I wrote it over eighteen years ago and it’s been “performed” in London’s West End something approaching 10,000 performances. But it’s not a play or a musical – what is it? It’s a Beatles walking tour!
It was Richard Maybury, the owner of The Big Bus Company (the open-top sightseeing buses in London), who thought there may be something in a guided walking tour catering specifically for rock fans of the 1960s and 70s. After all, many of them were now middle aged and coming to London on their holidays often with their families in tow. He asked me to come up with a walking tour around the West End to take in all things Beatle. Now you may think, as I did, that would put a strain on even the most dedicated Fab Four trivia buff but how wrong you would be. Soho and Mayfair are where The Beatles based themselves throughout their meteoric rise in the Swinging Sixties. The streets are heaving with their story.
I found my original notes the other day at the bottom of a drawer and thought I’d give them an airing. So, why not join me as I introduce you to the London of John, Paul, George and Ringo?
Our first port of call is the Prince of Wales Theatre, adjacent to Leicester Square. This is where John Lennon made his famous introduction to Twist and Shout at the 1963 Royal Variety Show in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. “We need a bit of help with the next number. Those of you in the cheaper seats clap your hands, the rest of you rattle your jewellery.” Apparently, it had taken Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein an hour and a half beforehand to persuade Lennon not to say “rattle your effing jewellery!”
We then move on to the old London Pavilion looking directly over Piccadilly Circus. The Pavilion has been many things in its lifetime. A music hall from 1861, a theatre from 1918, a cinema from 1934 and from the 1980s an entertainment centre. This is where four of The Beatles’ five films were premiered; A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help! (1965), Yellow Submarine (1968) and Let it Be (1970). Mounted police on horses were brought in to control frenzied fans for A Hard Day’s Night on July 6th 1964, you may have seen the pictures. Princess Margaret was in attendance and Piccadilly Circus was filled with overflowing, screaming Beatlemaniacs. The only Beatles’ film not to be premiered at the London Pavilion was Magical Mystery Tour which received its first showing on BBC TV, Boxing Day 1967.
We then pop up to Great Pulteney Street in Soho where the Beatles’s tailors Millings and Son were once based. The shop installed a grand piano on the top floor of the store and an upright in the basement, where many pop acts used to rehearse. Fans soon flocked to the store to see The Beatles when they dropped by to collect their suits, causing traffic jams and chaos. Dougie Millings and Son created some 500 outfits for the Beatles, in addition to fashions for Paul McCartney's band Wings.
We then walk by Walkers Court, a short alleyway where we find the entrance to the old Raymond Revue Bar. This is where the striptease scene in the Magical Mystery Tour was filmed featuring the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in 1967.
The Queen’s Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue is our next stop. Now, Fab Four followers will know that in order to launch Apple Records in 1968 with as much panache as possible, the Beatles invited over to England Stan Gortikov, President of Capitol Records (their US record company). Following lunch at the Ritz and tea in Savile Row (catered for by Fortnum and Mason), he was brought to this theatre by John and Yoko to see Halfway up the Tree by Peter Ustinov, directed by John Gielgud and starring Robert Morley.
A short stroll down Wardour Street and then we are on the corner of Old Compton Street, one of the most vibrant thoroughfares in Soho. It was here in 1963, on a visit to master tailor Dougie Millings at 63 Old Compton Street, that John Lennon asked for something different and the Beatles distinctive “collarless” suits was born.
These original Beatles jackets, with round necks, were made in four colours and had braided edges. The price per suit was approximately £70. Dougie's son, Gordon, first trained as a tailor at Huntsman & Sons, and then joined his father's company. They also made the stylish velvet collared suits the group wore in A Hard Day’s Night. Amazingly, each Beatle was provided with 15 identical suits for the movie.
From Old Compton Street, it’s straight up Frith Street to Soho Square (passing Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on the way. Did you know that he played the tenor sax on The Beatles’ 1968 hit Lady Madonna?). Soho Square is where you’ll find the headquarters of Paul McCartney’s London office, MPL (McCartney Productions Ltd). He’s been here since the early 1970s. There is a small recording studio in the basement where Paul recorded the Wings album Back to the Egg as well as many other songs. You can sometimes see his wall-mounted gold and platinum discs on the first floor.
There’s a little alley, St Anne’s Court, that links Dean Street with Wardour Street. The Beatles played their first London gig at the Blue Gardenia Club here on December 9th 1961 (but without George Harrison who had the flu).
