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Cultural Transformations

Urban Place, Architecture and Rock and Roll Music

Dr Rob MacDonald, RIBA.,FRSA, Reader in Architecture, Centre for Architecture, Liverpool School of Art and Design, Liverpool John Moores University.



This paper is about the cultural flux between America and Liverpool,as represented in urban place, architecture and early rock music. The idea came from ‘’John Lennon’s Juke Box’’ a collection of 40 (45rpm) featured on Chris Walker and Melvin Bragg’s South Bank Show 2003, based on an idea by John Winter.

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Posted 20-Feb-2014

John Lennon Dreaming of New York

Way back then in the 1950’s;  (sometime long before the ‘Quarrymen’and the ‘Beatles’), when John Lennon and Stu Sutcliff formed the ‘Dissenters’, John might have stood at the Liverpool Pier Head looking Westward, dreaming of New York. Later in life, settled in New York with Yoko and Sean, he had that eternal yearning to return home to Liverpool with its mythical skyline; the docks and Manhattan in miniature. The Pier Head would have been a bustling interchange for trains, The SS Georg Stage in Front of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Albert Dock, Liverpool. Photo: David Forstertrams, ferries and ocean liners and the waterfront buildings were conceived as landmarks, commanding attention and giving travellers their first or last impression of the city.  Liverpool, overlooking the River Mersey, has a Waterfront with American grandeur. The focal point is the Pier Head and in particular the three group of  buildings of the early 20th Century, namely the Royal Liver Building, The Cunard Building and The Port of Liverpool Building.


Black Roots

Liverpool’s position on the Mersey was an overwhelming advantage for transatlantic European trade with America. In the 19th Century Liverpool was to develop many traditions in transporting people as emigrants but its earlier dark reputation was associated with the trade in Black African slaves. By 1740 Liverpool was the chief port in Europe in the slave trade; Rev. Williams Bagshaw Stevens in 1797 said ‘‘ throughout this large-built town every brick is cemented to its fellow brick by the blood and sweat of Negroes.’’ In Liverpool there is a place, behind the waterfront, called The Goree Piazza, named after a Slave Prison in the Gambia, West Africa.

It had only been in the middle of the 17th Century that Liverpool merchants had started to develop their trade with America, but once established it expanded rapidly. Indeed, there is a statue of Columbus outside the Palm House in Sefton Park bearing a plaque ‘’The discoverer of America was the maker of Liverpool.’

The slave trade was hugely influencial in the economic success of the Western World in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The infamous ‘Triangle of Trade’ linked Africa, Europe and America. By the mid 18th Century Liverpool merchants had assumed dominance in the trade and this was, later, to become reflected in the architecture. Between 1699 and 1807, Liverpool’s traders transported 1,364,930 African slaves in 5249 voyages, compared to London’s 744,721 in 3047 voyages and Bristol’s 481,487 in 2126 voyages.

The immorality and vileness of the slave trade cannot be denied. Through the cruel and enforced trade of people, the social, cultural and racial mix of human society has become radically altered; the repercussions in culture, architecture and rock & roll music are still felt today. Liverpool played a significant role in the trade and ultimately this role has had a profound effect on todays contemporary culture. Liverpool is not proud of the role it played in the slave trade, the City of Liverpool has offered its unconditional apology and participates in an annual ‘Day of Atonement.’

Today, citizens of Liverpool ‘The World Heritage City,’ can only express deep gratitude to the generations of Africans who were transported to America and gave and returned a wonderful cultural, architectural and musical heritage to the city. After the abolition of the transportation of slaves in 1807, sailing ships and later steamships, continued to transport European emigrants from Liverpool to America in large numbers, often in excess of 200,000 per year, although there was a decline in numbers during the American Civil War.


Its not the Leaving of Leaving of Liverpool

Liverpool was the natural point of embarkation because it had the necessary shipping lines, choice of destinations and infrastructure, including special emigration trains directly to The Princes Landing Stage. At The Princes Landing Stage were a series of Transit Sheds located around The Princes Dock. Liverpool offered some hope to millions of people as they sought new lives across the Atlantic Ocean. The first emigrants to pass through Liverpool were the 18th Century European settlers on their way to the Caribbean to establish sugar plantations, or to mainland America to found new colonies. Later, during the 19th Century, Liverpool dominated the European emigration routes to America. Of the 5.5 million emigrants who crossed the Atlantic between 1860 and 1900, 4.75 sailed from Liverpool, The scale of emigration peaked in 1904 at around 270,000. The last major episode of mass movement of people through Liverpool was during World War II when a total of 1,747,505 service personnel passed through the docks on their way to, and from various European theatres of War.


