Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Casbah Club - 50th anniversary


The Casbah Coffee Club in 8 Hayman's Green, West Derby, Liverpool was the basement of Mona Best's (mother of Pete Best) house, converted into a youth club where young people could come and hang out, hear music and live bands and drink coffee or Coca-Cola. It filled a void in the neighbourhood, and was an alternative for those who were too young, or couldn't afford to go to central Liverpool's entertainment district. And it was hugely successful. At one point, the club was the Coca_Cola company's biggest customer in northern England.
The club opened on the 29th August 1959, and the first band to play there was a new edition of the Quarrymen, the lineup: John, Paul, George and Ken Brown. Mona had originally booked the Les Stewart Quartet to play the opening night (George Harrison was one of their members), but the quartet cancelled the booking after Stewart and Ken Brown had a quarrel. Stewart was angry that Ken had missed a rehearsal, because he was helping Mona to decorate the club before the opening. The Les Stewart quartet effectively disbanded, and Mona was left without an opening act. George came to the rescue, by asking John and Paul to help out. The two budding composers weren't doing anything at the time, so they jumped at the opportunity of a paid gig, reuniting them with Harrison. The new Quarrymen quartet was drummerless, and McCartney was still not into playing bass guitar, so it was a guitars only lineup. "The rhythm is in the guitars", they explained. McCartney and Lennon, along with Lennon's new art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe also helped paint and decorate the Casbah Club's interior prior to the upcoming opening day. John's girlfriend Cynthia painted a silver coloured shadow figure of John with his guitar on one of the walls.

The photo above is from the opening night, with (then) brown haired Cynthia watching in the front row. This was the Casbah's only microphone, and it was plugged into the club's tiny PA system. The photo appeared in print in September 1959 in the local West Derby Reporter newspaper. Here's another one from that opening night.

This photo shows the Quarrymen in full, George (with his back to the camera), Paul, Ken and John. The opening night performance was attended by about 300 local teenagers, and as the cellar had no air-conditioning and people were dancing, the temperature rose until it became hard to breathe. Nevertheless, it was a great success and the club blossomed. After the success of the first night, Mona gave The Quarrymen a residency. They played a series of seven Saturday night engagements in The Casbah for 15 shillings each per night. On 10 October, there was an argument between the band and Mona over the group's fee for performing in The Casbah that night. Brown had showed up at the gig, but was too ill to perform, so he helped out with ticket sales instead. She later insisted that Brown deserved to be paid for showing up, but the rest of the band insisted on being paid his share of the group's fee. After an argument The Quarrymen walked out of The Casbah and ended their residency. Of course, the lads later played the club as The Beatles, following their success in Hamburg with Mo's son Pete on drums.

This photo shows the Beatles in the new "spider room" at the Casbah, 1961. Paul is already on bass guitar, although it's just his trusted Rosetti Solid 7 restrung with three piano strings to make a makeshift bass guitar. Stuart was still in Hamburg with his girlfriend, so after a few gigs with Chas Newby on bass guitar, Paul had to take on that role. Back in 1959, the spider room was three tiny rooms but due to shortage of space, they knocked down walls to make a bigger room for groups to play.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself, what we're to celebrate is the opening of the Casbah Club, and the 50th anniversary. We've learned that 300 people attended that opening back in 1959, but the 50th anniversary evening concert was limited to 200 guests - and I had tickets! Pete Best and his band was playing, and they had resurrected Ken Brown as special guest - after all, he was one of the members of the original opening band, and more easily persuaded than say, Paul McCartney. I had never seen him before, and I had never been to an actual concert at the Casbah, so I wanted to be there for the event. Pete Best had of course attended the opening concert at the Casbah, but as a member of the staff - he had yet to take up the drums.
These days of course, the Casbah Club is no longer in operation as a regular concert venue - it closed down way back on June 24th 1962, the day after I was born, probably because Mona Best had become pregnant. The club again became a regular basement, used for storage but retaining all it's interior decorations. Mona Best re-opened the club for one day only during the Liverpool Beatles Convention of 1988 after having cleared away all the stuff that had been stored there. That night was a success, but Mona died not long afterwards. Many years later, the Best family applied to Liverpool City Council to re-open the Casbah as a tourist attraction, and they got that permission in 2002. In 2006, Culture Minister David Lammy announced that the Bests' ex-coal cellar was to be given Grade II listed building status and a blue plaque, after being recommended by English Heritage. Only booked groups of visitors are accepted, and I was lucky to be the sole visitor of the club two years ago, with Rory Best - Pete's brother, giving me the grand tour. Prior to that, I had only been able to peep through it's dusty windows back when it was still just another basement. But now, finally, I would be able not just to be inside it, but to attend a live concert together with a capacity house, and featuring Ken Brown! I was excited.
Upon arrival, we parked the car and immediately my girlfriend noticed a white feather on the pavement next to the car.

As we had attended the John Lennon "white feather" exhibition earlier in the day, we took it as a good sign. Not long before he died, John had told his son Julian, "If anything ever happens to me, look for a white feather and you will know I am there for you, always looking out for you.". In 2007, a news item flew around the world: Julian Lennon was shooting a new film in Australia, when he agreed to take part in an ancient ceremony with an Aboriginal tribe. Julian was left speechless when he was handed a white feather by a tribe elder, a symbol of great significance to him.
Anyway, off we went, and as we were approaching the house, the first two people we met were the Best brothers: Pete and Rory. We shook hands and my friends and I went over to take another look at the Casbah. It was still full of people who had attended the daytime event, but most of them left before shortly and the guests for the evening event filled the club. I think us Norwegians made up for around 10% of the guests, we were around 20 people from our little country.

This photo shows Rune, our driver for the evening, at the exact spot where the Quarrymen played at the opening day, exactly 50 years earlier. And that spot was just too small for a band and their equipment these days, so tonight's concert had to be held in the spider room.

This is me in the spider room. Once the opening act started playing, the place was jam packed, and we had to go outside several times, to catch our breaths and to cool off. The Mersey Cats were warming up, but I wasn't too interested (they played cover versions of far too new songs), so I just hung out, had a couple of beers and chatted with the norwegian crowd and with other guests. But when the Pete Best Band entered the stage, we were more than ready!

Part of The Pete Best Band

A closeup of Pete, banging away on his drums. The band was more than good, and they were playing old rock'n'roll songs, songs that may have been played by The Beatles at the Casbah. After a while, Ken Brown was called up on the stage, and he borrowed the guitar from the Pete Best Band guitar player. After one song, a surprise guest was called to the stage: Lee Curtis! Lee Curtis and The All Stars was the band Pete Best joined after he had been sacked from the Beatles!

Lee Curtis is the one with the white hair, and Ken is still the one with the ears!

Lee Curtis was still in fine voice, but both he and Ken Brown left the stage after Lee's one song, Johnny B Goode. The band was playing such standards as "Twist and Shout", "Rock And Roll Music", "Three Cool Cats", "Some Other Guy" and even the odd McCartney/Lennon original "P.S. I Love You".

Anyway, we had a grand time, we were dripping with sweat, all crowded together in this small room, and it was one of the definitive highlights of an eventful summer for me.

The Casbah Coffee Club Wikipedia entry
Further reading:


Casbah Coffee Club's official site

1 comment:

Sara S. said...

Hi! I am going to Liverpool in June and I really want to visit the Casbah Club. Do you know how I could reserve tickets for a tour?

Sara S.