Recognizing musical contributions in our local communities
The Cavern Club
10 Mathew Street, Liverpool, England, UK
On an average day, Jon Keats alternates from one end of the Cavern Club to the other, tackling responsibilities perhaps better-suited for two or more individuals. As the club’s Music and Events director, Keats coordinates with musicians, promoters, and execs to assemble the line-ups and organize the performances of those fortunate enough to grace the stage of the highly sought-after venue. Come nights, Keats takes care to satisfy his own creative urge as one of the Cavern’s resident artists, performing five evenings a week on the club’s front stage.
“I first played the Cavern as an artist in 1987,” he recounts. “I got to know the owners in 1990 through our friendship and, after performing in a Lennon [tribute] show for many years, I got involved in 2008 on a full-time basis. I am now a Director of the company and look after all of the music and events, as well as help develop the brand worldwide.”
As both an on-stage performer and a behind-the-scenes professional, Keats is offered a unique perspective into the day-to-day ongoings of the club.
“I was a guest for Paul McCartney when he played in 1999,” he reminisces on some of his greatest thrills experienced over the last three decades. “That was incredible—300 people, amazing atmosphere. I also organized Adele’s show here in 2011, three weeks before she released the 21 album, which was really special. So many memorable gigs here.”
Among the most memorable of events—the unveiling of a bronze, life-size statue depicting late Liverpool entertainer and Cavern personality, Cilla Black—took place as recently as mid-January, as part of the Cavern’s 60th anniversary festivities.
“A whole year of events [is planned],” Keats remarks, “which started on the actual anniversary, January 16th. We premiered a ‘History of the Cavern – Live On Stage’ theater show. Other plans include a definitive film documentary and a collector’s book, both due out the next few months, as well as headline shows by major artists throughout the year.”
The endless international attention comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the club’s timeless reputation. With its sixth decade on deck, the limelight will undoubtedly shine brighter on the club’s inextricable link with its host city, the obstacles its encountered and overcome in an ever-changing musical landscape, and the massive influence this tiny venue has borne over the careers of thousands and the lives of millions more.
The Cavern Club saw its emergence under original founder, Alan Synter, in 1957. The son of a well-to-do physician, Synter grew up pursuing an avenue of opportunities that proved less readily available to the average working class Scouser born on the brink of the Second World War. As a student through the ‘50s, Synter spent many a holiday vacationing in Paris’ Latin Quarter, a then-hub swelling with Bohemian vibes and counter-culture ideals. The gritty, subterranean jazz joints which were frequented by a young Synter, and which remain a hallmark of the Latin Quarter today, left an immediate and everlasting impression on the budding businessman.
By age 22, Synter had mustered enough savoir-faire, motivation, and financial encouragement from his father to launch what would become the present-day Cavern Club. After a successful first stint establishing and running Liverpool’s 21 Jazz Club, Synter began scouting locations for a second potential club. Through a realtor, he was presented with an available space located at 10 Mathew Street and, more particularly, situated in the cellar of a former fruit warehouse. Prior to that, the grounds had served as a WWII air raid shelter and had been largely abandoned following the war—that is, until Synter took hold of its transformation and, ultimately, its legacy.
As the Cavern Club opened to the public on January 16, 1957, it very much retained the rough ambiance that came to define it in later years. Synter placed signs advertising the club on the desolate, otherwise unassuming Liverpool streets. Audiences queued up against graffiti-scrawled bricks as they awaited entry. Upon admission, they descended down a winding staircase until they reached the underground—a windowless, brick-lined bunker. An elevated stage sat tucked at the dead end, while the rest of the cramped area remained designated for the public.
Just as Synter had envisioned, the Cavern showcased an array of bebop acts, ranging from the likes of the Merseysippi Jazz Band and the Wall City Jazzmen, to Big Bill Broonzy and Sister Rosetta Thorpe. Within three months of their official launch, local skiffle groups also found their way to the venue, though to a far lesser extent.
“Jazz was huge at the time and the Cavern was the first proper jazz venue in Liverpool,” Keats chimes in. “The skiffle bands were accepted into the Cavern as it was seen as an acceptable genre of music with the jazz crowd.”
In the face of waning American popularity, skiffle experienced a revival of sorts in Britain where youths embraced this offshoot of the jazz scene. With acts like the Gin Mill, Eddie Clayton, and the Coney Island skiffle groups making early Cavern appearances, it wouldn’t be long before the venue caught the attention of a well-known local band comprised of four schoolmates from the nearby Quarry Bank High School. The Quarrymen, as they were known, were led by a young John Lennon on vocals and rhythm guitar who welcomed the opportunity to perform at the Cavern in one of the band’s earliest paid gigs snagged by then-manager, Nigel Walley. Despite Synter’s strict ban on rock and roll, the Quarrymen would trigger a chain of events that steered the jazz club the way of the burgeoning music craze.
