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-1BEATLE CITY: THEY ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW HI

-TECH SHED
JOHN A. WALKER (COPYRIGHT 2009)

Exterior view of Beatle City with yellow submarine colour and portholes and

Beatle City Logo.

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BEATLE CITY, a multi-media mausoleum for Liverpool's Fab Four, opened in

April this year [1984]. A former garage in Seer Street close to the City's centre has

been converted at a cost of two million pounds. A consortium of interests - Radio

City (a local radio station), Merseyside County Council and the English Tourist

Board - have backed the project. They hope Beatle City will attract. 400,000

visitors annually.

Immediately behind the livid yellow, oblong facade of the building is a Beatle
souvenir shop and a snack bar equipped with bright red, plastic furniture.

Servicing the counters are young girls wearing yellow sweatshirts emblazoned with

the Beatle City logo. Grey-uniformed guards carrying walkie-talkie sets supervise

the movement of visitors. The museum itself is a hi-tech structure set within a

black-painted shell: a nightclub atmosphere has been aimed for.

A maze-like arrangement of display spaces, stairs and corridors situated on

different levels ensures a logical progression through a chronological account of the

Beatles' career from their childhoods in the port of Liverpool to their worldwide

fame and final dissolution. As already mentioned, a full range of media has been

deployed: slide projection, films, video and sound recordings of the Beatles in their

prime. Still photos and three-dimension reconstructions supplement the collection

of documents and artefacts.

Display with George Harrison’s guitar and other memorabilia.


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John Lennon’s mixing console on which he recorded Imagine in 1971.

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Among the latter are John Lennon's wedding certificate, his radiogramme,

moped, Rickenbacker guitar, the mixing console he used to record the "Imagine"

album, and lithographic drawings from the "Bag One" series (prudishly, his erotic

images are not displayed); Stuart Sutcliffe's paintings; Harrison's Getsch guitar;

Ringo Starr's tie and his Mini Cooper car specially adapted to take his drum kit;

plus film scripts, handbills, posters, autographed records, letters, postcards, music

industry awards and so on. Images of tearful teenage girls and fan club material

recalls the knicker-wetting hysteria which accompanied the Beatlemania of the

1960s.

Mass produced objects such as cars and mopeds are of limited visual interest. In

this instance their frisson is entirely dependent upon their past association with
their famous owners: "Just think this car once belonged to Ringo Starr". Evidently,

Beatles' memorabilia is equivalent to the holy relics of the Catholic Church. Of

greater interest are custom-made items such as the tight-fitting stage suits worn by

the Beatles in the early 1960s.

Ringo Starr’s Mini Cooper and John Lennon’s moped.

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Recreation of the Cavern Club with screens for performance recordings.

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Among the three-dimensional reconstructions are the tiny, claustrophobic

cellars of The Cavern Club (complete with cardboard cut-out audience) and Brian

Epstein's office. In the latter, a conference table and chair signify the presence/

absence of the Beatles' manager. (This display echoes the popular Victorian

engraving of Dickens' study with desk and empty chair published immediately

after the novelist's death.) Pop music must be the only industry in which a mere

manager can become famous and be honoured in a museum. Captions to the

various exhibits are presented in the form of open books resembling those stone

ones found in graveyards. In places the Beatle City collection seems somewhat

thin. However, it can be expanded in the future: London auction houses

increasingly feature pop music "antiques" in their sales.


Recreation of Epstein’s Mayfair office.

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Various legal contracts and samples of the millions of Beatles'

souvenirs/commodities produced by companies throughout the world are featured.

These items point to the ruthless commercial exploitation of pop music. Arguments

among the Beatles over the appointment of a new manager and the finances of the

ill-fated Apple enterprise are also cited. In other words, the Beatle City exhibition is

informative as well as celebratory, even though its historical and cultural analysis is

necessarily limited by its populist mode of address.

Inevitably, the final section of the museum is devoted to the memory of John

Lennon. (By chance the number of this section is nine, Lennon's "lucky" number.) A

bronze head of Lennon and one of his guitars appear in front of a vertical,
transparent sheet upon which is engraved an image of Lennon's face. This exhibit

manifests a combination of kitsch and dread worthy of the work of Robert Longo.

Despite the efforts of the designers - Colin Milnes & Associates of Coventry - to

animate their subject matter in, every possible way, the experience Beatle City

provides is inevitably a synthetic one, an ersatz one. Inevitable, because this is the

character of all: museums: they are graveyards of past culture. (Critics of Beatle

City have argued that the money spent on it should have been invested in the living

popular culture of Liverpool not its dead past.) In the case of Beatle City, the

unease

associated with museums is compounded by the fact that the personalities and

events commemorated are so recent, by the fact that the music of the Beatles was so

vibrant, optimistic and evanescent, and by the fact that their images are preserved

on negatives, tapes and films rather than in traditional materials such as marble

and oil paint. There is something extremely poignant in the contrast between the

film clips of Lennon's youthful, ebullient performances and one's knowledge that he

no longer lives.

In museums honouring the lives of the heroes and heroines of a nation,

representations of royalty, politicians and military leaders tend to predominate. The

social function of images of exemplary historical figures is generally to inspire the

living. This was one of the motives underlying the foundation of the National

Portrait Gallery in London in 1856. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher and

prophet, was a great believer in leaders and hero figures, consequently he welcomed

the idea of a portrait gallery to serve as a "Pantheon, or home of all the National
Divinities" . No doubt the patrician Carlyle would have been dismayed by the

democratic social changes revealed by the celebration of four, working-class heroes

which occurs in Beatle City. Heroes, moreover, whose achievement lay not in the

fields of politics or war but in the realm of popular entertainment and pleasure. Of

course, the Beatles' progress was a rags-to-riches story which has a perennial

appeal. As a contemporary lesson to the young, the story is one of do-ityourself

creativity and self-reliance, even though the success of pop stars is due as much to

the marketing operations of the record industry and the magnifying effect of the

mass media apparatus as it is to the stars' creative work and musical abilities.

