LIVERPOOL, England—It was John Lennon’s street, but Paul McCartney’s song.
“Penny Lane” was released as a single 40 years ago, and it heralded a new level of musical creativity for the Beatles, especially for the song-writing combination of Lennon and McCartney. A few months later the world would hear “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and popular music would never be quite the same.
The song’s first two verses “practically wrote themselves,” McCartney once told an interviewer. “The lyrics were all based on real things.”
The real Penny Lane remains remarkably unaffected by its pop culture immortality. It is today what it was back then: a scruffy working-class street of two-story Victorian row houses and an assortment of shops.
There’s Penny Lane Cakes & Pies and the Penny Lane Fish and Chips, pretty much as they were when a young John Lennon used to walk this street each day on his way to the Dovedale school. Future Beatle George Harrison also went to the school, but he was three years behind John.
In Penny Lane the barber shaves another customer ...
The barbershop is right where it’s supposed to be, but Mr. Bioletti, the barber who used to show the photographs “of every head he’s had the pleasure to know,” died a few years ago. This I was told by Jimmy the Lollipop Man, the school crossing guard on Penny Lane.
Jimmy’s real name is Jim Davidson. He is 59 and he remembers some of the Beatles’ earliest gigs because his mother worked for Liverpool music promoter Allan Williams, the Beatles’ first manager who is famous (or not so famous) for dismissing them as “a right load of layabouts.”
“Right behind you, that used to be the St. Barnabas Church Hall. John Lennon played there with the Quarry Men, his first band,” said Davidson, pointing to an ornate building that now houses a Spanish restaurant.
“And down at the bottom by the roundabout, that big church - that’s St. Barnabas. That’s where Paul McCartney’s brother got married. Paul used to sing in the church choir,” he said.
Behind the shelter in the middle of the roundabout
The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway.
Someone tried to convert the bus shelter in the middle of the roundabout into a bistro called Sgt. Pepper’s, but from the looks of it, things didn’t work out. The house where John was born is just up the street. The Woolworths where Cynthia Lennon, his first wife, used to work is just around the corner.
For a weary seaport that seemed to be slowly crumbling into oblivion, Liverpool has staged an impressive comeback over the last decade or so, part of which has been fueled by the city’s shrewd exploitation of its most famous native sons.
The local airport has been expanded and renamed after John Lennon. And the centerpiece of the city’s downtown renewal efforts, the Albert Dock, features an excellent Beatles museum.
Visitors can hear non-stop Beatles music at a restored version of the Cavern Club, the subterranean vault where the Beatles played 274 gigs. Or they can take the two-hour Magical Mystery bus tour of other Beatles sites scattered across the city.
Penny Lane, located in south Liverpool, is on the tourist circuit, but it remains surprisingly untouched and untouristy.
Well, perhaps “untouched” is not the word - city authorities long ago gave up trying to replace the metal Penny Lane street signs regularly swiped by souvenir hunters—but it’s clear that the merchandising of John, Paul, George and Ringo has not yet spread to the neighborhood where they grew up.
Suzy Miller was pessimistic as she fried up some bacon butties (bacon and egg sandwiches) for the regulars at Penny Lane Cakes & Pies.
“The Tesco has taken all our business away,” she complained.
Tesco is Britain’s equivalent of Wal-Mart, and its outlet a few blocks from here was built on the site of the Quarry Bank Grammar School, John Lennon’s high school.
A record store on Penny Lane went out of business a few years ago; the tattered Beatles posters in the display window have faded to dingy pastel tones.
The Penny Lane Wine Bar, the only business on the street that makes an effort to cater to tourists, is empty in the middle of the afternoon.
“It’s terrible. All these tourists turn up, and there’s nothing here for them,” said Steve Johnson, who runs a kitchen design business on Penny Lane.
“It’s not a tourist attraction the way it should be. If this were America, it would be like Disneyland. You’d have gift shops and bed and breakfasts, and we’d all be millionaires like the Beatles,” he said.