Lennon had, by that point, taken to the newest trend which likewise seeped into the consciousness of every other Liverpool lad. As quasi-leader of the group, Lennon very much dictated the direction that the band took on stage, much to the chagrin of the other band members. On their scheduled August 7th, 1957 Cavern debut, Lennon attempted an impromptu setlist change with the rest of the Quarrymen hesitantly following suit. Upon their endeavor to stray from the skiffle numbers and play Elvis Presley’s chart-topping ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ Synter pushed his way through a booing crowd and into the wings of the stage, famously passing Lennon a note which read, ‘Cut out the bloody rock!’
Synter wasn’t alone in his opinion of the boisterous new sound, which elders generally deemed raunchy and unacceptable for the mainstream. The absence of American radio airwaves throughout England and the lack of rock and roll coverage on the BBC forced an emerging Baby Boomer generation to late-night or pirate radio programming which streamed the music of the highly controversial Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, The Everly Brothers, and Chuck Berry, among others.
Following a series of changes in the Quarrymen’s lineup, another future Beatle came on board—Liverpool Institute student, Paul McCartney. Lennon and McCartney had struck an instant connection having met at a Woolton garden fete in July of 1957, and having later discovered their shared affinity for rock and roll and songwriting, Three months later, McCartney made his Quarrymen debut and by January 28th, 1958, stepped on the Cavern stage for the first of many gigs to come.
While Synter attained early success in gathering a clientele, his old-fashioned approach to a rapidly evolving musical culture coupled with his lack of financial acumen came to a head in October of 1959. Rather than shutter his promising enterprise, Synter sold his lease to former Cavern auditor, Ray McFall. With all managerial affairs now delegated to McFall, Synter moved on to his next venture at London’s Marquee Jazz Club.
The coming decade marked the start of a new epoch for the Cavern Club. Noting the potential in Liverpool’s newer acts, McFall’s decision to begin featuring them during lunchtime sessions led the venue to its earliest forays into the rock realm.
“In the early days, the Cavern was, in fact, a jazz club,” says John McNally, lead singer and founding member of The Searchers, who shared many a lunchtime bill with The Beatles. “There were venues opening around the North West employing what they called ‘beat combos,’ so [McFall] decided to start booking Beat bands on Tuesdays. Of course, he needed to book the bands that had become popular, and we were included. To us, it was just another gig, but a very special one due to the fantastic atmosphere, great sound, and crowd reaction.”
The Cavern was on the brink of unmatched success. The era of McFall swung the door wide open to some of the Cavern and the music industry’s defining artists. In a matter of time, the skiffle fad was effectively replaced with what came to be known as the Merseybeat sound, characterized by Liverpool’s distinct guitar, harmony, and backbeat-rich interpretation of rock and roll, and largely pioneered by a later incarnation of the Quarrymen— a then little-known local act known as The Beatles.
Heralded as the birthplaces of The Beatles, the Cavern Club hosted the band’s 2½ year-long residency beginning on February 21st, 1961. As Keats asserts, The Beatles jolted the Cavern from underground to mainstream phenomenon over the course of their residency.
“The Beatles played here 292 times,” he provides the definitive figure without hesitation, putting his profound expertise on display. “Would people still be talking about the Cavern today if they hadn’t? Probably not. They put the Cavern on the world’s musical map and everybody’s wanted to play there [since]. They led the way in the early days, they stood out from the other bands, and they set the bar for everyone. This is still the case today, really.”
The Beatles’ early line-up featured Lennon on rhythm guitar and vocals, McCartney on bass guitar and vocals, Pete Best on drums, and George Harrison on lead guitar and vocals--the latter having been introduced to the group via his schoolmate, McCartney. Ringo Starr joined several months later, replacing Best and forming the band that would revolutionize both the spirit of the Cavern Club and the music world at large.
Keats explains, “The Beatles gave the Cavern an aura and a must go-to place for the teenagers. All the bands now wanted to play there.”
Suddenly, the Cavern Club teemed with infectious choruses from Gerry and the Pacemakers, pounding rhythms from the Four Most, and peppy vocals from John McNally and The Searchers. The amount of musical talent showcased at the club drew scores of spectators, all eager to partake in the unique experience.
By all accounts, the venue introduced audiences to a claustrophobic atmosphere with inordinately high noise levels. Massive crowds standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the poorly ventilated environment resulted in dank, sweaty conditions and at times, a foul stench. Any discomfort stemming from the venue’s physical attributes, however, was muted by the inevitable excitement that came with seeing the new sound personified.
Nine months into their Cavern residency, The Beatles were paid a visit by Brian Epstein, a notable patron and frequent visitor to the club on Saturday nights. As the owner of nearby record store, NEMS, Epstein viewed the Cavern as the premier venue for scouting fresh talent to sign. Word about The Beatles had spread through the Liverpool music circuit, eventually reaching Epstein and encouraging him to seek them out.
During a November 9th, 1961 lunchtime gig, Epstein watched the buzzed-about group’s performance, and proceeded to greet them backstage. He went on his way that evening, but continued watching their Cavern gigs for the next three weeks. By the end of that year, negotiations were well underway for Epstein to sign a management contract with Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr.
