How the Beatles Got Ready for Prime Time at the Cavern Club
Every musical movement needs its breeding ground, and for the Merseybeat boom that birthed the Beatles, it was a former bomb shelter in the basement of a fruit warehouse. The Cavern Club, located at 10 Matthew St. in Liverpool, was opened on Jan. 16, 1957 by Alan Sytner, who initially envisioned the underground space as a jazz club modeled after Paris’s renowned Le Caveau de la Hutchette.
Besides jazz, the Cavern hosted heavyweight blues artists from America, including Big Bill Broonzy, Jesse Fuller, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. But it didn’t take long for the late ‘50s skiffle craze to catch on at the Cavern. The skiffle sound was an idiosyncratic British amalgam of folk, blues, country, and jug-band music, predominantly acoustic and sometimes employing homemade instruments like tea-chest bass.
On July 31, 1957, it’s believed that a 17-year-old Richard Starkey made his first appearance at the club, drumming for the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group. A week later, on Aug. 7, another up-and-coming skiffle act, the Quarry Men, made its Cavern debut, featuring 16-year-old John Lennon. But by Jan. 28 of the following year, the Quarry Men played the Cavern with 15-year-old Paul McCartney in tow.
By 1960, there’d been a seismic shift in the British music scene. The skiffle bands were tossing out their acoustic axes and plugging in for a raw, rock ‘n’ roll feel. By that time, the Quarry Men had become the Beatles, with McCartney and Lennon drafting George Harrison, Stu Sutcliffe on bass, and drummer Pete Best and hitting the rough-and-tumble club circuit of Hamburg, Germany, a trial by fire where they toughened up their sound.
“Beat music,” as it was called, officially hit the Cavern on May 25, 1960 when Rory Storm and the Hurricanes played the club, with Starkey on the skins. The Liverpool strain of the beat movement, dubbed Merseybeat in reference to the River Mersey, was off and running. The Beatles began playing Hamburg clubs like the Kaiserkeller and the Indra in August 1960, and by the time they made their first Cavern appearance on Feb. 9, 1961, they were rock ‘n’ rollers to be reckoned with.
Watch the Beatles at the Cavern Club
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It’s important to realize that the Beatles that played the Cavern’s cramped environs in early ’61 had a drastically different presence than the one the world would come to embrace. They weren’t the lovable, clean-cut quartet with matching suits and moptop haircuts. They looked more like ‘50s juvenile delinquents, the kind of black-leather-clad greasers who became part of youth culture iconography via Marlon Brando movies and Gene Vincent records. With their leather jackets and rockabilly pompadours, the Beatles looked more likely to shank you on your way out of the club than to become family-friendly pop stars. It’s been said that because they were billed as having come straight from Hamburg, some people took them for a bunch of German roughnecks.
That fateful first gig at the Cavern wasn’t even an evening appearance; it was a lunchtime show, the first of 11 afternoon slots the band would play over the next six weeks before finally graduating to the Cavern’s nighttime roster. But on Tuesday, March 21, the Beatles finally took the club’s stage after dark. Even on a Tuesday, though, they weren’t yet deemed ready for headliner status; instead, they opened up for another Merseybeat outfit, the Blue Genes, who would later find fame as the Swinging Blue Jeans.
In fact, the Blue Genes were allegedly none too happy with their opening act, who they viewed as too unpolished to share a bill with the likes of them. The Beatles, however, had already begun to draw a crowd, and the headliners’ complaints fell on deaf ears. It’s true that Sutcliffe’s bass-playing abilities fell somewhere between minimal and non-existent, and neither he nor Best would be long for the band, but the Beatles’ famous front line was already firmly in place and impossible to deny.
The band wasn’t much for original material yet, relying chiefly on an eclectic range of covers instead. On the evening in question, the pre-Fab five played everything from the Spanish love ballad “Besame Mucho” to the 1959 Chan Romero rock ‘n’ roller “Hippy Hippy Shake.” (By late 1963, the Swinging Blue Jeans would not be too proud to offer the world their own take on the latter tune, scoring the biggest hit of their career).
The Cavern quickly became the Beatles’ laboratory and headquarters. Between Feb. 9, 1961 and their final show at the club on Aug. 3, 1963, the band played there close to 300 times. They kept on doing the afternoon shows too, even more frequently than the evening gigs. During that period they would sharpen their sound, change their image, hone in on their musical identity, and build a bigger and bigger audience.
It was Nov. 9, 1961 when Brian Epstein popped in on one of the band’s lunchtime shows there and was moved to become their manager. The former Richard Starkey, now known as Ringo Starr, played his first show with the Beatles on Aug. 19, 1962 at the Cavern. Three days later, Granada TV filmed the band’s afternoon Cavern show, capturing their performances of two Lieber & Stoller songs, “Some Other Guy” and “Kansas City.”
Nobody needs to be told what happened to the Beatles after Epstein helped them secure a record deal with Parlophone in June 1962. But it’s entirely possible that the rest of their story might not have happened at all if not for the Cavern, the place that gave them an opportunity to become what they were destined to be.
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