Beatles: Liverpool Landscapes
By David Lewis
Book review and interview by 1/12/2010
In autumn 1965 John Lennon was struggling to write a track for The Beatles’
Rubber Soul, when he hit upon the
idea of penning a song that would describe a bus journey from his childhood
home in Menlove Avenue into town, listing the neighbourhoods and landmarks
he passed. The Woolton to city centre idea never came to fruition on that
occasion as the song in question, In My Life,
made no direct reference to Liverpool. Lennon later used the concept the
following year however in Strawberry Fields
Forever, one of his most acclaimed songs.
Of all the musicians of the past fifty or so years, The Beatles have
remained the best at imbuing ordinary places with wonder. Strawberry
Fields, its accompanying double A-side Penny
Lane, Abbey Road, the Cast Iron Shore glimpsed in Glass
Onion. David Lewis’ The Beatles:
Liverpool Landscapes traces the origin of many of these locales.
The stated aim of the book is to see the stories “from the city’s
perspective, not the fans,” staking out corners of the city that
other Beatles’ writers had overlooked or neglected to write about
at length. Aside from the now world famous addresses of 247 Menlove Ave,
20 Forthlin Rd and The Cavern, the book traces many of the pubs, parks
and friends' houses the pre-Beatles frequented in their formative years.
Aside from the locations known to the band themselves, Lewis traces their
family routes back as far as the 1850s, where fortuitously the unknowing
great-grandparents of Lennon and McCartney cross paths. The images in
the book are all presented in monochrome, befitting an era Paul McCartney
remembered in 2004 as being in “black and white.”
Giving the lie to John Lennon’s self-embellished background of
being a Working Class Hero, Woolton
is pictured in its enduring semi-rural state of dairy farms and golf courses.
The Dingle Richard Starkey grew up in - with its two-up, two downs and
a pub on every corner - throws the difference between his and the middle-class
Lennon’s backgrounds into sharp relief. Ringo’s home in Admiral
Grove, Lewis reveals was earmarked for demolition as early as the 1930s,
yet is still with us, unlike Ringo’s previous address of Madryn
Street, which is soon to be (controversially) demolished. The Wavertree
of George Harrison’s childhood is vividly brought to life, citing
the landmarks that remain: the Coffee House Pub, the cinema (now a supermarket),
Picton Clock and the now sadly disused Town Hall, where The Beatles later
Lewis is particularly good in evoking the musty bohemia of the group's
college days, just as the 1960s were beginning. Although the buildings
around Pilgrim Street and Hope Street are still intact, the artists, novelists
and musicians who lived in this area of the city have largely gone, forced
out by higher rent prices. John, Paul and George, living in Gambier Terrace
and attending the institute (or in Lennon’s case the School of Art)
found themselves in the midst of this world. As Lewis writes, “Bohemia
is a state of mind, an idea, an invisible place of acceptance for artists
and poets, oddballs and low-lives, where academia and the literary world
rub shoulders with crime and alcoholism.”
In this social whirl the band encountered a grittier variant of the Parisian
Left Bank Existentialists, and the avant-garde set they would later meet
in Swinging London. This formative period - breezed over in the best-selling
biography of The Beatles, Philip Norman’s Shout
- was crucial to the band’s development, as they mixed with creative
types they had never encountered before, who opened their eyes and ears
to a different world.
The sheer variety of locations the band played in is also covered, in
an era when scores of local ballrooms, clubs and coffee bars covered the
city, stretching out into the suburbs. In an age before the gig circuit
solidified into a chain of Academies and universities, The Beatles could
be found playing venues such as the Casbah coffee bar in West Derby Village
and Litherland Town Hall.
For Beatleologists, The Beatles: Liverpool
Landscapes is a worthy addition, illuminating many of the formative
places the band grew up in and the influence it had on them in later life.
One little-known anecdote describes John Lennon making an unannounced
visit to Woolton in the early 1970s (over a decade since he had lived
in the city) to point out places in the suburb that he remembered from
his childhood to Yoko Ono. Moving to New York for good in 1972, Lennon
seemingly felt the need to revisit his birthplace prior to the move, a
reflection on how important his formative years in Liverpool had been
Nerve talks to David Lewis, author
and photographer of The Beatles: Liverpool
What inspired you to create the book?
In a way the book is a response to one sentence in Hunter Davies’
book The Beatles (the band’s
only official biography) which originally came out in 1968. One of the
early chapters ends with the line ‘Liverpool was now where they
had come from’, which stayed with me when I first read the book.
It seemed to be critical of the city in some way, and also suggested that
there was no going back to Liverpool once the four lads became The Beatles.
But it also seemed to suggest that they were leaving the city behind,
that you can get rid of a home town simply by moving away from it, and
also that the city had played its part in their story and should leave
the stage quietly.
I grew up in Liverpool in the 1960s and 1970s and the city was full of
Beatles stories and places – everyone knew the places and the people
but nothing was made of it. I thought even then that the city was a big
part of the band and their stories, and that there was a lot more here
than the famous places – the Cavern, their old homes and schools
and so on. And living on Newcastle Road in the early 1990s I would see
Beatles fans and even have them knocking on the door, looking for Number
9, where John Lennon’s mother’s family lived - and this reinforced
the sense of hidden history and buried stories, in a way.
So it’s a book I have always wanted to write – and then in
the summer of 2009 I realised that John would have been seventy in 2010,
and so would Stu Sutcliffe, and Ringo was going to be seventy in July
2010, and then Nowhere Boy came out,
and the time seemed right to put some ideas together and approach publishers.
