In the beginning…
Travel anywhere in the world and say you are from Liverpool and what are the two things people will mention? 99% of the time it will be either music or football. Our city has changed the world more than anyone likes to give it credit – none more so than the world of music. It started with a trip to France, a young man by the name of Alan Sytner would spend time there hanging around a jazz club called Le Caveau De La Huchette, situated in the Latin quarter of Paris. He would come home and visit a small pub on Mathew Street called The Grapes and tell his friend all about his trip and how much he loved the Jazz scene there. He longed to open his own Le Caveau in Liverpool – and he would find it 20 metres away from the door of The Grapes.
Number 10 Mathew Street. Doesn’t sound much. But on the 16th January 1957 after being whitewashed, walls demolished and “sanitised” by Alan Sytner and his friends – The Cavern Club would have its grand opening. Alan would go on to say that they let 500 people in on the opening night and they had to turn 300 people away. Most of them there to see “The Earl of Wharncliffe” – who didn’t show up (people would question if he was ever even booked in the first place) but they were entertained by the Jazz music and Skiffle.
Alan Sytner wanted to run a Jazz club, not a Rock ‘n’ Roll club. Bill Haley was causing riots with ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and Elvis burst on the scene in the UK in the summer of 1957 and was causing girls to act like animals, it was thought. In Liverpool, it was perceived as for the Teddy Boys and the thought of it was unacceptable in The Cavern. Fortunately, in 1957, nobody could afford the instruments anyway, so they resorted to Skiffle to replicate the beat sound.
Rock and Roll would infiltrate The Cavern, but in those early days it was never appreciated. John Lennon would play in 1957 with The Quarrymen and would launch into ‘Hound Dog’ – nobody would be impressed, including Alan Sytner who moments later would pass up a note reading “cut out that bloody Rock ‘n’ Roll!” The Quarrymen were lucky, many other bands would play beat music and have pennies thrown at them. Big, huge 1950s pennies! Rory Storm and The Hurricanes would one night make more money off the stage floor than they did in their wage.
In 1959, The Cavern Club was sold. Alan would sell The Cavern to his accountant, a man by the name of Ray McFall. His first move would be to employ a doorman by the name of Paddy Delaney. After that he would employ a man who knew the Merseybeat scene like no other, his name was Bob Wooler and he would be the Cavern Club DJ and MC and together, they would embrace Beat music in Liverpool and bring it into the city centre.
One day Bob Wooler was talking to Ray McFall and told him how it would be a great idea to open The Cavern Club at lunchtime to appeal to the kids. Ray was at first reluctant, but Bob Wooler convinced him that there was a great band that had just come back from a tour of Hamburg that would be perfect for the beat sessions at lunchtime, that band were called The Beatles.
After their trip to Hamburg The Beatles were done, Paul McCartney had found a job and it seemed like the band had finished. But thanks to figures like Bob Wooler and Mona Best (who as the owner of The Casbah in West Derby she was the Mother of The Merseybeat) the Beatles would get a regular slot, at lunchtime at The Cavern. They would go on to play in The Cavern Club 292 times over a period of time that spanned less than 3 years.
Others would explode onto the scene, in 1960 a man by the name of Bill Harry had founded a local magazine called The Merseybeat and it popularised all the bands on the local scene. It would be a vital resource for preserving a record of the most amazing musical era in Liverpool history. The Beatles, The Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Chants, The Swinging Blue Jeans, Rory Storm and The Hurricanes, The Remo Four, The Big Three, The Liverbirds, The Fourmost, The Denisons, The Escorts, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, The Mersey Beats, Cilla Black and many more played in what was a dark, damp, dusty, smelly basement on Mathew Street.
The scene was electric and everyone around the UK had heard about it, people were coming from far and wide to visit, but mainly to hear the main attraction, The Beatles. They would play for the last time in The Cavern Club on 3rd August 1963. By February of 1964 they were playing live on The Ed Sullivan Show in the United States of America to an audience of over 73 million people. The world changed overnight, and a phenomenon took place that hadn’t been experienced since Elvis – but this time it was even bigger.
