Tag Archives: The Beatles

Mersey Memories.

31 Jul

The River Mersey — one of Britain’s most famous waterways. It’s so big that it’s had a county named after it — Merseyside( though I’m sure most Liverpudlians still consider themselves as Lancastrians.) It’s so big, that when I first saw it as a kid, I thought its grey, choppy waves were the sea. I grew up in the land-locked county of Derbyshire so I didn’t get to see the real sea very often. It was on the Mersey that I first sailed on a large boat. In fact I travelled on the ferry ‘cross the Mersey, between Liverpool and Birkenhead, many times before Gerry Marsdon and his Pacemakers immortalised it in their hit song of 1964/65. From the mid-50’s to the late 60’s our family travelled on it every year. To me, when I was a small child, the ferry seemed like an enormous ship, whereas when I see photos of it now, I realize that it was just a glorified tug boat. In fact, in the 1960s, there were 3 ferries, sharing the task of carrying people across the wide river estaury. They were called : Mountwood, Woodchurch and Overchurch.

So why did this north midlands family visit Merseyside every year? Well, it all began in the early 1950s when I fell into a boating lake in Colwyn Bay. ( North Wales.) It’s my earliest memory. I think I was about 3 at the time. I had struck up a friendship with

another toddler, a little girl called Margaret. ( my first girlfriend?) We ran excitedly round the rim of the lake, sailing our toy yachts, until suddenly, I slipped and fell in. I still remember being under the water. It’s my earliest memory. Then I saw the blurred, reflected figure of my dad reaching towards me to drag me out. Out I came, shocked, shivering and sopping wet. It was then that my mum uttered the immortal words: ” Oh look, he’s still got his cap on!” She didn’t seem to appreciate that her son had nearly drowned! Well, the incident brought the two families together, as Margaret’s mum had run to the rescue as well. Actually, I think we were already a bit friendly because we were lodging at the same guest house. From then on, Margaret’s parents became my unofficial aunt and uncle. I always referred to them as Auntie Joyce and Uncle Bill. They lived in Wallasey, near Birkenhead, across the river from Liverpool. From that time on, we visited them every year. They sometimes came to see us but Uncle Bill was in a wheel chair, so it was much easier for us to do the travelling, especially as my dad worked on the railways and we could go on 5 free journeys a year. Neither family owned a car, something that was consodered a real luxury for most families in the 1950s.

The annual trip to Merseyside was one of the highlights of the year. We were lucky enough to have a seaside holiday as well but the trip to Liverpool was something different. Instead of sitting in deck-chairs, walking along piers or making sand castles, my sister and I now got a glimpse of a big city ( in fact 2 cities if you count Manchester on the way there), saw huge, glittering shops, ate at a restaurant and went on the aforementioned big boat. It was all very exciting and very different from our everyday life in the relatively small Derbyshire town of Chesterfield. Normally we never ate out as we couldn’t afford to. Eating out was for richer folk I thought. But as soon as we arrived at Liverpool Lime Street station we were whisked up to the top floor of Lewis’s, next door, and had a sit down meal served by uniformed waitresses. OK, it was only a department store cafe and we only had fish and chips, but to me at the time, it seemed very  grand. Even today I remember the waitresses’ frilly white pinafores and the bread that accompanied our meal being cut into neat, dainty triangles. To me, it seemed as if we were being dead “posh.”

Next came the walk through the big, busy city and then the queue to get on the ferry to cross the water. I remember crowds of people and being crammed on to the upper deck as the Liverpool shoreline gradually receded and  Birkenhead slowly came into sharper focus. This was pre- Beatles and pre-Gerry and the Pacemakers, so we had no pop music to accompany us across the water as happens on today’s tourist version of the Mersey ferry. It was a regular, run of the mill commuter service. I may be suffering from false memory syndrone but I seem to recall that we had to pay upon disembarking, an unusual arrangement, which meant queues again. Still it was all very thrilling and different for me at the time.