17 St Anne’s Court is where you’ll find the Trident recording studios where The Beatles recorded Hey Jude as well as Martha My Dear, Dear Prudence, Honey Pie and Savoy Truffle from the White Album. In addition this is where they cut I Want You (She’s So Heavy) from Abbey Road. They worked here because the studio was the first in the country to install the advanced 8 track recording facility.
Ringo Starr made his solo album Sentimental Journey here and George Harrison recorded My Sweet Lord and most of his solo triple album All Things Must Pass at Trident.
And it was here in 1968 that Paul McCartney produced Those Were The Days for Mary Hopkin, a young Welsh girl who had won the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks.
As we cross Wardour Street (where the infamous Marquee Club was) our next stop is the Broadwick Street public toilets. The wrought iron entrance to these loos is where John Lennon filmed a scene with Peter Cook for his and Dudley Moore’s BBC2 TV show Not Only But Also in November 1966. Cook and Lennon spoofed the well-known rock club the “Ad Lib” in Leicester Square by naming their club the “Ab Lav”. This was one of the first times Lennon wore his trademark round national health glasses which started a fashion.
We then walk through the very epicentre of swinging London - Carnaby Street - and scoot down to The London Palladium theatre in Argyll Street. It was here that the term “Beatlemania” was first coined by newspapers when The Beatles played the theatre in 1963. 15 million people tuned in to watch their performance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium where they performed From Me to You, I’ll Get You, She Loves You and Twist and Shout. Thousands crowded around the stage door in Great Marlborough Street so the Beatles cleverly left by the front door!
Almost next door to the Palladium is Sutherland House, former offices of Brian Epstein’s NEMS organisation. NEMS stood for North End Music Stores, the name of Epstein’s family chain of shops in Liverpool. All Brian Epstein’s acts were managed from here. As well as The Beatles, they included Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. The offices remained in use until one month after Brian Epstein’s death in August 1967.
In fact it was in the NEMS offices that John Lennon made his famous remark in 1966 to Maureen Cleve of the Evening Standard that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus” causing uproar and an anti-Beatles backlash in the USA. The hysteria that followed led directly to The Beatles giving up live performances after playing Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
Nearby is number 9 Kingly Street, which was the original location of the Bag O’Nails Club where Paul McCartney first met his future wife Linda Eastman in 1967. The Beatles would often relax there after Abbey Road recording sessions in 1967/8, McCartney even had his own private table. Paul invited Linda to the press launch of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a few days later at Brian Epstein’s Belgravia home in Chapel Street. She took many of the official photographs at the launch.
We then head for Savile Row and Mayfair. 35A Savile Row was once The House of Nutter. Tommy Nutter designed suits for The Beatles including the three worn on the Abbey Road record sleeve; the only one he didn’t design was George Harrison’s denim outfit. He also made Paul McCartney’s wedding suit in 1969. Tommy Nutter made suits for many rock and film stars of the period and, sadly, died in 1992.
The climax of any Beatles walk, of course, has to be 3 Savile Row, the former headquarters of The Beatles’ Apple Corps but did you know that this handsome 1735 building was also once home to Lady Hamilton, the mistress of Lord Nelson? All Beatles fans know that this was where the band gave their last public performance on the building’s rooftop on 30th January 1969. Fortunately for us it was filmed and included in the movie Let it Be and ends with Lennon stepping up to the microphone and saying the immortal line “I'd like to say 'thank you' on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition!"
Well, those were the highlights of our Big Bus Beatles walk. I personally guided the first one all those years ago and I remember how nervous I was wondering whether anyone would even turn up and how delighted I was that so many people did.
When we got to Savile Row I finished the walk but thought I would tell everyone that it was the first time I had done it and what did they think? What I was really fishing for were ways in which I could improve the tour. The general consensus was good; people said they found the tour interesting and fun but there was one man from Cleveland, Ohio on his first visit ever outside the USA. He was in his mid-50s, dressed in a typical tourist’s clobber of raincoat and tennis shoes and he startled us all when he suddenly broke down and began to cry. I thought surely my tour wasn’t that bad so I asked him what was wrong. “You can’t understand what this walk means to me”, he said choking back tears. “The Beatles meant so much to me. Their music provided a soundtrack to every stage of my life as I was growing up in Ohio. To walk in their footsteps here in London is something I never dreamed I’d do. Thank you so much.”
It’s amazing what can happen when you walk in the magic footsteps of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Get your Beatle boots on and give it a go!