By Gordon Thompson
Fifty years ago, one of the great stories in pop music began when the Beatles debuted in a dank arched subterranean Liverpool club dedicated to music. Located in the narrow lane called Mathew Street, just off North John Street, the Cavern Club had opened as a jazz haven that enfolded blues and skiffle, which was how the Quarry Men, John Lennon’s precursor to the Beatles, had first descended the steps and climbed the tiny stage in August 1957. Three-and-a-half years later, the Beatles had evolved into a much different beast than the Quarry Men and the Cavern Club had modified its business strategy to embrace a growing youth audience. The band’s recent stint in Hamburg had initiated a transformation that was about to blossom inside the brick arched chambers built to warehouse vegetables. For the Beatles, Stu Sutcliffe’s return from Hamburg in late January added his dissonant rumble to their sound; but they had entered a transitional phase with Paul McCartney gradually assuming the role of bassist. As Sutcliffe returned to a career in art, the Beatles would tighten their sound and performances.
Other Liverpool bands played the Cavern too, including the Remo Four who had recently trumped the Shadows—the most famous band in the UK at the time. The Beatles would find the club a competitive environment in which to sharpen their skills in the pursuit of fans. Their first gig at the Cavern on 9 February 1961 would lack auspiciousness and earn them a mere £5 (split five ways) for their 12:00-2:00 PM performance. This engagement initiated the club’s attempt to draw a midday audience and, with little advertising, the crowd would have been small. Moreover, when owner Ray McFall saw the musicians, he took offense at their leather jackets and jeans, informing them that they had to dress better if they wanted to play the club again. And to the band’s further discomfort, Sutcliffe’s playing would have, if anything, deteriorated even further during the month he had stayed in Hamburg. But they were beginning to develop a reputation, commencing with a remarkable December performance at the Litherland Town Hall. The Beatles tapped into a curious mix of hard rock, rockabilly, and pop, with each of the band members taking a turn at the microphone and applying a combination of enthusiasm and irreverence.
The Hamburg experience had taught them how to survive the long hours by sharing responsibilities, working as a team, and exploiting their existing repertoire of all its possibilities. Their model may in part have derived from Britain’s postwar experience, when families shared and extended their meager resources. The division of responsibilities in the band helped make it successful. Lennon, the social director, knew how to deliver the emotionally charged performances. McCartney, the self-appointed music director, had a screaming Little Richard imitation that he could counter with coy ballads. And Harrison—the boy of the band—focused on his succinct guitar solos and a growing vocabulary of altered chords. That left the stoic and impassive drummer Pete Best and bassist Sutcliffe sitting at the back, occasionally crooning a song for the benefit of their fans.
In the Cavern, the Beatles would build an audience by playing rock ‘n’ roll while smoking, eating, and joking on stage, including McCartney doing imitations of the Shadows’ by now infamous Cavern catastrophe. (Their bass player had shown up drunk and fallen off the stage.) Lennon recalled that half their stage show was ad lib comedy, which portended the public image they would project when they became national stars. Over the next two years, they would play 292 times at the club, with their last engagement on 3 August 1963.
Part of understanding how the Beatles went from being an obscure local band to international favorites must involve the Cavern Club audience. The band honed its abilities to engage patrons by learning how to turn a passive crowd into a dedicated fan base. The women and men that demanded special songs and tried out the most recent dance steps informed the Beatles’ aesthetic sense and indirectly played a significant role in the development of both the sixties’ most significant musicians and their repertoire. If a song or performance strategy failed to work in the Cavern, it held little chance of staying in the Beatles’ repertoire.
The interactions between performers and their audiences form an important component of the arts experience. Postwar British adolescents looked for an escape from the grey formalism of their parents, even as the period’s austerity shaped their tastes. As a community and its expectations change, musical tastes change, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, and always inevitably. Some performers intuitively sense the change, subtly anticipating the flow the way a fish negotiates water currents. Others apply science (or what passes as science), measuring demographics, income, and trends in an attempt to predict the next big thing. In a small northern club in 1961, the Beatles were simply learning to react to the whims, the loves, the hopes, and the angst of the teens that began to crowd the damp room, their breath condensing and mingling on the ceiling. None could have known the club was incubating something that would change the Western world.
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.