Even before the big city and the ferry, we had the excitement of the rail journey between Chesterfield and Liverpool. We caught 3 trains all pulled by steam locomotives, changing at Sheffield and Manchester. There were none of the “boring” diesel or electric units in the north in those days. It was the last great hurrah of the age of steam. Being an engine driver’s son, I was a keen trainspotter and here was a chance to spot all sorts of locomotives that I wouldn’t normally see back home. The last leg from Manchester to Liverpool was pulled by a tank engine and we were in carriages that had no corriders and no toilets. I remember my dad once having to hang my little sister out of the window because she was desperate for a wee ( when the train had stopped of course.)

The Liverpool trip got even more exciting as the 60s progressed. By now, I was a teenager and was getting heavily into pop music. In 1963 The Beatles suddenly exploded on to the scene, instantly dating the old rockers, crooners and trad jazz bands that had been dominating the charts. The Beatles of course hailed from Liverpool and all of a sudden it became the trendiest city in the country. Other Mersey groups and artists quickly followed in the Beatles’ powerful wake. Gerry and the Pacemakers had number 1 hits with their first 3 singles. Other hit- making Liverpool groups swiftly followed — Billy K Kramer and the Dakotas, the Big 3, The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Fourmost, The Searchers — just to name a few. The music press dubbed it : “The Mersey Beat.” It seemed that any half decent artist from Merseyside could jump on the bandwagon and enjoy national success. And I’ve not forgotten Cilla Black of course. Liverpool’s Cavern Club became one of the hottest music venues in the country. The Fab Four had played there regularly upon their return from Hamburg. This is where they had honed and polished their act before they got a recording contract and hit the big time.

As a moody adolescent, I might have been expected to be reluctant to get dragged along on a family visit with my  “old-fashioned”parents yet again, but once The Beatles and co had taken off, I didn’t need any persuading to go at all. I was going to the centre of the action. Liverpool was “where it’s at” as they used to say in the 60s. I had  teenage American penfriends in Cleveland and Pittsburgh whose letters were dominated by endless questions about John, Paul, George and Ringo.  Who was my favourite? When was their next record going to be released? Were they going to come to the States?I was their passport to the very heart of the pop music scene. Just for the record, my favourite “mop top” was George Harrison, closely followed by John Lennon. I remember one visit when I was about 15. It coincided with the release date of The Beatles’ latest single: ” Can’t Buy Me Love.” It went straight to Number 1 as so many fans had pre-ordered it. Margaret, now a 15 year old Beatles fan, had pre-ordered it too and she proudly played it to me on the afternoon of its first day of release. It was a genuine thrill. If I had not gone to Liverpool that day I would have had to wait several weeks to save up my pocket money to buy it for myself.( which I eventually did.)

It was no fluke that The Beatles and their contemparies hailed from a major port city such as Liverpool. Soul, Blues and R and B records arrived from America on the trans-Atlantic ships. Much of the Beatles’ early repertoire consisted of covers of American records they had acquired and which were not commonly available in the shops. I can just imagine Lennon, Harrison or McCartney carrying home their vinyl copies of “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers or “Please Mr Postman” by The Marvalettes, as if they were precious trophies. Their city was more multi-cultural than many others, more open to new ideas and thus was a “melting-pot” of musical styles.

In it’s days as one of the great ports of the British Empire, many people passed through Liverpool on their way to the New Worlds of North America, Australia and New Zealand. Between 1830 and 1930 as many as 9 million people emigrated from here. So it was a city of farewells, tears and hopes. Unfortunately, Liverpool was also a major port for the notorious slave trade until slavery was finally banned in the British Empire in the 1830s. In past visits I have visited moving and absorbing exhibitions about emigration and slavery at Liverpool’s excellent and free Maritime Museum on the refurbished Albert Dock.  The museum also has very good archives for private research. I remember the hairs standing up on the back of my neck while researching with my then girlfriend, the drowning of her father in the South China  Seas while working as a ship’s engineer on a White Star Lines ship in the 1950’s. We found the actual record of the voyage and a list of the ship’s crew. D’s father’s name was there, alongside the chilling words: ” Lost at sea.” He had sadly died while trying to rescue a colleague who had fallen overboard off the west coast of Malaysia.

