The Birth of Mersey Beat


In 1961 I dubbed Liverpool 'the Rocking City.'

Joe Ankrah of the Chants at the Blue Angel Club Liverpool's maritime heritage had resulted in the city becoming a melting pot of cosmopolitan influences. As the main port during the days of the slave trade, its black population became established centuries ago. Ironically, the large mansions built by the slave traders became the abodes in the twentieth century of the black population, who mainly dwelt in the Liverpool 8, or Toxteth, district.

The city was also a main destination for the Irish fleeing the potato famine in the mid-Nineteenth Century and Liverpool boasts a huge Irish population - it's often jokingly referred to as the capitol of Ireland. There is also a substantial Welsh intake and Liverpool had a Chinatown before San Francisco.

Different cultural influences also led to the development of a wide range of musical tastes, and, from sea shanties to Irish folk songs, Liverpool danced to the music of the world for more than two centuries. Most specifically, pub sing-alongs were a standard form of Liverpool entertainment and the musical heritage was strong.

This is where the truth and myth part, for the maritime heritage had no direct influence on the development of the Mersey sound.

Writers in the 1970s began to suggest that the reason Liverpool groups were different from groups in other parts of the country was that 'Cunard Yanks' brought them records that couldn't be obtained elsewhere in Britain.

'Cunard Yanks' were the Liverpudlians who went to sea in the ocean liners and brought presents back to their families. The myth is that they brought American records for their younger brothers and sons, and this is how the Liverpool bands built up their repertoire.

Sounds nice, but it's not true.

In the 1950s Liverpool was still a seaport and a number of Liverpool men still sailed the seas, but it was a feeble number compared to the pre-War days and the turn of the century. One or two members of groups, such as John McNally of the Searchers, had brothers who went to sea and brought them records. However, the most important records in the Searchers collection came from drummer Chris Curtis, who gathered them in his trips around the record stores. Some of the country bands, such as Hank Walters & His Dusty Road Ramblers were able to obtain rare country albums from merchant seamen, but the 'Cunard Yank' theory remains a myth.

A study of the Beatles repertoire from the time, laying aside the original Lennon and McCartney numbers, proves that every song they played was available on record in Britain through the normal channels.

The late Johnny Byrne, aka Johnny Guitar of the legendary Rory Storm & the Hurricanes, confirmed to me: "That's a myth about the groups receiving copies or having records from 'Cunard Yanks'. We certainly never got any material this way and I doubt that the Beatles did. Most group material was gleaned from the records (although some on limited release) that were issued at that particular time (1958-1961). Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee etc, were available and groups took their material from these and lesser-known artists with material that we were able to play and adapt that suited all the groups' limited styles."

Chris Huston of the Undertakers added: "When Johnny Byrne says that Liverpool groups didn't get their material from sailors he's right. But he's only partly right about the rest. We spent hours searching through piles of records on the stalls at the flea markets every time we went down to London. They were apparently records that had come, mostly, from the PX stores on the American Air Force bases. In fact I got my first James Brown, Lonnie Mack, Major Lance and Joey Dee albums from market stalls."

The Hillsiders' Kenny Johnson and Joe Butler Frankly, at the time when the Mersey scene began to flourish, the Cunard ships had long since been rerouted to Southampton. Cunard still retained offices in Liverpool, but the days of liners coming to the port had ended more than a decade previously. Liverpool had been the centre of Atlantic trade and at one time was the main European port and second city of the Empire. Between 1900 and 1914 one tenth of the world's tonnage passed through Liverpool and the era of the great passenger liners was Liverpool's greatest epoch. But between 1920 and 1980 Liverpool's dockland steadily declined and, as ships got bigger, the docks became too small and the passenger liners no longer used the port.

The first major musical influence in Liverpool was a British artist, Lonnie Donegan, who sparked off the skiffle boom. When the boom began to wane, Liverpool groups turned to rock 'n' roll. Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, the Coasters, Arthur Alexander, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Olympics, Larry Williams, the Isley Brothers, Bobby Freeman, the Shirelles, Chan Romero, Lloyd Price, Bo Diddley, the Drifters and Fats Domino were their inspiration.

While rock 'n' roll bands were thriving in Liverpool, the music was encountering problems in America. Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens were killed in an air crash 'the day the music died'; Little Richard got religion; Eddie Cochran died in a car crash, while Carl Perkins's career suffered following his road accident; Chuck Berry was in jail; Elvis had joined the army; Jerry Lee Lewis was 'disgraced' for marrying an under-age cousin. This was the opportunity media moguls had been waiting for - the chance to kill this devil's music! They titillated teenagers by saturating the airwaves with records by clean-cut handsome white youngsters who sanitized the sound - Pat Boone, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Ricky Nelson (although he turned out to be more influential than first imagined), Dion, Tommy Roe, Tommy Sands, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Vinton.

Rock 'n' roll might literally have been safely caged in the States, but Liverpool bands began to adapt the music to their own style. What was also different about the Mersey groups was their age- they were actually teenagers, whereas the American rock 'n' roll giants were almost a decade older.

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