As fans celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ groundbreaking Revolver album this weekend, Fab Four aficionados from across the world will make their way to Liverpool, the band’s storied hometown. In recent years, Beatles tourism has never been more successful among Liverpool’s “Cast Iron Shore” and its environs. Just last year, the legendary rock group generated some 80 million pounds of revenue for the local economy, according to the Liverpool City Council, and 2016 promises to see that figure grow even higher still.
But as it happens, Beatles-related tourism in Liverpool hasn’t always enjoyed such a rosy outlook.
Since the Beatles’ disbandment, heritage tourism has been on the rise in general across the globe, as fans travel great distances to visit sites associated with the most cherished people and narratives of our shared cultural pasts. And while heritage tourism has experienced remarkable growth during this same period, Liverpool has, understandably at times, not been so accommodating to the legions of fans who annual descend upon the city.
As Michael Brocken observes in his book The Twenty-First-Century Legacy of the Beatles: Liverpool and Popular Music Heritage Tourism, a great many Liverpudlians initially came to view the group in negative terms, given rock music’s stereotypical sexual and hallucinogenic contexts. In subsequent years, Liverpool was beset by riots and a succession of economic downturns, leaving the region relatively inhospitable to tourism of any stripe. It has only been in recent years when city leaders have come to embrace the Beatles’ legacy for its tremendous economic import, banking on popular and traditional heritage tourism to create ongoing financial opportunities through the unceasing celebration of the band mates’ lives and work.
Since the mid-1980s, Liverpool has seen the completion of phase one of the vaunted Albert Dock project, which has resulted in the creation of numerous eateries, hotels, and cultural exhibits. In the intervening years, the city has instituted similar efforts by protecting Beatle birthplaces via the National Trust and serving as a catalyst for the evolution of the Beatles Story museum, a massive permanent exhibition as part of the Albert Dock Merseyside-renovation project.
In the cases of the National Trust’s acquisitions of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s boyhood homes, such efforts go well beyond mere urban-renewal and into the stewardship of responsible forms of heritage tourism. To the National Trust’s great credit, fans interested in experiencing immersive visits to John and Paul’s old haunts on Menlove Avenue and Forthlin Road, respectively, must book their tours in advance. But the extra effort more than pays for itself, as visitors are allowed to make their way through the homes in small groups led by knowledgeable docents.
The National Trust has taken great pains to restore the homes to their 1950s-era interior and exterior appearances in order to imbue these sacred Merseyside sites with the genuine ambience of the Beatles’ formative years. In so doing, the National Trust has elevated Liverpool’s Beatles-related tourism with historical authenticity as its key objective. Such efforts make for a far cry from the lack of curation from which other central Beatles locales suffer. Take, for example, the archway of New York City’s Dakota apartment building where fans pose, one after another, for Kodak moments, crassly smiling for the camera just feet away from where Lennon was slain back in December 1980.
As Brocken notes, in such instances heritage tourism becomes inevitably fraught in terms of issues of authenticity and cultural heritage, especially when “fandom does not simply respond to music spaces and places, it creates them.” Indeed, without benefit of curation, historical spaces become convoluted by the mythology associated with aimless pilgrimage. As Brocken perceptively writes, “Once hagiography takes over any narrative, the worship of place and space almost naturally follows: apostles and disciples are seen to have ventured from a place of significance and this tends to be followed by pilgrims and authenticators traveling to that place.”
As the great “authenticators” of Liverpool’s Beatles tourism, the National Trust has proven through its important work at John and Paul’s boyhood homes that authentic heritage tourism is beginning to reshape the ways in which we responsibly experience the pull of the past. In this way, the notion of “getting back to where we once belonged” has never been more effective in achieving genuine historical authenticity.