Ray McFall was so important to the story of The Beatles that when they got on the flight to the United States, Ray McFall was invited onboard to join them. He was there when the lads got off the plane and he was there to see Beatlemania. He had his hands on a goldmine. Not long after he would have The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds (Eric Clapton), Elton John,WIlson Pickett, Ben E King, Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Hendrix and many many more wanting to play The Cavern Club.
A turbulent history…
While the club would attract huge names and international attention as “the place where it all began” the club couldn’t really replace The Beatles and business dropped so much that Ray went bankrupt on 28th February 1966. The Cavern closed its doors before re-opening in July five months later, this would be the first part of the club’s turbulent history.
The Cavern Club was re-opened by Joe Davey and Alf Geohegan, local businessmen who bought the lease and the name ‘The Cavern Club.’ They enlarged the footprint of The Cavern, opened a souvenir shop, a café, two different bars and much more. The Cavern was now 3 times the size as it was before. One of the problems Ray McFall always had, was that there was no drainage (even in the toilets) and no fire exit – both of these issues would be resolved by 1966. When they reopened they would move The Cavern Club’s entrance just slightly further up the street, right where it is on this very day.
The reopening of The Cavern was so important not only to the young people who protested fiercely its closing, but it was important to the entire United Kingdom, demonstrated by the fact that the countries Prime Minister hosted the opening night of The Cavern in 1966. Harold Wilson was presented with a pipe made from the wood of the original stage (which was mostly sold in the February of 1964 as pieces of Cavern Wood, available to see in Museums around the world to this very day) and in attendance was also Bessie Braddock and Ken Dodd. They would attract many great bands to The Cavern Club, most notable was Queen, who played one of their first ever gigs as a band on 31st October 1970.
Even with more big stars like Status Quo, even with the addition of a fire exit, working toilets and a liquor licence many of the old Cavern fans felt the club had lost its magic. Gone were the days of bunking off school to watch a lunchtime show, the Cavern was all of a sudden more grown up, many people would start feeling nostalgic about the smell of stale fruit, toilet disinfectant, overflowing toilets and dirty clothes, they would move on.
In 1971 the club changed hands again and this time the new owner was Roy Adams. Roy was alarmed to find out that British Rail were about to complete a compulsory purchase order to build a ventilation shaft for the City’s underground railway. Roy always maintained that he knew nothing prior to purchase about this compulsory purchase. Previous owners the Geohegan’s maintain that he did. In the middle of all of this, Liverpool City Council have taken the blame until this very day – which is unfair, as it was never their decision to make.
Roy was given a choice, that if he paid £500 they would build the extraction duct elsewhere and he could maintain the site, but being a contemporary club owner, he didn’t wish to pay the £500 plus the further costs needed for renovations and repairs. It also so happened that a building opposite had just become available and he believed that he could fit many more people in it. So, he moved The Cavern in 1973 to the other side of the road to 7 Mathew Street.
It was a much bigger venue, but it didn’t work. It would later change its name to Revolution, which also didn’t work and was closed by 1976. It was then that local entrepreneurs Pete Fulwell and Roger Eagle asked to rent the space and it was rebranded as Eric’s, it was hugely successful as a punk venue until it closed in 1980. Echo and The Bunnymen, The Clash, The Ramones, Elvis Costello, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and A Flock of Seagulls all have some attachment to Eric’s.
Cavern Enterprises’ had continued to operate but just as a business renting space to Eric’s. The original Cavern sign that had moved over the road in 1973 remained over Eric’s until 1995 even though the Cavern had never operated there after 1976, which has led to untold amounts of confusion over the years. The city had well and truly forgotten about The Beatles, nobody seemed to care anymore, Allan Williams was trying to host Beatles events and he would receive no support and no tourists. To make matters even worse, British Rail discovered a vast amount of water underneath The Cavern, which prevented a ventilation shaft ever being built. A bare patch of land where people parked their cars would exist throughout the 70s, unknown to many, that below them was the famous walls of The Cavern Club still intact.
