Cavern News

Cavern City Tours – The story so far

Sunday, 11 July 2021

Cavern City Tours – The story so far….

Around the world, the phenomenon of The Beatles had left the world rocking. The Merseybeat had left the cellars of Liverpool and changed the world in the 60s and sent the world spiralling into the 70s. The 1970s were an interesting time for Liverpool and The Cavern Club, Mathew Street had been absorbed in the emerging punk scene, The Cavern Club had seemingly gone forever to make way for a ventilation duct for the city’s underground railway and The Beatles seemed to have been forgotten.

Allan Williams (the original manager of The Beatles) was trying to host Beatles events and he would receive no support and no tourists. To make matters even worse, British Rail discovered a vast amount of water underneath The Cavern, which prevented a ventilation shaft from being built. A bare patch of land where people parked their cars would exist throughout the 70s, unknown to many, that below them the famous walls of The Cavern Club were still intact.

In 1977, a Beatles fan had an idea which was quickly shot down by the council of the time to build a Beatles Statue. One Councillor said, “in my opinion, The Beatles are not worthy of a place in our history,” another Councillor said “they couldn’t sing for toffee! They have brought shame on the city taking drugs. They have turned down requests to appear in the city at official functions.” One even suggested that Arthur Askey was more worthy of a statue than The Beatles.

In the year 1980, things were looking up for The Beatles in Liverpool. The rights to The Cavern’s name had been sold to Royal Life Insurance and they had contacted an architect by the name of David Backhouse to embark on excavating The Cavern Club. He had started creating the plans when all of a sudden, John Lennon was tragically assassinated in New York City.

Overnight this tragic event led to a demand that had previously not existed. It was a demand to cater for visitors, people looking for a place to mourn and remember John. Tourists from around the world travelled to Liverpool to see Strawberry Field, Penny Lane, John Lennon’s home on Menlove Avenue and they wanted to see The Cavern Club too.

Tourists arrive…

“The catalyst for me was back in 1976, during my days as a cabbie, when a colleague pulled up behind me on the rank and started telling me he’d had a bumper day having taken a group of Japanese tourists on a Beatles Tour. He didn’t know where Strawberry Field was, so he took them to Sefton Park and told them that was it. Those people had travelled halfway around the world on a pilgrimage and that dope had cheated them. After that I thought something had to be done to cater for visitors to the city” – Dave Jones

By 1982 The Cavern had been excavated but it was discovered it could not be reopened as the foundations weren’t stable or intact, so The Cavern Club was carefully dismantled and then rebuilt in the exact same location. When it reopened in 1984, it covered 70% of the original footprint, built with 15,000 of the original bricks and most importantly,  back at number 10 Mathew Street, where it always belonged.

Cavern City Tours, a company created by three teachers and Beatle Tour Guides: Ron Jones, Gerry Murphy and Bill Heckle, became incorporated in April 1983. Each founder  had a special interest in The Beatles and felt that by putting together their expertise, they could create tours and packages which might attract some Beatles fans to Liverpool at a time when there was no real tourism industry in the city.

Meanwhile at The Cavern Club, European Cup Winning Captain, and Legend Tommy Smith would be the new owner of The Cavern Club when it reopened in 1984. They would have over 100 Merseybeat acts back at The Cavern Club to sign the back wall of the stage. The Cavern Club was back, but not without its problems. Liverpool was in economic peril in the 1980s and The Cavern, even with support and financial backing, couldn’t get it right. They would have candles on the tables, fitted carpets, table service and chicken in a basket. How wrong they were. The Cavern Club would be unsuccessful once more, and trade owners many more times during the 1980s.

For Cavern City Tours, in 1984 Dave Jones became a partner in the company, ultimately replacing Gerry Murphy who left the company to pursue a career in music. In 1984 an 11-day holiday of “Beatles Britain” was marketed and attracted 50 fans from the United States. In the same year, Cavern City Tours introduced a Beatles pocket map and guide to Liverpool followed the next year by a Discover Beatles London map.

In 1985 Cavern City Tours expanded its operation into the sporting world and arranged tickets and packages for 300 soccer fans who travelled to European Cup Finals in Rotterdam and Brussels. The company’s involvement with football packages continued in 1994 with the introduction of Soccer City packages. In addition, the company successfully marketed packages for Euro ’96.

