the spell of John Lennon; and, like John, he decided to ditch the coming week of classes and exams to take the gig in Scotland. Neither would ever recover academically.
Paul McCartney, meanwhile, was a month shy of his 18th birthday; a better student than both John Lennon and George Harrison, he had passed enough O-Level exams the year before to stay on at Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, which adjoined the Art College downtown. In fact, Paul was just a couple of weeks away from sitting his A-Levels, a future as an English teacher perhaps in the offing. But there was also rock ‘n roll . . . In order to go to Scotland with the Beatles, he lied to his father: “Few greater illustrations exist of what the group meant to Paul McCartney” (306), writes Lewisohn. If mother Mary had been alive, she would have said no.
As for George Harrison, he had just turned 17 on February 25, 1960. Having left Liverpool Institute the year before, he was now jobbing as an electrician’s apprentice downtown, slowly working his way up in his new trade, and the stable future it portended. On the day the Beatles left for Scotland, George simply didn’t show up for work – losing not only the job but what progress he had made on his apprenticeship. His future was now all about guitars.
So, in May, 1960, they all did it – casting their lots, singly and together, for rock ‘n roll. If, before Scotland, each of the boys had lived two parallel lives, a student or worker during the day, member of a struggling rock ‘n roll band at night, after the trip, they were now fully, fervently, committed to a life of music, and, more importantly, to each other. In Lewisohn’s telling, it’s a thrilling moment.
The Scottish “tour,” it turned out, involved seven dates in seven different towns in northern Scotland. The group would be backing Johnny Gentle, a moderately successful pop singer of the time. If they made it to the end of the week, they’d get 15 pounds each, in cash.
The first stop was Friday, May 20, at the Town Hall in Alloa, Clackmannanshire, Scotland. In publicity for the gig, the Beatles appear as part of “Johnny Gentle and His Group.”
A photo from the date survives, showing Johnny Gentle singing to a room full of girls, George Harrison playing guitar behind him.
The next night, Saturday, May 21, the lads backed Johnny in the Northern Meeting Ballroom in Inverness. Again, they are the “group” behind the singer. Ironically, when the Beatles later emerged on their own, their lack of a lead singer would make them distinctive – they really were a “group.” All the other Liverpool bands were Somebody and the Somethings: Rory and the Hurricanes, Garry and the Pacemakers, Cass and the Cassanovas. Although John Lennon was always clearly the “leader,” the three principal musicians – John, Paul, and George – genuinely shared singing duties, sometimes literally alternating lead on different songs: John on the ones he liked, next Paul, then George, etc. Often, John and Paul would sing lead in unison; and always there were intricate harmonies and great backing vocals.
In Scotland in May, 1960, though, the Beatles were simply the “group” behind Johnny Gentle.
After Saturday night in Inverness, the boys had a day off. Then, on Monday, May 23, they played in Dalrymple Hall, Fraserburgh (Aberdeenshire), a building which exists to this day:
After a show Wednesday, May 25, in St. Thomas’ Hall, Keith, they played Thursday, May 26, at the Town Hall in Forres:
After Forres, on Friday, May 27, the tour moved to the Regal Ballroom in Nairn and then to Rescue Hall in Peterhead on Saturday, May 28, the last show of the gig. By Monday, May 30, the lads were back in Liverpool.
In many ways, the trip was a failure – the pay was poor, the travel exhausting, the limelight always on somebody else. The boys realized how much they still had to learn – as musicians, as performers, as a band – and how hard the road ahead would be. They realized as well how crappy their amplifiers were. Still, they glimpsed something in the future that drew them on.
A year later, when the group was starting to develop a real following in Liverpool, John Lennon wrote about the Scottish tour in a short essay titled “Being a Short Diversion On The Dubious Origins of Beatles,” which appeared in the first issue of the Liverpool music magazine Mersey Beat (July 6, 1961). It’s a silly moment in a silly piece, one which begins sweetly enough:
Once upon a time there were three little boys called John, George and Paul, by name christened. They decided to get together because they were the getting together type. When they were together they wondered what for, after all, what for? So all of a sudden they all grew guitars and formed a noise.
The second paragraph mentions the May, 1960, tour – and the group’s equipment problems – but also offers what would become a famous explanation for the Beatles’ name.
Suddenly, in Scotland, touring with Johnny Gentle, the group (called the Beatles called) discovered they had not a very nice sound – because they had no amplifiers. They got some. Many people ask what are Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles, how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, “From this day on you are Beatles with an A.” Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him.