On 12th October 1977, Beatles fan John Chambers had an idea which was quickly shot down by our council at the time, it was to build a Beatles Statue. One Councillor would say “in my opinion, The Beatles are not worthy of a place in our history” another Councillor would say “they couldn’t sing for toffee! They have brought shame on the city taking drugs. They have turned down requests to appear in the city at official functions.” One would even go on to suggest that Arthur Askey was worthier of a statue than The Beatles.
A new era for The Cavern Club…
In the year of 1980, things were looking up for The Beatles in Liverpool, the right to The Caverns name had been sold to Royal Life Insurance and they had contacted an architect by the name of David Backhouse to embark on excavating The Cavern Club and he had started creating the plans when all of a sudden, John Lennon was tragically assassinated in New York City.
Overnight this tragic event led to a demand that had previously not existed. It was a demand to cater for visitors. Tourists from around the world travelled to Liverpool to see Strawberry Field, Penny Lane, John Lennon’s home on Menlove Avenue and they wanted to see The Cavern Club too. But on ground level was simply a flat patch of land.
By 1982 The Cavern had been excavated but they discovered it could not be reopened as the foundations weren’t stable or intact, so in 1982 – The Cavern Club would then be carefully dismantled and then rebuilt in the exact same location. When it reopened in 1984, it would be on 70% of the original footprint, built with 15,000 of the original bricks and most importantly, it would be back in 10 Mathew Street, where it always belonged.
European Cup Winning Captain, and Legend Tommy Smith would be the new owner of The Cavern Club in 1984 and they would have over 100 Merseybeat acts back at The Cavern Club to sign the back wall of the stage. The Cavern Club was back, but not without its problems. Liverpool as a city was in economic peril in the 1980s and The Cavern, even with support and financial backing, they couldn’t get it right.
The idea was that the Cavern audience from the 60s had all grown up and they now had children of their own, the last thing they wanted to do was get hot and sweaty dancing in The Cavern to old rock and roll. So, they would have candles on the tables, carpets fitted, table service and chicken in a basket. How wrong they were. The Cavern Club would be unsuccessful once more, and trade owners more during the 1980s.
In April 1983, something happened that at the time didn’t seem too significant but would be nearly a decade later. Three school teachers Bill Heckle, Ron Jones and Gerry Murphy (who would leave 12 months after to pursue a musical career) incorporated a company called Cavern City Tours. Dave Jones and George Guinness would join the company and the Cavern Club’s new owner, Jimmy McVitie, would allow Cavern City Tours to host live events in The Cavern Club.
Cavern City Tours were just that, a tour company, they specialised in Beatles tourism but by 1985 they would branch into the sporting world. As the company grew, Liverpool City Council would invite Cavern City Tours to take over the Beatles weekends and convention in the city, which really marked a turning point.
They would start branching out further, going international and establishing links with tour operators in the USA, Germany and Japan. They would act as ticket agents for major events, Paul McCartney concerts and they would even be operating the Magical Mystery Tour. One major moment was when they bid to own a club on Mathew Street called Lennon’s bar they would have their offer rejected, despite raising £50,000 to buy it.
But it was 1991 that things really changed, after The Cavern Club sat empty for 6 months, Royal Life Insurance would put The Cavern Club back on the market. They would receive 6 local bids, one of which from Cavern City Tours. The Cavern Club had sold a few years before for £500,000 so Bill Heckle and Dave Jones headed down to London, in the knowledge that they may just have a decent day out and a few pints if nothing else!
They discussed their plan with the panel and then got asked to leave the room to prepare their bid. Bill and Dave sat down laughing, shocked that they were being taken so seriously against such big bidders. They spent so long laughing that eventually there was a knock on the door asking them to come and resume discussions, “just give us 5 minutes!” Bill Heckle would shout.