“He moved The Beatles onto the next level. Guided them to worldwide success,” Keats remarks. “As a result, the Cavern was on the map. As simple as that really.”
Throughout the 1960s, the Cavern Club produced several other notable alumni – among them famed poster artist, Tony Booth, who would go on to illustrate several iconic Beatles adverts and the Cavern’s 60th anniversary flyer decades later. Though Booth passed away just five days shy of the club’s momentous occasion, his most recent artwork flourishes as a central display at the Cavern today.
Compère Bob Wooler remains yet another Cavern great known for injecting the atmosphere with a dose of witty quips, often referred to as ‘Woolerisms’. “Hi, all of you Cavern dwellers! Welcome to the best of cellars! We've got the hi-fi high & the lights down low, so here we go, with the Big Three Show!” His voice penetrated the cigarette smoke, sweat, and palpable excitement and managed still to zing audiences with classic Liverpudlian humor. Wooler played an instrumental role in introducing The Beatles to Epstein after making a special announcement upon his first arrival, which the group overheard.
Full-fledged Beatlemania had taken off by the end of the band’s Cavern residency – with their last formal gig taking place on August 3, 1963 – and resulted in unprecedented attention for the club.
Upon The Beatles’ departure, the club faced a number of hindrances. Bankruptcy forced McFall to board up the venue temporarily in 1966 despite its success with booking desirable talent and charming a predominantly teenage audience. It reopened several months later under the guidance of two new investors, Alf Geoghegan and Joe Davey, each tasked with developing the site’s image in the years to come.
“Going back to 1963,” Keats notes, “the challenge was to maintain the popularity of the venue after their prized asset, The Beatles, moved on. How do you follow that?”
Nevertheless, rock and roll carved out a permanent presence in the club through the decade’s end, with bands like The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Yardbirds remaining a fixture long after The Beatles’ exit.
The ‘70s and ‘80s ushered in an increasingly tumultuous period. From its 1973 demolition and relocation to its 1982 overhaul, the Cavern would undergo its share of setbacks over the next twenty years. Due to the city’s more strictly enforced safety and structural standards, the earlier and later-built Caverns assumed slight variations, though architects aimed to adhere to its original qualities. On April 26, 1984, a replica of the authentic Cavern was built in its initial 10 Mathew Street location using 15,000 of its original bricks.
“The club had its up and downs – bankruptcies, closures, re-openings, being demolished, re-built…” Keats lists. “One thing the Cavern has always done is remained relevant, embracing an ever-changing music scene, moving forward, attracting great bands, supporting new artists. The challenges are the same as ever.”
The onset of the 1990s revitalized Liverpool on both economic and creative fronts. The Cavern Club aligned itself with one of the most diverse periods of music history. With appearances from Oasis and Donovan to Ringo Starr, the club’s newest owners, Bill Heckle and Dave Jones, struck a delicate balance between showcasing contemporary marvels and paying homage to the venue’s cultural heritage. Heckle and Dave’s continued involvement with the club today has made them the longest-running Cavern owners to date.
On December 14, 1999, Paul McCartney returned to rock out at the Cavern one final time before the new millennium, catering to a combined live and televised audience of 53 million—a fitting way to top off a notable 20th century.
DEFINING A LEGACY
The Cavern Club continues to captivate audiences well into the 21st century. With the recent addition of Paul Rodgers, Lonnie Donegan, Bo Diddley, K.T. Tunstall, the Arctic Monkeys, and Adele on its roster of debut Cavern performers, Keats gives credit where credit is due—namely, with the behind-the-scenes luminaries who helped pave the way for the Cavern’s continued success.
“Bob Wooler had a huge impact through his knowledge of the local music scene. Synter had the vision and started everything. McFall is the one who booked The Beatles for the first time. The current owners, including Jones and Heckle, turned the club around from 1991 onwards into what it is today – a major tourist destination and a thriving live music venue.”
In keeping with their longstanding tradition, the Cavern continues to book smaller acts with remarkable potential, finding little-known performers and allowing them a platform toward seasoned showmanship.
“We are always open to any genre of music,” Keats speaks on the tradition which deeply resonates with him. “What we book here is very eclectic. We like to support new artists with regular un-signed nights as well as hosting shows by established artists. The Cavern is a bucket list gig for so many musicians from all over the world and a great gig to have on your CV!”
Six decades into its existence, the Cavern Club shines brighter than ever. Much like its host-city, the famed club rose from the ashes to rebuild itself into a stronger, more resilient establishment and household name. With such abundant history woven into its fabric and such an intricate legacy left to uphold, Keats turns to what is now his utmost priority moving forward.
“To maintain our position as the most famous club in the world through great music,” he says. “We aim to meet people’s expectations, as for many music fans, it is a place of pilgrimage that they may only visit once in their lifetime. We want them to enjoy their experience and take away long-lasting memories.” He pauses. “No pressure there then!”