From London’s theatres to Liverpool’s Beatles, two Blue Badge Guides tell Marc Zakian about their cultural tour
“I was nine when The Beatles broke up.” says Paul Beesley. “None of my friends listened to their records, and my parents never played pop music at home. But you can’t grow up in Liverpool without getting to know The Beatles. They are always present; in conversation, in street names, in the pubs and clubs – and they are the inspiration for what I do nearly every day”.
In 1983 Paul became one of Liverpool’s first Beatles guides. “Fans were turning up here asking what they could see. So the city created the UK’s first rock and roll tour. It was a mixture of fun and chaos: I would press a cassette player to the microphone so the group could listen to the music I was talking about. On one occasion the council replaced our regular coach with an open-topped doubledecker bus. We were bowling up Penny Lane ducking to avoid low hanging trees”.
Three decades later it’s hard to know who is more famous: Liverpool or The Beatles. “People come from all over the world find out about the band. It’s not a glamorous story; they were four lads from ordinary backgrounds. The house where Ringo Starr grew up is a working-class red-brick terrace; a two-up-two-down in the Dingle area where a sickly child who was in and out of hospital lived.
“Penny Lane is a bit more suburban. John Lennon and George Harrison grew up nearby, and their walk to school inspired the only Beatles song that refers to places you can still see. There’s the bus ‘shelter in the middle of the roundabout’ the bank ‘on the corner’ and the ‘barber’ (I used to get my haircut there). Everyone has a childhood memory of walking to school. The Beatles turned that nostalgia into a song so powerful that fans would regularly steal the Penny Lane road signs. The council has installed tourist-proof ones now.”
Strawberry Fields is another Liverpool song. Inspired by parkland called Strawberry Field (The Beatles added the ‘S’) the lyric doesn’t reference what’s there, it’s more Lennon’s stream of consciousness. “This is an emotional part of the tour; fans write tributes on the gatepost and walls. The music and memories of what happened to John often bring tears. It’s a leafy, tranquil area, full of birdsong – I’ve had visitors who want to stay there rather than get back on the coach. (And Strawberry Field has very recently opened it’s gates so visitors can explore the grounds that inspired Lennon).
“John’s house is around the corner on Menlove Avenue. He was raised by his aunt and uncle. The National Trust has restored the interior to the period when Lennon was a teenager. His mother, Julia, was a single parent, unacceptable back then – so he was brought up by his aunt. When John was 17 Julia was knocked down and killed in the street outside the house.
“Paul McCartney’s family moved to Forthlin Road in 1955. The teenage McCartney met Lennon who would come over to work on songs. The National Trust estimates the duo wrote 100 Beatles tunes in the front living room of this post-war 50s council house. One of them, Let it Be, refers to ‘Mother Mary’ – a tribute to Paul’s mother Mary, not the Madonna. “The tours finish at the Cavern Club. The Beatles played this narrow basement with its low arches 292 times. Along with Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Searchers they made it famous. Liverpool is the capital of music, with 57 number one records – more than any other city per head of population in the world. Seventeen of them were Beatles songs.
“People ask me why it is such a musical place. I explain that as a port it has always looked outward. It embraced influences from North America as well as the city’s big Irish population (Lennon and McCartney both have Irish ancestors). A creative mix which you can hear in Beatles music”.
So has the city become more ‘Beatlepool’ than Liverpool? “As a Blue Badge Guide, I speak about much more than The Beatles. But you wouldn’t visit Stratford-upon-Avon without talking about Shakespeare. The Beatles have an extraordinary allure. I was taking some photographers on a scout around the city for locations – Americans who had spent weeks trawling different sites across the UK. When we got to Penny Lane, they handed me their cameras and asked me to take a photo of them next to the street sign. Hardened snappers turned to happy tourists – that’s the power of The Beatles.”