By Gordon Thompson
The transformation of the Beatles from four musicians with humble roots into British cultural icons (second only to Shakespeare in some minds) began in Liverpool, even if a recent decision by the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office may attempt to shape how we remember those roots in the future. Ironically, that decision comes shortly before a relevant anniversary in Beatles history.
Fifty years ago in 1961, Mathew Street on an early November midday would have presented a less than picture-postcard impression of Liverpool; but Brian Epstein had ventured forth on a mission, and he had brought his assistant, Alistair Taylor, as company. Temperatures in the low fifties and an ever-present threat of Irish Sea rain slowed the decay of the vegetable hubris dropped by workers from trucks, and the angle of the sun prevented much light illuminating what rotted underfoot. Nevertheless, the street would have seemed bucolic in comparison to the dragon’s roar and the stench of cigarette smoke, disinfectant, urine, and body odor that permeated clothing below the pavement where subterranean arches ran with the condensed sweat and breath of a great, unwashed wall of adolescent sexuality. With special permission to pass the Cavern Club’s bouncer and the line of aspiring dancers, Epstein descended the stairs like Dante, with Taylor acting as a reluctant Virgil, or perhaps they more closely resembled Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Epstein’s record store—perhaps the most successful in this northern port city—had recently been selling numerous copies of the 45 rpm single, “My Bonnie” by Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers. Locals knew the Beat Brothers to be the Beatles and, despite Cavern Club advertisements that declared the band as “Direct from Hamburg,” Liverpudlian blood flowed in their veins. Taylor recognized them as regulars in the store and Epstein had somehow learned that the band whose records he sold sometimes played a lunch-hour session at this dank outpost of rock ‘n’ roll. Although pop and rock were not to his taste, the educated and fastidiously sartorial record-store owner recognized the importance of this music, if not for its energy, then for the number of units it moved through his inventory.
He also could not have missed the parallels between himself and the most famous manager of British pop singers of the era: Larry Parnes. Music papers like the New Musical Express, Melody Maker, and Disc carried articles on and interviews with Parnes who sometimes made newsreel appearances where he introduced his “stable” of handsome boy singers. Like Epstein, Parnes was Jewish and from a merchant family; but from his time in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Epstein probably also knew that Parnes, like himself, was a homosexual, and to be a homosexual in Britain at the time was to be illegal. More importantly, Parnes offered an example of how to be officially accepted and successful in a society that routinely discriminated against people based on their class and ethnicity, let alone on their gender and sexual orientation.
The Beatles knew that Epstein had entered their lair when DJ Bob Wooler announced the NEMS manager’s presence; but the band seemed to have paid no heed to the businessmen who—after watching a set of humor, smoke, leather, hair, audience interaction, and powerful music—made their way to the stage. George Harrison reportedly saw them first and greeted the man in the exquisite dark suit with a very polite, but inquiring, “What brings Mr. Epstein here?” Indeed.
Taylor remembers Epstein—enthused by the energy and presence of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Best—deciding almost immediately that he wanted to manage the Beatles. Over the next weeks, the band would agree to a contract with the record-store owner who, in return, would begin his challenging quest to have this band of northern scruffs signed to a recording company.
Later, as regional popularity evolved into Beatlemania, the story of how Brian Epstein “discovered” the Beatles in the Cavern Club made that establishment famous throughout not only Britain, but also the world. Although the club closed and reopened several times, fans continued to make the pilgrimage to the site of Beatledom’s naissance. Even when the City of Liverpool demolished the site and filled in the Cavern’s arches with rubble, fans returned to pay homage to John Lennon on the night of his assassination. Thus, when developers reopened the site of Mr. Epstein’s excellent lunchtime adventure and renovated its arches, the Cavern Club relocated back to this sacred ground from its ersatz location across the street. The memory would not die; but then many want to shape our memory of history.
When the Hard Rock Café received permission to trademark the identity “Cavern Club” in February 2000, they did so to sell “clothing, namely T-shirts, sweatshirts, polo shirts, sport shirts, jackets, hats, caps, bolo ties, belts, and sun visors,” as well as to operate a “restaurant, bar and prepared take-out food services.” Unsurprisingly, their website and stores feature Beatles-themed haberdashery as they attempt to capture part of the Beatles nostalgia market associated with a number of looming significant anniversaries. Hard Rock Café International, Inc. (owned today by the Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida) has avidly collected rock memorabilia, including material related to the Beatles and the original Cavern Club. Now, they apparently want to collect the identity of the place where George Harrison greeted his future.
Cavern City Tours, a company founded by Liverpudlian schoolteachers in 1984 to celebrate local Beatles history, have been the custodians of England’s Cavern Club since 1991 and petitioned the American court to cancel Hard Rock Café’s registration. They asserted that they have long marketed the club in the United States as part of their tour packages celebrating the Beatles in Merseyside and that the Hard Rock Café’s claim to be the Cavern Club constituted fraud. Indeed, Cavern City Tours maintain that their Cavern Club is THE Cavern Club and that they represent but the most recent of a succession of custodians of the institution.
However, Judge Albert Zervas’ opinion for the Appeal Board sided with the Hard Rock Café by agreeing that Cavern City Tours had failed to prove that its Cavern Club uniquely associated with the “particular personality or ‘persona’” of the Cavern Club. He curiously writes, “We find it implausible that any entity that operates The Cavern Club as a musical entertainment establishment under The Cavern Club name in the same location automatically has The Cavern as its identity.” Consequently, despite a likely appeal, another corporation seems poised to gobble up a piece of Beatles history and to create American imitations of an original in an attempt to provide fans with more convenient places to go than where Brian Epstein first went fifty years ago today.
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.