It is one hour into the Magical Mystery Tour through Liverpool, and the fortysomething redhead from Atlanta in the back row of the bus is just busting to tell somebody. She had restricted herself to singing along softly when Here Comes the Sun came over the intercom. She settled for pressing her camera to the window when the bus—itself a study in muted psychedelia—paused outside Ringo Starr’s boyhood home, and again as it chugged past the barbershop, the roundabout and all the rest on Penny Lane.
But when the tour pulled over at the bright red gates to the children’s group home called Strawberry Fields, her restraint collapsed. Cornering the tour guide, she let it be known in a loud Georgia drawl that, while all The Beatles were obviously great, she loved John the best. Thirty-five years on, and people still feel they have to
pick a favorite Beatle. “I have people cry when they get to Strawberry Fields,” says Edwina Willis, 44, the guide whose own cheery enthusiasm for The Beatles gives her patience for the special needs of her customers. Besides, John is her favorite, too. “Some people,” she adds, “kiss the gates.” Not quite the frenzy and fainting of Beatlemania, but nonetheless impressive loyalty to a band that broke up a quarter of a century ago. And The
Beatles are having a very good year. They have sold nearly 13 million copies of the first two volumes of their Anthology, collections of out-takes and unreleased snippets of songs that, if not quite worth the wait musically, are at least interesting. Sales were boosted by broadcasting a sanitized history of the band to television audiences in 94 countries. And when the boorish but hugely successful British band Oasis proclaimed themselves unabashed Beatles disciples, the combined hype triggered a run on The Beatles’ back catalogue, which has meant sales of another six million “units,” in the parlance of the ponytails in the music industry.
Meanwhile, a longer and grittier home-video version of the documentary went on sale last week to accompany the final Anthology CD, from the band’s autumnal years. The album contains more acoustic rough cuts, intriguing reminders of why “unplugged” is such a successful concept, and some studio kibitzing between the boys—which has a sarcastic edge, not surprising given the messy divorce coming around the corner. Although the CDs and videos are priced for affluent boomers, sales haven’t suffered: this will be the single most lucrative Beatle year yet. (By comparison, in 1969, the year of Abbey Road, the band sold nine million albums.) After Andrew Lloyd Webber, the surviving Beatles are the richest entertainers in Britain.
The echo boom in Beatles popularity has spun off some new winners as well, notably Pete Best, the James Dean-handsome but introverted Liverpool drummer who in 1962 was unceremoniously fired in favor of Ringo on the eve of glory. One wonders what Best must have thought in the following years, as statues to his replacement were erected in his home town while he went to work at a local government employment centre. He got back into the music business in the 1980s when his half-brother, Roag, encouraged him to form The Pete Best Band. With Roag promoting and drumming alongside his front-man brother, the band played small clubs, appeared at Beatles conventions and charged the curious for interviews.
Those days are done. Pete Best may still be destined for a footnote but, thanks to his drumming on three early tracks included on Anthology, he will at least be a rich footnote. “Pete’s a millionaire now,” says publicist Geoff Baker at Apple, The Beat-
les’ record label. “This has been good for the whole extended Beatles family.”
Well, not quite the entire cast. There is still much clucking of tongues in Liverpool at Cynthia Lennon’s decision to come out of obscurity last year to cut a late-in-life debut record. She chose to cover Those Were the Days, a campy gamble, but there were few takers for the remake as sung by the former art student who had been John’s first wife. Cynthia’s career is now on hold.
Then there is Allan Williams, the former Liverpool club owner and The Beatles’ first manager, who booked the band’s legendary gigs in Hamburg. The peppery Williams handed the group over to Brian Epstein in 1962 with the words: “Take ’em and good riddance.” Four months later, they were not just a band but a social phenomenon. Last week, Williams was on a British television show called Dosh (roughly: “bucks”), the featured guest on a segment called Winners and Losers. “Guess which side they wanted me for?” he laughed in a recent interview.
