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The Cavern Club: A stinking, rat-infested cesspit that would never be tolerated now
By Spencer Leigh
Published: 28 June 2007
This year the Cavern Club in Liverpool is celebrating its 50th anniversary with, amongst other things, a triple-CD set, titled, without hyperbole, The Most Famous Club In The World, which features key artists who have performed there - the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Queen, Arctic Monkeys. This will surprise anyone who saw bulldozers demolishing the Cavern in 1973.
The most amazing fact about the Cavern is that it opened at all. True, the health and safety regulations were nothing like today's, but even by the standards of 1957, it was an anachronism. It was a sweat-drenched club with no ventilation and just one entrance. There were no facilities for the disabled and, laden with amplifiers and drums, even fit musicians had trouble negotiating the club's 18 steep and slippy steps.
Nobody checked just where the waste products from the toilet were going. The answer was into a cesspit, and the hapless workers on the underground line wondered just what was seeping onto their clothes. Add to that cigarette smoke, hair spray, and 650 people in a space that would now only be authorised for 300. Len Garry, one of John Lennon's Quarry Men, is sure that he contracted TB at the Cavern, and the Cavern's DJ, Bob Wooler, was expecting the modern equivalent of the Black Death. "The back of the Cavern was known as the Deep End as the toilets flowed down there," says Ray Ennis of the Swinging Blue Jeans. "The busier the place got, the more it overflowed. It could be six inches deep." This explains why the abiding memory is the smell of San Izal disinfectant.
Terry McCusker from the Roadrunners adds, "You'd walk around in pools of unmentionable liquids. Cilla Black used to work in the cloakroom. I remember her getting up with the Big Three and singing "Fever". We thought she was a bit of a dumb cluck, but soon she was making hit records."
The premises were unlicensed and the Cavernites got by on soup and sandwiches. Sandra Hargrove's mother ran the snack bar: "Mum was screaming one day that there was a rat. I was about 13 and I caught it, a real whopper. My mum was battering me, telling me to put it down in case it bit me.The rat catchers couldn't keep up."
Tony Crane of the Merseybeats, who supported the Beatles on their final appearance at the Cavern, recalls: "It surprised us that the Beatles came back for a show at the Cavern in August 1963. We had just recorded 'It's Love That Really Counts'. We were on just before the Beatles and people were cheering and going mad. The Beatles all had long faces; John Lennon said, 'We never should have come back.' Everything was sweaty and wet and we warned them not to slip on stage - the walls were wet and so was the floor.It was dangerous. They fused the electrics and the lights went out. Normally, John Lennon would have cracked jokes while somebody got it right, but he was in such a bad mood that he came off stage."
The Cavern was based on a French jazz club, Le Caveau de la Huchette, now in its 60th year. A 21-year-old budding entrepreneur, Alan Sytner, wanted something similar in Liverpool, and he chose the basement of a Mathew Street warehouse. The Merseysippi Jazz Band was the main act on opening night. Formed in 1949 and still going, they were dubbed "the old buggers" by John Lennon. Another Liverpool vocalist, George Melly, who played the Cavern with Mick Mulligan's Jazz Band, quarrelled with Lennon: "Heresented British jazz. He said these old men were in his way and the Beatles would have succeeded earlier without them."
Under Alan Sytner's management, rock'n'roll music was taboo, but the makeshift skiffle music with washboards and tea-chest basses was acceptable. However, for the younger players, skiffle was merely the springboard for rock'n'roll. Several skiffle groups broke into rock'n'roll at the Cavern, always with disastrous consequences. "If you played rock'n'roll at the Cavern, you took your life in your hands," says Rod Davis, banjo player with John Lennon's Quarry Men. When Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (with drummer Ringo Starr) broke into rock'n'roll at a jazz night, the crowd hurled pennies at them. The Cavern docked their fee but they made up for it by collecting the pennies at the end.
With a playboy lifestyle, Alan Sytner ran into debt and he sold the club to Ray McFall, who worked for his accountant. McFall saw beat music as the future; from his tenure in October 1959, jazz was gradually eased out. There could be tension when rock'n'roll groups and the older jazz musicians shared the same bill. Indeed, when I realised that the White Eagle Jazz Band from Leeds had a former German paratrooper, Bob Frettlohr, on bass, I was sure that he must have been taunted by Lennon. "Definitely not," says their trumpet player, John Cook. "John Lennon hated jazz but he wouldn't have dared say so to us. I'm ex-Commando, Bob is ex-para and Martin Boland is ex-rugby league."
Still, the Beatles quickly overshadowed their jazz rivals. The playwright Willy Russell saw them in action at the Cavern. "I hate the bullshit that the Stones were the great rock band and the Beatles were a great pop band. If you heard the Beatles at the Cavern,, you knew they were the greatest kickass band ever, with a raw, Southern, joyously angry, black vein."
Playing the Cavern could be daunting for out-of-town performers, even stars. Mike McCartney showed me a photograph of Gene Vincent on stage at the Cavern. "This is one of the greatest rock stars of all time , but look at the kids. They're bored out of their heads. Why? They're waiting for the Beatles."
Later, Alan Price played the Cavern with the Animals: "We were nervous playing there. I said to a girl in a duffle coat who was watching us, 'Do you think they'll like rhythm and blues here?' 'Like it?' she said, 'We invented it.'"
By 1963, Merseybeat was shifting from R&B into jaunty pop such as Gerry and the Pacemakers' "How Do You Do It". The Big Three recorded an atmospheric four-track EP at the Cavern. Expecting the boom to last, Ray McFall expanded the premises, even adding a recording studio, but the Cavern was bankrupt by February 1966. The club was in Bessie Braddock's constituency and because it wasn't licensed, she saw it as an essential youth venue. When the club reopened under new owners, she persuaded Harold Wilson to visit in July 1966: he remains the only Prime Minister to have opened a beat club.
The club became a heavy metal venue. Acts that played there include Status Quo, Queen and Gary Glitter, a name noticeably missing from the CD package. But when British Rail wanted to create a ventilation shaft for a new underground line, the club was closed in March 1973. Judd Lander of the Hideaways says, "There is a new Cavern but that's like burning a Van Gogh and then painting a copy and sticking it next door."
The assassination of John Lennon in 1980 generated a mammoth interest in the Beatles and Liverpool became a major attraction. A complex of shops and offices, Cavern Walks, was built and in the basement, the architect, David Backhouse, recreated the Cavern with similar dimensions as the original club, and many of the original bricks.
Every up-and-coming band wants to have the Cavern on its CV and many famous names have played the club for nominal fees, especially after Paul McCartney performed a memorable concert in December 1999. The heat is still stifling and I still marvel at how Bill Haley's Comets, who were all well over 70 when they performed, survived.
The tenure of every Cavern owner has ended in failure, but the current owners, Bill Heckle and Dave Jones, have been there since 1991 and have realised its potential as a marketing brand. But Mike McCartney feels that the most pertinent opportunity has been missed. "They should bottle the smell of the Cavern. Cains Brewery could do it: take the smell of rotten fruit from the old Mathew Street warehouses, add the smell of sweat, bogs, disinfectant and thick ropes from the ferries. Mix them together in a nice bottle and you'll make a fortune."