The omnipresent logo is the tablature for the jangling opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night.” That Beatles classic plays over and over in the lobby. Beatles portraits decorate the rooms. Beatles music fills a stairway plastered with pictures that tell the Beatles story as you climb. Beatles-themed bars and restaurants offer more Beatles, Beatles, Beatles, and Beatles.
We haven’t even left the Hard Days Night Hotel, and Alex, my teenage son, is already having the splendid time Liverpool guarantees for all who come to immerse themselves in all things moptop.
That’s Alex. Beatlemania took hold of my son years ago. I had been promising to make this pilgrimage ever since he started speaking in Beatles lyrics, quoting from Beatles interviews, and reciting to me the mysterious words recorded on Beatles songs when you play them backwards. We are calling this his “16th birthday present,” but it is more than that. To afford the trip, we forwent all other vacations for a year.
“We shall scrimp and save,” Alex declared at the time.
I like, not love, the Beatles. I don’t spend hours listening to “Abbey Road” on my iPod or pointing out to friends which Beatle plays which guitar solo on “The End.” I do remember going through my own Fab Four infatuation at 16, back when we had vinyl records that you could actually play backwards. My Beatlemania bit the dust long ago, but this is his birthday, and I’m determined to have a good time.
This had started out as a Beatles tour of London, with Liverpool tacked on as an afterthought, but that didn’t work out as we had planned. Don’t get me wrong: The capital city has plenty of Beatles lore for a dedicated follower of Fab-dom. Alas, many of London’s beloved Beatles sites are buried now under office buildings and big box stores. We saw the places where the studios no longer exist where the Beatles auditioned for record companies that no longer exist in between performances at venues that no longer exist. You cannot just stroll across Abbey Road the way they did on the famous album cover. It’s too busy. We saw a group of Spanish tourists try it for 15 minutes. Each time their friend would aim a camera, a lorry would come barreling at them.
“See how they run,” Alex observed.
Changing the scene saved the trip. Liverpool, a once-declining shipping city, has a revamped city center with a glistening pedestrian zone. It may not always have embraced the band that may have been its greatest export, but the city has changed its mind along with its mien.
Liverpool has renamed its airport after John Lennon. The legendary Beatles venue, The Cavern, which had been paved over and replaced by a parking lot, has been excavated, renovated, and reopened as a living museum with live music. Beatles cafes and clubs have popped up and Beatles tours of various magical and mysterious proportions have proliferated.
“The Beatles are the greatest thing ever to come out of Liverpool,” says Mike Dewey, general manager of the Hard Days Night Hotel, which opened in 2008. “Liverpool is just starting to embrace the Beatles now.”
Dewey, incidentally, acknowledges that he is not a huge fan of Beatles music, though after four years running the hotel he knows all the words. But he is proud of the appointments in his rooms, such as the American walnut bespoke table in the McCartney suite fashioned in the shape of Paul’s guitar. Our room is a lot simpler — George, John, Ringo, and Paul watch from the wall in an illustration based on the “Beatles for Sale” album cover. I’m slightly creeped out by it. Alex stands on one of the beds and poses like a fifth Beatle. We go looking for something to eat downstairs, passing the Beatles story in reverse as we descend.
Blakes restaurant, the eatery attached to the hotel, is dedicated to Sir Peter Blake, the pop artist who designed the “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover. A large illustration on the wall identifies the 60 personages chosen, some whom we recognize (Marlene Dietrich, Johnny Weissmuller); some whom we have never even heard of (Diana Dors, the “British Marilyn Monroe.”)
I fall asleep during the movie we order in our room, the Beatles comedy “A Hard Day’s Night.” So when Alex tells me it’s time for bed, I am wide awake. I decide to explore the town.
“It doesn’t worry me to be alone,” Alex assures me.
I go out walking, and presently discover a bronze statue of Eleanor Rigby, sitting on a park bench of stone, dedicated to “All the Lonely People.”
