The Cavern: The place that gave birth to The Beatles
I loved the Cavern. It was a claustrophobic hell, but it was a great one. — Paul McCartney
MANILA, Philippines - The Cavern, the most famous pub on earth, so they say, marked the 50th year since The Beatles first appeared there in 1961. For 30 months from that time to August 1963, The Beatles played in this underground pub 292 times and left its premises as British superstars. There should be not much controversy to plot the Cavern as the birthplace of The Beatles.
Looking back at those days when The Beatles played at the Cavern, one may say that this famous underground cellar was a silent witness to the transformation that happened with the group.
It was there where The Beatles received proper recognition as a group of musicians. John Lennon recalled, “We stood there being cheered for the first time. This was when we began to think that we were good. Up to Hamburg we’d thought we were OK, but not good enough. It was only back in Liverpool that we realized the difference and saw what happened to us while everyone else was playing Cliff Richard...”
It was there where The Beatles took Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans to join permanently the entourage. Neil had related, “They were using cabs at the time and all the money they were earning was going to the cab drivers. I had a van and needed the money... I did that for £1 a night, which... was better than the £2.50 (a week) I was getting as a trainee accountant.” As The Beatles got more dates for gigs outside Liverpool by the early part of 1963, Neil needed another pair of hands, especially to pack, carry and set up the group’s equipment. Mal, who frequented the Cavern and got hooked to The Beatles and eventually became a bouncer in the pub, readily gave up his job and joined as a group roadie.
It was there where The Beatles unknowingly enthralled Mr. Brian Epstein to manage them. “Brian took his PA, Alistair Taylor, along for the support and they stood at the back of the crowd and heard, John, Paul, George and Pete on stage, although they can’t have seen much. Nevertheless, Brian was bowled over by them… He also liked how they behaved, and he found them very animalistic. They were unkempt, they didn’t comb their hair — and, most importantly, they were lithe and physically attractive,” Bob Wooler, the Cavern DJ, narrated.
It was also there where The Beatles polished their act with professional supervision from Brian. “Brian Epstein said, ‘Look, if you really want to get in these bigger places, you’re going to have to change — stop eating on stage, stop swearing, stop smoking…’” John explained. “He wasn’t trying to clean our image up: He said our look wasn’t right, we’d never get past the door at a good place,” he continued.
They were at the Cavern when The Beatles experienced the biggest rejection in their career at that point, when Decca turned them down. Dick Rowe grossly miscalculated the musical trend at that time when he declared in justifying the rejection, “Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr. Epstein.” John disagreed, “I listened to it. I wouldn’t have turned us down on that. I think it sounded OK. Especially the last half of it, for the period it was. There weren’t many people playing music like that then. I think Decca expected us to be polished (but) we were just doing a demo. They should have seen our potential.”
They were still at the Cavern when they suffered the first casualty in the group. “In April 1962,” George Harrison recalled, “Stuart Sutcliffe died. He had already left the band. Not long before he died, he showed up in Liverpool (in the Pierre Cardin jacket with no collar, he had one before we did) and he went around and hung out with us — almost as if he’d had a premonition that he wasn’t going to see us again.” Stuart died a day before The Beatles reached Hamburg for a stint. John was most devastated, and said, “I looked up to Stu. I depended on him to tell me the truth.”
They were still playing at the Cavern when the permanent cast of the group materialized. Pete Best had to go and Ringo Starr took his place. George asserted, “To me it was apparent: Pete kept being sick and not showing up for gigs so we could get Ringo to sit in with the band instead, and every time Ringo sat in, it seemed like ‘this is it.’ Eventually we realized, ‘We should get Ringo in the band full time.’
“John said, ‘Get rid of your beard, Ringo, and change your hairstyle,’” Ringo recalled. “I cut my hair, as the saying goes, and joined the band. I never felt sorry for Pete Best. I was not involved. Besides, I felt I was a much better drummer than he was.”
They were yet at the Cavern when the big break came — EMI signed them up for audition and eventually a record deal. Paul McCartney shared, “In September (1962) we went down to London with Ringo and played for EMI again. By this time we did have a contract. This was our intro to that world…”
Yes, they were still at the Cavern when the first single came out. “Even though Love Me Do didn’t make No. 1, it was exciting. All we had wanted was a piece of vinyl — my God, a record that you hadn’t made in some booth somewhere!” said Ringo.
They were yet at the Cavern when Please Please Me, the second single with the accompanying album of the same title, was recorded and rose to the top of the charts. Please Please Me ruled the charts in Britain by February 1963 and an album became the logical next step. “I had been up to the Cavern and I’d seen what they could do,” George Martin related. “I knew their repertoire... and I said, ‘Let’s record every song you’ve got, come down to the studios and we just whistle through them in a day.’ We started about 11 in the morning, finished about 11 at night, and recorded a complete album during that time.”
And, finally, The Beatles were still doing the Cavern when they started populating radio and television shows and their presence in concert halls triggered hysteria from among fans. Beatlemania, as it was widely understood, already gripped Liverpool long before the term was coined. The Beatles concluded their appearances at the Cavern when the time was ripe to rule over Britain.
The Cavern had official address at 10 Mathew St. in Liverpool center, with an area of 58 feet by 39 feet and was 11 feet below street level. It used to be a part of a warehouse. Entrepreneur Alan Sytner developed the Cavern as a replica of a Paris basement jazz club Le Caveau de la Huchette; hence, the English equivalent’s name.
“My first memories (of the place) were of us trying to get booked there, but in the early days the Cavern only booked jazz and blues artists and frowned upon upstart rock ‘n rollers like ourselves. We fibbed about our repertoire and managed to get a date there… When the owners of the Cavern realized what we were doing, they sent up little notes to the stage complaining but by then it was too late and we had managed to infiltrate,” intimates Paul in his Foreword to Spencer Leigh’s book The Cavern: The Most Famous Club in the World.
True enough, the Cavern was the “home base for the Liverpool beat musicians,” admits author Spencer Leigh. It opened on Jan. 16, 1957 as a straight jazz and blues hangout which gained prominence in no time thanks to the promotional skills of Sytner. The new hangout attracted quite a number of bands including skiffle ones. The Quarrymen, John’s first band, landed a gig in it, too. On Aug. 7, 1957, the Quarrymen made their debut performance at the Cavern. Alan recalls in Leigh’s book, “Skiffle was a breeding ground for musicians — one or two of them became jazz musicians, but more ended up doing rock ‘n roll. I knew John Lennon quite well as we lived in the same area: He lived 400 yards up the road from me. He was 16 and arrogant and hadn’t got a clue, but that was John Lennon.”
The group did not start well with the owner. Colin Hanton, the Quarrymen’s drummer, offered his memories of that day to Leigh, “We did some skiffle numbers to start off with at the Cavern but we also did rock ‘n roll. John was passed a note and he said to the audience, ‘We’ve had a request.’ He opened it up and it was Alan saying, ‘Cut out the bloody rock ‘n roll.’”
Several phases may describe the Cavern: From 1957 to 1961, the period jazz and blues ruled the pub; from 1961 to 1973, rock ‘n roll dominated its scene; from 1984 to date, it’s now used primarily to celebrate the music of The Beatles and Merseyside music. It was torn down in 1973 only to reemerge as an exact replica of the original on the opposite side of the street in 1984.