The Beatles have sold more records than anyone else, a staggering 600 million copies. Just think about it – that’s 600,000,000 records, and presumably they’ve included the ones I’ve bought in that figure as well. I was a huge fan of the Fab Four and still am, and when the opportunity arose, I didn’t hesitate to use my birthday as an excuse to make a pilgrimage to visit the place where they came from, to learn more about how and why they became the phenomenon that they did.
Between 1962 and 1970 they recorded 213 songs, 188 of which they penned themselves, mostly by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Everyone has their own favourite Beatles album or song, and their music changed direction more than once, but for me personally, it was their early stuff that I loved the most. It was raw music at its best and could change from Paul hammering out a heavy rock number like Long Tall Sally one minute to John Lennon singing a ballad like This Boy the next.
The obvious place to start a tour like this is by visiting The Beatles Story at the Royal Albert Dock. Not only does it give an excellent overview of their career, its location is also an integral part of Liverpool’s history as a major port, which in itself makes it easier to understand why groups like The Beatles and others made such an impact on this city.
The Port of Liverpool was one of the world’s major trading centres during the 18th and 19th centuries (in both goods and slaves) and was also an embarkation point for migration to America. The Royal Albert Dock is the largest and most well-known of Liverpool’s docks, and after it closed down in the 1980s it was sympathetically restored to include museums, restaurants and bars, which now entices over 4 million visitors a year.
The Beatles Story is located in the basement of the Britannia Pavilion at the Albert Dock complex, and through a series of rooms covers the different phases of their career. It will interest people who know next to nothing about the group and also those who are ardent fans. The featured image at the top of the page by the way is a picture of a photograph in the museum which shows The Beatles in Liverpool in 1962, the same year that they recorded their first single – Love Me Do.
Released by Parlophone on 5th October 1962, it reached No 17 in the UK charts. The song was actually written before The Beatles were formed, largely by Paul McCartney, but John’s harmonica showed that they were destined to become a partnership. The ‘B’ side was P.S. I Love You.
The best way to get to know the Beatles story in real life is to take an official tour. It’s not something I do too often, but it certainly makes sense here. The most popular tour is the 2-hour ride on the Magical Mystery Tour bus, and I daresay that it’s a great trip for most people, but without trying to sound too disdainful, I was hoping to find a tour that was a bit more intimate.
In the end I opted for a company called Pool of Life that used an 8-seater minibus and did all day tours. To cut a long story short, it wasn’t a minibus that picked us up but the tour guide in his own car as it was only the wife and myself who had booked to go today. In other words, we had our own private chauffeur for the day, and a guide that was able to tell us things you wouldn’t find in a guide book.
As you might imagine, our driver Mark, was a walking (or in this case, driving) encyclopaedia, and he started the tour by heading towards South Liverpool where John, Paul, George and Ringo all came from. Rather than follow the route that he took I want to separate the places we visited into something that will make more sense, and I’m starting with John Lennon’s background, partly because he was a founder member, but also because his upbringing was a bit more complex than Paul McCartney’s.
John was born to Julia (née Stanley) and Alfred ‘Freddie’ Lennon, a merchant seaman of Irish descent. Julia (who sounded a bit of a girl) married ‘Alf’ against her family’s wishes, as he was “no use to anyone – certainly not our Julia”. The first they knew about the wedding was when she came home after the ceremony waving the marriage certificate under her dad’s nose: Julia’s wedding night was spent at the Stanley family home in Wavertree, and Alf went back to his digs. The following day he went back to sea.
When he returned 3 months later Julia’s father had mellowed enough to allow him to join his daughter in their home at 9 Newcastle Road, just around the corner from Penny Lane – and this is where John, their only child together, was conceived.
Alf’s job as a merchant seaman provided some form of financial security, but he was hardly ever at home, and he was at sea when his wife gave birth to John at Liverpool Maternity Hospital on 9th October 1940.
In 1943 Alf went absent without leave and the cheques stopped coming. He eventually showed his face again in 1945, only to find Julia 6 months pregnant. I think it’s fair to say that neither John’s mother nor the father of the unborn child seemed interested in a long-term relationship, and Alf volunteered to adopt the new addition to the family as one of his own. Julia declined the offer, not just because of her husband’s lack of availability, but also because there was a new man in her life – a man by the name of John Dykins. After being pressurised by her family to give up the new baby for adoption, Julia moved into a small flat in Gateacre with John Dykins, taking her son with them.
The arrangement, which meant John sleeping in the same bed as his mother and boyfriend didn’t go down well with Julia’s puritanical eldest sister, Mary, who complained to Liverpool Social Services. The final outcome was that John went to live with Mary, or Aunt Mimi as he called her, in Menlove Avenue, Woolton.
The house where Mimi and her husband George lived was called Mendips and was John’s home until fame took him away. It was, and still is, a neat semi-detached suburban home, and not one of Liverpool’s slums that people imagine when they think of their ‘working class hero’. The house was bought and given to the National Trust by Yoko Ono and was on our itinerary with Mark. Most tours only stop outside, but along with a small number of other people we had a scheduled inside tour. Not surprisingly, photography isn’t allowed for copyright reasons.
John was only 5 years old when he went to live at Mendips staying for 15 years. In his bedroom he would sit down with Paul and start writing songs, one of them being their second single, Please Please Me, confirming it by saying “I wrote it in the bedroom in my house at Menlove Avenue”. The song was released in February 1963 and officially only reached number 2 in the charts even though it had reached Number 1 in all the music papers such as Melody Maker.