If the Scottish tour was a warm-up, a test of resolve and commitment, a glimpse into what a rock ‘n roll life might be, the real thing was now on the horizon. Just two months after returning from Scotland, the group, newly determined, scored their most important gig of all: three months playing, on their own, at a club in Germany. This was their famous first residency in Hamburg – when the group really became the Beatles. Lewisohn’s story of the boys’ first trip to Hamburg is even more thrilling than his story of their Scottish tour – and, like that earlier story, it too is unaccompanied by any visual orientation! So, as above, I made my own maps, admittedly rudimentary, the one below showing the route (by van and ferry) the group took in mid-August, 1960, from Liverpool to Hamburg.
In Hamburg, in fall 1960, the Beatles’ musical home was the Indra Club, Grosse Freiheit 64, near the Reeperbahn, in the St. Pauli quarter: a seamy place, drenched in beer, full of strip clubs, infected by criminals and mobsters. For the Beatles, it turned out to be an extraordinary place to practice, several hours a night, seven days a week, making live music in front of a demanding audience. The Indra Club exists to this day:
And here are the Beatles on their first night playing in Hamburg: August 17, 1960. The four members from the Scottish tour (John, Paul, George, and Stu) are now joined by a full-time drummer, Pete Best.
The Beatles returned to Hamburg four more times after this 1960 visit. Shown below are the Indra Club, where the group played in fall 1960 (Grosse Freiheit 64); the Bambi Kino, where they slept during that trip (Paul Roosen Strasse 33); the Kaiserkeller, where they played at the end of the 1960 trip (Grosse Freiheit 36); the Top Ten Club, where they played in spring 1961 (Reeperbahn 136); and the Star Club, where they played during their three 1962 trips to the city (Grosse Freiheit 39).
Once again, the Google map is deceptive. The St. Pauli quarter where the Beatles played was urban and seedy, a raw place full of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Here, for example, is a photo of the Star Club, where the Beatles played in 1962.
In all, the Beatles played five residencies in Hamburg from 1960-1962. Lewisohn estimates that they accumulated there 1,100 hours of live performance across 38 weeks of playing – “the equivalent of three hours every night for a full year” (802). This is a remarkable record for any band. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the Beatles in Hamburg is that, from their first gig at the Indra Club in fall 1960, they set themselves the challenge of never playing the same song twice during a single night.
The experience of the five Hamburg trips, 1960-1962, no doubt changed the group – and propelled them towards the breakout year of 1963. But it was really that first residency, at the Indra and Kaiserkeller Clubs in fall 1960, that had the most effect on the group. After those three months, the Beatles were suddenly a real rock ‘n roll band, in every way, including their look. Below is the famous photograph of the group taken by Astrid Kirchherr, Stu’s German lover, in November, 1960, near the end of their first residency in Hamburg.
When the Beatles returned to Liverpool in December, 1960, soon after the photograph above, they took the city by storm. “When they came back from Germany,” a member of a rival group later said, “it was like they knew something we didn’t” (399).
Within a year, they would change their look again, now under the influence of new manager Brian Epstein. And their fortunes would rise rapidly. The year after that, 1962, would see their first recording sessions at EMI studios in London and the release of their first single, the original Lennon & McCartney songs “Love Me Do” b/w “P. S. I Love You.” Meanwhile, they continued playing daily at the Cavern Club in downtown Liverpool. The short movie below, filmed in August, 1962, shows the Beatles on the cusp of Beatlemania.
It’s here, in late 1962, that Tune In ends. The remarkable story of 1963 and 1964, when the group was catapulted to fame, first, in England, and then in the United States, will no doubt be told in Volume 2; and Volume 3 will probably take up the story at some later point in the ’60s and bring it to some kind of conclusion, perhaps with the death of John Lennon in 1980.
But it’s hard to imagine anything as entertaining – as fascinating, as funny, as inspiring – as the story of the boys’ early years in Liverpool.
Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, Vol. 1 of his projected 3-volume biography The Beatles: All These Years, was published in New York City by Crown Archetype in 2013.
The Beatles’ Childhood Homes at the UK’s National Trust can be found here.
The Beatles Bible can be found here.
The BeatleSource can be found here.
The Beatles Official Website can be found here.
DM’s Beatles site can be found here.
As a bonus for reading this far, here’s Elvis Costello singing “Penny Lane,” probably the best song ever written about Liverpool, at the White House in 2010, when Paul McCartney received the Gershwin Prize from President Obama.