The Beatles will of course always be associated with their home city of Liverpool. However, after they moved to London in the summer of 1963, their working and social lives were firmly based in and around the capital.
At first, they all stayed at the Hotel President in Guilford Street, just off Russell Square, and the famous Dezo Hoffmann photo from the ‘Live at the BBC Volume 2’ cover was taken in the street there. I spoke to a member of staff there a few years ago and he told me about the fun they had back then, trying to keep the fans out. Then the four of them moved into a flat at 57 Green Street, just off Park Lane, and for once they actually lived in something like the scene from ‘Help!’ where they all arrive home together through separate front doors. I wonder who did the washing up? Both of these buildings still exist but the flat at 13 Emperor’s Gate, off Gloucester Road, into which John soon moved with his secret wife Cynthia and son Julian, has been replaced by an office block.
While they were moving around London, their whole lives and the British music scene were being turned upside down. The first rush of rock ‘n’ roll had run out of steam by 1959 with the death of Buddy Holly, Elvis joining the army, Jerry Lee Lewis in disgrace for marrying his 13 years old cousin and Little Richard turning to religion. Between 1959 and 1962, the British charts generally aped the American, with lots of cover versions, and the two biggest stars were Cliff Richard and Adam Faith. Until the Beatles’ first minor hit ‘Love Me Do’ in late 1962, songs by all male British groups, with the notable exception of the Shadows and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, weren’t given much of an airing outside of local dancehalls on Merseyside and other large cities. But with the success of ‘Please Please Me’, which went to number one in some charts in early 1963 followed by ‘From Me To You’, ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I want To Hold Your Hand’, which all hit the top spot, the floodgates were opened for a whole new kind of music. Suddenly dozens of groups emerged to fill the charts, many of them coming from Liverpool and Manchester, and the Beatles were the undisputed leaders.
I was a child of nine in Sunderland at the time and before Beatlemania kicked in nationally, they were huge in northern England. Until then, stars seemed to be from the impossibly distant USA or at least London, which was also beyond our experience at the time. Then up popped the Beatles who appeared to be working-class northern lads and showed that it was possible for people of our kind to be successful, too.
It had certainly not been an overnight success. Their new manager Brian Epstein had touted the band around London in vain in his attempts to get them signed. On New Year’s Day 1962, they had a trial session for Decca Records at their studios just next to West Hampstead tube station, but they got the thumbs down, and of course Decca famously lost a fortune. However, in February 1962, Epstein was in HMV Records at 363 Oxford Street getting some acetate discs made from the reel-to-reel Decca demo, which led to him being given the name of George Martin at EMI’s studios in Abbey Road, and the rest is history.
They were given a big boost by appearing at two nationally broadcast TV shows filmed at London theatres. At the time, ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’ was a hugely popular variety show – we’re talking singers, dancers, comedians, jugglers and even performing animals –, and the Beatles’ appearance one Sunday night in October 1963 propelled them to the top. At the Royal Command Performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Coventry Street broadcast shortly afterwards, John made his famous crack “the rich ones at the front can just rattle your jewellery.”
Late in 1963, Brian Epstein moved into the top floor flat at Whaddon House in William Mews, not far from Harrods, and was soon joined in the same block by George and Ringo. Meanwhile Paul, who had met his future girlfriend Jane Asher at a Beatles broadcast at the Albert Hall early in that year, left the Green Street flat to move into the top floor of her family home at 57 Wimpole Street. It was in the basement music room there that he and John wrote ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, amongst others. Paul also dreamed up ‘Yesterday’ there and called it ‘Scrambled Eggs’ for a while, until he finally wrote the lyrics.
As Beatlemania accelerated, Brian Epstein established the first London Beatles office in Monmouth Street near Covent Garden. In 1964, he moved operations to the much swankier Sutherland House next door to the Palladium in Argyll Street. Both of these buildings have been adorned with blue plaques in recent years.
Their phenomenal success in the UK was multiplied vastly by their American TV appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in February 1964, and they were soundly established as kings of what was to be known as the Swinging 60s. Together with other famous people of the time, they frequented several night spots, which could only become even hipper by being given the Beatles’ blessing. In 1965, the most important place was the Ad Lib, which was located on the top floor of the block above the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Place, just off Leicester Square. Check out the artist Guy Peellaert’s vision of it in his book “Rock Dreams”. It was here that Ringo proposed to his first wife Maureen Starkey Tigrett, and it was also where George and John ended up in early 1965 after they had first taken LSD.
