“I found her,” my travel partner exclaimed. We were wandering through a Liverpool cemetery looking for one of the most recognized names in music, Eleanor Rigby, a person Paul McCartney claimed he’d made up, though she happened to share the same name as a woman on a gravestone at the very church where he first met John Lennon.
We'd passed the cemetery on our Beatles tour earlier, but hadn’t stopped for a picture. Eleanor Rigby was undoubtedly the greatest coincidence in the canon of Beatles songs, so I came back, and after visiting Eleanor’s grave, started on the four hour drive to London— we wanted to wrap up our great two days of Beatles tourism with one final iconic photo there, at Abbey Road.
Liverpool is proud of its Beatles. There’s a giant yellow submarine outside the John Lennon International Airport and the Fab Four’s influence can still be felt throughout the city. I know almost every song recorded by the band, but I was interested in learning how the Liverpool lads got together, became a worldwide sensation, and ultimately dissolved. I wanted to see where they had grown up and understand the influences that came together to create the greatest band in the history of the world.
I booked a room at A Hard Days Night, the world’s only Beatles themed hotel. It’s right in heart of town, next to Matthew Street. The hotel is full of Beatles’ pictures, statues and memorabilia. Fab Four songs play in the lobby 24-hours a day. A giant picture of Ringo hung over my bed and there were Beatles books scattered throughout the room. The gift shop had every scrap of Beatles’ merchandise ever made. It was like staying at the Hard Rock Hotel if the only band that had ever existed in the universe was the Beatles.
There was no better choice for kickstarting the tour the next day. I halfway hoped the alarm would wake me with “Good Morning” from Sergeant Pepper's or play “I’m so Tired” when I was going to bed. Yeah, I guess that makes me a Beatles nerd.
We walked out to Matthew street and posed with John Lennon’s bronze statue and checked out SGT Pepper’s Club. As the house band performed on stage, an entire LED wall of Beatles animation played behind them. Rubber Soul, another club on the street (also named after an album) was playing its share of Beatles and '60s music. It's The Cavern Club, though, that's the true Mecca for Beatles fans. Although the venue has closed down twice and gone through some serious reconstruction, it's the place where the Beatles got their start. Everyone who’s anyone has played in this little club that's three floors below street level.
There was a Beatles tribute band playing when we arrived and the crowd was going wild. I’ve seen lots of faux Beatles, but these guys were nailing it. They were from Liverpool and their banter and jokes were uncannily like the real Beatles. There was an energy in the air while they played hit after hit, and I could imagine what it must have been like to be there in the early '60s at the beginning of Beatle-mania, back when it all started.
A guided tour is the best way to get your fill of Beatles history while someone else navigates you through the streets of Liverpool. We chose The Magical Mystery Tour, two hours of Beatles immersion on a yellow bus with Magical Mystery Tour rainbows and stars emblazoned on the side.
We had a driver and a guide from Liverpool. Most facts of the Fab Four are well-documented, but our guide seemed to know quite a bit beyond what Wikipedia offered and was able to answer every question I fired at him. We went past each one of the Beatles’ childhood homes and stopped at George’s place and Paul’s for a photo.
The former Beatles’ homes are held by the National Trust so you have to make an appointment to see the inside. Paul’s place was where a lot of the Beatles songs were written. Paul and John met at a St. Peter’s Church in Woolton and started playing together as The Quarrymen at the Cavern in the late 1950s. Paul discovered George, but John considered him too young to be in the band, until he heard him play guitar on the bus. Ringo later replaced the drummer who just didn’t quite fit in and they played their first gig at Hulme Hall on August 18, 1962. The tour highlights all these spots except for Hulme Hall, which is on the other side of the Mersey river.
Penny Lane was just an ordinary street on the bus route that Paul took daily, but that ride became an inspiration for one of the Beatles’ most iconic songs. Most of the shops mentioned in the song have changed, but there’s still a barber shop and there’s a constant stream of fans taking pictures in front of the street sign. Paul McCartney even signed it.
Strawberry Field is a park and shelter where John played as a child. His mom warned him not to trespass on the property, but he responded that they weren’t going to hang him over it. Later, the song was written as “and nothing to get hung about/Strawberry Fields forever." The shelter has just received funding to develop into a bigger, better version of itself and has massive construction underway. Its support is no doubt partly due to its fame from the song written about it. You can pose in front of its front gate and try to decipher the graffiti that completely covers it.
I learned a lot from the tour which ended at Matthew Street. Our guide suggested we stop in the Cavern Bar (which we already had the night before) and the Museum of Liverpool, which had an exhibit on post-Beatles-era John Lennon.
After the breakup, the lads all went their separate ways, but John continued to be in the spotlight with his outspoken opinions and his controversial relationship with visual artist Yoko Ono. The exhibit had lots of interesting video clips, personal artifacts, and even the original 1940s circus poster that had been the inspiration for the song “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite." The exhibit raised more questions for me about what all the Beatles did after the breakup, and I found myself discovering a plethora of stories of other artists they’d hung out with, affairs, and solo careers.
The Beatles 11th album Abbey Road was recorded during their breakup. The album was going to be called Everest and was to have them shoot the cover at Mount Everest. At the last minute it was decided that the Fab Four should pose on the crosswalk right outside the studio and the album would be named after the road and studio where they had recorded, Abbey Road Studios. It seemed only fitting that Abbey Road should be the last stop on my Beatles journey.
Abbey Road is a nightmare to cross with hordes of tourists, double-decker buses and impatient London drivers who loathe the album cover that’s been causing traffic for almost 50 years. It’s been parodied, copied and is the most famous intersection in the world. Want the perfect picture? Arrive before 6 a.m.
But if you have more than a passing interest in the Beatles, you’ll love the pilgrimage to the place where rock and roll changed forever.