The forgotten band who blew The Beatles out of the water

‘The Birds and The Beatles’ reads the headline, with the all-female winged rockers receiving top billing in name and picture placement. The article then begins, “Meet The Liverbirds from Merseyside, teenagers who have teamed up to try and break the male monopoly of the beat world. Boyfriends have had to have the brush-off, and the girls spend most of their spare time rehearsing.”

However, rehearsing wouldn’t be enough. John Lennon even told the band that girls don’t play the guitar, which says something about the patriarchy they were up against, when Mr Liberal himself had the nerve to make a bourgeoisie assumption on a band that may well have buried them in a different time.

That 1963 Mersey Beat article is remarkable for three main reasons. Firstly, The Liverbirds get top billing. Secondly, The Beatles are touted as little more than local hopefuls. Thirdly, the future would foretell that one would be cast to the ash heap of history while the other reshaped the record books — no prizes for guessing which way around that went.

Liverpool had been heavily targeted in the Second World War as a port city. This meant that proceeding generations were welcomed into a brutal world. However, the rock ‘n’ roll boon soon blew ashore from the far side of the pond. A bright new reality of possibilities took hold. This was the sonic cultural hegemony of the American Dream: In rock ‘n’ roll, you could be anything you wanted to be. This mantra was manna from heaven for kids looking to shoulder out a bright new future amid the dawning pop culture explosion.

Thus, they banded together to set things in motion, and the Scouse sound of the beat was abuzz. As Mersey Beat founder Bill Harry would once write in a dispatch sent to The Daily Mail: “Liverpool is like New Orleans at the turn of the century, but with rock ‘n’ roll instead of jazz.” Whether or not that was hyperbole was irrelevant because enough kids were buying into the illusion to make it viable. Soon, the streets were a youthful waltz akin to the joyous rapture of ‘Penny Lane’.

And every club needs a clubhouse—in Liverpool, that was the iconic Cavern Club. It opened its doors in 1957, and owner Alan Sytner named it in honor of the Parisian jazz club, Le Caveau De La Huchette. His grand plan was for it to become the top jazz venue outside London. He set his stall out that night with a bill topped by the Merseysippi Jazz Band supported by the Wall City Jazzmen, Ralph Watmough Jazz Band and the Coney Island Skiffle Group.

However, it was the opening skiffle group that caught the eye most. You see, in order to play jazz, you had to be skilled—that doesn’t lend itself all that well to something that can be described as a cultural explosion. Kids had something to express. After the dower dawn of war, the beat revolution was determined to forget things on their own terms. Alongside pop culture and the technological age, things were moving quickly, and they had no time to start practicing tricky Major 7ths and Half-Diminished Chords; they had to get skiffling quick or die trying.

Within a few months of the club opening, on January 24th, 1958, Paul McCartney made his debut alongside John Lennon in the Quarry Men. You’d be tempted to say, ‘and the rest is ancient history’, but things weren’t as straightforward. They might have had something to say, but this wasn’t punk just yet, and they had some skills to hone.

It wasn’t until 1962, when The Beatles appeared as the ‘Fab Four’ for the first time at the Cavern Club, that things really got swinging. In the audience that night was the 16-year-old Mary McGlory, attending her first concert. “I said to my cousins, ‘We’re going to be like them. And we’re going to be the first girls to do it,” she told them New York Times in recollection. However, they had one almighty problem: they didn’t know how to play any instruments.

However, word spread quickly in the Liverpool beat scene and soon, the girls would go from pretenders to the real McCoy. After all, they’d bought the instruments, so all it took was a knock on the door from a savvy musical prodigy called Valerie Gell and the fateful utterance of, ‘Don’t worry about that, I’ll teach you to play’ , to get things moving.

Soon a second skilled guitar player called Pamela Birch joined, and, well, being in the rhythm section is just a matter of keeping time. Now, The Liverbirds were up and running and ready to change the world in double time so that Mary could set up her family with a riotous rock ‘n’ roll loot of riches and then retire to become a nun and repay her debts to the kindly local priest

(Credit: Sefton Park walk)

What followed was a highwire tour all across Europe after the group snubbed the management of Brian Epstein when he told them that going to Hamburg was a bad idea. Thus, they went their own way and ended up playing alongside The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix (for whom they even rolled a joint) and headlining their own mammoth shows.

However, more important than rubbing shoulders was that they were making a point without barely even knowing it. “We were enjoying ourselves,” Mary said in retrospect, “that was the main thing.” And they really were. In an era that was still largely staunchly conservative, the fact that they were following their own whims and rocking out for the fun of it was a trailblazing feat that voiced a perfectly individualistic message

Then came the crushing blow. Just like The Beatles, The Liverbirds were offered their big break in America, but it came with a damnable caveat: they’d have to go to Las Vegas and play topless. Naturally, they said no. However, it was a portent that showed their fate. That moment was the beginning of the end for them, but it was far from the end of their legacy.

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They were loved all over Europe at this stage. They wrote their own songs, and they certainly had something worth expressing. For many people, this made them as big as anybody. From humble beginnings, they had almost inadvertently defined what the rock ‘n’ roll revolution was all about.

However, one fateful night in Hamburg, a handsome young man with a rose in his hair caught the attention of Valerie. They got together, but the young man lived in Munich. One night, as he drove the long roads to propose to her, he had a car crash. He was paralyzed for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, he proposed to her from his hospital bed, and Valerie said yes. She gave up a rock ‘n’ roll life to care for her new husband.

And when Sylvia Saunders became pregnant, she was told that she had to stop drumming if she wanted to keep the baby. With the band halved, two German girls were recruited to fill in. They successfully toured Japan and helped to open the door for female rock acts over there, but the sisterly feeling was lost. The Liverbirds broke up shortly afterwards.

In their five-year span, they achieved something close to the quintessence of what the rock ‘n’ roll revolution meant to thousands of kids in Liverpool. They rose from humble beginnings, grabbed the good tidings of pop culture by the lapels, and left the door open for a legion of fans to follow through whether they were deemed fit for the position or otherwise. And they did all this under the simple proviso of fun and unity. That notion still echoes in the songs they produced and rattles even louder in the continuous trail of bands breaking through the bourgeoisie that they helped to blaze. At the precipice of the Mersey Beat, you’ll find The Liverbirds.

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