Paul McCartney’s background is a little more straightforward and was a lot more stable than John’s. His parents, like John’s father, were of Irish descent and came from very humble beginnings. It’s no coincidence that Liverpool has so many Irish descendants, as it was one of the ports that was easy to escape to during the 1845 Irish Potato Famine.
Both his mother and father worked hard to climb up the social ladder out of poverty. His father, Jim McCartney for example, while at school, got a job selling programmes at the Everton Theatre Royal and at the end of each show rushed home so that his sister could iron them out in time for the next show, and then he would resell them and pocket the money. For most of his adult life, Jim worked in the Cotton trade, supplementing his income by playing in jazz bands around Liverpool.
He was 38 and single when he met Mary Mohin, a 31-year-old registered nurse and midwife. Mary’s mother died giving birth to her fifth child (who also died), and her father re-married an Irish woman who had two children of her own. The arrangement didn’t work out for Mary who left home to go and live with her mother’s family in Wavertree. This background gave Mary the encouragement to work her way out of poverty, and nursing became her life.
Jim and Mary married in April 1941 and rented a furnished house at 10 Sunbury Road, Anfield. On 18th June 1942 Paul was born at Walton Hospital where Mary had been working, but his father’s reaction to the new baby was less than ecstatic. He described Paul as a “horrible piece of red meat. When I got home, I cried, the first time for years and years …. but the next day he looked more human”.
Paul’s mother wasn’t happy with their accommodation and Jim’s work for the Air Ministry made them eligible for a government sponsored house, and in November they moved into 92 Broadway Avenue, Wallasey. This was followed by another move to a prefab on the Knowsley Estate, but by now Paul had been joined by a new baby brother called Peter Michael McCartney who later became better known as Mike McGear of The Scaffold.
In 1947, due to Mary’s nursing work, the family moved again, this time to Speke on an expanding council estate. Although it was a tough area, it was work that Mary wanted – and needed, as Jim’s income was becoming insufficient for the better life that they wanted for their offspring.
In 1955 the McCartney family made yet another move. This time to Allerton, where Mary’s income had enabled them to afford a better council house in a better area. 20 Forthlin Road was where Paul spent his teenage years and where Mark took us to next.
Paul’s house is also owned by the National Trust and the same arrangements were made for us to visit this property as they were for Mendips. John and Paul wrote many of their early songs here and in my next Beatles post I’ll explain why. This one, called There’s a Place is from their first album, Please Please Me. I reckon that it has John’s influence all over it, and I’ve often wondered if he was thinking about his bedroom in Mendips when they were writing it.
George Harrison was the third and youngest Beatle. His parents lived a typically unremarkable life in a Liverpudlian sort of way. His father Harold, was a steward in the Merchant Navy, and his mother, Louise (whose father was Irish) worked at a greengrocer’s shop. They met in 1929 and got married the following year at Brownlow Hill Register Office.
They moved into a terraced house at 12 Arnold Grove, Wavertree and had three children before George was born here on 25th February 1943. The house is still here, but not open to the public as it’s still very much occupied. In my mind’s eye this was the sort of street I expected all the Beatles to have lived in.
The house cost them 10 shillings a week to rent (50p) and the six of them shared the house with its outside lavatory for seven years. George describes it like this “Our house was very small. Two up and two down – straight in off the pavement, step right out of the back room. The front room was never used. It had the posh lino and a three-piece suite and was freezing cold and nobody ever went in it. We’d all be huddled together in the kitchen where the fire was, with the kettle on, and a little iron cooking stove”.
The final piece of The Beatles jigsaw was Richard Starkey, or Ringo Starr as he was better known. He wasn’t the group’s first drummer but quickly became an integral part of the Fab Four after he joined.
He was brought up in the Dingle, recognised as one of the toughest areas of Liverpool at the time. It’s a working-class area consisting mainly of streets lined with terraced houses, and Ringo once described it as a place where there were “A lot of people in little boxes trying to get out”.
Ringo’s father, Richard Starkey, was a dockworker before becoming a baker and worked at the same bakery as Elsie Gleave, who he married in 1936. To begin with, they moved into Richard Starkey’s parents’ house at 59 Madryn Street before being able to find a home of their own further down the street at number 9 and where Ringo was born on 7th July 1940.
Ringo’s parents separated when he was just three years old and his mother often left him with neighbours or Grandma and Grandpa Starkey while she went to work as a barmaid at the Empress pub in nearby High Park Street.
When Ringo was six Elsie moved from Madryn Street to the street next to the pub called Admiral Grove, It was only a stone’s throw away, but at least she could avoid her ex-husband who still lived in Madryn Street. She re-married in 1954.
When we arrived at Madryn Street all the houses were boarded up. For years the area had been virtually abandoned and Ringo’s birthplace had been left derelict, but in 1997 it was sold at a Tokyo auction for £13, 250 and renovated. In 2005 Liverpool City Council earmarked the Welsh Streets area, which included Madryn Street and ten others, for demolition. After years of protracted discussions, the area has been largely saved from the bulldozers. Some properties have been demolished, but the area in general has retained its Victorian appearance and brought up to modern standards – including, you might be glad to hear, Ringo’s birthplace.
This concludes the first part about The Beatles early years, and in the next one I’ll be Back describing how they grew into teenagers and became The Beatles.
POSTED – OCTOBER 2021