By Angela Youngman
The year was 1967, and it was the Summer of Love in San Francisco. Hundreds of thousands of flower children gathered in Haight-Ashbury, and in cities all over the country. In London, similarly themed gatherings took place in Tottenham Court Road where experimental groups like Pink Floyd played, and at Speakers’ Corner, beat poet Allen Ginsberg spoke at a Legalize Pot rally.
It was also the year a seminal pop album was released by one of the most iconic music groups the world has ever known. Fifty years ago, The Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” containing songs such as “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” The music world gasped. This was a visionary, themed collection of songs wrapped in musical experimentation, which included everything from Indian instruments to crescendos from a 40-piece orchestra, never heard in the context of pop.
The Beatles already dominated the music charts. This was the era of the Merseybeat, when the Liverpool-born band was producing hit-after-hit. “Sgt. Pepper” was released on June 1, 1967 and was an immediate success, spending 15 consecutive weeks at number one on the American charts. Time Magazine hailed it as “a historic departure in the progress of music.” The following year, “Sgt. Pepper” won four Grammy Awards as well as Album of the Year, marking the very first time a rock album had done so.
Almost every street in the city carries memories of the Fab Four, for it was here that John, Paul, George and Ringo were born and raised. This northern English city is a busy port, with its own very distinct character, facing the river Mersey and the gray waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The Mersey Ferry crosses the river regularly, just as it did when the famous mop tops played concerts on one of the boats.
Today, you can take a combined tour of Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road, the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, respectively, where they wrote and rehearsed many of the early songs that made the Beatles famous. Walking through the rooms of these homes is like stepping back in time – almost as if the Beatles had never left.
Walk just a few more minutes and you’ll arrive at Strawberry Field, the site of a former Salvation Army children’s home well-known to Lennon. As a child, he used to attend summer garden parties here. A replica of the red gate he would walk through is one of the most-photographed places in Liverpool. It was this site that inspired him to write the classic, “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Travel around the city and other images can be found – Penny Lane where McCartney and Lennon caught buses into town; a statue of Eleanor Rigby sculpted by another famous ‘60s performer, Tommy Steele; and, of course, statues of the Beatles. A Magical Mystery Tour bus travels to all of the main sites, and passengers stop off at each destination to take photographs.
Then there is the infamous Cavern Club. Take a look at Lennon’s statue slouching against the wall before passing through the entrance and down the stairs for an absolute must-see on any Beatles fan’s bucket list. Check out the mural celebrating all the bands that played here during that incredible period: Gerry and The Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas, The Shadows, Stevie Wonder and – right in the center – The Beatles. The Fab Four played the Cavern Club 292 times in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, developing a sound that would eventually lead them to international stardom.
This is also one of the sites used by the annual International Beatleweek Festival each August. It features 70 bands from 20 countries, including bands such as The Original Quarrymen, The Bootleg Beatles, Cavern Club Beatles and Hamburg Beat. Another of the Festival’s venues has special links to the Beatles – the local church of St. Peter, Woolton, in Liverpool. The church was where John Lennon was introduced to Paul McCartney at the Woolton Garden Fete on July 6, 1957. (John Lennon had actually been playing at the fete as part of The Quarrymen.)
Out on Pier Head, in the old Albert Dock, is another essential part of the Beatles legacy: “The Beatles Story.” Sit down for a virtual drum lesson, overseen by none other than Ringo Starr. Admire John Lennon’s piano, his glasses and scrawled sheets of paper containing the beginnings of some of the greatest songs ever written. Inspect George Harrison’s first guitar. And watch video interviews with McCartney, Starr, George’s widow Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono as they recall their own memories, along with the countless photographs of screaming crowds, about the unique pressures the young musicians experienced. New on display this year are replicas of the costumes worn on the “Sgt. Pepper” album cover. Another rare display item is an alternative print of the album cover. It’s a little-known fact that Sir Peter Blake shot several alternative covers to the album, which were discarded in favor of the famous one. This alternative incorporates various alterations to the familiar collage background, as well as the positions of each Beatle.
For the ultimate in Beatlemania immersion, there’s the Hard Day’s Night Hotel, named after the band’s first motion picture. Owners Bill Heckle and Dave Jones, who also own the Cavern Club and Cavern City Tours, live and breathe all things Beatles, having spoken to them, their families, friends and people who have worked with the band over the years. Although none of the Beatles have stayed at the hotel, Ringo’s son, Jason Starkey, and his grandchildren stepped inside a couple of years ago. Other visitors include McCartney’s brother, Mike McGear; May Pang, Lennon’s former assistant and infamous “lost weekend” girlfriend; as well as his younger half-sister, Julia Baird.
Wherever you go in the hotel, the story of the Fab Four is outlined in words, art and memorabilia. This is a Beatles world where you can sleep in themed rooms, with original Beatles-related artwork on the walls created by “the World’s Greatest Beatles Artist,” Shannon McDonald. No two rooms are the same; each tells the unique story of the world’s most-famous rock-and-roll band, from birth to the present day.
To complete the visit, Beatles fans can dine in the restaurant amid a plethora of memorabilia. Blakes Restaurant is named in honor of Sir Peter Blake, the pop artist who created the iconic artwork for the “Sgt. Pepper” album cover. All the walls are covered in stunning Beatles artwork. Also on display are 60 original items relating to the artist’s distinctive work on the “Sgt. Pepper” cover.
What more could any Beatles fan want? This is pure Beatles heaven.