Sunday, March 20, 2011

Cavern Lunches

March 20-26, 1961

The Beatles are wrapping things up in Liverpool now, preparatory to their second Hamburg trip.  Half of these gigs are lunchtime dates at the Cavern.  They play there Monday the 20th, Wednesday the 22nd, and Friday the 24th.  In the evening of the 20th, they also play one of the rougher venues, Hambleton Hall and finally, fittingly, the Casbah on the 26th, their last Liverpool gig before going across to Germany.

I must now reintroduce a character, very important to the story, who I've been neglecting.  We first met him briefly as an associate of promoter Brian Kelly who organized many of the Beatles non-Cavern appearances as Bekay Productions.  He was an early Beatle enthusiast.  If anyone can be said to be the voice of the Merseybeat, it is Bob Wooler.  He is the "compere" (we would say "MC") of jive shows all over Liverpool and is well known to all of the musicians on the scene.

He also has a keen sense of marketing and writes colorful ad copy.  Even though he is in his mid-30s, he seems to be able to speak the teenagers' language when talking up a group or a show.  He shares many of his ideas with the Beatles on how they can increase the excitement factor of their shows, like starting to play at venues with a stage curtain before it goes up.  Just before he announces the Beatles, he has a recording of the "William Tell Overture" played through the house sound system to get the crowd's attention and that song becomes something of a Beatles signature tune. He often introduces them at the Cavern, as well, where they will smoke and eat on stage (after all, it is usually lunch time, right?)

Wanna come?  Down eighteen stone steps into a dark, dank and rather smelly warehouse basement.  The stone walls are dripping with condensation.  Now, just press play and listen to this...

...and imagine a guy in a dark suit and tie who comes up and shouts into the mic "Greetings and salutations jive fans, rockers, rollers ...(similar patter for a couple of minutes running)...  Welcome to the best of the cellars, where we've got the hi-fi high and the lights down low so let's get started with the Beatles show!"  Immediately followed by the opening to Roll Over Beethoven blaring from the amplifiers... 

Now you've got some idea of what the craziness is about.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Marching to a Different Drummer

March 16-19, 1961

The Beatles are at the Cavern again, building a bigger following there now.  Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers says that one of the most striking things about the Beatles relates to Paul's left handedness.  When John stood stage left (the audiences right) and Paul to stage right, they brought a pleasing symmetry to the set up.  They brought to mind bookends for the lead guitarist and drummer, especially on those small stages they played on so often.  That resonates well with their desire to play as an ensemble, not as a "Band Leader and the So-and-Sos" type act, like so many other groups.  Gerry also says that part of the secret of their success was that they had a strong following among young men as well as the girls.  I think we can definitely attribute that to the edginess of their sound.  (NG - Many of the pics used in this video are by Astrid Kircherr.)

On the 17th, they play a gig, their only one, organized by a pair of promoters doing business as Ivamar. And then another gig at the Iron Door.  It was at the Iron Door that our friend Sam Leach gave a young girl, coat check girl at the Cavern, named Priscilla White her first chance on stage in front of a backing band.  She'd soon change her name to Cilla Black and has since become a well known figure on English TV as a bright and pretty singer. Famously, she later recorded a song written by Paul McCartney called "Step Inside Love".  In those days in Liverpool, you couldn't swing a cat without hitting three wonderful musicians.

The 19th is spent at the Casbah Coffee Club in West Derby, the basement club that they had pitched in to decorate before its grand opening.  Must have done wonders for club membership numbers by now!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Looking Forward to Hamburg and Back at Liverpool

March 12-15, 1961

The Beatles are playing all the clubs, usually multiple gigs per day.  The 12th at the Casbah and Sam Leach's Cassanova.  The 13th, a lunchtime gig at the Cavern and later at the Iron Door.  The 14th and 15th, lunch at the Cavern and again at the Iron Door.  They must have figured out by now that another trip to Germany was definitely in the cards for them.  Stuart Sutcliffe is going over early, perhaps to prepare the way for them, but most likely to reconnect with his lovely Astrid, whom he hasn't seen for a couple months, an eternity when you are young and in love.  This demonstrates that they no longer rely on Stu as a full time member of the band, but he does still go on stage with them on occasion.