Disembarkation on Ellis Island

Between 1892 and 1954 Ellis Island, New York, was America’s main immigration centre and more than 12 million immigrants were processed in that period. Arriving in New York, passengers eager to disembark and begin their lives had to be patient. First Class, Second Class and Steerage were all dealt with differently. It is estimated that 30% of children with measles died because of the cold ferry ride from the liner to Ellis Island. Immigrants were labelled and inspected. Doctors walked along the line looking for the ill, infirm or insane. A five minute interview was designed to judge whether the person socially, economically and morally fit to enter America. After processing, immigrants left the ‘Registry Hall’, descended the so called ‘Stairs of Separation’. Contemporaneous with Ford’s production lines, the journey across the ‘Registry Hall’ could take five hours at peak time. Single women were also not allowed to leave in the presence of an unreleted man. Many weddings took place on the spot. It is estimated that 40% of American’s today can trace at least one ancestor’s entry into America through Ellis Island. (If you want to check on that great-uncle go to and visit for history)


John Lennon’s American Waterfront

It is difficult to dispute that John Lennon was brought up in an American City; you have only got to walk around Liverpool to feel the American vibrations. The Liver Buildings are more akin to the early tall skyscrapers in America such as Allegheny Court House (1884) by H.H.Richardson and The Garrick Theatre (formerly Schiller) by Adler and Sullivan. The Liver Building was an ambitious example of new innovative technology in ferro-concrete construction. It was even referred to as a skyscraper in the contemporary press. The round arched windows and short columns below the main cornice recall Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Building of 1886 in Chicago. Behind the Liver Building ran the Overhead Railway which stood comparison with the Overhead Loops in New York and Chicago. The Cunard Building derives from American Beaux-arts buildings such as those of McKim Mead and White in New York. The Liverpool Pier Head and The New York Statue of Liberty  have a special place in the hearts of all American emigrants as they and their ancestors had left European soil; The Liverpool Princes Landing Stage is as significant for Trans Atlantic Cultural transformation as New York Ellis Island.

In Downtown Liverpool, behind the Pier Head there are numerous narrow streets that fall down to the river; Water Street, Chapel Street, Dale Street and James Street. Several buildings have a distinctive American quality. Oriel Chambers (1864) is the most revolutionary and a frank expression of function and technology; it anticipated by 20 years the commercial buildings of Chicago and New York. The white Tower Buildings (1908) is an early example of steel frame construction. India Buildings (1924-31) is typical of North American architecture of the 1920’s; it includes a central barrel vaulted arcade, another American feature. Barclays Bank (1927-32) is similary monumental and American. The Adelphi Hotel was a grand building for trans atlantic travellers; it exterior and interior reflected the great wealth in the city.

Liverpool led the way in Cast Iron innovation; St Georges in Everton and St Michaels in the Hamlet both have cast iron structures. They were used as pattern books for exporting complete buildings to the Southern States of America and The West Indies. The earlier demolished Cotton Exchange (1906) and the remaining Orleans House use a Cast Iron structural and cladding system that parallels developments in Chicago.

The need to admit ample light was an important design factor in late Victorian and Edwardian Liverpool office buildings. The glass roofed central light well (or atrium) became a standard feature in Liverpool. This type of urban block architecture with step backs was similar to New Yorks step backs which evolved as a means of letting daylight into the urban street.

It is clear that transatlantic influence found fertile soil in early 20th Liverpool where from 1904 Charles Reilly was Professor of Architecture. Reilly visited America in 1909 and he became a convert to the Classicism of contemporary America. He especially admired the large scale, lucid planning and scholarly refinement found in the work of American architects such as McKim, Mead and White. In the 1920’s Reilly annually sent Liverpool students to gain experience in the offices of leading New York practices. Above all, Herbert J. Rowse, who had travelled and worked in America, produced the best examples of American inspired buildings. The influence of America can also be seen in the work of Willink, Thicknesse and Arnold Thornely.


Origins of the Liverpool Sound

In 1956, this American urban setting of Liverpool created the ideal location for a new  revolution in ‘rock & roll’ music; all that was needed was John Lennon to light the fuse. Merchant Sailors were bringing 45rpm records into the City from America and Shops like Rushworths and Cranes were selling the latest Black music to those who wanted to listen. A year before John met Paul he played his first 45rpm record of Gene Vincents ‘’Be-Bop-A-Lula.’’ John asked himself, ‘’how can I do that ?’’ The roots of Black music had returned to Liverpool and the best ‘rock and roll’ was to put the city on the twentieth century cultural map. For John ‘rock and roll’ always had sexual connotations,(eg fucking) best revealed in the words of ‘’Slipping and Sliding’’ by Little Richard (1956). At that time John was most influenced by Chuck Berry, Gary’US’Bonds and Elvis.The River Mersey was John’s Mississipi and Liverpool was his New Orleans. It was only in 1959 when Black R and B was being absorbed into White ‘pop’ music; when Gary Bonds recorded ‘’Quarter to Three’’ in the early Sixties and when the Beatles met Bonds in England in 1962.