I wander down Matthew Street, where the restored Cavern beckons like a beacon in the night. Down several flights of spiral stairs, a mural depicts the long lines that spilled into the street whenever the Beatles took the stage under the low brick arches. I get there just before a jazz-blues band is saying, “Thank you, good night,” and the cheery crowd files out. Back outside, I notice a life-size statue of Lennon standing in the shadows on the dark side of the street.
In the morning we head for The Beatles Story, the centerpiece of Liverpool’s renewed Beatles infatuation. It’s a short walk from the hotel, marred only slightly by several extreme changes in the weather.
“If the sun don’t come you get a tan from standing in the English rain,” Alex muses.
The museum is part of Albert Dock, Liverpool’s restored waterfront on the River Mersey. In videos, pictures, artifacts, and music, each section of The Beatles Story tells a chapter of the band’s history. One room describes the leather-clad Beatles’ conquest of Germany. Another presents a re-creation of The Cavern, with the band’s guitars and drums set up just as the group stood on stage — Paul, George, John, left to right, with Ringo in the back. Alex, engrossed in an audio tour, lingers in the chamber dedicated to the group’s psychedelic period, a riot of orange and green and yellow submarines.
I hurry along to an area where separate rooms tell the stories of the Beatles after they broke up the band. A hallway leads to a white room with a white piano upon which sit a photo of John and a pair of his distinctive wire-rimmed glasses. The song “Imagine” fills the air.
The last section comes with a family alert: The Beatles Story has a “discovery room,” where cartoon characters on the wall offer young children the building blocks of Beatlemania (“Hello, I’m Paul, I sing and play bass,” and so on.)
I ponder where such early indoctrination is a good thing — better this than death metal, right? — and crawl off to the museum’s Starbucks. Alex comes out later, beaming.
“Me, I’ll remember all the little things,” he says. We step outside, where a large black car with The Cavern emblazoned on the side is waiting.
The driver, Jay Johnson, offers personalized excursions around Liverpool. He takes us to Ringo’s birthplace on Madryn Street, one of a series of barracks-like row houses that were slated for destruction until the city received funding in June to save Ringo’s house from the ball and chain.
“It ought to be donated to the National Trust,” Alex avows.
Johnson takes us to George’s childhood home at Arnold Grove, a one-story brick house in a cul de sac that hundreds of tourists visit each day.
“You know if you live in this street what’s gonna happen,” Johnson says in his thick accent, which Liverpudlians call “Scouse,” a name believed to be derived from the Old Norse word for a meaty stew sailors used to eat.
Johnson drives down Penny Lane, named for James Penny, a shipping merchant and slave ship owner. (Johnson says that Liverpool addresses its role in the slave trade quite eloquently in its International Slavery Museum.)
The Penny Lane in the Beatles hit of the same name refers not to the street, but to the busy confluence of roads to which it leads, still home to the barbershop in the song, where the Fab Four got their moptops trimmed. “Penny Lane” is Johnson’s favorite song “because I grew up with it in my ears and in my eyes,” he says. It was kept from reaching number one in the United Kingdom by an Engelbert Humperdinck hit. Johnson sneers and warbles the refrain, “Pleeeease release me, let me go.” We learn that the best voice in his family belongs to his brother, Holly Johnson, lead singer of the ’80s pop outfit Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
“The second-most successful band to come out of Liverpool,” Johnson says.
The last house we visit is Mendips, where John was raised by his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George. John used to climb a tree not far from the house, from which he could check out the girls at the Strawberry Fields orphanage. Johnson tells us that Aunt Mimi would tell him to stop or else he would be hanged for his peeping. Hence the lyric “nothing to get hung about” in the song. Johnson takes us to the church graveyard where lies the real Eleanor Rigby — with her husband.
“Turns out she was not the lonely people at all,” Alex broods.
It’s time to go. We head back just in time for the whistle on the southbound train. As the evening sky grows dark, I ask Alex how he liked the trip.
“My life has changed in oh so many ways,” Alex intones.
As for me, I’m still no Beatlemaniac. But my son and I, we’re as close as can be.
And now you know the reason why.