If you have an idle hour to kill and you want to enter the world occupied by the Beatles, kind of as a "fly on the wall", there is no better way than by watching a bit of early Coronation Street.

Coronation Street was (and still is) a BBC soap opera, set in a fictional town of North West England, somewhere in the vicinity of Liverpool.  I am a great believer that we can learn quite a lot about the everyday lives and culture of people by opening ourselves up to their popular entertainments.  (How can we better come to know Elizabethans than by attentively watching a well-produced Shakespeare play.)  There is much to be gleaned from Coronation Street for those who want to deeply understand the phenomenon of the Beatles.  First, you have to appreciate that the series began before anyone outside of Liverpool itself ever heard of such a thing as the "Merseybeat", so whatever insights to be found are not of the "looking back" variety.  This was TV that was meant to show the little dramas typically to be found in the lives of the people of that time and place, a time and place that would later radically re-contour the landscape of popular music worldwide.  Coronation Street will also help improve your ear for that distinctive North West accent.  It will take a little time, but keep at it.  :-)  Intrigued?  Watch some here.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Sam Leach Innovation

March 11-12,1961

John Lennon once said that Sam Leach was the pulse of Merseybeat, what he did others copied.  Today provides a shining example of that.

Sam has been organizing shows at the Liverpool Jazz Club, popularly know as the Iron Door.  Tonight, he tries something new and audacious, something that he will soon become well known for around Merseybeat circles.  He books 12 bands in order to put on a show that runs for 12 hours.  With a showman's panache, he bills it as a "Rock Around the Clock" show, running from 8 pm on Saturday to 8 am Sunday.  Appearing with the Beatles are Gerry and the Pacemakers, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (featuring Ringo Starr on drums), Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes and many others.  Something like 2000 people rotate in and out of the club to catch at least some of the festivities.

Here's a picture of Rory Storm and some of the Hurricanes taken at the Iron Door.  Do you recognize the drummer?  He looks as if he's been playing the entire 12 hours!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Weird Echo

March 10, 1961

The Beatles play the Cavern for lunch.  Ray McFall has them booked three times a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, most weeks.  In the evening they appear at the Grosvenor Ballroom and St John's Hall, Tuebrook.

While I was watching the American Football Championship game, aka the Superbowl, this year, I was myself bowled over by an odd sideways reference to the Beatles that only a real fan would catch.  It is in the Stella Artois beer commercial starring Adrien Brody.  Brody appears as a chanson singer in a French jazz cellar, obviously the Caveau de Huchette in Paris, which was the original model for the Cavern Club in Liverpool.  Watch the commercial here.  You can almost smell the cigarette smoke mingling with Chanel No 5.  What a wonderful bit of film!

As well as new beginnings, the story of the Beatles also contains its share of melancholy endings.  The Grosvenor Ballroom gig is the beginning of the end for a very important personage in this story.  It is the last job arranged by their quasi-manager and owner of the Jacaranda Club, Alan Williams.  If you've been paying attention, you  know how important Williams and the Jac are to the Beatles early development and how they played a crucial role in getting them to Hamburg last year.  "The moving finger writes and, having writ, moves on."  Omar Khayyam.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Relying on Sam Leach's Memory

March 6-8, 1961

Memory, as anyone knows who tries to write history, is a tricky thing.  Very often the way people remember the "facts" are highly conditioned by his or her own point of view.  I think this phenomenon is especially pronounced in the stories of early '60s Liverpool told by Sam Leach in his book "The Birth of the Beatles".  But, to tell the truth, I wouldn't change a thing about his literary style.  He seems to exemplify so well the rough and tumble world of a Liverpool promoter of that time, even if he does use a bit of literary license at times.