As Cavern City Tours built up its expertise, the County Council invited the company to take over Beatle weekends and the Beatles Convention which really marked the turning point for the company. That same year a trip to Hamburg was also established for Beatles fans. The company decided to adopt a long-term plan and establish The Beatles Convention as an annual event, and after a successful convention in 1987, decided to move into city centre offices and employ full-time staff.

Tour packages and conventions in 1988 and 1989 attracted more people, and the company also made contact with tour operators from USA, Germany and Japan. Paul McCartney announced his world tour in 1989 and Cavern City Tours sold packages to his concert in Hamburg in October 1989, and Birmingham in January 1990.

Towards the end of 1989 Liverpool City Council announced that they had secured Liverpool as the venue for a huge John Lennon Memorial Concert in May 1990. Cavern City Tours acted as consultants and ticket agents. As a result of the company’s success with the Lennon Concert, Paul McCartney’s promoters, Marshall Arts Ltd, invited Cavern City Tours to help promote his Kings Dock Concert. Marshall Arts also used Cavern City Tours office as a base.

Towards the end of 1990 the company made an agreement with the Merseyside Tourism board to take over the day-to-day operation of The Beatles Tour and introduce a daily scheduled one-hour city centre sight-seeing tour. Scheduled tours had not happened in Liverpool before. The new service commenced in June 1991 with the introduction of a 73-seater double-decker bus. In July 1994 the double-decker was replaced with a 1966 Bedford VAL Plaxton Panorama One, which is an identical model to the one used in The Beatles’ 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour and was painted in the same livery and the Magical Mystery Tour of Liverpool was born.

A new era for Cavern City Tours…

“Becoming a professional tour guide in 1980, and accredited by the North West Tourist Board, this provided me with the ability to cater to tourists visiting the city. Working with the board I started Beatles Walking Tours of Liverpool and, by 1982, had introduced daily mini-bus tours visiting Beatles sites in the city. Cavern City Tours eventually negotiated with the Tourist Board to take over the operation of daily Magical Mystery Tours. We bought a double decker bus, painted it in Beatles livery and started our own tours two weeks before we opened The Cavern. Our unrivalled knowledge and experience in the visitor industry nailed the deal with Royal Life Insurance and they duly invited us down to London for an interview” – Dave Jones

It was 1991 that things really changed. After The Cavern Club sat empty for 6 months, Royal Life Insurance put The Cavern Club back on the market. They received 6 local bids, one of which from Cavern City Tours who had recently taken on George Guinness (Bill’s school friend) as a director. The Cavern Club had sold a few years before for £500,000 so Bill Heckle and Dave Jones headed down to London, looking forward to nothing more than an enjoyable day out and a few pints.

They discussed their plan with the panel and then got asked to leave the room to prepare their sealed bid. Bill and Dave sat down together and start laughing, shocked that they were being taken so seriously against such big bidders. They spent so long laughing that eventually there was a knock on the door asking them to come and resume discussions, “just give us five minutes!” Bill Heckle shouted.

They walked back into the room and handed their bid, in an unsealed envelope. A member of the panel opened it and quickly said “there is nothing in here!” The panel looked at each other bemused and then said to Bill and Dave “if there is nothing in here, what have you bid?” That is when Dave Jones replied off the cuff, “the way we see it, go with one of the other bids if you want the same problems you’ve had in the 80s, drugs, violence, disco, bankruptcies, further poisoning The Cavern brand. If you want someone who is honest and can offer good live music, WE are the bid!” This was met by silence, they asked Bill and Dave to leave the room for 10 minutes while they discussed.

When they left the room, Bill Heckle looked at Dave and burst out laughing, “where the hell did you get that?” “I don’t know,” Dave replied. “But it sounded good!” Ten minutes later they were called back into the room and were told they would hear back within a week. Sure enough, a week later Cavern City Tours, a company who sold package tours to Liverpool in the dark days of the 1980s had bought The Cavern Club for not one penny.