I’ve recently been back to Liverpool to visit some exhibitions. It’s become an important cultural centre with its galleries, theatres and museums, including a major outreach of the Tate. I’ve visited the city regularly over the years. To me, there always seems to be a bit of a buzz about the place. There is invariably a great atmosphere. Most people are friendly, approachable and humourous. It’s days as a great port are over and much of its traditional industries have died out. I’m sure there is still quite a bit of unemployment and poverty there. But there is  a great spirit to the place. It took on the right wing Thatcher government in the 1980s, electing a radical left wing council which virtually declared Merseyide as an independent Socialist Republic. It inevitably lost the fight against the all powerful government but even Mrs Thatcher recognised  Liverpool’s plight and gave it the sop of hosting one of Britain’s first “Garden Festivals” and sending, her minister, Michael Heseltine to Merseyside on a charm offensive. Maybe, even the ruthless “Iron Lady” formed a grudging admiration for the cheerful stoicism and fighting spirit of the Liverpudlians. Who knows?

Say “Liverpool” to people in a word association exercise, and by far the most common responses will be “The Beatles” and football. Both still draw in the crowds today. The city has 2 premier League football clubs — Everton and Liverpool FC– the blues and the reds. Both command a huge fan base and generate great passion and loyalty. This applies not just in Liverpool itself but across the nation and even throughout the world. As Liverpool FC has enjoyed the most success over the years it has attracted the largest number of fans. Many people in Africa, Asia and North America, walk around, proudly wearing the red shirt of Liverpool. Probably only Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona rival them for world wide popularity. People are attracted to success so that they can extract a vicarious pleasure from it.  Liverpool FC has won the top English League, the FA Cup and even the European Cup ( Champions League) on numerous occasions. Back in the 60’s I adopted Liverpool as my second team. Chesterfield FC, my home town club were ( and always will be) my first love but they have perenially been stuck in the lower leagues of English football.  Peer pressure demanded that I support a top club. As most of my mates were pretending to be Manchester United fans even though they had nothing to do with Manchester, I decided to be different and eventually went for Liverpool, even though at the time of my choice they were actually in Division 2 ( now called the Championship.) With my backing they soon got promoted and quickly became one of the top teams in the country, and deadly rivals of Man Utd. I was impressed with Liverpool’s then manager, Bill Shankly and their energetic, attacking style of play. This penchant for Liverpool continued even when I went to college in Manchester, when I could easily have gone to see Best, Charlton and Law or the then stars of Manchester City. I only went to Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC ,once however.  It wasn’t an entirely comfortable experience. It was a top of the table clash against United and I travelled on the train from Manchester with my “Red Devils” supporting mates. We ended up in a pub before the match ( I was about 17 or 18 at the time). We were having a quiet drink, looking forward to the action, when the place was suddenly invaded by Liverpool fans. Ironically, considering I had travelled all that way to support his team, I got spat upon by a Liverpool fan and called “United scum!” The match itself was a tense 0-0 draw but I had to stay very quiet all the way through it because I was stuck in the middle of the away end, and had to endure relentless verbal abuse from the “Kop” opposite us.

I went to Merseyside recently to once again enjoy the culture, the architecture and above all the atmosphere. There are 2 impressive Cathedrals, Anglican and Roman Catholic, on opposite ends of the appropriately named “Hope Street”. Beautiful Georgian buildings grace the hillside above the centre. Three magnificant buildings, the “Three Graces” adorn the river front. They are the Port of Liverpool building, the Cunard Building and the Liver Building, topped by the famous mythical birds. Thanks to these, the Liverpool riverside had been appointed a World Heritage Site by the UN. Unfortunately recent adjacent , unattractive tower blocks have started to put this status at risk.

Tourism plays an increasingly important role in the city’s economy. The Beatles and the football have become the biggest draws. There are Beatles statues on the waterfront, Beatles taxi tours, Beatles open- top bus tours , a recreated Cavern club ( the original one was demolished) and a Beatles Experience museum. I think it’s over the top but plenty of tourists lap it all up. Yet, even I succumbed to the excellent ” John Lennon and Yoko Ono — Double Fantasy” exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.  It was an absorbing 2 hour journey back into my youth, and was quite emotional at times. I never saw The Beatles live, unfortunately. The chance never came up. My wife Chris, saw them but didn’t hear a thing because of the constant screaming. The nearest I got to the “Mersey Sound”  was the Merseybeats, who were a support act to Traffic at a Chesterfield concert in 1966. However, I was a regular visiter to the city  when it was the “Mecca” of the pop music world. For a host of different reasons, I have been going back ever since. And it’s all thanks to a boating lake accident in a North Wales seaside resort.