They walked back into the room and handed their bid, in an unsealed envelope. The panel opened it and quickly said “there is nothing in here!” The panel looked at each other bemused and then said to Bill and Dave “if there is nothing in here, what have you bid?” That is when Dave Jones replied off the cuff, “the way we see it, go with one of the other bids if you want the same problems you’ve had in the 80s, drugs, violence, disco, bankruptcies, further poisoning The Cavern brand. If you want someone who is honest and can offer good live music, WE are the bid!” This was met by silence, they asked Bill and Dave to leave the room for 10 minutes while they discussed.
When they left the room, Bill Heckle looked at Dave and burst out laughing, “where the hell did you get that?” “I don’t know,” Dave replied. “But it sounded good!” Ten minutes later they were called back into the room and were told they would hear back within a week. Sure enough, a week later Cavern City Tours, a company who sold package tours to Liverpool in the dark days of the 1980s had bought The Cavern Club for not a penny at all.
The £50,000 they had for their failed attempt to buy Lennon’s bar was used for fixtures and fittings and they loaned to get more to get off to a good start, and they did. Within a couple of years, The Cavern Club was doing better than it had done throughout the previous decade. They started to expand, still running The Magical Mystery Tour, International Beatleweek and, of course, the legendary Mathew Street Festival. They would expand further, with The Cavern Pub, The Cavern Wall of Fame, The Liverpool Wall of Fame, a restaurant – Mathew Street was starting to look and feel vibrant once again.
They would go one step further in 1997 when they would embark on a hotel project at the top end of Mathew Street and they would call it The Hard Day’s Night Hotel that they were forced to sell in 2002, but this would eventually lead to Julia Baird, John Lennon’s sister becoming a director of The Cavern Club in 2005.
A bright future…
There is no denying that The Cavern Club has a very long turbulent history, some parts of it marred with shame and regret. But there is also no denying that The Cavern Club still exists and thrives to this very day under the ownership of Cavern City Tours, now the longest serving owners in the club’s long history. With visits over the past 20 years from the likes of Adele, Oasis, Arctic Monkeys, Bo Diddley, Richie Havens, James Burton, Jessie J, Martha Reeves, The Crickets, Yoko Ono, Mickey Dolenz, Elbow, The Coral, Jake Bugg, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Peter Asher, Joe Bonemassa and many more.
Arguably the most important visits have been three separate visits from Paul McCartney, the most recent being in 2018 when he stood on stage and shouted “Liverpool! Cavern! These are words that go together well” and launched into a 2 and half hour show for his surprise return.
The Cavern Club, the most famous rock venue in the world, which has been shut down, demolished, and rebuilt, and came back from the dead 2 times, remains today one of the most durable and thriving landmarks and continues to captivate music fans from around the world.
In 2017 The Cavern Club released its 60th anniversary book, with the full story, plans and explanation of its history and then in 2019 they went two steps further, first when they premiered their new documentary at The Beverly Hills Film Festival to rave reviews and it is now regularly shown on Sky Arts nationally. But second, when they asked me to set up a Behind the Scenes Tour of The Cavern Clubs history – something that is my daily honour to explain to people from all around the world.
While writing this post I am captivated by a few things, firstly the importance of honest historical account in Liverpool. But mainly I am captivated that after 63 years it is still an Independent business that is at the helm. A few days ago, it was announced that Bill Heckle and Dave Jones are nominated for the prestigious Citizen of Honour award from the City of Liverpool. An honour that they thoroughly deserve for the tireless work and effort in transforming The Cavern Club and establishing a tourism industry in Liverpool as they set out to do 35 years ago.
The Cavern Club has for four consecutive years been in the Top Ten Landmarks in the UK on Tripadvisor – Consistently above Buckingham Palace. Daily tours of the club now operate completely free of charge and there is live music every day from 11.15am. The Cavern Club shows no sign of slowing down or fading away… Here is to another 63 years of the Beat going on…
This was a guest blog by Dale Roberts. He works at the forefront of Beatles Tourism in Liverpool. In 2017 he would be part of a team that would transform Hop-On, Hop-Off tours in the city. Most recently Dale has set up The Cavern Club Behind The Scenes Tour alongside being Social Media Manager for Cavern City Tours.