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Mersey sound (act. 1959–1970) is a term applied to the beat music and poetry—and to the musicians, performers, and writers responsible—that emerged from Liverpool during the 1960s. Though both groups were largely self-contained, there was collaboration and friendship between the musicians, poets, writers, and artists of this period, many of whom lived in and around the Toxteth area of the city (also known as Liverpool 8 after its postal district). Of the many influences that contributed to the Mersey sound, Edward Lucie-Smith's 1967 book The Liverpool Scene—a collection of poetry and photographs, dedicated ‘To the Beatles without whom &c’—was particularly important in fashioning and promoting the notion of a cultural movement.

The rise of Merseybeat

Liverpool is famously a city of entertainment—a reputation it gained before the emergence of the Mersey sound. By then the city had seen the rise of such popular singers as Lita Roza, Frankie Vaughan, and Russ Hamilton, and comedians including Tommy Handley, Robb Wilton, Arthur Askey, Ted Ray, and Ken Dodd. But a cultural explosion took place in the early 1960s with the advent of the rock 'n' roll-based Merseybeat and the emergence of more than 300 bands who performed across the city and its suburbs. Though the decade, and the Mersey sound movement, were dominated by this new musical genre, its appeal also forced existing forms to change in order to remain attractive. The Liverpool skiffle quartet the Spinners, for example, turned traditional folk music into popular entertainment and sang about the city in songs like ‘In My Liverpool Home’ (1962), while the country musicians the Hillsiders recorded with American stars and contributed to Liverpool's reputation in this period as the ‘Nashville of England’. The popularity of skiffle music in the mid-1950s had encouraged many youngsters to play for themselves, often with makeshift acoustic instruments. But, having begun to perform, and with a little more money, most changed to amplified rock 'n' roll in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In this the Quarry Men were typical: John Lennon formed the group in late 1956, and he soon recruited Paul McCartney (b. 1942) and George Harrison; they became in 1960, after various name and personnel changes, the Beatles. Lennon was an unmanageable student who had been accepted by the Liverpool College of Art in 1957. Here he continued to do little work, though he and a fellow student Stuart Sutcliffe (1940–1962), a housemate with whom he lived in bohemian squalor, were influenced by their tutor, Arthur Ballard. They also befriended another art student, Bill Harry, who founded the Mersey Beat newspaper in 1961, which gave a name to the city's new music and provided its bands with a common identity. In Ye Cracke, a pub close to the art college, a plaque commemorates the Dissenters, a name given to Lennon, Sutcliffe, Harry, and Rod Murray, four students who discussed how they would change the world. With the proceeds from a painting, Sutcliffe bought a bass guitar and joined Lennon's new band. The Beatles played at art school functions and at a coffee bar, the Jacaranda, founded and run by the local entrepreneur, Allan Williams (b. 1930).

In 1960 Williams, together with the calypsonian Harold Phillips (known as Lord Woodbine), arranged the Beatles' first booking in the red-light district of Hamburg. The band recruited Pete Best (b. 1941) on drums and, playing several hours a night, they broadened their repertory and became a hard-hitting rock 'n' roll unit. Their appearance at Litherland town hall in December 1960 has become a legendary episode in the band's development, and after appearances around Liverpool in 1961 other local performers began to copy their style. In 2006 a large exhibition at the Museum of Hamburg History contended that the Beatles' music should be known as the Hamburg rather than the Mersey sound. However, at the time of the Beatles' tour there were only four beat clubs in Hamburg, while hundreds of such venues were open on Merseyside. Of these the most famous, the Cavern, had started as a jazz club in 1957, and brought beat music to the city centre in 1960, after which it quickly became all-conquering within Liverpool and beyond.

Though there were exceptions, Merseybeat music was typically played by white quartets of young males, playing lead, rhythm, and bass guitars with drums. Rory Storm (1938–1972), lead singer of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, was among the older performers. Most groups had more than one lead singer and encouraged harmonies on love songs or exhortations to dance. They were mostly taken from obscure black American rhythm and blues records, although the repertories did contain surprises, for example, ‘Over the Rainbow’ (by the Beatles), ‘Easter Bonnet’ (by the Swinging Blue Jeans, a four-piece led by the singer and guitarist Ray Ennis (b. 1940)), and ‘You'll Never Walk Alone’ (by Gerry and the Pacemakers, named after Gerry Marsden (b. 1942)), which in 1963 became a number one record and a football anthem for Liverpool FC.

In 1961 Allan Williams fell out with the Beatles. Other local promoters, though effective, were more concerned with making small, quick profits rather than seeking the longer-term national success of groups. An exception was Brian Epstein who owned North End Music Stores (known as NEMS), a record shop about 400 yards from the Cavern. Epstein spotted the Beatles' potential when he first saw them play at the club in November 1961 and secured them a recording contract with EMI in the following year. At the group's request he dismissed Pete Best and replaced him with Ringo Starr (b. 1940), until then the drummer for Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.