You've met him before on this blog.  He's the guy who was the victim of a practical joke ginned up by perennial adversary and Beatles quasi-manager Alan Williams.  That story involved scantily clad dancing girls on stage at a show of his attended by his mom and members of the local constabulary.  This time he's mixing it up with Ray McFall, the owner and manager of the Cavern Club.

Competition among promoters for the Beatles, as well as other bands, each with their own following of fans, is becoming fierce.  Leach has decided to cash in on the popularity of the groups by opening another club in central Liverpool just a few steps away from the Cavern.  The venue he chooses is officially named the Liverpool Jazz Society, but is always known to locals as the Iron Door, based on its street-facing portal.

Sam decides to open the club with a bang, advertising heavily in the local press and creating as much buzz as he can through his extensive contacts.  He also schedules as many of the popular bands as he can manage both during lunch and in the evening sessions.  This on a Monday, traditionally a slow day for entertainment.  The Beatles were booked to play the evening.

The day was a huge success for Sam.  Both sessions had to turn fans away for lack of space to put them.  Ray McFall has finally seen the rock and roll light and, naturally, is not amused.  These upstart shows will definitely cut into his profits   Here's how Sam Leach puts it in his book, "Ray McFall, like King Canute, had begun to realize you cannot turn back the tide."  lol

The Beatles play the next day at Sam's Cassanova Club.  Then, the story really starts to get murky.  According to Sam, he has also booked them on Wednesday the 8th, ostensibly after they are done with their lunch time Cavern session.  McFall is understandably upset at this turn of events, so Sam sends an assistant over to try to negotiate with him but without entertaining much hope that this would succeed.  I'll let Sam take it from there.

"Half an hour later, I was apologizing profusely to the assembled Beatle fans when a grinning John Lennon came ambling into the club, carrying his guitar over his shoulder.  Not far behind came the others, laughing between themselves.  John smirked.  'You get worse, Leachy', he chuckled and disappeared toward the stage to a great roar from the fans I'd let in for free to ease their disappointment.  Cheerfully, Paul gave me a wink.  'McFall's gonna sue you!', he said.

"Open mouthed and worried what mischief Terry [the assistant] had gotten up to, I collared George and asked him what happened.  'Somebody lobbed a load of stink-bombs around the Cavern and he's had to close down for the day.  Rather than pay us for not playing, he said we could come here, just  this once.'  I was amazed that anyone would notice the smell in that dungeon of a place.  To this day Terry denies having anything to do with it, but I have my doubts."

Apocryphal?  Perhaps.  But not less amusing because of it.

Mark Lewisohn, a far more reliable source, has them later that evening at the Aintree Institute and Hambleton Hall.

Photo from website - Sam is at the right

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Coming in Like a Lion

March 1 - 5, 1961

The Beatles are entering their last month playing in Liverpool before they depart on their second campaign to Hamburg, Germany.  They will go across this time a much more accomplished band, but still primarily a cover band.

Veteran followers of this blog will remember that the Beatles left Hamburg last year under something of a cloud when it was discovered that George Harrison was not yet 18 years old and that no one had taken the trouble to apply for official permission for any of them to work in Germany.  Allen Williams is still in touch with his entertainment colleagues in Hamburg and Peter Eckhorn is anxious to have the Beatles at the Top Ten Club.  Unlike the other places the Beatles played in Hamburg, the Top Ten is right on the brightly lit Reeperbahn.  At the end of 1960, the Beatles had been living above the club and unofficially jamming there with the likes of Tony Sheridan  (known to them as "the Teacher" because of his well developed guitar technique.)

It is Allen Williams who takes it upon himself to straighten out the relationship between the band and the German Government. (Of course, he is thinking of his commission, if he does manage to work out another trip across for them.)  On March 1st, he sends a letter to the German Consul in Liverpool vouching for the character of the boys and asking permission for them to return to Germany.    Meanwhile, the Beatles are playing gigs at the Aintree (twice), Litherland, St John's Hall and the Casbah.

Allan Williams