The Soundtrack Of My Early Years.

8 Dec

  I have always been thought of as musical. I read music, play the piano ( though not very well), sing in a choir, have a large CD collection and regularly attend concerts and gigs. It’s unthinkable to contemplate a life devoid of music. I probably have inherited this love of music and music-making from my family. The musical gene has been passed down through the generations.

  My earliest musical memories all centre around my maternal grandfather — Thomas Robert Bottoms. Grandad was the choir leader at the local Methodist church, played the organ and the violin and even composed a few hymns. During the General Strike of 1926, when he was officially employed at the iron and steel works, he moonlighted at the local cinema, playing his violin to accompany the action on the silent screen. Grandad was also a powerful singer, belting out the bass lines of traditional non-conformist hymns such as Diadem ( ” Crown Him, Crown Him, Crown Him! Crown him Lord of all!). Before my dad was given permission to go out with my mum, he had to pass an audition for the choir and was quickly slotted into the bass section.

  Thomas conducted the local brass brass band as well as doing all of the above. It was called the New Whittington Silver Band. ( New Whittington is an area of Chesterfield, Derbyshire, in England’s East Midlands.) My mum was taken along to many of the band rehearsals and was adopted as the band’s mascot. She tells me that her dad could play any instrument in the band if he turned his mind to it.

  When we reached the age of 7, grandad taught my sister and I how to read music and play the piano. Once I got the hang of it, I loved to go into Grandma and Grandad’s front parlour and play simple hymns on their old pedal organ. My mum seemed to conclude that I was the one who had inherited Grandad’s musical talent. A second-hand piano was purchased for my sister and I to learn on. It must have been quite a financial sacrifice on my parents’ part, for which I will always be grateful. Mum herself sang in the church choir and joined larger gatherings to perform oratorios such as Elijah or The Messiah. My Uncle Leslie ( mum’s elder brother) had singing lessons in Sheffield and became a well-regarded semi-professional singer — another bass-baritone. It seemed to be compulsary for all members of the family to be involved in music. The metaphorical baton was now passed on to me, so to speak. Recently, grandad’s real baton was given to me — an ebony affair with a silver tip. I think he was presented with it to mark 25 years of choir/band leadership.

  As I was now considered to be the heir-apparent, I was packed off to professional piano lessons around the age of 9/10. Grandad’s lessons had been enjoyable and he taught me about the basics of music, but his approach was rather unstructured. A lot of lesson time was spent talking about the old days, especially the war. So, we would forget about the scales and arpeggios and he would tell me about a dogfight between a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt in the skies above Chesterfield in 1940. The excuse of the music gave us precious one-to-one time together.

  Now however, my sister and I had to undergo “proper” piano lessons with a professional teacher:  Mrs Jukes. We had to do proper daily practise. Our standard was raised significantly but it was more boring than grandad and we soon came to see it all as a chore. Mrs Jukes was a good, rigorous teacher, was pleasant and patient with us and knew her stuff, but the joy of making music was gradually knocked out of us by the necessity of having to take exams. We were drilled to prepare for the dreaded day of the exam and my poor parents had to pay extra for music and entrance fees.

  We went to a gloomy Victorian house in an old part of town near the football ground. We knocked on the door with trepidation and it was opened by an old man with wild hair, wearing a dark, crumpled suit. He looked as though he had just walked off the set of The Adams Family! I nicknamed him “Beethovan”. We were led into a waiting room full of other “victims” and a motley collection of cats. The room smelled of fish because of the saucers of cat food liberally strewn around. Then came the long, nervous wait, accompanied by the loud ticking of a clock and the faint tinklings of the piano in the exam room. One day “Beethovan” took my hand and examined my veins, pronouncing that I had music running through them. When I told my mum this, she smiled with pleasure as this seemed to be the vindication of her investment in my musical education. Finally came the dreaded moment when my name was called. The front room was dominated by a vast, shiny grand piano. It was like a completely different instrument from the old upright plinky-plonky I practised on at home. The grand was very light to the touch and I always ended up playing too heavily because I was so used to having to force the keys down. The examiner sat behind me constantly writing notes. The whole experience was a bit of a nightmare. I somehow managed to get to Grade 5 however. Then: girls, football, pop-music and other adolescent pursuits took over and my formal musical training came to an end. ( Although I did manage to pass GCE O Level Music at Grammar school.) I never did fully follow in the footsteps of grandad afterall.

