It has been 60 years since Liverpool’s most famous music venue opened its doors, Getintothis’ Andy Holland delves into the archives to pick out some of The Cavern’s key moments.
However, The Fab Four’s enormous fame has tended to overshadow everything else in the venue’s history, some of which has been interesting and varied. This article will attempt to highlight what else The Cavern has achieved.
The Cavern’s founder, Alan Sytner, had been inspired by the venues he had visited in Paris, many of which were situated in cellars and catered for jazz-fans. He based The Cavern on one specific club he had visited called Le Caveau de la Huchette, which is also world famous in its own right.
There was a considerable audience for jazz in the UK in the 1950s, with some audience preferring the smart, slick, style of modern jazz (the original ‘mods’) and others preferring the old-time shuffle of ‘trad’. And so it came to pass that The Cavern was launched with a gig by the cleverly named The Merseysippi Jazz Band on January 16, 1957. The poster for the gig was designed by Tony Booth who later when on to produce lots of artwork for The Beatles.
But, of course, that was only the start…
1. Acker Bilk and the Jazz Phenomenon
Acker Bilk was a huge star in the 1950s, if an unlikely one. He was heavy-set clarinet-player, dressed like Mississippi river-boat gambler, in a striped waistcoat, a van-dyke beard, and a bowler-hat. He had an extraordinarily rich playing style that was immediately recognisable the minute he started playing. His single Stranger On The Shore topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and remained in the British charts for all of an astonishing fifty-five weeks. He was the first UK act to ever have a number one record in the US – a music industry phenomenon. Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band played The Cavern for the first time on on Valentine’s Day 1958.
Even before this, though, The Cavern had catered for the modern jazz fans though; each Thursday night being especially allotted for their style of music. The legendary Ronnie Scott had formed The Jazz Couriers with Tubby Hayes, who performed their first gig at The Cavern on Thursday November, 21 1957.
2. Cavern Blues
It is largely forgotten now that The Cavern had its own major role to play in British blues. When Big Bill Broonzy played the venue in March 1957, it marked the first example of the club’s commitment towards the genre, since many blues greats would go on to appear there in the future, for example; Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and more. Broonzy was a magnificent artist, whose writing and guitar-playing seemed unlimited in scope, since it incorporated so many other styles of music in addition to the blues.
This has continued throughout The Cavern‘s existence. On November 12, 2001, blues legend Bo Diddley played the venue for the first time at 73 years of age. He played not one, but two seventy minute sets at the venue, and then played for a further half an hour. The Chess legend was due to return to the venue in 2008, but sadly passed away before the gig could take place.
3. The Beat Goes On
Many of the artists playing The Cavern were undeniably greats in their own chosen fields, but popular music had moved on by the late 1950s, and young Liverpudlians were desperate to see and hear something of their own. Alan Sytner sold the venue to Ray McFall to cover his debts in 1959 and took The Cavern in a different direction. Under Sytner’s stewardship, rock & roll was strictly verboten and attempt to play it was treated with scorn or worse. McFall understood that this new ‘beat’ music could be The Cavern’s future and that it could prove lucrative.
The first beat group who played The Cavern were Rory Storm and The Hurricanes, featuring Ringo Starr on drums, and in the early days were one of the most popular groups to perform there. This was mostly thanks to Rory Storm, whose flamboyant performances became legendary throughout Merseyside at the time. He had an Elvis-style gold lame suit, a huge blonde quiff – which he would comb onstage with an outsized comb – would risk death and disfigurement to entertain an audience, and would even bring along his pet monkey to feature as part of the act.
On one occasion, he stripped to his underwear then took a dive from the top diving board of a swimming pool in New Brighton to conclude a song. He even renamed his family home ‘Stormville’, such was his commitment to rock & roll and his relentless quest to become a star. It always seemed about to happen, but it never quite did. Nevertheless, his influence loomed large and over the next few years, a plethora of local groups – including, of course, The Beatles – would play The Cavern developing a style which came to be known as Merseybeat.
4. You’ll Never Walk Alone
One of the more prominent groups on the scene were Gerry and The Pacemakers, who were renowned at the time for having a piano player in their line-up, and first appeared at The Cavern in October 1960.