By 1962 Lennon and McCartney were writing for the Beatles and ‘Love Me Do’, their first single for EMI's Parlophone label, made the top twenty. That they could write well in so many different styles was a key factor in their sustained success. Their first film, A Hard Day's Night (1964), although not set in Liverpool, was written by the Welsh-born Alun Owen (1925–1994), who lived in Liverpool and had created the much-heralded television drama No Trams to Lime Street (1959). In addition to the Beatles, Epstein signed up much of Liverpool's musical talent and also had success with the singers Billy J. Kramer (b. 1943) and Cilla Black (b. 1945), and with Gerry and the Pacemakers, who became the first British act to have number one hits with its first three singles. The Searchers (formed in 1959 by John McNally (b. 1941) and Mike Pender (b. 1942)) and the Merseybeats (originally Tony Crane (b. 1945), and Billy Kinsley (b. 1946)) enjoyed success with other managers. Though less successful, another group, the Big Three, was considered by some to be the most explosive and exciting band on Merseyside. Their live EP The Big Three at the Cavern (1963) provides the best indication of the club's intense, sweaty atmosphere. Given the huge success of the Mersey sound, it is ironic that another Liverpool singer, Billy Fury, had initially not wished to talk on stage, concerned that his audience would think his Liverpool accent common. His manager Larry Parnes (1930–1989) briefly considered the Beatles as Fury's backing group, but instead formed the Blue Flames (led by the Lancashire-born Georgie Fame (b. 1943)) for this purpose. Fury specialized in covers of American hits, and his popularity declined as that of the Merseybeat bands began to grow. With it came a celebration of the city and its culture. Leading the way, the Beatles had no qualms about their accents, and their promotion of Liverpool during ‘Beatlemania’ did much to raise the city's status. By 1964 youngsters all over the world were listening to Beatles records and practising scouse accents.

Poetry, performance, and the Mersey sound

Away from music others sought to record and celebrate the city through art and literature. One such figure was Adrian Henri who, having graduated from Durham University in 1955, had become an art teacher and settled in Liverpool 8. In 1960 he attended poetry and jazz evenings at Streates coffee bar, organized by the Dublin-born Johnny Byrne (1935–2008), which featured performers from outside the area, notably Pete Brown (b. 1940), who became a lyricist for the band Cream. Henri met a fellow graduate and teacher, Roger McGough (b. 1937), and a young reporter, Brian Patten (b. 1946), both of whom were born and raised in Liverpool, and together they became the nucleus of a vibrant local poetry scene. What distinguished them was that their work was written to be performed. McGough with his high-speed delivery had a wit to rival John Lennon's (in 1968 he supplied, uncredited, Liverpudlian humour for the Beatles' animated film Yellow Submarine); Patten, meanwhile, was a modern romantic who discussed raw experiences with a new directness, while Henri's style was lyrical and autobiographical with a fascination with the themes of love and sex. Local poetry magazines included Underdog, which was edited by Patten.

As with the city's musicians, the poets were heavily influenced by American culture. The origins of the Liverpool writers lay in the San Franciscan beat scene, with Adrian Henri's style similar to that of Allen Ginsberg. Just as Merseybeat musicians covered songs by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, many of the Liverpool poets wrote their own versions of beat poetry. Henri, McGough, and Patten, for example, were inspired by the Batman television series to write ‘Batpoem’, ‘Goodbat Nightman’, and ‘Where Are You Now, Batman?’ respectively. Henri's best-known poem, ‘Tonight at Noon’, took its title from a Charlie Mingus LP. Henri was a creative whirlwind, organizing a stream of art events in the city. In the early 1960s he devised the Liverpool One Fat Lady All Electric Show, a mixed media event—which also involved McGough, John Gorman (b. 1936), and Paul McCartney's brother, Mike (b. 1944; known as Mike McGear) —that took place at Hope Hall, now the Everyman Theatre.

In 1962 McGough, Gorman, and McGear formed the Scaffold, a performance group mixing sketches, songs, and poetry that had national hits with the songs ‘Thank U Very Much’ (1967) and ‘Lily the Pink’ (1968). In 1967 Henri formed Liverpool Scene, a poetry–rock group including Mike Hart (from the beat group the Roadrunners), Mike Evans (saxophonist from the Clayton Squares), and Andy Roberts (b. 1946) (a musician, composer, and former law student at Liverpool University). Liverpool Scene regularly performed at O'Connor's Tavern, a meeting place for artists, poets, and members of the underworld. Their first album was produced by the broadcaster John Peel, who had close ties with the city and who had recently joined the pirate station Radio London. One of Liverpool Scene's key numbers was Henri's ‘The Entry of Christ into Liverpool’, also the title of his best-known painting (1961), which featured celebrated city figures including the Beatles and the Toxteth-born writer and singer George Melly.

Taking his lead from avant-garde artists in New York—among them Allan Kaprow and Yoko Ono (b. 1933)—Henri also organized ‘happenings’ in the city, two of which took place at the Cavern, while one at the Bluecoat Chambers in 1967 featured Ono, who had begun a relationship with John Lennon in the previous year. Poetry evenings took place across Liverpool and, like the Cavern's beat shows, typically featured several performers on the bill. Harold Hikins, a communist librarian who presided over scores of readings, believed that everybody had a right to be heard, and the evenings often dragged on, seemingly without end. Inspired by the Wholly Communion poetry reading at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, Hikins organized two Big Poetry Nights at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.

