Can’t Buy Me, Love

shutterstock_91775318 Mick Jagger Centre (General music) 2

Don’t believe the hype: the Cavern Club is not for sale.  Thank goodness for that.

I was surprised and disappointed to read in the Times that Liverpool’s legendary Cavern Club – spiritual birthplace of The Beatles – was up for sale as part of the Warner Estate auction.  The guide price for the whole lot, including the Cavern Walks shopping centre and 80,000 square feet of office space, is just £1 million.

Fortunately, a quick Google search of Cavern Club news turned up some important clarifications in the NME and Gigwise and the Cavern Club Twitter feed is screaming its denials.  It is confirmed that Dave Jones, the current operator, owns a lease on the Club that only expires in 2028 – so the Cavern Club should not be affected by the impending sale.  That should come as a relief to any die-hard Beatles fan.

Beatles tourism is big business.  There are lots of good Beatles-inspired destinations in England.  I’ve been to the Beatles Story.  I’ve been to Abbey Road Studios and photographed the cross-walk.  I’ve even fiddled with the knobs of the original Beatles-era Abbey Road Studio equipment, now painstakingly preserved in the EMI archive.  I have worked for theatres and venues from Manchester to Margate that all feel the need to tell you – as if their pedigree and street-cred depends on it – about “the night Beatles played here”.  I was taken to Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields by a Liverpudlian taxi driver named Carl, who provided a far better Beatles tour than any organised tour operator.  I’ve been to Lennon and McCartney’s childhood homes, now lovingly looked after by the National Trust.  I attended the Liverpool International Music Festival, back when it was still called the Mathew Street Festival, named after a street made world famous by – you guessed it – the Cavern Club.  It was carnival by day and carnage at night, but it remains a vivid memory of Liverpool and its importance to popular culture.

Of all these destinations, the Cavern Club remains, to me, the most genuine and authentic expression of the Beatles, their music and memory – which is a bit of a paradox because, technically, it is a 1980s replica of the 1960s original.

The original Cavern Club was modelled on a Parisian jazz club and built into a series of brick arches in a deep Mathew Street basement.  It was demolished in 1973 by British Rail to make way for an underground station that was never built.  (And given the recent eviction of Cable London from the London Bridge arches, it is sad to see that some things never change).  In 1984, a faithful replica was built in the original location by Liverpool FC player Tommy Smith.  It was then sold to Dave Jones who has developed it into a thriving live music venue that hosts some 40 gigs a week by new and established artists.  The current Cavern Club has hosted concerts by Oasis, Arctic Monkeys, Adele and Jessie J, amongst many others.  Sir Paul McCartney himself played a memorable ‘homecoming’ show in 1999 as part of the Run Devil Run tour.

This is where the Cavern Club teaches us an important lesson about authenticity and its value to destinations.  In relative terms, there is nothing of great heritage significance at the Cavern Club.  There is a better Beatles collection at the Beatles Story.  There is no one better than the National Trust to preserve and interpret the childhood homes of Lennon and McCartney.  Even in terms of content, the majority of gigs played at the Club are by tribute acts and cover bands.  But no amount of scholarly interpretation, clever exhibitry or original music can create an experience as viscerally authentic as a night at the Cavern Club.  To feel that thumping, claustrophobic, deafening thrill of a live gig in the Cavern is to step back in time and get a genuine taste of what it must have been like to see The Beatles perform there in their prime.  It doesn’t even need to be Beatles music.  In many ways, it is better when it isn’t.  It just needs to be music, played well, played loud and with passion.

I often use this as a case study of the value to destinations of a viscerally real experience, which can often be far more important than one that is strictly original or intellectually accurate.  There are others.  The most popular room at the British Music Experience is the Gibson Studio, where visitors are invited to strum a guitar, bang a drum, sing a song.  It is much the same at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, where a unique collection of rock’n roll memorabilia plays second fiddle to the sound lab, where visitors can sing, jam and record to their heart’s content.  As I wrote in an earlier blog, A View on the Shard, the best high level viewing experiences are those that give you a bit of a scare: a glass floor, an open window, a chance to step out on the ledge.

The redesigned National Football Museum has introduced lots of new interactives that are not designed to dazzle with technology, but simply to put a football at your feet.  My favourite exhibit in the V&A’s British Galleries was the gauntlet from a suit of armour that visitors were encouraged to try on – only after feeling the weight of that one item do you truly appreciate what a full suit of armour must feel like.  The original and ground-breaking Science of Sport exhibition gave you the chance to sprint the first 20 metres of the 100-metre dash against a virtual representation of an Olympic athlete.  That gives a far better sense of how fast these sprinters are than mere statistics or video can give.

I was thrilled that the National Football Centre at St George’s Park dedicated three of its pitches – the first three you see on entering the site, in fact – to local community use.  This would keep those pitches heavily used and, frankly, the first thing a visitor should see when approaching the National Football Centre – even before he sees the spectacular buildings – should be kids.  On a pitch.  Playing football.  That is the best possible expression of its true ‘spirit of place’.

In all of these cases, the general principle is this:  you can’t just see it; you sometimes have to feel it to believe it.

By contrast, I am often left cold by some military, maritime or transport museums.  They are always crammed to the rafters with things that should be slicing through the waves, or streaking through the sky, or charging along roads and railroad tracks.  Instead they are sitting idle and out of context in some shed or hangar.  Good interpretation can make these collections interesting and educational, but failure to replicate the essence of the experience — and, no, simulators don’t do the trick — can make them all feel a little bit stale and sad.  I get the same feeling from fountains that I can’t splash around in.  Or statues that I can’t sit on.

I’m sure it was tempting to make the new Cavern Club a shrine to The Beatles and, in its first failed reincarnation from 1984 to 1991, it probably leaned too hard on its place in Beatles history.  As a tourist attraction it is slightly hamstrung from its lack of authenticity or any meaningful collection.  But as a live music venue it delivers a uniquely visceral Beatles experience that no other attraction can match.

I hope that the ultimate owners of Cavern Walk recognise this and don’t try to cheapen the Mathews Street environment with some ill-conceived attempt to further cash in on the Beatles brand.  The Cavern Club as is – i.e. a brash, loud, crowded and rocking nightclub – is more true to the Beatles spirit and their legacy than any visitor attraction could hope to be.  As McCartney would say: Let it Be.