The Beatles' Cavern Club in 1961
History has a way to make places more monumental and important than they were because of the personalities involved.Seeing Abbey Road is like seeing a nice area of London and seeing the famous crosswalk where The Beatles had their last LP cover photographed, is, well, a standard pedestrian crosswalk. The Cavern Club was closed from 1973-83, as construction above it went on for a British rail system. In 1970, Queen, performed there. In 1992, Oasis played there and bitched about the horrible acoustics and setting. McCartney returned to the club in 1968,1999, 2003, performing short sets. John and George never returned once their last appearance there. In 2001, the British pop superstar, Lonnie Donegan, played his first gig there. Lonnie, like Elvis, were THE reasons why John, Paul, George and Ringo decided to play music in the mid-1950s.
But, to the many of us who were not around then, or were too young, eyewitness accounts of the environment The Beatles played in for 292 times, is eye opening.
The band started playing there on February 21, 1961. They had already had the boot camp of Hamburg behind them where they played for 6-8 hours straight seven nights a week. Playing the Cavern, must have seem like a holiday gig to them.
The Cavern Club was just a stone and brick cellar basement on 10 Matthew Street, Liverpool. There were many such basements in the area as it was a district where fruit was brought in and stored in cool, damp, conditions to preserve it. It was dark, poorly lighted and with little ventilation. As clubs go, the Cavern was not the most successful attracting around 50 customers on a weekend night, while a nearby club, Iron Door, got 2000. Then, it was a jazz club. However, this quickly changed when The Beatles started playing their lunchtime gigs and word got out-suddenly it jumped to 200.
Matthew street back then was a dark and dingy area with the street lined with seven story tall warehouses on both sides.It was dreary. The entrance to the club was an arched doorway. There was little indication a club was there. The club, being underground, was like a tomb stretching from 8 to 10 Matthew Street. Upon entering through the door, you descended down a very narrow, single person, stairway made of stone. If another person was moving through it, one had to turn sideways and brush the other to pass. One side of the staircase had no wall, so a misstep could cause injury.
Once the descent was completed, the place was dark, damp, smelly. The club has no decor at all. Because everything was stone and there were no windows or central ventilation, when the club had a crowd, it became very humid and moist. Your hand would be wet simply by touching the wall.
The stage was small, only 14 square feet, meaning a band had really only six feet to set up on. It was built into an arch shape and if you were tall, your head would hit the ceiling. As a patron, very few seats existed so most of the time you stood in the crowd. The more people in the club, the more intense the smell and humid it was from body heat. The band usually had four amps and two spotlights for light. The music was blaring and loud because the stone walls had the sound bounce all over.
John Lennon's half sister, Julia Baird, went there and found it a dark and dingy club. Not high class at all. More like a "bare bones" club. There was no fire escape. Back in 1961, another soon to be pop star, Cilla Black, attended the small bar serving soft drinks mostly. She would also perform there.
But, to the Beatles fans. the mostly horrible environment was home. These were the 12-20 age group. The Beatles was their band from Liverpool. As the club became more popular, its capacity was exceeded and the line to get in would stretch all the way down Matthew Street. The noise caused hysteria to those in the club according to eyewitnesses. Unlike other clubs, few ever danced for lack of room but most just watch the Beatles play. It was their entertainment. The audience liked them for their rawness. They were just teens that really loved playing rock and they gave it their all. The kids identified with them because they were from working class backgrounds. The patrons never knew what to expect from them. In between songs, they would converse with patrons and mess around. They never seemed to have a set of songs but they knew a huge variety of them, mostly American.