What Was It That Made The Cavern So Special?

What Was It That Made The Cavern So Special?

Daily Mail, August 7, 2015

You would never have called it glamorous. Based in a couple of stifling, barrel arched cellars beneath a fruit and vegetable warehouse, eighteen steps down from a cobbled alleyway just four blocks from the River Mersey, it didn’t have a single pretence to sophistication. But to a teenage Cilla Black, by day a typist at the cable manufacturers BICC, the Cavern at 10 Mathew Street Liverpool, must, in 1962, have been as exciting a place to start a singing career as she could have imagined.

Because, in the brief window of a couple of years in the early Sixties, before anyone realised that the new decade would be unlike any previous era, the Cavern – and no one in Liverpool ever gave the place its full name of the Cavern Club – captured the changing spirit of the times like nowhere else in the country.

Despite the wafts of rotting fruit from the floors above, and the drenching humidity, with condensation running down the black painted walls of the catacombs to mix with the perspiration of anything up to 250 teenagers, the Cavern was a magnet.

Not just for attracting the talent of the Beatles, who played there two hundred and ninety one times between 1961 and 1963, nor for Cilla, whom they recommended to their manager Brian Epstein; nor for all the other Cavern artists, groups like the Searchers and Gerry And The Pacemakers.
But for the drawing the young audiences, who, by word of mouth, heard about something extraordinary that was happening in their city, and then made the club the focus of their youth.

With the price of admission one shilling and sixpence (about 7.5 pence), and even less if you were a member, the Cavern’s low stage, so close to the fans that you could hand in a request to your favourite band, sucked in audiences of Liverpool’s teenagers of all classes and aptitudes. For want of a better word, the Cavern seemed to democratise being young for the lucky kids who went there.

There were the nattily dressed shorthand typists with French pleats from secretarial colleges and offices behind Liverpool’s Pier Head. They would turn up for part of the two hour mid-day sessions, selling the Luncheon Vouchers that came with their wages in order to buy a ‘ham cob’ or bowl of tomato soup in the little cafe at the back of the club. And there were factory girls, too, some wearing their curlers under a scarf, which they then took out in the tiny Ladies before their favourite group appeared.

Then there were the boys, apprentices from the firms attached to the docks and ferries, and young shipping and insurance clerks in their Burtons suits, buying bags of chips for their lunches, before pushing close to the stage so that they could see the musicians’ fingers and discover which guitar chords were being playing.

While, hurrying down from the University, came students in their striped scarves, to mingle with more exotic creatures from the Liverpool College of Art and precocious fifteen year olds from schools in the city centre.

The lunch time sessions were the most friendly, with the bands exchanging banter with the audience. While evening ones, especially those on Fridays and Saturday, when sixth formers would make their way into town from the smarter suburbs of Crosby or Heswall – before dashing off to catch the last bus or ferry home, were more professional.

But every performance saw a generation on the cusp of adulthood, young people with all kinds of ambitions and from all walks of life. A friend of mine, Cameron Brown, who used to attend , became a merchant banker, then a publisher and now in retirement runs his own part-time rock and roll band, while Willy Russell became a brilliant playwright. Edwina Curry was there, too. She became an MP, and John Birt, now Lord Birt, who did a shift as director general of the BBC was another.

Then there was a young actor called Bill Kenwright, later to become a theatrical entrepreneur and the chairman of Everton FC, and poet Roger McGough.

And right in the midst of this crush of young people scampering to grow up and be part of something new, local hopefuls were emerging and being nurtured. Cloakroom girl Priscilla White had a natural intuitive talent. The daughter of a docker and a market stall holder, who grew up in a flat in the rough Scotland Road district, she took the tickets and hung up the coats and was occasionally allowed to sing for free, and then changed her name to Cilla Black.

‘Show them your knickers, Cyril,’ John Lennon is reputed to have called to her before she went on one night when she was finally given her own spot. She just giggled. She giggled a lot.

This was the sheer, youthful, unsophisticated energy of the Cavern. The Beatles, as well as Cilla and several of the groups who played there, quickly became local stars, but they were never distant from their fans. They and Cilla hung around the same cafés that had juke boxes, and, like the fans, spent hours listening to records, buying them in the local record shop, NEMS, just around the corner in Whitechapel. From there, the son of the owner, Brian Epstein, would emerge to manage most of them and create the environment for greater success.

To those who went to the Cavern regularly during those years, something special was being shared between performers and audience. It was a view of a younger, more vital, more classless, more optimistic, perhaps more meritocratic future.

Older generations at the time weren’t so sure. Jim McCartney, Paul’s father, a widower with two teenage boys to bring up, would pop into the lunchtime sessions carrying lamb chops and sausages for dinner that night, was always worried. ‘With so much sweat, energy and electricity around it was a virtual death trap. They should have paid you danger money to go down there. It reeked of perspiration. When Paul used to come home I’d wring his shirt out in the sink and the sweat would pour out of it.

