When Lonnie Donegan, the King of Skiffle, burst on to the national music scene in early January 1956 with debut single ‘Rock Island Line’, surely nobody could have imagined the effect that would have on British youth culture. Donegan started a craze among teenagers that swept through the UK those next two years, the advantages of skiffle being that its instruments were basic, cheap to buy and easy to play. That said, skiffle wasn’t really new, having been embedded in African-American folk and jazz from the 1920s, and first arriving on the British jazz scene back in the late-1940s.
But then came rock’n’roll, and while its prime mover, Elvis Presley never toured the UK, the influence of rock‘n’roll music in the UK was truly heralded by the arrival from America of Bill Haley and His Comets on 5 February 1957, the movement already making a huge – and lasting – impression on British teenagers. And Haley’s rock‘n’roll tour of the UK truly marked the beginning of a new and exciting era in popular music, the days of skiffle soon brought to an abrupt end.
Overnight, local dance halls, community halls and social clubs, became ‘jive hives’ where teenagers could immerse themselves in rock‘n’roll. Promoters in Liverpool and its boroughs quickly established a new music scene, local bands performing at venues such as Holyoake Hall, Blair Hall, Litherland Town Hall, Aintree Institute, and Hambleton Hall. Meanwhile, The Cavern remained loyal to jazz and skiffle until 1960.
By way of example, John Lennon’s Quarry Men (also often referred to as The Quarrymen) started out the same way as most of those bands, playing school halls, garden fetes, village halls, social clubs and dance halls, and entering skiffle group contests. And The Quarry Men – the band which in turn would give rise to The Silver Beatles and in time The Beatles – made their Cavern debut on 3 August 1957, but got into trouble that night for playing rock‘n’roll.
As the music scene developed across the area, popular bands played the bigger venues and those operating regular beat nights. In 1961 alone, The Beatles appeared at just 18 venues across Merseyside but made more than 280 appearances, with The Cavern the venue at which they appeared most frequently.
On 10 November 1961, The Beatles played in front of their biggest audience to date at New Brighton’s Tower Ballroom, that night on the Wirral experienced by 3,500 music fans, at a venue that would attract mainstream singers and bands for more than half a century. During the beat music boom of the 1960s, major concerts at the Tower Ballroom were frequent events, and between November ’61 and July ’63, The Beatles made 27 appearances there, local promoters – Bob Wooler and Brian Epstein’s NEMS Enterprises Ltd among them – making valuable use of the ballroom.
In fact, towns throughout the Wirral peninsula made a considerable contribution to the Merseyside music scene. The Majestic Ballroom in Birkenhead, The Grosvenor Ballroom in Wallasey, Hulme Hall at Port Sunlight and Barnston Women’s Institute in Heswall all proved extremely popular venues, hosting The Beatles, Gerry & the Pacemakers, The Big Three, and many more local bands who went on to find chart success.
The ground-breaking introduction of the Mersey Beat music magazine also provided a huge boost to the local scene, benefiting venues, promoters, agents, managers, bands and audiences. The brainchild of Liverpool art student Bill Harry, the first edition was published on 6 July 1961 and sold 5,000 copies. Cavern owner Ray McFall acquired a 50 per cent ownership stake of Mersey Beat, supporting the newspaper financially until he sold out to Brian Epstein in September 1964. And as the magazine’s sales increased, the paper became known as the Teenager’s Bible, with local groups being dubbed beat groups and their music Merseybeat.
That local scene peaked in late 1962 though, steadily declining from there once The Beatles and other chart-topping bands and artistes started spending more time away from Liverpool – recording elsewhere, broadcasting on radio and television, and featuring on UK package tours and on foreign tours. The second wave of local bands were unable to reach the same level of success, and by 1966 the Merseybeat era had come to an end, as had The Cavern.