From late 1966, they’d also frequent the Bag O’ Nails at 9 Kingly Street, just next to Carnaby Street, and this was where Paul met Linda at a Georgie Fame gig in 1968. The Scotch of St James at 13 Masons Yard was another club they often went to and this was where Jimi Hendrix made his first brief British performance on the day of his arrival in 1966. The Speakeasy at 48 Margaret Street near Oxford Circus, which opened in 1966, was another popular celebrity club for many years.
The opening sequence of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was shot in and around Marylebone Station. Other parts of London featured in the movie were Lancaster Road in Notting Hill and the Thames near Kew Bridge, when Ringo goes A.W.O.L. The fire escape at the back of the Hammersmith Odeon (now Eventim Apollo) was used for the scene when the lads burst out of a theatre before leaping around in a field. Much of the movie was shot at the now demolished Scala Theatre, which stood where a modern block now stands at 58 Charlotte Street, off Tottenham Court Road. Alisa Avenue in Twickenham was the location of the aforementioned Beatles’ homes in the opening scenes of ‘Help!’.
One of the most famous Beatles photos was the cover of the ‘Please Please Me’ album, which shows them leaning over the stairwell at EMI’s former offices at 20 Manchester Square in Marylebone. An updated version of the pose was taken in 1969 and was eventually used as the cover of the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ greatest hits albums. In that pre-video age, the group made some short promo films to accompany some singles. The well-known films for ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields’ were shot in Cole Park, Sevenoaks, Kent and the promos for ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Rain’ were done in the grounds of Chiswick House.
On the domestic front, Paul remained at the Asher home in Wimpole Street right up to 1966, when he moved to his long-term residence at 7 Cavendish Avenue in St John’s Wood. This was very handily located for the Abbey Road Studios and was a popular rendezvous point for the group before and after recording sessions. John moved right out of London in 1964 to a house called Kenwood in the exclusive St George’s Hill Estate in Weybridge, Surrey. George also moved to a house called Kinfauns not far away, in the Claremont Estate in Esher. Ringo moved to 34 Montagu Square in Marylebone in 1965, where he occupied the basement and ground floor, and later that same year he also moved out to Surrey, to the estate where John was living. The Montagu Square flat was subsequently occupied by Jimi Hendrix, his manager Chas Chandler and their respective girlfriends, and after their departure it was taken over by John and Yoko in 1968. In October of that year, it was the scene of their notorious bust for possession of cannabis. John always denied that the drug was his. The nude photos on the cover of ‘Two Virgins’ were taken here. There’s a blue plaque there, too, but it only mentions John.
A while back, a friend of mine was decorating a house right next to Abbey Road Studios and he told me that all through the day he could hear the beeping of car horns, as irate drivers vented their spleen at Beatles fans having their photos taken on the zebra-crossing immortalized on the cover of ‘Abbey Road’. The studio complex is probably the one building most closely identified with the band. From the ‘Love Me Do’ sessions onwards, they recorded nearly all of their studio work there. One notable exception was ‘Hey Jude’, which was recorded at Trident Studios at 17 St Anne’s Court in Soho. This studio was where Queen, David Bowie and many others recorded their early defining albums. ‘Baby You’re A Rich Man’ was recorded at Olympic Studios in Barnes.
Brian Epstein was found dead at his flat at 24 Chapel Street in Belgravia in August 1967, and it was partly due to the lack of his guiding hand that the group spiralled into breaking up. One major wrong turn was the creation of Apple in 1968. The group nearly went broke through a series of badly thought out schemes, one of which was the Apple Boutique at 94 Baker Street. As a final gesture in its short life, customers were treated to a giveaway on the last day of trading. Due to complaints from the neighbours, they’d been obliged to replace the psychedelic exterior design with the customary white. The Apple HQ was established at 3 Savile Row and this was the location of the famous rooftop concert in January 1969.
For anyone interested in the full story of the Beatles in London, I can recommend “The Beatles’ London” by Piet Schreuders, Mark Lewisohn and Adam Smith, published by Interlink Books. Anyone who would like a Beatles tour of London, please check out my website.
Ian Mole is a teacher of English to overseas students and a walking tour guide in London, specializing in music-related tours.