Williams is known in Liverpool as the Welsh Bard, thanks to the frequency with which his sometimes aggressive manner can get him barred from nightclubs. But he can also be affable and endearing, as he was one night last week showing off the nightclub haunts of Liverpool’s old warehouse district. “Oh, I used to be bitter,” he says, and it’s obvious how much it still hurts. He shakes his head over Cynthia’s record, insisting that “you can’t live off The Beatles for the rest of your life,” though it sometimes seems that he’s determined to try. He waged a 10year, low-intensity legal battle with Paul McCartney over a pair of leather pants that Williams
claimed the Beatle once wore on stage. McCartney succeeded in keeping Williams from auctioning the pants through Sotheby’s as authentic Beatle memorabilia. Even so, “Paul’s pants” still travel with Williams to Beatles conventions, where he makes money telling ribald stories about the boys’ early days. Gust how bawdy depends on the age of the kids in the crowd, he says.)
Liverpool has had an ambivalent relationship with its most famous sons. “This is a hard town,” says Roag Best. “Cities like Manchester have learned to work together for a common cause, but the Liverpool mentality is to watch out for the other guy ’cause he’s likely to rip you off.” The city does not even have a lot of Beatles fans, according to Ray Johnson, a 40-year-old who
still drums in a classic-rock band and works for the company that runs the Cavern Club, where The Beatles got their start in the early ’60s. “It’s seen as uncool to like The Beatles, except for a few brave souls of our generation.”
The Beatles’ home town has hardly commercialized its heritage in a flashy way. After a failed venture in the 1980s called Beatle City, Liverpool finally got around to opening a proper Beatles museum on its spruced-up waterfront in 1990. The predictable theme bars are scattered about the
city—the shelter in the middle of the roundabout has become the Sgt. Pepper Bistro, for example. But although Johnson insists that “Liverpool is Mecca for Beatles fans,” fans are, in fact, more likely to make a pilgrimage to the famous crosswalk outside Abbey Road studios in London, where the records were made. Liverpool is, after all, the city The Beatles left.
Most painfully, The Beatles’ rise to international fame roughly coincided with Liverpool’s economic fall. The grand, squareshouldered buildings that once housed shipping and insurance companies are a reminder of the days when it was a cornerstone of the British Empire. Liverpool’s modern image is tied to its radical leftwing city government of the 1970s and the Toxteth riots in 1981 that burned down part of Ringo’s old neighborhood. “I was shocked to discover that there is more Beatles stuff in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland than there is in Liverpool,” says Derek Hatton, a controversial, radical left-wing councillor from that era who helped turn Liverpool into a red stain on the Tory map of Great Britain. Many Liverpudlians blame Hatton himself for leading a council that dismissed the Beatle heritage as a bourgeois indulgence. “We were never hostile to The Beatles, but there’s no doubt the city would be better off if we had done more,”
is all Hatton will allow.
Even so, Merseyside tourism statistics show that six per cent of all visitors to Liverpool come specifically because of The Beatles—1.5 million people a year, many for the annual Beatles Festival every August. “I remember thinking how romantic it was to come to the place where The Beatles were from,” recalls Mark FeatherstoneWitty, 50, an energetic Londoner who moved to Liverpool six years ago to try to start up a school for the performing arts. “But this city has had tough times. The whole reason for its existence is gone, and it has got to find a new vocation.”
Featherstone-Witty believes that Liverpool has to nurture strengths like its Beatles heritage. For years, he lobbied McCartney to help raise the funds needed to open the splashy Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts in the derelict building where McCartney and George Harrison went to high school. With McCartney’s backing, and under Featherstone-Witty’s directorship, the school opened last June, an attempt to combine the teaching of the creative arts with hardheaded business sense.
“We get accused of living in the past, but this is our history, and it’s important that we acknowledge it,” agrees Johnson back in the renovated narrow streets of the Cavern Quarter, where the young Beatles played and drank. The Cavern Club owners have big ambitions for Liverpool, including a Beatles theme hotel—“you know, like a huge yellow submarine with beds in it and you give each floor a title from a song,” says Johnson. The Disneyland plan. But the charm of Liverpudlians is their very absence of slickness, the reliance on humor and scrappiness and iconoclasm that so characterized The Beatles themselves. So, perhaps, the people of Liverpool need not change their ways, for although the music has gone out to the world, they were present at its creation.
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