The acquisition would not only strengthen the company’s ability to attract visitors and cater more for their needs, it also generated income to the local economy and created jobs. The 1992 Beatles Convention was extremely successful as indicated by 11 TV crews from around the world that filmed the event. The British Council also filmed the event extensively, producing a 25-minute video which was shown in 100 countries throughout the world. Accompanying this video was an exhibition that heavily featured Liverpool as the Birthplace of The Beatles. In September 1992, Ringo Starr was in Liverpool to film a documentary for the Disney Channel called Going Home and visited the Cavern Club.

During the film Ringo winked at the camera and said “This will be a nice surprise for the lads” and then autographed two squares on the iconic stage wall which feature the name of the Beatles and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. It certainly was a surprise because it wasn’t until six months later when the film was released that anyone knew Ringo had signed the wall.

By 1993 Cavern City Tours had established a diverse and successful business, but not all aspects of the business proved profitable. Based on advice from the company’s bankers, accountants and management consultants, the annual Beatles Convention and Magical Mystery Tour needed to become more profitable or they would need to go. The 1993 Beatles Convention would have been the last, however, a new concept was introduced. The two-day Beatles Convention was replaced by a one-day event and on the second day a street party was organised in Mathew Street. With considerable support from the local press, the inaugural Mathew Street Festival was a massive success attracting over 20,000 people into the street for seven hours of music from 65 bands from all over the world. Cavern City Tours Ltd were voted Merseyside’s Tour Operator of the Year in 1993 and the Mathew Street Festival won Event of The Year.

This success allowed Cavern City Tours to ensure proper funding for the 1994 Mathew Street Festival which enabled the Festival area to increase in size, incorporating large outdoor stages hosted by the two main local radio stations. The result was that in 1994, 71 bands in 19 venues performed to over 42,000 people. The Mathew Street Festival appeared to be firmly established as an annual event growing in strength and receiving huge amounts of support.

The opening of the Cavern Pub in Mathew Street, and the creation of Cavern Records made 1994 a busy year for Cavern City Tours. In 1995 Cavern City Tours extended the area of the Cavern Club and increased the opening hours of the Cavern Pub to include Sundays. A mail-order leaflet of Cavern souvenirs was produced and a 28-page-full-colour visitor guidebook to Liverpool published. The 1995 Mathew Street Festival was again extended to include the Albert Dock and the Radio One Roadshow. Over 100 bands entertained over 100,000 people in one day. The Festival remarkably remained free until it finished in 2012. An independent economic impact study showed that in 2011 it brought £51 million into the city over the weekend that it took place.

“It was the busiest weekend of the year for taxis, buses, the rail network, restaurants and bars. The event was one large drinking festival for everyone in Liverpool. It was a big Scouse party! We were invited to host the premiere of the remastered Yellow Submarine film by Apple. On the day there was a special yellow submarine themed Mathew Street festival that preceded the premiere at The Liverpool Town Hall. I remember standing on the balcony where The Beatles had promoted the Hard Days Night with honoured guests and Neil Aspinall saying to me “I was here in 1964 when The Beatles came back and there are more people here now! What have you done? This is amazing!” At that point, his phone rang, and he left for a moment, he told me it was Ringo. He had told Neil that he was watching coverage of the Yellow Submarine relaunch on Good Morning America and he too was stunned by the size of the crowds, saying it was unbelievable. The festival remains one of the biggest things the company has ever done, and it lasted for 20 years. It finished in 2012, it just outgrew the city and run its course.” – Bill Heckle

By 1997 Cavern City Tours was enjoying significant success, for The Cavern Club’s 40th Anniversary almost 1000 guests were invited to the Cavern Club to celebrate. Three jazz bands from the opening night of the Cavern in 1957 started the celebrations with a lunchtime set, followed by other Cavern regulars from previous decades. The remaining members of the Quarrymen skiffle group Pete Shotton, Eric Griffiths, Colin Hanton, Len Garry, Rod Davis and John Duff Lowe were reunited and performed a short set together for the first time since the 1950’s. As a result of the gig the band decided to reform. As a tribute to the many performers who appeared at the Club before its closure in 1973 the Cavern Wall of Fame was created. It would cover the entire frontage of the Cavern Pub and each of the 1801 bricks in the wall feature the name of an act which played the Cavern. Witnessed by thousands of onlookers, Gerry Marsden unveiled the Wall of Fame, then Billy J Kramer unveiled a life size statue of John Lennon which now stands leaning against the wall outside the Cavern Pub.

