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The Merseybeat Sound and Poetry Rocked the 1960s

Liverpool's Cavern Club - George Groutas
Liverpool, on the banks of the Mersey, made an artistic contribution to the 1960s’ ethos, unmatched by any other UK city. It’s still the home of culture.

Over 200 miles from UK capital, London, Liverpool was relatively isolated as it grew into what was known as The Port of a Thousand Ships, with vital industrial and commercial lifeblood supporting a huge labour force of rich cultural diversity. From across the waters US influence was enormous, especially in music.

As the 1960s got under way, new technologies plus youngsters’ changing attitudes to cultural values, authority, drugs, entertainment, self-expression and equal rights caught on. Liverpool had a distinctiveness that set it apart. There was a buzzing nightlife and a vibrant club and music scene.

The Beatles

The most famous sons of Liverpool are ‘The Fab Four’, John, George, Paul and Ringo who broke the mould of previous music-making for teenagers. They formed in 1960 as a five piece, but by 1962 had become the four we know. Rooted in 1950s’ rock ‘n’ roll they graduated to pop and psychedelic, progressing from the musical simplicity of ‘Beatlemania’, to sophisticated and experimental work, influencing the social and cultural changes of the hippie era.

They cut their teeth in Hamburg and Liverpool clubs, then transformed by record shop-owner Brian Epstein and musical director George Martin, they became a global phenomenon, still admired musically today. They had more number one albums on UK charts and for longer than any other act.; they sold more albums in the US than any others, won 7 Grammy Awards, 15 Ivor Novello Awards and were collectively featured in Time Magazine’s 20th Century 100 Most Influential People. Not bad for four ordinary but talented lads from the ‘pool.

Other Merseybeat Bands

Groups, owing a lot to the Beatles leading the pack, but with individual sound contributions themselves to the Merseybeat, included: The Fourmost (Hello Little Girl, their biggest hit) and The Searchers (named after the John Wayne movie). Their first single was Sweets For My Sweet that made the top, followed by a string of hits like Needles and Pins, When You Walk in the Room, Goodbye My Love and Don’t Throw Your Love Away.

Gerry Marsden and his band, the Pacemakers, achieved what the Beatles didn’t – first three records all reached number one. Their most remembered successes were Ferry ‘cross the Mersey, a piece of local nostalgia and Rogers and Hammerstein’s You’ll Never Walk Alone which became the anthem of Liverpool Football Club. The Merseybeats produced a clutch of hits, Wishin’ and Hopin (covered by Dusty Springfield), I Think of You and Sorrow, a later hit for David Bowie.

The Mojos had three hits, Everything’s Alright, Why Not Tonight and Seven Daffodils, and their guitarist Lewis Collins went on to have a successful acting career. The Swinging Blue Jeans had a couple of still remembered hits, Don’t Make Me Over and the old rock standard, Hippy Hippy Shake. Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas had five top ten smashes, including Little Children after being discovered by Brian Epstein at the Cavern club.

Solo artists also made the Liverpool sound famous. Billy Fury was a big star, nicknamed the British Elvis in the early 60s, scoring 25 chart hits. Cilla Black (originally Priscilla White, changed at Epstein’s suggestion) also was discovered at the Cavern and hit fame with Love of the Loved, a Lennon-McCartney composition. She went on to enjoy a string of hits including covering You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, followed by a successful TV career hosting Blind Date and Surprise, Surprise.

Liverpool Beat Poets

Poetry and music are inextricably linked, and simultaneously with the music waves of the 60s, Liverpool produced poets of high reknown. They simplified language – everyday, man-in-the-street vernacular, frequently using humour. They employed directness of address and explored contemporary issues, social concerns and the human experience.

The most famous were probably Roger McCough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri. Although not a native Liverpudlian, Adrian Mitchell is often included in their ranks, along with Londoner Pete Brown who wrote lyrics for Cream.

Like many of the musicians, the poets were from working class backgrounds, attended art colleges rather than universities and shared an affinity with pop music and performance of poetry as much as the written versions. Venues were usually pubs and occasionally clubs – where people were informal and relaxed, rather than in theatres or concert halls.

European Capital of Culture 2008

Liverpool won this accolade to celebrate the richness of its cultural past and diversity of its present provisions. At the World Museum Liverpool an exhibition called The Beat Goes On, celebrates musical history. It complements the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts where future creative arts performers and ‘imaginers’ are being prepared.

Not quite everybody, though, is happy with Liverpool’s obsession with the 60s and Merseybeat. A young band called The Dead 60s worked for a time to make 1979 and ska-inflected punk everybody’s favourite music instead. They had a struggle and gave up in 2008, but it’s all part of the city’s rich cultural pageant.

First published on Suite 101, 9 April 2010.

Photo: Liverpool’s Cavern Club – George Groutas

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