Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Cavern Club 1963 : an 'alternative to this world'?

Interesting article from Peace News, 20 December 1963 in which Richard Mabey writes of his visit to the Cavern Club in Liverpool and reflects on its then newly famous sons, The Beatles. Mabey of course is now well-known as a writer on nature. You can read the full article here.

Twist and Shout

'[...] In the Cavern Club, the heart of the Liverpool beat music scene, the first and inescapable impression is that the whole thing is fun. The groups, some of whom play themselves out in this stifling tunnel-like cellar for expenses only, really enjoy it. Most of the numbers they play are requests from the girls in the audience, an audience they dance amongst during the intervals, and which loves their noise, horseplay and histrionic Northern humour. There’s none of the phoniness and self-pity that used to characterise so much pop music, when hip-wiggling, lamé jackets and the lonely boy in the lonely spotlight were the things that used to fetch in the screams.

The audience in the Cavern seems to be almost completely classless, not only in social terms, but also in terms of the trends and sects which the teenagers set up themselves. Mods (those who assiduously follow the very latest crazes in fashion and jargon) and rockers (who normally stick to leather jacket and jean gear) mix with an ease that would start a certain riot in almost any dance hall south of Luton. The only types missing are the more vicious yobs that usually turn up at Saturday night dances with the sole intention of starting a fight, and the floppy-sweatered traditional jazz addicts. Most are dressed in the smartly eccentric mixture of Italian and beatnik styles that has become the uniform of beat music followers; denim shirts with very high or button-down collars, knitted ties, collarless jackets, tight trousers that run dead straight from hip to ankle (sometimes flaring at the bottom), and of course those great fluffy piles of brushed-forward hair. The girls conform less to their pattern, which, when it appears, is long skirts that reach to below the knee, short-sleeved jumpers, fiat heeled shoes, and sometimes French jockey caps.

The Cavern can cram about 700 of these devotees into a space not much bigger than a couple of nissen huts, and consequently ordinary movement is a real accomplishment. Which probably accounts for the new dance - in different towns I've heard it called the Shake, the Blues, the Noddy and the Twitch - that has come in with this music. In it the kids stand quite still on the floor, but shake every other part of their bodies bodies like manic clockwork toys. Dour commentators from the Guardian and New Statesman have just shaken their heads, and have read into the expressionless faces of the dancers signs of incipient Fascism and  'wilfully created vacuity'. Perhaps if they tried it themselves they would find that it is as all popular dance should be, totally physically involving, making facial expression superfluous.

[...]The Beatles are avowedly non-political. But their music, and the craze that they have started, is blatantly subversive. On the surface it is brash, and by our conventional standards, uncivilised. But it revels in gaiety and abandon. If the Beatle people have rejected the drab world of adult responsibility and obscure political squabblings, it is because they have formed for themselves - in the dance halls, at parties and even just singing in the streets - a revolutionary alternative to this world. If they can find laughter and enthusiasm on their own, even for just one evening a week, then the efforts of the politicians become irrelevant.

Pop music stands or falls by the degree to which it is wild, loud and exciting. Critics who are obsessed with banality, materialism and selfishness in the words of the songs, have completely misunderstood the level at which  young people accept them. With what seems to be irrefutable logic, teenagers will argue that if you want sophisticated orchestration or serious words, go listen to classical or folk music. Leave pop to its proper province, the stomach'. 

Mabey's reference to the dour commentators of the New Statesman was a response to 'Scouse: The brutal reality of Liverpool in the early 1960s' by John Morgan, published in New Statesman on 1 July 1963. Morgan also visited the Cavern but was horrified by what he saw:

'The violence lies in the stunning volume of sound, in the incoherence of the dance, and in the wilfully created vacuity of facial and verbal expression. The darkness is almost total. A faint red light plays over the heads of dancers at one end of the smoky, airless room, but three arches further along it dissipates. So tightly are the boys and girls packed together, 750 of them at 4s. 6d. a ticket, that there is no room to dance anything but the Cavern Shake. Ideally, to judge from the techniques of those girls in leather gear – the height of fab – the neck is held rigid while the head moves quickly and tensely from side to side. The arms jerk, puppet-like. The zombie effect, the acute nervous condition, is enhanced by the look on the face. This is not ecstatic, but empty. Vacuity is more than make-up or a mannerism – it is a philosophy. Sweat pours from walls and faces. To force your way from one end of the narrow cellar to the other, pummelled by elbows, breasts and twitching knees, is one of the more nightmarish of current experiences. I suppose I’ve been going to jazz clubs for 15 years and I’ve seen nothing which compares for noise, discomfort or hysteria. On stage all the while, the young men (I never saw the Mersey Birds) play their electronic machines and shout like mad, some for little money, some for none, praying that they can follow the other Mersey groups, like the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers, into the fortune of the charts'.

(interesting this condescending meme of 'vacuity' in sub cultural writing, to be defiantly thrown back by the self defined pretty vacant punks of the next generation) 

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