With The Beatles’ music having been shaped by the sights, sounds and culture of their home city, Getintothis’ Andy Holland explains why the fab four could only have come from Liverpool.
Music is determined by its environment, this is why bands that emerge from an urban background tend to sound different from those who are more rural and suburban. Each place has its own identity which imprints itself on the people who are born there.
The same is true of Liverpool and The Beatles. I’m not going to claim that it has anything to do with ley lines or some new age bollocks like that, but our history and cultural and socio-economic identity influences what we do. It’s the same reason why Memphis produced the most famous man in popular culture.
So, what is the connection between Liverpool and Memphis? They are both cities that are legendary in the history of popular music since they both produced the most famous people in its history. Without Memphis, we wouldn’t have had Elvis Presley, and without him, rock ‘n’ roll wouldn’t have had the same impact.
Yet, there are some people who believe that Elvis Presley wasn’t anything special. They claim that he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. If it hadn’t been him it would have been Carl Perkins, for example. If it hadn’t been for racism it would have been Chuck Berry.
However, Carl Perkins didn’t have the looks that Elvis had, nor the vocal range or the youthful flash. Chuck Berry wrote his own songs and was immersed in rhythm and blues, but did he have Elvis’ ability to sing any kind of song? Chuck’s vocal style actually had more in common with country than blues, and he didn’t come across as approachable. The bottom-line is that it was Elvis because it couldn’t have anybody else.
But for something magical to take a lot of different forces have to be at work. Elvis performed and sang the way he did because he grew up impoverished in a dirt-poor Memphis neighbourhood directly alongside African Americans, where he was exposed to lots of different music and didn’t discriminate between any of it. He absorbed everything and had the ability to learn a song in an instant. It was no strain for Elvis to sing rhythm and blues; it was as natural as breathing. All of this gave him a head-start on everybody else. Plus, he looked like James Dean’s more handsome brother.
All of The Beatles were obsessed with Elvis. They might have had other favourites, but there was something about Elvis that seemed like he could be one of your mates. It was also pretty rare to see Elvis without an acoustic guitar brandished around his neck, a curled lip, a good looking girl on his arm, and he always dressed cool. The fact that Elvis was a flamboyant and natty dresser appealed to young Liverpudlians. Liverpudlians always dress up before going out, and love to be the centre of attention, and back then the first thing working-class people did when they got their first wage-packet was put a down-payment on a sharp suit or frock.
Elvis seemed to have everything a young lad could want. And ‘the birds’ loved him. But why settle for emulating Elvis, when you could actually be him? As John Lennon quipped, ‘[it]looks like a good job.’
Weirdly, Liverpool already had the environment for rock ‘n’ roll. For starters, it had a love affair with the guitar. Sailors often came home with them. In addition to the national skiffle boom started by Lonnie Donegan, there was also a local penchant for cowboy songs played by people like Tex Ritter. Why? Because local cinemas were full of cowboy films, and everyone was addicted to them. There was also Irish and Scots music, Welsh folk ballads, church hall record-hops.
In the largely black neighbourhoods of Liverpool 8 there were rent parties taking place where the latest American rhythm and blues was played, plus Jamaican blue-beat (which, contrary to legend, is where The Beatles were first introduced to cannabis, long before they met Bob Dylan, and they also learnt some of their more advanced guitar chords). The role of black musicians in The Beatles’ development has been overlooked for way too long. Music was everywhere in the city and The Beatles were soaking it all up.
Liverpool also has a village mentality. Everybody seems to know everyone. Perhaps, this has a lot to do with the way the city is put together. Despite the fact that it is quite a sprawling city people tend to gravitate towards the centre if they want to share something with everybody or socialise. Liverpudlians also seem to do a lot more talking than most other people too; word of mouth is the best form of publicity here. If anybody is doing something outstanding, outrageous, or scandalous everybody seems to hear about it. Being the first port for trade from the US, the city had a history as one of the most famous party cities in the world – after all it was at one time a rich man’s playground.
John Lennon’s mother had introduced him to the banjo and accordion, as well as being the first person to play him an Elvis record, Heartbreak Hotel.
All of The Beatles were well-versed in music hall, country music, folk music, brass-bands, classical, early reggae (which The Beatles kept trying to play but couldn’t get the beat right, I Call Your Name being one attempt, She’s A Woman another), and jazz (despite the myth to the contrary, all of The Beatles enjoyed jazz and included numerous jazz standards in their early sets).
The plethora of musical influences stems largely from the fact that Liverpool was the main port dealing with trade from the US, and the fact that the city has always been multi-cultural (if a tad ghettoised).
Take for example George Harrison’s love affair with Indian music. This has been largely been put down to the influence of Ravi Shankar, and encountering a sitar on the set of Help! In actual fact he already had an interest in Indian music as a consequence of his mother regularly playing it in the house when he was growing up, using it to do yoga and meditation.
Paul McCartney’s dad, James, had his own jazz band and Paul picked up some tips about basic harmony from him. There were ballrooms all over Merseyside and the North West, and every weekend local people would come have a dance, cop off, or just have a laugh. These same venues would provide the infrastructure for Mersey Beat in a few years, and The Beatles themselves played in many of them. Liverpool may have been poor, rampant with unemployment, and battle-scarred after World War II, but it was musically and culturally rich. It was a city that knew how to have a good time.
There was also the economic influence. Liverpool had higher unemployment than most cities, even during the 50s and 60s. Being from modest backgrounds, The Beatles were never interested in reviving the blues or anything as risky as that. They wanted to be popular and make a lot of money, so from the outset they were writing songs aimed towards the mass-market.
