Ticket to Ride

Beatles: A tour of the Fab Four's England is all that a fan really needs. So read on -- we can work it out.

November 21, 1999|By Lou Carlozo | Lou Carlozo,Chicago Tribune

I am a Beatlemaniac.

I've known this since I was 4. At that age, I sported Beatle bangs and learned how to clamber atop the family stereo so I could change 45s for my big brother while he did his homework. The song that stuck in my head and heart was "Strawberry Fields Forever," inspired, I later learned, by John Lennon's childhood.

As a kid, I collected all the Beatles music and minutiae I could find. John inspired me to take up guitar at 14. And when Lennon was assassinated, I wore black to school the next day (guess who my favorite Beatle was).

There is no known cure for this affliction, as a recent trip to England proved. During my visit, I took in well-known sites such as the former Apple Records office (where the Beatles gave their 1969 rooftop performance), the Cavern Club (where the Fabs played 290-odd times) and the ever-popular Abbey Road crosswalk.

But I was also after an offbeat romp reminiscent of "A Hard Day's Night" -- so I scouted more obscure locations as well. Where did the Beatles hang out? Write their songs? Buy their guitars and drumsticks? And would I discover any Fab Four nooks that would yield tasty tidbits and anecdotes?

In quest of these places, I uncovered some surprises and returned from England a gladder and wiser fan. Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Many tours offered

I spent five days in London, two in Liverpool. If you plan some traditional London sightseeing at places such as the Globe Theatre, Westminster Abbey or the Tower of London, sticking to a similar schedule should serve you well.

But if you're a die-hard Beatle fan, and a people person to boot, consider spending extra time in Liverpool. While England's third-largest city appears drab on the surface, Liverpudlians possess warmth and spunk in spades. And they'll gladly regale you with Beatle tales aplenty -- though it's a common "Fab Fib" for locals to claim some connection to the band, however tenuous.

In London, I found it easy to get my bearings for a Beatle adventure. London Walks conducts two Beatle walking tours, each more than two hours long and full of fascinating stops. Whether you choose the "In My Life" or "Magical Mystery Tour" walk, you're in good hands. Both are led by Richard Porter, president of the London Beatles Fan Club.

"I've been doing the walks for 10 years," said Porter, 36, who in his tour-guide mode sounds like a young Robin Leach. "The first year, I had these guys from East Germany. This was before the Berlin Wall came down. They had practically mortgaged their houses to come here. When they came to Abbey Road, they burst into tears."

Roughly 90 percent of Porter's walkers list the Abbey Road crossing as their favorite place. While it's an obvious stop, I mention it for several reasons. First, it's great fun to see close up. I was struck by how small the crosswalk appears in real life; no doubt my mental image was stretched by the four larger-than-life musicians who made it famous.

Second, this is not the best place to pose for pictures. The Beatles had police to stop traffic, as Abbey Road is a busy city street.

And third: Just up the road is Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles did most of their recording. The studio is not open to visitors. But the world's Beatle fans are hardly discouraged from leaving graffiti on the surrounding walls, which get fresh paint every six weeks or so.

That famous crosswalk

Both of Porter's tours end at the Abbey Road crossing. If I had to give an edge to one walk, I'd choose "In My Life." Among its stops is 34 Montagu Square, which might be dubbed the ultimate rocker's flat.

Ringo Starr first leased the stately two-story unit in early 1965. After Ringo married Maureen Cox and moved out, Paul McCartney used the basement in 1966 as an informal demo studio. He worked on "Eleanor Rigby" there, according to Porter.

In 1967, the tenants were a then-unknown guitarist named Jimi Hendrix and his manager, Animals bassist Chas Chandler. And in 1968, John and Yoko moved in -- and posed naked for their "Two Virgins" album cover there.

I lingered at this spot, imagining all the rock history that took place within (and wondering whether the current occupant has any idea). Several blocks away at Manchester Square, Porter led our tour to a Beatle site that will soon be wiped off the map.

EMI House, former headquarters of the Beatles' English record label, was central to the band's musical life. There, the Fab Four recorded radio shows, attended business meetings and posed for the shots that grace the covers of their "red" and "blue" greatest-hits compilations.

Those collections marked my first major exposure to the Beatles. I've stared at those famous album covers countless times. And there I was, eyeballing the second-floor balcony where the Beatles leaned over the railing in 1963, and again in 1969, while photographer Angus McBean lay flat on his back in the entrance way.

Sadly, McBean's vantage point is bolted shut today. EMI recently vacated the building. It is likely to be demolished by year's end.

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