History Explorer: The swinging sixties

Alwyn Turner and Jamie Bowman visit the Cavern Club in Liverpool, beating heart of the music scene that redefined British popular culture...

This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

The Merseybeats pack out the Cavern in April 1963.

"Remember, all you cave dwellers – the Cavern is the best of cellars!” That’s how legendary compère, DJ and punning quip-meister Bob Wooler would bid farewell to the sweaty Liverpudlian crowd at the end of each tumultuous session of rock ’n’ roll at this music club beneath a fruit warehouse on Mathew Street.

Wooler chose his words well. Now synonymous with the Beatles, few venues can lay claim to such exalted status in the history of British pop music. As the thousands of tourists who continue to file down its steep spiral staircase daily prove, its reputation as ‘the spot where it all started’ is secure, almost six decades on from the moment John Lennon first climbed onto its tiny stage with his pre‑Fab Four group, the Quarrymen.

The Cavern Club opened on 16 January 1957 with a show from the Merseysippi Jazz Band. Some 600 people packed into the damp club, with hundreds more reportedly locked out – testament to the vision of its original owner, Alan Sytner, who was convinced that the bohemian vibe of Paris’s Left Bank could be recreated in a cobblestoned alley in Liverpool’s business district.

Sytner was a young jazz fan who had visited the French capital and been smitten by the smoky atmosphere of Parisian night spots such as the jazz club Le Caveau de la Huchette. He saw an opportunity to bring that ambience to the former air-raid shelter at 10 Mathew Street. With jazz, skiffle and, eventually, rock ’n’ roll rocketing in popularity among teenagers across the UK, the Cavern Club was in the right place at the right time to both create and host a musical revolution. Between 1961 and 1963 the Beatles played there 272 times, sowing the seeds of the movement we now know as the ‘swinging sixties’.

 

Building the mood

“A great deal of what we associate with the sixties was there in the fifties,” says Alwyn Turner, historian and author of My Generation: The Glory Years of Rock. “You could see it with Mary Quant opening her first shop in 1955, and with the arrival of rock ’n’ roll on record and then live with Bill Haley’s visit in 1957 to tour Britain. Even with the arrival of ITV, you could feel a new mood in the country. Everything was starting to move and change, and the Cavern was clearly part of that.”


The Beatles play one of their first performances at the Cavern Club in February 1961, with Pete Best on drums. (Getty) 

The Quarrymen’s first advertised performance at the Cavern took place on 7 August 1957, although they had played there several times before, unadvertised. The band played a set of skiffle songs – a sort of folk blues played with washboard and tea-chest bass.

Despite the club-owner’s jazz-only policy, skiffle was seen as respectable largely because it was reviving music that had gone before, says Turner. “Skiffle changed things because it allowed more people to play. Musical instruments were expensive, but skiffle was a cheap option – and you had to play only three chords. Virtually every musician who became successful in the sixties came out of skiffle.”

In late 1959, Sytner handed over the reins at the Cavern Club to former accountant Ray McFall. And in May 1960 McFall bowed to the inevitable: rock ’n’ roll was allowed in.

In another big move, the Cavern began to open during weekday lunchtimes, catering to a young crowd who personified the growing confidence and economic freedom that allowed the swinging sixties to flourish. Secretaries, clerks, office boys and shop assistants flocked to the club for these midday sessions, paying a shilling to watch the Beatles and buying a bowl of soup and a bread roll for ninepence.

“It seems incredibly distant now,” says Turner, as a Lennon impersonator launches into a ragged version of Help! on the Cavern’s stage. “Can you imagine going to a smoke-filled cellar to listen to loud rock ’n’ roll music on your lunch break?”


Crowds queue along Mathew Street outside the Cavern in c1960. (Getty)

 

Rise of the working class

This was “the first time the working class had money and a degree of cultural respect,” Turner explains. “There was a change in society, which was beginning to say that working-class accents were respectable.

“The concept of a ‘disposable income’ was hugely important. You had an economy that had been growing throughout the 1950s, unemployment was incredibly low, and young people had their own money for the first time in their lives,” Turner explains. “At the beginning of the 1950s there was nothing to spend that money on – but now there were gigs to go to.”

Because the Cavern didn’t have an alcohol licence, this was a genuine youth movement, packed with young people and schoolboys and girls fuelled by little more than a love of music and the energy of the club. ‘Beat’ groups began to dominate, and the club hosted its first performance by the Beatles on Thursday 9 February 1961.