Being from Liverpool helped them in this. The city is intolerant of bullshit. Liverpool is a tough, take-no-prisoners city. Putdowns come as fast as the famous jokes, and the music of the city is renowned for being melodic. If you have the gall to sing a song, you’d better be able to carry a tune, and it better be instantly appealing and memorable. And you’d better be able to have a dance to it. Either that or fuck off.
The early Beatles were sloppy. Mersey bands who were already playing Hamburg begged their first manager, Alan Williams, not to send them there; ‘they’ll spoil the whole thing for us…’. In Germany, everybody loved rock ‘n’ roll, but Germans couldn’t play it. For some reason, Germans clapped their hands on the one and the three. The beat came out mid-way between a polka and a march.
The Beatles were initially shambolic, but they became very polished while retaining a somewhat anarchic stage presence. Drunken sailors, in a red-light district, armed with guns and knives have a tendency to make you work a lot harder. Hamburg was also the place where The Beatles learned how to share vocal duties since eight-hour sets were far too long for one singer to handle.
By the time they came back to Liverpool they had become a powerhouse. They were far wilder than any of their competitors, and they sounded like no other band around. Mersey Beat bands were generally focused on providing ‘family entertainment’ with added rock ‘n’ roll, but that didn’t interest The Beatles. They didn’t give a fuck about any of that. At this stage, they were more akin to a punk band. Lennon’s voice was often a bitter, hateful snarl, and the whole band used to goad, as much as entertain their audience. Their performances were always different too, depending on what mood they were in. The intros to songs like Money would often turn into lengthy jams to encourage their audience to dance and have a good time. The Beatles knew how to find a solid beat and groove.
Plus, they were playing some of their own material, which reflected their own Liverpool backgrounds, combined with the influence of songs dominating the American charts. At this point Americans were listening to songs penned by the Brill Building in its imperial phase; sophisticated pop with lyrics that reflected fast-talking urban New York, upwardly mobile, and dressed to kill.
These songs were commonly performed by girl-groups, and rhythm and blues vocal groups. Beatles lyrics seemed to capture effortlessly the conversational style of young Liverpudlians: “she says she loves you, and you know that can’t be bad…” The choruses were as big as the anthems sung by Liverpool football fans, world-shattering, and on-the-pull. The Beatles’ songwriting grew more sophisticated by the month.
Although rock ‘n’ roll had arrived in the 1950s, young British people had never really had the chance to enjoy it in the same way that their American counterparts had. Technicolour US seemed to be all neon lights, cars that looked like spaceships, and glamorous Hollywood stars, whereas in Britain everything was still in post-war greyscale, Hovis advert style. Rationing had still been present up till July 4, 1954, and even after that the country was still very dour. The airwaves were still packed with middle-aged men with BBC accents, patrician manners, and patriarchal attitudes.
The only British pop star who relieved the tedium for a while was Billy Fury, who was coincidentally also from Liverpool, looked like a rock ‘n’ roll star, and wrote some of his own material too (The Sound Of Fury – originally 10 inch – album is a must for any discerning scholar of British rock ‘n’ roll, and it was written entirely by Fury). With the notable exception of the Teds, who were always a gutsy minority, most teenagers in 1950s Britain still looked like mini-versions of their parents. The 1960s changed that forever, and it had a lot to do with The Beatles.
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that The Beatle look was relatively easy for both sexes to emulate. Most schoolboys already had a version of the Beatle mop-top, as did many of the girls. It was the first unisex style in many ways. If they didn’t already have it, they could simply ask their mums to cut it into the style. Primarily, it had a lot to do with the fact that The Beatles didn’t appear to play middle-class games, and they got away with it by being genuinely witty.
The post-war British working-class had had enough of being talked down to by their so-called betters. The Beatles didn’t use Received Pronunciation (RP) or even bother to try, and in fact exaggerated their Scouse accents for effect, while openly mocking authority, and showing little or no respect for their elders. Hearing a working-class regional accent in the early 60s was a revelation to many, and it briefly threatened to turn the world upside down. Suddenly people with posh accents looked as though they were out of touch and didn’t know what they were talking about.
To have a regional accent became fashionable, they were heard everywhere, and even aristocrats were trying to acquire them. Lots of other Liverpool bands and others from working-class areas were signed up as a consequence, which became worrying for the London-based entertainment industry. Few though, had The Beatles irreverence, their sense of the ridiculous, or the fact that they could back it all up by being genuinely brilliant at what they did. Later, a more middle-class band like The Rolling Stones might have been regarded as bigger rebels (as if), but they never really had The Beatles’ ability to charm even their biggest critics. They were never as mind-blowingly creative either.
What other bands lacked was The Beatles’ range. They had the ability to write anything from psychedelic rockers to ballads with ease, and that came from the fact that they had absorbed so much music in their home city for the whole of their lives. It was second-nature to them.
The Beatles also had so much impact because they came from a place that was still relatively obscure in terms of the world. If they had come from a place like New York they may have been lost in the shuffle. If they had come from London they would have been too open to the pressures of blues revivalism – which was a more of a middle-class endeavour (the exception being Newcastle band, The Animals). In Liverpool and Hamburg, the focus was on entertainment, making money, and survival, and so their music became infused with a sense of defiance, fun, and inventiveness.
Nowadays, popular music doesn’t resonate with the younger generation in the same way that it did in post-war Britain. Too many other things vie for their attention, and the music scene itself has been too fragmented since the late 60s for any one band to hold a whole generation’s fascination. This is why no other band has ever replicated The Beatles’ achievements, and that success for a brief period reflected on the whole city of Liverpool, which always lit up the imaginary world of their songs, and their lyrical cadences.
Of course, it’s possible that a band from another city could have occupied The Beatles’ place, but which band, and from where? I struggle to think of one, and I’ve given it a lot of thought.