Our motley crew of Americans, Canadians, Germans, Argentineans and one or two fellow Englishmen were urged to “Roll up! Roll up for the mystery tour!” as we sheltered from the rain blowing in off the Mersey. Except, of course, it’s not much of a mystery tour we’re waiting for. To a man and woman, we know why we’re here, as the family singing the first two lines of Penny Lane over and over demonstrate.
This is Liverpool, home of The Beatles and a Fab Four tourism industry that, even 50 years on from the release of the group’s first single, is as strong as ever.
Heading off into the suburbs, our guide for the day, Neil Brannan, sets out his credentials, among them pictures of himself with Sir Paul McCartney, plus the factoid that he played John Lennon’s childhood friend Peter Shotton in a US TV movie of The Beatles’ early years.
As well as knowing his stuff, he’s also still amused at his own jokes, despite 12 years in the job, and has got mixing anecdotes with clips from Lennon-McCartney songs down to an art.
It’s these anecdotes, covering everything from stories relating to the departure of drummer Pete Best through to Lennon’s tragic adolescent years that make the guided tour worth the money.
After all, the sites visited on the tour are, in themselves, not much to look at. But that is, in many ways, the point of the tale; how four lads from nothing backgrounds came from nowhere to become, in the words of George Harrison, “the Spice Boys” of their time.
Even Penny Lane, still home to a barber’s shop and bank, looks like any other suburban street – though that doesn’t make the obligatory picture with the street sign any less satisfying – while the childhood homes of the group are so ordinary to look at that our group were asked to take a quick snap and then get back on the bus at George’s place since the street’s residents were in the middle of preparing for a children’s birthday party, bouncy castle and all.
“It’s the atmosphere on the bus that really makes it for me,” says Neil. “There’s always people from all over the world and there’s nearly always some singing and friendly banter. And, since I started 12 years ago now, it’s definitely getting bigger and more exciting. Whether it’s the 50th anniversary celebrations or the fact that a new generation are getting into the Beatles as their favourite bands cite them as an influence, we’re busier than ever.”
Fittingly, the tour finishes at Matthew Street, home to the Cavern Club. And, somewhat confusingly, to the Cavern Pub, too.
Like the Ship of Theseus or Trigger’s Broom, whether or not this Cavern Club is the same club the Beatles played in all those years back is open to debate. “It wasn’t here. It was further down there. I was there in the 60s and the Cavern definitely wasn’t here then,” a local chap, clearly no stranger to the city’s drinking dens, tells us as we loiter to read the Wall of Fame, which lists every major band to have played the club over the past five decades. On the other hand, however, Neil shows us photographic proof that the club’s in the same place and only the entrance has been moved – “see, look at that broken brick, it’s still there!” – though even he admits the stage is now in a different place to where it was in the Merseybeat heyday. But, does it really matter? Probably not and certainly, it doesn’t appear to make the slightest bit of difference to the throngs of tourists singing along to the tribute act up on stage
Just a single souvenir shop separates Matthew Street from the Hard Days Night Hotel, the world’s only Beatles-themed hotel and without doubt the best base for a rock-and-roll-themed weekend in the city.
Here, they’ve got the balance just right; all the rooms have a portrait of one of the Fab Four above the bed, the staircase is lined with pictures telling the story of the city’s most famous sons and the lobby is dotted, with Beatles memorabilia. However, it’s never over-the-top, as the tourists queuing alongside the travelling businessmen and women for the breakfast buffet beneath a giant guide to the figures on the Sergeant Peppers sleeve shows.
Away from the Cavern Quarter, the Beatles Story, down on the Albert Dock, is the latest addition to the Fab Four tourism industry. And a fine addition it is, too, particularly when it comes to giving a picture of the post-war city into which John, Paul, George and Ringo were born. However, at £15 per person, it’s not cheap. Nor is it particularly enlightening if you’ve already taken a bus tour. There are, after all, only so many anecdotes to tell or quotes to repeat from the career of a band who were only together for a decade or so.
Much better, then, to draw a line at just a few tourist attractions and get out and explore the culture of modern-day Liverpool, whether it’s donning a hard hat, signing an insurance waiver and taking in a performance at the wreck of St Luke’s – known locally as the “bombed out church” – or simply stopping to listen to one of the many buskers mixing Beatles standards with their own compositions on the streets surrounding the Cavern Quarter.
“People say that The Beatles made Liverpool, but they’re wrong. It was the other way round; Liverpool made the Beatles,” says Neil.
“That quick wit and Scouse sense of humour that made them so different is still evident today and always will be, so in that sense, the spirit of the Beatles will never die here.”
Getting there: TransPennine Express goes direct from Leeds to Liverpool, with singles staring at £8.
Where to stay: The Hard Days Night Hotel offers a range of Beatles-themed rooms, including a Lennon Suite and a McCartney suite. Doubles from £90 per night.
Where to eat: Occupying the top floor of a former Victorian warehouse, The Egg Cafe (16-18 Newington, L1 4ED) serves cheap, filling vegetarian and vegan food, while also serving as an independent art gallery and meeting space. Sir Paul would approve.