Gerry Marsden was admired for his up-to-the-minute fashion-conscious, sartorial elegance (‘always well turned out’) and was a likeable, witty, and amiable showman. The band could play frenetically paced rock/pop, but that became lost in translation by the time they released records (such was the case with a lot of Merseybeat bands). They did manage to have three consecutive number ones though, and they were the first group to ever manage that. The group’s film vehicle at the time, Ferry Cross The Mersey, is worth seeing as a document of the Liverpool scene in the early 60s; it’s cheesy but enlightening too.
5. Meet The Searchers
The Searchers first appeared at The Cavern on in April 1961. One of the most popular Merseybeat bands, they pioneered the use of the 12-string electric guitar in rock & roll. They started off by playing similar material to the rest of the groups in the scene in a far more hyped up, manic, and intense style, but moved on to performing folk-rock before anybody else had even thought of it as a genre.
The Byrds’ sound was – for all intents and purposes – robbed from The Searchers. They were an extremely popular live act and Tony Hatch’s weedy production on their records never did them justice, despite the fact that had far more hits than most people realise; in Merseybeat, only The Beatles had more chart hits than The Searchers.
6. Please Don’t Touch
One of the strangest characters in the UK’s early rock scene was Johnny Kidd, whose backing group The Pirates was led by the greatly respected guitarist Mick Green; a huge influence on Wilko Johnson, and many others. Johnny Kidd played at The Cavern in May 1962, dressed like a pirate paraphernalia, eye-patch and all, and began his set hurling a sword (yes, a real one) at the stage. He had become so expert at this so it would penetrate the stage, dead centre, in the floorboards. Needless to say, there were fewer health and safety regulations in those days. He is remembered mostly for his hit Shakin’ All Over, which was a high watermark of the British rock ‘n’ roll canon, his Please Don’t Touch being another.
7. The Rolling Stones Become Outlaws
The seminal Alexis Korner’s Rhythm and Blues Incorporated played The Cavern on in 1963, and have taken on mythical status since it became the launch-pad for many young musicians who went on to achieve greatness. When they played the Cavern, future Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, and Mick Jagger was on some of the vocals.
It seemed musical developments were happening at a breakneck pace during the 60s because Jagger and Watts were back at The Cavern a few months later as members of their own band, The Rolling Stones. All of The Stones had performed with Alexis Korner (with the possible exception of Bill Wyman); Brian Jones had played slide-guitar with Korner but had billed himself under the cheeky pseudonym, Elmore Jones.
This appearance proved historic because up until this gig, The Stones had been wearing stage uniforms, similar to those worn by most bands of the period. For some reason The Stones decided to forego the suits on this occasion and took to the stage in more casual attire, deemed as ‘tacky’ by the press of the time, who further described the band as ‘long haired louts’. Henceforth, The Stones’ outlaw status began, and their shrewd manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, began capitalising on it. Of note, second on the bill were The Ronettes, who were big on the charts, with their big hair, heavy make-up, and even bigger choruses.
8. The Liver Birds
On Thursday December 26, The Liver Birds made their first appearance. They were hugely significant because they had an all-female line-up and although they didn’t go on to have much success in the UK, they had a lasting career in Germany.
We could talk about The Liver Birds and their importance all day, but we would be repeating ourselves. Check out this edition of Lost Liverpool, which tells the story of this quite remarkable band.
9. Merseyside Festival for Rhythm and Blues Purists
By 1964, the British blues boom was getting underway, and not to miss an opportunity The Cavern held the first ever Merseyside Festival for Rhythm and Blues Purists on Wednesday January 22. The star attraction turned out to be Sonny Boy Williamson II, a magnificent blues harp player who could make his harmonica sound like an entire band without even removing it from his mouth.
The Beatles’ success, and that of other Mersey based, had become so huge that The Cavern had by this point become a very prestigious to play. Therefore, most touring bands made a point of including a visit to The Cavern when they were doing the rounds. This meant that Chuck Berry, The Yardbirds, The Pretty Things, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Wilson Picket, John Lee Hooker, and many others all played The Cavern at some point in their history.