In 1961 Richie Barett recorded ‘’Some other Guy’’ with its ‘’Instant Karma’’ introduction. Much of this music had its origins in Harlem and at that time ‘’Some other Guy’’ arrived in the Liverpool record shops. As the Beatles recorded ‘’Kansas City’’ and ‘’Stand by Me’’ increasingly White musicians were absorbing Black music. ‘’Twist and Shout’’ was first recorded by the Isley Brothers and later the Beatles gave it their unique twist, shake it up, mix it up, wild edge, make me want to shout,shout,shout ! In 1963 the Beatles released ‘’Twist and Shout’’ with the rough Liverpool textured voice of Lennon in the lead.

Increasingly, white musicians in Liverpool took an interest in black guitar licks and arrangements. In 1961 Bobby Parker recorded ‘’Watch your Step’’, an important but little recognised arrangement. John Santana and Jimmy Page were the most influencial musicians, especially on the Beatles and ‘’I Feel Fine.’’

‘’Hey Baby’’ (1961) by Bruce Channel and Delbert McClinton were influencial, especially for the harmonica playing by McClinton. John Lennon’s urban harmonica introduction to ‘’Love Me Do’’ (1962) follows a long line of Brian Jones, Jimmy Reed, Buster Brown, Howlin Wolf, Sony Bo Williamson and Junior Parker.

In 1962 Bruce Channel was on tour with the Beatles, supported by local bands ‘The Four Jays’ and ‘The Statesman’. Channel describes Liverpool as a bleak lonely place, with bible black buildings, light shafts and a memorable seawall. Meanwhile, John was listening to Booker T and the MG’s; ‘’Riding Along in my Automobile (1964), ‘’Boot-Leg’’ and ‘’Green Onions’’ were playing on his juke box.

The Mississipi River flowed through a delta and the mix of all ethnic cultures; Memphis City was the melting pot. Stax Records and Soulsville were the urban studios of black soul, R & B and rock and roll. Wilson Pickett brought out ‘’In the Midnight Hour’’ in1965. For John, R & B was required listening with its laid ‘back beat.’ In1965 Otis Reading, with Booker T and the MG’s recorded ‘’My Girl’’, which represented the essential American urban experience of cruising the ghetto in an automobile. By the late 1960’s Liverpool rock musicians were incorporating and imitating the soulfull sounds of American R and B. Smokey Robinson and Ronald Isley really introduced John into Black music. In 1965 Fontella Bass recorded ‘’Rescue Me’’ which was seen as a direct message to the American Troops in Vietnam. As the peace movement developed, the wider white population were now becoming attracted to Black music.


The Sound of Universal Peace and Love

The revolutionary changes that had taken place in Liverpool now moved back across the Atlantic to the  West Coast of  America. In 1965 The Loving Spoonfuls brought out ‘’Do you believe in Magic ?’ The Urban streets of Liverpool were replaced with the Beaches and pool sides of San Francisco. John Sebastian, like John Lennon, acknowledges learning from other songwriters. John Sebastian acknowledged the climbing chords and introduction of ‘’Heatwave’’ by Martha and the Vandellas. This was seen as the start of the protest movement with Bob Dylan in the vanguard and ‘’Daydream’’ of 1965 closely followed by ‘’Good day Sunshine.’’

Greenwich Village in New York became an impromptu school for musicians. In Washington Square on Sunday afternoon the youngsters experimented with various instruments. The Chelsea Hotel was the place to be and Bob Dylan was the poet of the day; for John Lennon ‘’Possibility West 4th Street’’ evoked urban New York and Liverpool with Joan Baez as Dylan’s muse.

In 1965, following Dylan and Baez, Donovan brought out his third single ‘’Turquoise’’. The movement towards universal peace and love was captured as Folk  moved into ‘pop’ music. John Lennon and the Beatles met Donovan in India and a new eastern world opened up and Donovan taught John Lennon how to finger pick a folk guitar. The global culture was now about experimentation with deep eastern philosophies. As Prudence Farrow was in very deep meditation Donovan wrote ‘’Come out to Play’’.  At this time John Lennons enlightenment was fulfilled; his dissatisfaction with the Beatles peaked and the maturity of Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road was reached. As he said, in the dream is over ‘’I don’t believe in magic, I don’t believe in Beatles…I just believe in Yoko, Yoko and me, and that’s reality…’’


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