‘The kids would be in a terrible state as well, fighting with each other to get near the front, or fainting with the excitement. I’d see Paul and the others on the stage looking like something the cat brought home. I’d try to fight my way through the kids but I’d never make it.’
And while George Harrison’s mother never stopped encouraging her son, frequently crowding in with the fans, John Lennon’s guardian, the self-regarding middle-class Auntie Mimi, was appalled. ‘This is nice, John!’ she scolded sarcastically on the one occasion that she saw him on the stage there. ‘Very nice!’

Cilla’s father probably wasn’t too keen either. To a docker, a place like the Cavern would have potentially been a den of iniquity. But it wasn’t. Far from it. It didn’t even have a licence to sell alcohol, and an early rule was that boys weren’t allowed in if they were wearing jeans. Only teddy boys and common types wore jeans, it was thought.

In fact, the Cavern could hardly have been less threatening. But, then, it hadn’t started out as a beat club. When an accounts clerk called Ray McFall had bought a lease on the premises in 1959 for £2,750, he wanted it for a jazz club. He loved jazz and hated rock and roll.

Interest in jazz, with its intellectual pretensions, was, however, fading, and only when, a year later, McFall reluctantly booked Ringo Starr’s first band Rory Storm, and the Hurricanes, did his and the Cavern’s fortunes look up. Then in 1961 the Beatles arrived, sharing £5 a gig between them, fresh and noisy from a long club apprenticeship in Hamburg.

Since then the Cavern has been forever associated with the Sixties, and everything exciting and young which that era implies. But, in many ways, everything about it in its glory days was pre-Sixties, certainly ‘pre-permissive society Sixties’.

No Pill existed then and machismo attitudes dominated in a country that still had capital punishment and where abortion and acts of homosexuality were crimes. And although there may have been a few amphetamines around the place, known then as purple hearts, drugs weren’t a problem. There was no marijuana either, and certainly no heavy drugs.

It was, insists Freda Kelly, who would become the Beatles Fan Club secretary, and who knew Cilla Black when she was working in the cloak room there, ‘all incredibly innocent’. And, apart from the smocks made by the girls at the Art College, there wasn’t much in the way of new fashion, either. There was very little spare money to be spent on clothes in Liverpool then. All that came later from the mid-Sixties onwards.

A young person today, raised on an endless soundtrack of popular music can have little conception of how drab Britain still was in the first couple of years of the Sixties. With only Radio Luxembourg, with its uncertain reception, playing regular pop music (the BBC still believing too much of a good thing wasn’t good for us), and when a six-shilling single (about 30p) had to be saved up for, and long players were a major Christmas present to be played until the grooves hissed like sandpaper, it was, in entertainment terms, a 40-watt world.

And Liverpool, witty, irreverent and vibrant, and birthplace of comedians though it might have been, was definitely not the centre of that world. In fact, with Liverpool FC still in the old Second Division at the beginning of the decade, the city wasn’t even the capital of the football world it would later become.

But perhaps the Cavern even helped there, too, when another favourite with Cavernite fans, Gerry Marsden, who was also managed by Brian Epstein, decided to record a song his cousin had on an old record which always went down well in the club. It was called You’ll Never Walk Alone from the musical Carousel. On release in 1963 it became a massive number one hit, and, for reasons no one really knows, was taken up as a football anthem by the Kop supporters of Liverpool FC who were just beginning their period of football dominance.

If the Cavern hadn’t existed and the Beatles hadn’t become a locomotive pulling their fellow performers along behind them, would Gerry ever have had the opportunity to record that song and thereby turn it into a football anthem? Probably not. Record companies didn’t go looking for new talent in unfashionable Liverpool then.

Yet it was there in smoky, windy, working-class, bolshie, proud Liverpool, with its funny accent, at a pre-motorway time, when provincial cities seemed remote from each other, and a 190 mile train journey to London was an adventure, that a major part of that Sixties revolution began – down there in the Cavern.
The moment couldn’t last. As the Beatles moved on to London and the world, and Cilla became the girl-next door on our television sets, the world changed around them and their fans as the Sixties exploded in colour and vitality.

Inevitably the Cavern was left behind. Attendances fell as the stars it had helped create moved on to tour the world, and when in 1966 its owner was faced with a repair bill to bring the drains up to date, Ray McFall was forced to declare bankruptcy and sell the club.
The final indignity came in 1973 when, in an act of cultural vandalism and short term thinking, the fruit warehouse of which it was part, was demolished to make way for a ventilation shaft for Liverpool’s new underground railway loop. As it turned out, the shaft was never built. The site of the Cavern became a car park.

Looking back it’s difficult to understand how the city of Liverpool could have allowed the demolition of such a potentially valuable attraction. But they did. Eventually, the vandalism was reversed and a new Cavern club built on the original site as a tourist draw in a fancily heritaged area now called Cavern Walks – with its inevitable gift shops, boutiques and memorabilia bazaars

It isn’t the same. Not much ever is when it’s rebuilt. It’s all too clean and tidy now. But at least it marks the spot where something extraordinary happened for a whole generation of stars and the young people whose lives they enriched.
*****
Ray Connolly is the author of Sorry, Boys, You Failed The Audition, a novella and radio play set in and around the Cavern.