Recently, a proposal was made by Mick Brown (The Guardian, 4/8/83) that a

museum and archive to pop music should be established. This interesting idea was

criticised by leading figures in the record industry on the grounds that "a waxworks

would ossify pop music", the record industry "looks forward not backwards".

Underlying these comments is the view that pop music is essentially ephemeral, it

exists in the limelight for a moment and is then junked to make room for the next

wave of new music. In other words, to preserve it in a museum would be to

misunderstand its nature as disposable culture. Many modern artists and critics

were similarly suspicious of museums; they felt that a museum of modern art would

be a contradiction in terms. Yet such a museum, the forerunner of many, was

founded in New York in 1929.

The establishment of Beatle City can be seen as a step towards the creation of a

general museum of pop music. In London the Victoria & Albert Museum has been

accumulating a collection of items relating to pop music (for example, the Sex
Pistols' graphics purchased from Jamie Reid at a cost of £ 1,000), in anticipation of

the opening of the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, a museum which includes

popular entertainment in its terms of reference. Pop music has now a tradition of

several decades behind it and this "archive" is being increasingly cannibalised by

contemporary musicians. Also, record companies are themselves exploiting more

and more the commercial potential of their backlists. Each new generation re-

discovers the pop music of the past. The music may be old in a chronological sense,

but to the young it is a new experience. Given the above, the logical case for a pop

music museum and archive seems inescapable.

Liverpool's crisis

In Victorian times, when the British Empire was at the peak of its fortunes,

Liverpool's leading citizens looked back to antiquity for a style capable of

displaying and representing their wealth, civic pride and cultural aspirations. As a

result, the centre of Liverpool is today noteworthy for its complex of public

buildings modelled on classical temples. The Walker Art Gallery, erected in the

l870s, is one of these. In its collection there is a large, melancholy canvas by

Giovanni Panini entitled "Ruins of Rome" (1741) which depicts the decaying

remains of a once great empire.


G. Panini, Ruins of Rome, (1741), Oil on canvas. Liverpool: Walker Art Gallery.

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The noble ruins of one powerful civilisation were thus embalmed in a gallery whose

existence testified to the emergence of another great civilisation, a gallery whose

neo-classical style was at one and the same time an act of homage by the young

civilisation towards the old, and an assumption of its imperial mantle. Little did the

Victorian worthies of Liverpool envisage the irony the late 20th century would

bring: now it is the second great empire which is no more, now the ruins of

Liverpool's economy and housing estates enclose the classical core of the city

transforming it into an architectural memorial to a bygone age of trade, industry

and prosperity.
Liverpool's public housing stock urgently needs repair and replenishment. Over

90,000 of its workforce (21 per cent) are unemployed. In the absence of jobs many

idle youths resort to crime and heroin addiction. The local government of the city

faces bankruptcy because it cannot raise the money to fund the services its

inhabitants require. A militant socialist council sees no alternative but confrontation

with the Conservative national government. Central government's response to the

Toxteth riots of recent years has been to spend £20 million pounds on reclaiming

and landscaping a derelict waterside site for the purpose of mounting this year's

International Garden Festival.

In April this year Beryl Bainbridge, a novelist whose home town is Liverpool,

appeared on British television. She revisited the city as part of a series of

programmes retracing J. B. Priestley's steps in ajourney around England. Her

report was bleak indeed, a picture of inner city deprivation and devastation.

Liverpool, she . concluded, had been "murdered". Bainbridge's impressions were

confirmed by David Sheppard, the Bishop of Liverpool, in another April television

programme (the 1984 Richard Dimbleby lecture). By calling on the Government to

exercise compassion and to replace market values by Christian ones, the Bishop

necessarily condemned the economic policies of the Tory administration. He also

objected to the Tory advice to the unemployed that they should move away in search

of work because this leaves behind communities deprived of their most dynamic and

able members.

Although the bishop did not cite the Beatles by name they are, of course, the

most famous examples of those who left Liverpool behind once they made good. It
can be argued that it was the working class culture of Merseyside that nourished the

Beatles' talent and that these multimillionaires owe their city of origin some

assistance in its time of need. After all, during the 19th century, the successful

businessmen and merchants of Liverpool returned a proportion of their wealth to

the city by founding educational and cultural institutions, by paying for the

construction of concert halls, libraries and art galleries, by leaving their art

collections to the city, and so forth.

If shipping and industry can no longer sustain Liverpool what can? One solution

being proposed is tourism. This is the primary reason for the establishment of Beatle

City. The museum can thus be seen as a device for effecting the return of the

Beatles, in spirit if not in body. It is hoped that tourism based upon the appeal of the

popular culture of the past will revive the economy. of Merseyside. Paradoxically,

the base/superstructure relation (economic base determines cultural superstructure)

is being reversed: the superstructure's task is now to rescue the base.

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NB. Beatle City was the first Beatles’ museum in Liverpool. It opened in 1984 but

lost money because it failed to attract enough visitors and was closed a few years

later. Since 1990 a new museum, The Beatles Story, has been a popular tourist
attraction in the Albert Dock.

For images and summary of a guidebook see http://www.jpgr.co.uk/beatle_city.html

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John A. Walker is a painter and art historian. His the author of Cross-Overs: Art

into Pop, Pop into Art, (London: Comedia/Metheun, 1987). This article was first

published in the magazine Building Design, October 5, 1984, pp. 18-20.