Many of the Liverpool poets writing in the 1960s had their work published by major publishers: Adrian Henri and Roger McGough by Jonathan Cape, Brian Patten by George Allen and Unwin, Henry Graham (b. 1930) by Andre Deutsch, and Spike Hawkins (b. 1943) by Fulcrum. Others, including Brian Jacques (1939–2010), Sidney Hoddes, and Matt Simpson (1936–2009), were published by local houses, while some, like Harold and Sylvia Hikins, produced their own collections. In 1967 Penguin achieved a huge success with the publication of The Mersey Sound (number ten in its series Penguin Modern Poets), which combined the work of Henri, McGough, and Patten. The Mersey Sound's original print run of 20,000 sold out in the first month and the volume went on to sell more than half a million copies. However, even this figure was swamped by the success of John Lennon's books of wordplay in verse and prose, In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard in the Works (1965), both strongly influenced by Lewis Carroll, The Goon Show, and the entertainer Stanley Unwin.

A year after the success of The Mersey Sound Adrian Henri exhibited his paintings at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London, following earlier exhibitions in Liverpool at the Walker Gallery and Bluecoat Chambers. Other city artists with whom Henri associated included Arthur Ballard of the Liverpool College of Art, the poet and artist Maurice Cockrill (b. 1936), subsequently keeper of the Royal Academy of Arts, and Sam Walsh (1934–1989), whose work included Mike's Brother (NPG, 1964), a much reproduced portrait of Paul McCartney. Though he now lived away from Liverpool, Henri's art circle was sometimes joined by George Melly, who constantly praised the city, describing how, albeit briefly, it had surpassed London as a cultural centre in his Revolt into Style (1970). Visiting the city in 1965, Allen Ginsberg described Liverpool as ‘the centre of the consciousness of the human universe’, though he also made similar remarks about Prague and San Francisco.

In 1967 the Beatles sang about the city in two songs, ‘Penny Lane’ (written by McCartney) and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (by Lennon), which they followed later that year with the highly adventurous Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Shortly after its release their manager Brian Epstein died from an overdose, and disputes over the band's future direction led to a loss of unity. Aside from the Beatles, the advent of psychedelia and blues-based rock ended the chart success of the Liverpool bands, though many continued to do well on the northern cabaret circuit. Others changed direction with the declining popularity of Merseybeat: Freddie Starr (b. 1943), originally the singer of the Midnighters, also managed by Epstein, subsequently gained a national reputation as a comedian, while Cilla Black became a much loved family entertainer.

The Mersey sound legacy

The Beatles broke up in 1970 and all four musicians had successful solo careers. A backlash against the group was noticeable among new musicians in Liverpool and elsewhere, largely because their heritage was too much to contemplate: how could any band emulate what they had done? However, by the 1980s Liverpool musicians like Pete Wylie and Ian McNabb were quick to praise the Beatles, and such bands as OMD, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Farm once more boosted the city's musical standing. The Beatles' legacy is now omnipresent; indeed the whole career of Manchester's Oasis (1991–2009) could be described as a variation of the Beatles' B-side ‘Rain’ (1966).

By their example the Beatles and the leading Liverpool poets of the 1960s encouraged others to write their own material. The Mersey Sound authors and their circle stimulated a nationwide interest in performance poetry, whose more recent practitioners (from across the UK) include Benjamin Zephaniah, John Hegley, and members of the Medway poets circle. The poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy (2009– ), a Liverpool University student in the mid-1970s, has spoken often of her debt to Adrian Henri, while the children's author Brian Jacques and the playwright Willy Russell have acknowledged the importance for their work of Liverpool's folk and poetry scenes during the 1960s. Roger McGough and Brian Patten continue to perform around Britain—which McGough has combined with presenting BBC Radio 4's Poetry Please. Successful musical acts have also continued to emerge from Liverpool. A sign outside the city welcomes visitors to the capital of pop and a wall of number one hits opposite the Cavern consists of fifty-three discs, far more than any British city other than London. During its year as European capital of culture in 2008, Liverpool hosted a huge exhibition at the World Museum, entitled The Beat Goes On. That still applies to the Merseysippi Jazz Band, who performed on the opening night of the Cavern in January 1957 and who continue in 2011 to host a weekly residency, as they have, almost non-stop, since their formation in 1949.

Spencer Leigh


E. Lucie-Smith, ed., The Liverpool scene (1967) · A. Henri, R. McGough, and B. Patten, Penguin Modern Poets, 10 (1967) · G. Melly, Revolt into style (1970) · M. Lewisohn, The Beatles live! (1986) · S. Wade, ed., Gladsongs and gatherings (2001) · S. Leigh, Twist and shout: Merseybeat, Hamburg, the Cavern, the Star Club and the Beatles (2004) · S. Leigh, interviews, BBC Radio Merseyside · personal knowledge (2011)