For Beatles-crazed North American teens in the early 1960s, Liverpool was a music mecca, and the Cavern Club was the base of the entire British Invasion.
This dank, dingy, brick-walled subterranean club — a former bulk wine cellar located in the heart of Liverpool's business district — was where the Fab Four made their name and were discovered by manager Brian Epstein. The band performed on the tiny stage some 292 times between 1961 and 1963 before global fame precluded Cavern appearances. Nonetheless, the club looms large in Beatles lore.
On Aug. 9, 1965, four Winnipeg lads boarded a CNR train headed for Montreal, where they would board a ship bound for Liverpool. Popular local rock quartet the Crescendos — singer and sax player Glenn MacRae, drummer Vance Masters, guitarist Terry Loeb and bass player Denis Penner — were about to live the dream of a million teenagers.
"We had seen the Beatles movies and Ferry Cross the Mersey and figured that's where it was at," says MacRae.
The four received a royal send off at the train station, with dozens of fans and members of the media on hand to bid them good luck. They arrived in Liverpool in the evening and had to wait for the customs office to open the following morning.
"We stood on the railing of the ship looking out into the darkened city. We couldn't sleep from excitement.
"Imagine four kids from Winnipeg going to Liverpool with limited funds, no contacts and no place to stay," recalls Penner. "Liverpool was like no place I had ever been to. Small cobblestone streets, houses and buildings that were hundreds of years old, the smell of coal from the docks. The people were friendly and very helpful."
Their first destination was the Cavern.
"They were having an all-night session with a half-dozen bands," MacRae recalls.
The four met many of the bands and discovered a welcoming atmosphere.
"There was a family feeling among the bands. We were never treated as outsiders," he says.
Being a Canadian band on the Liverpool circuit proved to be a curiosity, but the Crescendos proved their worth, earning enough respect to be booked into the legendary Cavern on Sept. 26, 1965.
"When we found out we had a gig at the Cavern, I think it took a while before it finally sunk in," says Penner. "We didn't know what to expect. The event was called A Fabulous All Nighter, with 10 other groups. Rory Storm & the Hurricanes (Ringo Starr's pre-Beatles band) was one of them. I couldn't believe I was on the same stage where the Beatles played."
The group would play the Cavern several times during the next six months. They were the only Canadian band to ever appear at the original Cavern Club.
MacRae found playing the local scene different from what they had experienced in Winnipeg.
"In Liverpool, you did an hour, and then another band would do the next set," he says. "So you had to line up several gigs a night, because they didn't pay that much. You would play a set, pack up and head to another place, set up, play, then head to another gig."
Playing the Liverpool circuit offered meagre funds, so the four Winnipeggers became resourceful.
"We used to steal milk bottles off doorsteps and turn in the bottles for the deposit in order to buy cigarettes," says Masters.
"We stole coal from neighbour's bins," chuckles MacRae. "We burned all the furniture in our flat for heat."
Penner returned home before Christmas.
"When I went to Liverpool I was engaged to be married, so I told the boys I could only stay until early December. We found a replacement a couple of weeks before I left and gave him a crash course with our playlist."
With Liverpudlian Stuart McKernan on bass, the Crescendos carried on.
In the spring of 1966, Chris Curtis, drummer for the Searchers (of Needles and Pins fame), caught a Crescendos set at the Iron Door club and offered to take the group to London to record a single. Signed to Pye Records, whose roster boasted the Kinks, Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw and the Searchers, Curtis produced a cover of Paul Revere & the Raiders' Hungry. He also changed the band's name to the 5 A.M. Event.
"We thought we'd hit the big time," says MacRae.
When the single failed to chart, the band was discouraged.
"We continued playing around Liverpool, but we'd lost our spark," says MacRae.
Masters briefly left to join up with a band in London assembled by the managers of the Who to back singers the Merseys.
"We all lived in a hotel, all in the same room, and rehearsed," says Masters. "But I came back to the Crescendos after a couple of weeks, and I'm glad I did."
The guitarist in that backing band was Liverpudlian friend Joey Molland, who later went on to form Badfinger.
"Who knows," muses Masters. "I might have been in Badfinger."
Dispirited, MacRae, Masters and Loeb returned home in December 1966. Regrouping with Penner, the Crescendos were welcomed with enthusiasm on the local circuit, their Liverpool experience giving them an edge over their peers.
"We were playing stuff no one else was playing," says MacRae.
After several months, the four went their separate ways. Masters joined the Fifth and later Brother before playing in a latter-day Guess Who, while MacRae went on to manage a Long & McQuade music store. Penner took an automotive job. Loeb was killed in a car accident in British Columbia in the 1980s.
In 1973, the Cavern Club was closed after construction of a rail line required it to be filled in.
On April 26, 1984, a replica of the Cavern Club was opened on the site of the old club, using bricks from the original. A commemorative wall nearby includes the names of every act that graced the stage of the original club. The Crescendos and the 5 A.M. Event are among the names listed.
"Almost 50 years later, it feels like it was just yesterday," says Penner.
For MacRae, playing the most famous club in rock 'n' roll remains the highlight of his music career.
"It was wonderful. We felt that if we all died the next day, we had at least accomplished our dream of playing the Cavern. It was an exhilarating experience."
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Born and raised in Winnipeg, music historian John Einarson is an acclaimed musicologist, broadcaster, educator, and author of 14 music biographies published worldwide.