Perhaps the most pivotal moment came on an afternoon in November that year when a smart local businessman called Brian Epstein picked through the empty fruit crates and made his way down into the Cavern to see the Beatles for the first time. A few hours later he had decided to manage them. He would go on to look after many other Cavern graduates including Cilla Black and Gerry and the Pacemakers.

“It was clearly a very exciting local scene, with plenty of competitors, and that always helps,” says Turner. “The Beatles thrived on that throughout their career, even after they moved to London and enjoyed a rivalry with the Stones and The Who.”


DJ Bob Wooler and owner Ray McFall in 1964. Bob introduced the Beatles to Brian Epstein. (Getty)

The Beatles played the Cavern for the last time on 3 August 1963, just a month after recording She Loves You, which would go on to be their bestselling single – indeed, the bestselling single of the 1960s. They had outgrown their spiritual home, and would soon outgrow both Liverpool and the UK; with the release of I Want to Hold Your Hand in November 1963 (December 1963 in the US) they would go on to conquer America. The stage was set for the sixties to swing.

“America was the holy grail,” says Turner. “We had always been in thrall to America because of Hollywood and the fact everything seemed bigger and more beautiful there. Before the Beatles, films such as Room at the Top and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had started to be successful in the US. Lionel Bart and Anthony Newley were enjoying success on Broadway, and Beyond the Fringe had taken British satire to America, but it needed one major spark to bring it all together. That spark was the Beatles.”

As for the club that had birthed and fostered them, by 1965 the Cavern had seen better days. With London the new focus of popular culture, interest declined and the club went bankrupt. Reopened in 1966, it traded on former glories until 1973, when it was demolished to make way for a planned railway ventilation duct that was never completed. Today’s tourists might not know it, but the Cavern to which they make their pilgrimage is actually a replica, rebuilt using the original bricks and reopened in 1984. Then again, why spoil the lustre of what is still a living, working music venue?

 

Best of British

“For three or four years, Britain was the world centre of popular culture,” muses Turner. “The idea of the swinging sixties has become the great creation myth of modern Britain. This is how we identify ourselves now. For a long time the great moment in modern British history was held to be 1940, with us standing alone against the Nazis. As that generation died, the sixties became ever more important; you could see that being recreated in the 1990s.

“Margaret Thatcher had resolutely set herself against the 1960s, which for her was a mistake: it was when immorality became the norm. But however successful Thatcherism was, it couldn’t kill off the idea that the sixties was a great era. In 1986, an opinion poll showed that 70 per cent of people thought it was the best decade of the century. It shows the power and mythology of the 1960s: that’s when we knew that, in terms of culture, Britain was absolutely unchallenged.”

 

Five more places to explore

1) Portobello Road London
Where London swung

During the sixties Notting Hill became hip, and Portobello Road rivalled the King’s Road in the pop culture stakes. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton lived in the area. The W11 postcode was immortalised in album covers and movies, and venues such as The Globe, The Tabernacle and All Saints Church Hall hosted the likes of Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix.
 

2) Jimi Hendrix’s flat, 23 Brook Street, London
Where a music legend lived

The attic flat rented by the flamboyant guitarist is set to become a mecca for music fans when it opens to the public in February 2016. Hendrix’s bedroom has been faithfully recreated, and there’s an exhibition about his life and work. The museum will be shared with a tribute to composer George Frideric Handel, who lived next door.
 

3) Casbah Coffee Club Liverpool
Where the Beatles started out

As important as the Cavern in the Beatles story, the band played several times at this venue in the basement of a house belonging to Mona Best – mother of original Beatles drummer Pete – in suburban West Derby. Today you can visit and even hire a band to play for you. 

4) Portmeirion Wales
Where sixties surrealism hit TV

Architect Clough Williams-Ellis’s bizarre creation in north Wales still has a definite swinging sixties vibe about it thanks to its role in cult TV show The Prisoner, one of the most influential programmes from the decade. The Beatles were fans and Brian Epstein stayed in an apartment there.
 

5) Cliveden Berkshire
Where models met ministers

In 1961, the Profumo affair – partly played out in the grounds of Cliveden House – came close to bringing down the British government. The image of 19-year-old Christine Keeler swimming naked in the estate’s swimming pool spawned one of the era’s classic photographs and emphasised the changing attitudes of the decade.
 

Words by Jamie Bowman. The historical advisor was Alwyn Turner. Alwyn is a writer specialising in the cultural and political history of Britain in the 20th century.

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