In January I noted that it was 50 years since Bob Dylan arrived in New York, at the start of a year in which his musical and personal trajectory progressed at a rapid pace. Dylan soon emerged as the quintessential voice of the sixties, but there was another sound that will forever define that decade – that of the Beatles. And, in one of those strange historical coincidences, today marks the 50th anniversary of the the Beatles’ first ever performance at the Cavern. So, at around the same time that Dylan was visiting Woody Guthrie in Greystone hospital, on this side of the Atlantic four greasy, leather-jacketed scousers were thrashing out covers of rock ‘n’ roll standards by the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. It was the start of a journey that would see the Beatles become the most popular band in the world, often trading ideas and influences back and forth with Dylan.
The Beatles had served their time in the nightclubs of Hamburg before they mounted the stage of the Cavern that February lunchtime, nevertheless it had been difficult getting a booking at the popular Cavern. It was Pete Best’s mum who begged Ray McFall, the owner, for a lunchtime slot for the group.
In The Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney recalled: ‘The Cavern was sweaty, damp, dark, loud and exciting . As usual, we didn’t start out with much of an audience, but then people began to hear about us. We could always entertain them’.
John Lennon had played occasionally at the Cavern with his skiffle group The Quarrymen back in 1957. For the Anthology, he recalled: ‘In those old Cavern days half the thing was just ad lib; what you’d call comedy. We just used to mess about, jump into the audience, do anything’. George Harrison remembered: ‘We’d play from noon till about two. It was very casual; we’d have our tea and sandwiches and cigarettes on stage, sing a couple of songs and tell a few jokes’.
The Cavern Club had opened in Mathew Street in January 1957. Its aim was to put Liverpool on the map as having the best jazz cellar in the country, outside of London. The opening act was the Merseysippi Jazz Band and the club soon became a focal point for jazz enthusiasts.
The early years of the Cavern also coincided with the skiffle craze, sparked by the release of Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Rock Island Line’ in 1956. Skiffle was big in Liverpool, and the lunchtime sessions were introduced in April 1957 in response to the skiffle boom. Most of the big names in the Liverpool music scene of the early sixties could trace their roots back to the skiffle period. The Quarrymen Skiffle Group, featuring John Lennon, made their first appearance at the Cavern on Wednesday 7 August 1957. A week earlier Ringo Starr made his debut with the Eddie Clayton Skiffle group. Paul McCartney made his debut at the Cavern on 24 January 1958 with the Quarrymen. George Harrison’s first appearance was at the lunchtime session on 9 February 1961.
For their first show the Beatles were paid £5 to share between them. It was George Harrison’s first time on the Cavern stage, as it was for Stuart Sutcliffe. Harrison arrived in blue jeans, which were banned from the club, but he managed to convince the bouncer that he was one of the performers.
In his book, The Cavern, Spencer Leigh quotes Ray McFall, Cavern Club owner as saying:
They were different and they were very well rehearsed because they had come back from three months of torture in Hamburg. The other groups were like Cliff Richard and the Shadows, but The Beatles’ music was so vibrant… However, I didn’t like them wearing jeans which were taboo in the Cavern. Our doormen would stop anyone wearing jeans. I felt that if people were wearing good, clean clothes they would be more likely to behave themselves as they wouldn’t want them getting dirty and damaged.
For the next three years the Cavern was the fount of Merseybeat, the sound that swept the world. During that period, the Beatles made a total of 292 appearances at the Cavern. Their last show was on 3 August 1963.