As I grew up in the 1950’s and early 60’s, the music in our house was predominantly light classical and brass bands. It arrived via the radio. We didn’t purchase our first record player until around 1962. It played vinyl 45’s which my sister and I purchased with our spending money. Big band dance music, very popular in the 40’s and early 50’s seems to have passed by my parents without them noticing. Mum told me that grandad never allowed her to go to dances. Presumably he thought they would be full of unsavoury influences that might corrupt his daughter. Thus she largely remained innocent of popular music and never acquired a taste for Glen Miller, Count Basie or Duke Ellington when she was young. Similarly: jazz, blues, ragtime, be-bop, swing or Country and Western music never got through our front door. Every now and then the radio delivered a corny crooner such as Perry Como or Bing Crosby  into our midst, singing songs like “Catch a Fallin’ Star” or “White Christmas”. This for a long time was as much as our family encountered of the world of popular music. We sat around listening to brass bands playing : marches, overtures, hymns and medlies or we sometimes listened to “posh” sounding singers with trained voices singing arias or formal versions of traditional folk songs. Kathleen Ferrier singing “Blow the Wind Southerly ” was a particular favourite of my parents.

  At New Year things livened up a bit when Kenneth McKellor, an earnest tenor from north of the border, appeared on our TV screen. He stood there in his swinging kilt performing Scottish folk songs such as “You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road” To a child approaching adolescence, it didn’t exactly set the pulse racing! It was all very boring, staid stuff in my opinion. Across the Atlantic, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis et al were launching Rock ‘n Roll and Elvis was pouting and gyrating himself to superstardom, but back at home, we were cloistered in a narrow musical world, listening to brass band renditions of The William Tell overture or Oh Come All You Faithful. It was like living in a lost world, otherwise known as the 19th Century.

  A chink of light eventually appeared when the Skiffle craze hit Britain. Suddenly, everyone with a wash-board, a tea-chest and a cheap guitar could form a pop group. My parents let their hair down a bit and admitted to a liking for Lonnie Donegan. So we occasionally enjoyed his high-energy ditties such as “The Battle of New Orleons” and ” Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour on the Bedpost Everynight?” Things were livening up!

  Finally, rock ‘n roll, albeit in its watered down British version, burst into our house in dramatic fashion. My mum had agreed to look after a neighbour’s teenage daughter for a couple of hours after school one day in the later 1950’s. Rosie was about 15 or 16 years old. She requested to listen to a different radio channel, so we got to escape the anodyne fare of the aptly named “Light programme “. ( now BBC Radio 2)  Suddenly, Cliff Richard, Britain’s very own copy of Elvis Presley, came on to the airwaves, singing his first rock ‘n roll hit: “Move It”. Rosie came over all red and virtually collapsed in a swoon. We had to help her to lie down on the settee and give her a glass of water to aid her recovery. It was as if she had received an electric shock. It was a graphic example of the potency of pop music and blasted open our doors to reveal the exciting musical world beyond.

  This incident was to usher in the 1960’s, when despite still having to slog through my piano scales, I discovered the infectious Beat music of the Beatles and the wilder R and B of The Rolling Stones. I was about to leave the tame musical ” backwater” of my grandparents and parents for ever. Still, to be fair to them, they did lay a solid musical foundation.

  Fifty years on, I now know how they felt. I cannot tolerate or even understand rap music, especially gangsta’ rap. I find it impossible to endure the interminable thump-thump of night club “House”music or whatever it’s called. I loathe manufactured “boy bands” or “girl bands” and avoid X Factor contestants like the plague! I’m sure I’m increasingly regarded as a musical dinosaur for sticking to my Rock Music. I’m stuck in “My Generation” and can now interpret Pete Townshend’s angry lyrics from a completely different perspective!