Just when it looks like there’s really, truly, absolutely nothing new to say about The Beatles, along comes The Beatles in Liverpool, a slender but meaty volume packed with photos, anecdotes, biography and gossip that documents the Fab Four’s formative years. It places the band in context back when there needed to be a context to place them in: before The Beatles broke huge and themselves became the context for everybody who would follow them.
It’s a somewhat disjointed read, though the material is presented chronologically, there are many detours and interjections and interview quotes and so forth, all of which break the momentum. This isn’t an insurmountable hurdle, but it does affect the overall reability of the story.
Author Spencer Leigh, whose 2011 book The Beatles in Hamburg is essentially a companion book to this one, sets out with a simple enough aim: to consider the city of Liverpool and how it influenced the four men (plus one) who would eventually become the Beatles—or in the case of Pete Best, the man who would almost become a Beatle, but not quite.
The story begins with a brief history of the city itself dating back to its initial establishment by King John in 1207, then quickly fast-forwards to the ‘50s, when musicians such as Hank Walter nd Lita Roza were giving Liverpool its reputation as “the Nashville of England”. It spends the bulk of its pages on the years 1957 to 1963, while the band were becoming more accomplished and renowned, and ends with their final performance at The Cavern Club, the venue that had supported them for many years, along with other Liverpool acts like Gerry and the Pacemakers.
Besides music, other cultural influences were at work in Liverpool at the time. Poet Alan Ginsberg visited, and others like Adrian Henri and Royston Ellis called the city home. The city was home to a thriving arts scene, and one gets the impression that parades, festivals and public celebrations—all of which served as potential engagements for pop groups—were not uncommon.
Into this malestrom stepped The Beatles, or rather The Quarrymen, a group specializing in the then-popular music known as skiffle. The Quarrymen was the original band put together by John Lennon, and Paul McCartney’s introduction to his future bandmate took place at a Quarrymen performance.
Before that occurs, though, the book spends a few pages briefly recapping their childhoods and teenage years, including the many musical influences on the musicians—Chet Atkins, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and so on. All this is likely to be familiar material to hardcore fans of the band, the type of fans who will have read Hunter Davies’ The Beatles or Bob Spitz’s exhaustive, 1,000-pageThe Beatles: The Biography.
Possibly less familiar, though perhaps of questionable insightfulness, are some of the quotes from people who knew the band personally and/or saw them perform live. Peter Cook, of local outfit The Top Spots, reminisces: “They were so tight and so good that every hair on my neck stood up. It was a completely new sound.”
Others were less generous. Jazz aficianado Geoff Davies recalls, “The first night I saw The Beatles was at an all-night session with Kenny Ball and various jazz bands… It was a horrendous noise. It was loud guitars and drums and screaming.” And of course there’s this pithy quote from John’s aunt Mimi: “A guitar’s all right, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it.”
As the ‘50s turned into the ‘60s, Paul joined the group, and it morphed from The Quarrymen into The Beatles. The most significant change during the period was the band’s beginning to write their own material. As with many young bands, The Beatles started out by covering other peoples’ songs, but when their first few records were pressed and released—“Please Please Me”, “Love Me Do”—the response was strong. Then enormous. Then fanatical, and all of Liverpool knew that something special was going on.
The biggest mystery for casual fans, as they leaf through the various sections of this book, will be: where’s Ringo? Original drummer Pete Best stayed with the group right until August 1962, and some of the band’s early singles were recorded with session drummers. Ironically, Ringo Starr, who at the time was often the only one of the musicians who was recognizable to non-fans (like my parents) was a late addition to the group, and missed many of the band’s formative experiences.
As mentioned earlier, the book follows a choppy structure to tell its story. A few pages of narration are interrupted by a two-page spread of quotes or an anecdote pertaining to the band. This is followed by another three or four pages and then another interruption to provide background context. In this way, The Beatles in Liverpool resembles nothing so much as a magazine, or possibly a web site, made into book form, and the abundance of photos—typically two or three to a page, sometimes more—reinforces this perception. That said, though, it’s likely to be the photos, many of which seem to be published here for the first time, that are of the greatest interest to fans of the band.
For readers who aren’t put off by the stop-and-start storytelling, or who might prefer a slim volume they can dip into and out of, rather than some weighty tome of several hundred pages, Beatles in Liverpool is likely to be a rewarding little book. It’s for fans only, of course, as non-fans are unlikely to have much interest. Comprhensive it is not, but as a mix of eye candy and occasional nuggets of curious information, it’s good enough at what it does.