Let’s get one thing clear before we begin: The Beatles did not create Merseybeat, it created them.
And although they are by far the most famous of the city’s sons, Liverpool would have become a focal point for the music industry even if The Beatles had emigrated to Australia in 1961.
By 1962, some 350 groups were shaking the streets of Liverpool – but so far unknown beyond Merseyside.
Amongst them were The Tremors, The Fabulous Fourtones, The Deltas, The Skyliners, The Tremolos, Rick Shaw & The Dolphins, Ken Tracey and the Beat Squad, The Cyclones, The Zodiacs, The Midnighters, The Four Jays, Group One, The Bluegenes, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Solohettes, The Mersey Beats, The Dennisons, The Searchers, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Faron’s Flamingos, The M.I.5., The Black Velvets, The Pontiacs, The Reds, The Cavaliers, The Cheetahs, The Senators, The Wanderers, The Vikings, The Mustangs, The Undertakers, The Sunsets, The Mojos, The Coasters, The Sorrals, The Grand Canyon Boys, The Comancheros, The Hawaiian Eyes, The Banshees, The Ambassadors, The Barons, Earl Preston and The TTs, The Strollers, The Detours, The Hi Cats, The Renegades, Tommy and the Metronomes, The Bikinis (an all-girl group, featuring four 16-year olds!), The Young Ones, The Sky Hi Two, Clay Ellis and the Raiders, The Knutrockers, and Danny and the Asteroids.
Certainly, there were beat groups elsewhere in England, but nothing to compare with Liverpool.
The British Beat boom was a cleansing process, a wiping of the slate, a cause of dramatic change on all levels of popular music. It was not just the faces on the record covers that changed.
The music business itself was revolutionised by young, smart, aggressive new leaders who were motivated by instinct and enthusiasm. Small independent record labels sprang up and small venues boomed – Merseybeat was born . . .
Hundreds of local groups played at dozens of venues up and down Merseyside.
Its main rivals were The Jacaranda – which, like The Cavern, was managed by Alan Williams, The Beatles‘ first manager – where the walls were decorated with murals by Stuart Sutcliffe (The Beatles’ first bass player); and The Iron Door – home of The Searchers.
Outside the city centre, there were ballrooms, church halls and civic halls like Litherland Town Hall, Aintree Institute, Wilson Hall in Garston, and The Jive Hive at Crosby. There was a Merseybeat boat trip to the Isle of Man, with over a dozen groups on board.
Special events were held at local venues like the New Brighton Pier, where Rory Storm once climbed on top of the pavilion and broke his leg falling through the glass roof. Liverpool could also claim to have pioneered music festivals when on one occasion 14 hours of music from 25 groups was presented at Stanley Stadium – tickets cost £1!
Before The Beatles and Gerry & The Pacemakers had their hits no musicians on Merseyside made much money. £5 a night was about average, and at one period The Beatles got just five shillings each for playing at The Jacaranda. Nearly every group was semi-professional, and most obtained their equipment through credit contracts guaranteed by their parents.
A lot of the groups grew out of street gangs in working-class areas like the Dingle – kids who’d been enthralled by Rock Around The Clock (1956) and wanted to do more than just dance or slash seats to Rock & Roll music.
For the top Liverpool groups, though, Hamburg in Germany soon became the place to play and earn a little more money.
The German connection came about almost accidentally when a Hamburg club owner came to Liverpool and poached a steel band who were booked at The Jacaranda.
In the negotiations which followed, Alan Williams persuaded the Germans that what they needed was an English beat group.
A summer season in Blackpool for Howie Casey and the Seniors had just fallen through, so Williams shipped them off to the Kaiser Keller club. They were a howling success so soon afterwards The Beatles also appeared in Hamburg, at The Indra.
The Hamburg experience was the making of The Beatles and nearly every Mersey group who played there. Having to play long sets, in an environment where they knew only each other, welded the groups into tight units.
They also had to modify their style to the raucous drinking and dancing clubs of the Reeperbahn. The groups had to concentrate on loud, rocking numbers, and the Germans also wanted groups who were visually exciting.
On 6 July 1961, the first issue of a new music newspaper was published in Liverpool.
The newspaper was called Mersey Beat – edited by Bill Harry who had studied magazine design at the Art College where both John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe had been – and contained an article by Lennon, entitled “Being a short diversion on the dubious origin of Beatles”.
His group, who were fast becoming Liverpool’s favourite act, began a residency at The Cavern on 2 August. In November of that year, after being asked for a disc by The Beatles, record shop owner Brian Epstein went to The Cavern to see the group and was so immediately impressed by their potential that he wasted no time securing their signatures on a management contract on 13 December.
In May 1962, Liverpool’s Mersey Beat newspaper carried a front-page story revealing “Impresario Brian Epstein has secured a recording contract with the powerful EMI organisation for The Beatles to record for the Parlophone label”. Two other Brian Epstein-managed groups, Gerry & The Pacemakers and Billy J Kramer & The Dakotas, were immediately successful.
Gerry & The Pacemakers’ first single, How Do You Do It?, became the first Merseybeat #1.
Ironically, the song (written by established pop tunesmith Mitch Murray) had been rejected by The Beatles before being passed on to Gerry Marsden and his group.
The Pacemakers scored their second consecutive #1 hit with I Like It, and in October 1963, they became the first act ever to notch up three #1’s with their first three releases with the powerful ballad You’ll Never Walk Alone from the 1956 musical Carousel.
By now, public and media interest in the new Mersey sound was overwhelming, but national British newspapers still overlooked a small news item in the Liverpool Echo on 21 June 1962.
The paper reported that, at a party in Liverpool to celebrate Beatle Paul McCartney‘s birthday, his songwriting partner John Lennon punched DJ Bob Wooler in the face after Wooler loudly proclaimed that Lennon and Brian Epstein were lovers.
The close-harmonies and distinctive jangling guitars of long-established Liverpool quartet The Searchers took a cover of the old Drifters‘ hit Sweets For My Sweet to #1 on 27 June 1963, and by August the first edition of a new magazine, Beatles Monthly, went on sale.
In November 1963, The Beatles performed at the Royal Variety Command Performance in front of the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. John Lennon found it impossible not to make fun of the audience, and halfway through their set he quipped “on the next number would those in the cheap seats clap their hands? The rest of you, rattle your jewellery”.
This vein of cheeky Scouse humour was a distinguishing characteristic of the Mersey groups, and particularly of The Beatles. By February 1964, The Fab Four were taking Merseybeat to the United States when they flew into New York and seventy-three million American viewers watched them on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Such was the devotion of local Liverpool fans to their ‘own’ sound (and groups) that 100 youths barricaded themselves in The Cavern as a protest against its closure in February 1966. A 5,000 signature petition was sent to Prime Minister Harold Wilson, demanding that the club be reopened. The Cavern was indeed reopened, in July – with PM Harold Wilson in attendance.
As the decade unfolded, every London-based record company talent scout swooped on Liverpool, fearful of losing out on similar talent. They signed up anything that moved.
Because nearly all the records made by Liverpool groups after they had been signed by major record companies, were hastily and unimaginatively produced in the hope of leaping on The Beatles bandwagon, it’s very difficult to realise how exciting Merseybeat was in its natural habitat.
Invariably there were more groups who did not make it than there were successes. Talent wasn’t even part of the equation – Even at the height of the Merseybeat phenomenon there simply wasn’t enough room for all the 350 or so groups that infested Liverpool.
By 1965, London once again held the upper hand and many scouse musicians boarded the Lime Street train to seek their fortune down south.