Gerry Marsden and Billy J Kramer with the John Lennon statue by the wall of fame in Matthew Street 16 january 1997

By this point, Cavern City Tours operated The Cavern Club, The Cavern Pub, The Magical Mystery Tour, The Mathew Street Festival, The Annual Beatles Convention, they had opened a restaurant, they had set up the Cavern Wall of Fame and they were planning on opening the world’s first themed Beatles Hotel. But perhaps one of the most significant things to happen was on 14th December 1999. Paul McCartney announced just 2 weeks earlier that he couldn’t imagine a better way to see out the century than with a rock ‘n’ roll party at The Cavern Club.

Paul McCartney performed on stage at the Cavern Club. He played rock ‘n’ roll covers and his band comprised of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, Deep Purple’s Ian Paice, guitarist Mick Green and keyboard player Pete Wingfield. As well as the audience in the Cavern, the concert was broadcast live on Japanese TV, BBC Radio One, to a screen in Liverpool city centre  and broadcast online. The concert had an estimated online audience of 53 million, a figure which broke the Live Stream record at the time.

Throughout the 90s the Cavern Club had attracted great bands, some of which were at the start of their careers like Oasis and The Coral, others would already be legends like Donovan. To facilitate bigger performances Cavern City Tours expanded the club to include the live lounge, which would have a comfortable band room. After Paul McCartney played The Cavern Club’s live lounge, the door was opened up. Within the next decade the Cavern Club would welcome Paul Rodgers, Lonnie Donnegan, Bo Diddley, K.T Tunstall, Embrace, Travis, Artic Monkeys, Richie Havens and many more would grace the stage. Many other legends would visit the venue just to experience it and have a drink!

The exciting present…

In 2004 another turning point happened for Cavern City Tours, they found that they had major problems surrounding the opening of their Beatles themed hotel. The trouble was so bad that they found themselves the subject of a BBC documentary which highlighted their struggles to stay afloat and they had to sell their interest in the project. Bill Heckle found himself on a trip with friend Julia Baird (John Lennon’s sister) and they discussed the financial difficulties that Cavern City Tours were having, and she mentioned her desire to help by investing in Cavern City Tours. Despite Bill and Dave advising not to, Julia insisted.

Julia joined Bill, Dave and George as directors of Cavern City Tours in 2004 and Cavern City Tours within a few years was enjoying more success than ever before. Throughout the 10’s The Cavern Club would have visits from Adele, Jessie J, the Wanted, James McCartney, Yoko Ono, Joe Bonemassa, Mickey Dolenz and many, many more. They would celebrate original music; upcoming artists and they would enjoy seeing the fruits of their labour with a staggering increase in tourists coming to Liverpool to see the beauty of  the city of Liverpool.

On 4th December 2015, a brand-new statue of The Beatles was unveiled in front of the Cunard Building depicting the Fab Four walking along the waterfront. It was gifted to the city by Cavern City Tours. They wanted to acknowledge how synonymous the band is with Liverpool, and the statues have proven to be a must-visit location for tourists. In 2017 on The Cavern Club’s 60th Anniversary Cavern City Tours unveiled a statue of a Cilla Black outside the original entrance of The Cavern Club. While Cavern City Tours have worked hard to protect the heritage and history of the city and The Cavern Club, they have very much shaped the direction of where it is heading, ever since the moment of the company’s founding.

The Cavern Club, like so many other businesses, now finds itself navigating the difficult survival of the pandemic. Just before the pandemic rocked the world, it was announced that Bill Heckle and Dave Jones are nominated for the prestigious Citizen of Honour award from the City of Liverpool. It is an honour that was first given to the pair by Rio De Janeiro in Brazil for their 20-year work setting up relations with their city. It will be given to them by Liverpool for their work establishing the tourism industry in the city and for the tireless custodial work that Cavern City Tours have done and continue to do to keep the legend of The Cavern Club alive.

It is fair to say that the support of fans, friends, family, visitors and staff have been a vital part of the story so far and heartfelt thanks goes out to all. Here’s to the next 30 years!