We talked briefly about conserving old
buildings (especially houses) in the city, is this another passion of
Yes, definitely. I love walking urban landscapes and documenting change
and what survives from before. One of my devices for writing is to walk
the landscape first, so for my Liverpool books and exhibitions I have
walked across the city many times, either alone or with other writers,
artists, photographers. My first book was The
Churches of Liverpool and that grew out of realising how vulnerable
many of the city’s landmark buildings are, how easily we lose them.
I see Liverpool – the older city - as basically a Victorian landscape
with modern areas around it and I think we should keep as much of the
old city as possible, adapting it to modern needs. Ringo’s old home
Madryn Street off High Park Street is one of the six or eight ‘Welsh
streets' of small terraced houses which are earmarked for demolition,
then reprieved, and then put down for clearance again.
When I walked them these streets were empty and deserted. I think it would
be far better to renovate these houses – and they’re not that
small, Ringo remembered three bedrooms – and rent them to young
single people or young families, or make six or eight houses together
into a sheltered housing scheme for pensioners. We should make a virtue
out of not owning cars in these streets, rather than demolish them for
what are basically ugly copies of 1970s suburban houses with car ports
and hanging baskets. Cities have to move forward and I’m not saying
‘keep the slums’ but the Victorian city has character and
dignity, and too much of this has been lost in Liverpool.
How important was it to chronicle Liverpool
as The Beatles remember it?
One of the aims of the book was to uncover what is left of the 1950s city
they knew, which in turn was often the city built in the 1920s or 1930s,
or even the Victorian city. I wanted to get across the idea that they
didn’t just come out of nowhere, that they had family stories and
landscape stories that rooted them in the city, the way we all have –
local parks, local shops, bus routes, grandparents’ houses, the
places that were important to them. They often turned out to be immigrant
stories as well, which rooted them still more in Liverpool culture.
How long did it take to research the
locations in the book?
Not very long. I started with the early days – childhood and schools
– in the Beatles history books and worked out from there. Their
early homes and schools are fairly well known – especially the two
owned by the National Trust, obviously – but also Ringo’s
homes and George’s homes which are now private houses. I got out
on foot and had a wander around their locations, seeing the shops they
knew, the bus stops, post boxes, pubs etc. There were often tiny clues
in their memories, such as the ‘Anthology’ stories, where
one street name or the name of a pub could set me off walking.
I was able to make links between stories, such as how near George lived
to Wavertree Mystery, which his family might have walked through –
probably walked through – to see grandparents on the Wellington
Road side, so he probably played in the park as a small boy – and
it is possible that John Lennon did as well, at about the same time, with
his grandfather from Newcastle Road. It’s a book of explorations
and poetic journeys, might-have-been history, not hard facts. It’s
more about me too, in that way. Lots of my family history came to the
surface as I explored the city, such as having relations on Madryn Street
fifty years ago. More and more I am becoming a character in my own books!
How did you decide on the locations
other than family homes to cover?
Well, I started with the four Beatles who made it, not the band members
who dropped out or the big ‘lost’ Beatles like Pete Best and
Stuart Sutcliffe, so I had four places to start from. Basically one small
fact would start me off! I started with places of birth and earliest homes
and went walking. ‘If he lived here then he must have known This
Street, and That Street’ and so on. And there is a huge amount of
information online these days about their family histories, which took
me further back into Liverpool’s history. The internet stories were
interested in the people, but I used them as starting points for explorations
of landscape. For example I found a Lennon ancestry website which took
me to Michael Byron’s Irish genealogy research, which set me off
exploring Saltney Street and the places around St Albans Church on the
dock road, where the Lennons might have lived in the 1860s, 1870s. I was
guided by what I was told by the books and the websites and by what I
found on the ground. Like I say it’s a book about landscapes, and
my reactions to them and the stories, not about history as such.
How do you think Liverpool's relationship
with The Beatles is in the present day?
When I was a teenage Beatles fan in the 1970s, the city didn’t make
anything of the band. The Beatles shop was in a small cellar on North
John Street and of course the city cheerfully demolished the Cavern in
the early 1970s because of the underground railway. Now it’s very
different, with the bus tours and the National Trust houses, and the Mathew
Street Festival and everything – the city has woken up to the potential
now the Beatles are fashionable again. I think the city itself is more
ambiguous – everyone of a certain age seems to have a Beatles story
but that generation sees those days very differently, there is no nostalgia
for the poverty of the 1960s and the damp, crumbling, badly heated places
they grew up in, and no wonder.
How do feel the landscape of Liverpool
has changed since the early 1960s when The Beatles relocated to London?
I was surprised to find that some places have changed hardly at all –
where the band grew up, for example, Wavertree, the Dingle, Woolton, Allerton
– and that many of the old clubs and venues are still there, or
at least the buildings are. Other places like Liverpool 8 have changed
a lot more and of course the city centre is a very different place with
a lot of new building especially in the last decade or so. Most of the
changes are subtle, I think, things gone like the old money, steam trains,
gas lamps, and the coffee bars in cellars not Starbucks! I wonder if people
are different and I’m not sure. Do we think differently now than
we would have in 1960? I suppose I think that yes we do, we are kinder
and more liberal – very broadly speaking – and I think that
this is a consequence of the 1960s, which were defined as a decade by
The Beatles: Liverpool Landscapes
is available at bookshops and from