10. Southern Soul
In 1966, as if to underline the cultural significance of the club, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson reopened a new and improved Cavern. A souvenir shop, boutique, and a ground-floor coffee lounge had been added to the venue, which as you can imagine, divided opinion somewhat at the time.
The first artists to play this newly configured Cavern a couple of soul legends. Rufus Thomas was one of the first big stars at Stax and had racked up a handful of funky soul hits, most notably at that point Walking The Dog, and would continue making big hits such as 1969’s Do The Funky Chicken. The great Solomon Burke joined him hot of the heels of his biggest hit Everybody Needs Somebody To Love.
11. Gods of 70s Rock
During the late 60s many hard rock bands played The Cavern, including Black Sabbath. Ozzy Osbourne grew up as a huge Beatles fan, and Sabbath had cut their teeth in a similar way to The Fab Four, playing Hamburg, and following in the footsteps at The Star Club, where they played similarly, gruellingly long sets. This shaped the music Sabbath went on to play, since they filled out their sets with long jams; it has been asserted that it was common for War Pigs to last forty minutes. Whether this happened at their gig at The Cavern is anybody’s guess.
When Status Quo played The Cavern in 1970, the band had difficulty fitting all their gear on The Cavern’s relatively small stage, which also restricted their movement during the gig. This didn’t stop the Quo being excited by the experience of playing the same venue as so many of their heroes though.
Freddie Mercury had been a resident of Liverpool when he was singing in a locally based band called Ibex. It was at a venue in the city called The Sink that he met Brian May and Roger Taylor, and even did an impromptu performance with them there. When the three got together with John Deacon to form Queen it was inevitable that they return to Liverpool, and by jove they did it. They played The Cavern on Halloween night, 1970, three years before they released their self-titled debut.
12. The New Cavern
The original Cavern closed its doors on May 27, 1973, and bulldozers demolished the warehouse buildings that housed the club. The famous cellar was filled in with rubble. Since 1957, The Cavern had made a point of always including local talent on the bill, which had helped to nurture Liverpool bands, and even develop a world dominating sound. When the venue closed it left a very noticeable gap in the local scene.
When re-opened on April 26, 1984, it was reconstructed using as many of the bricks from the original Cavern as possible. Although bands from the local music scene did play at the new Cavern, it became evident that the venue’s new focus would be the nostalgia market, and so resting past glories became the order of the day, with Beatles conventions, tribute bands, and discos being the usual events at the club.
This didn’t remain unnoticed though and attempts were made to revitalise the local music scene by putting local band nights on each Tuesday to Thursday nights. The band nights became quite famous, though one of the bands who appeared were Oasis in the Summer of 1992 and Noel Gallagher was reportedly underwhelmed by the experience, claiming that The Cavern was more like ‘a wine bar’ than the legendary venue he was expecting.
13. Return of the Mac
In early December 1999, Paul McCartney announced that he wanted to perform a rock & roll party at The Cavern to mark the end of the Millennium. He made good on his promise less than two weeks later, when he returned to the Cavern stage after 35 years. But not only was McCartney present, he brought along Pink Floyd‘s David Gilmour on guitar and Deep Purple‘s Ian Paice on drums. Also present, to add some rock & roll legitimacy, was The Pirates‘ Mick Green.
Given that he was promoting an album of rock & roll covers, it is no surprise that such material made up the majority of the set. Nevertheless, the show was broadcast live on TV, radio, webcast and on a big screen in the city centre. It is currently available on DVD.
14. The Next Generation
On April 2, 2005, The Arctic Monkeys played The Cavern on the strength of their online following. It wasn’t until six months later that the release of I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor shot to number one on the singles chart, with their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not following in January. Recordings from the show on YouTube show how rabid their following was before they had even released any records, so it is no surprise that they went on to conquer the charts as well as The Cavern. Admission that night was £8. Just try seeing them for that much now!
More recently Jake Bugg, Adele, Jessie J, and The Wanted have appeared at The Cavern, in addition to others, usually performing warm-up gigs before their major tours. The fact that they do this is how respected The Cavern is, but it seems to be based on more of a historical basis than anything related to what the venue currently does. This is a minor quibble though when viewed in context with its overall lasting contribution to popular music.