The early 1960s were a time of great cultural change, when traditional ideas of importance were becoming vaguer. Skiffle listened to by the young Beatles in their ordinary suburban houses during the late 1950s tended to abandon traditional instruments. Anything that could provide a rhythm was considered suitable, even everyday household objects. For the first time music opened up to everyone regardless of money or musical training. As George Harrison says in the Beatles Anthology: "Skiffle came out of the blues, but the way it was performed made it accessible to us white Liverpudlians. It was dead cheap - just a washboard, a tea chest, a bit of string, a broom handle and £3 10s guitar."
John Lennon was inspired by listening to Chris Barber's skiffle band, whose lead singer Lonnie Donnegan sang Rock Island Line and John Henry. In the same way that music was made using everyday items as instruments, the subject matter of music could include the everyday. Ordinary streets in Liverpool could become subjects of importance. Penny Lane is an ordinary street close to John Lennon's house in Menlove Avenue, and Paul McCartney's house in Forthlin Road, south Liverpool.
I first visited Penny Lane in 1991. I'd arrived at Lime Street Station on a warm Monday evening in July, and had been met at the station's newspaper kiosk by my brother, Julian. I once read that Cynthia Lennon was shopping in Penny Lane when labour pains began for Julian Lennon's birth. I didn't tell my brother of this little coincidence. My brother Julian was graduating from Liverpool University and I was in Liverpool for the ceremony. My second brother Richard arrived ten minutes later on a train from Leeds. We all went back to the hall of residence, expecting to be royally entertained. Unfortunately Julian had been invited to a party, and we hadn't. So Richard and I, left to our own devices for the evening, decided to go out for a drink somewhere. Needing some money we had to find a cash machine. The nearest one, Julian told us, was at the top of Penny Lane, which was just over Greenbank Road from the hall of residence. Although I knew Penny Lane existed as a real street in Liverpool it still didn't seem quite right to carelessly mention that there was a cash machine at the end of it. I was genuinely excited, but I tried not to show my feelings, since my two brothers seemed less than overwhelmed at the idea of walking along an ordinary looking street to a cash machine.
Leaving the gates of the residence we crossed Greenbank Road and walked into Penny Lane. "Penny Lane L8" was painted on the wall at the junction with Greenbank Road. This was Penny Lane. Hardly able to believe I was actually here, I looked around trying to take it all in.
"This is sacred ground we're walking on here" I said to my brother.
"Uh huh" was the reply.
The first hundred yards or so of Penny Lane rose gently between an avenue of trees that shaded the road. On the left was a hospital, a big, anonymous brick building, and on the right a sports ground with the names of various rock bands sprayed on peeling black painted gates. We reached the top of the rise and walked down a gentle slope past terraced houses. From somewhere I heard a young girl shouting: "This is Penny Lane!"
Barbers shop and fish and chip shop in Penny Lane
We passed a barber's shop, and a fish and chip shop, all mentioned in the song. Then before our walk had really started, we reached the end of Penny Lane where it comes out at a roundabout. Across the road was a bank with its cash point in the wall. We drew some money out and began walking back the way we had come. I noticed the Penny Lane Bistro where the words of Penny Lane were written in flowing, golden script above the doors and windows. I paused for a few moments and read the song's opening line, about a barber in Penny Lane who is showing photographs of all the heads he's had the pleasure to know. The barber has seen many heads, and many more are coming and going outside his shop. The barber seems to live in a very varied, changeable sort of world. I read on and came to lines about Penny Lane's banker, inspired by someone working in the same bank with the cash point I had just used. While the barber's shop was full of variety, of people coming and going with new hairstyles, the banker lives in a world where nothing ever seems to change. He wears a suit to work everyday, and a shower of rain won't make him change his routine. In the last verse this stick-in-the-mud banker is still sitting waiting for a trend, even though there are trends all around him if only he could see them. The barber shaves another of his varied customers, and the weather changes it's trend from sunshine to rain. Walking on, I thought about another of Penny Lane's inhabitants, the fireman - the fire station is actually a short distance away in Allerton Road, at the junction with Mather Road. The barber had enjoyed his trends, the banker never saw them, but the fireman tries to escape them. Change worries the fireman. While the banker sits through days where nothing seems to happen, the fireman is constantly facing emergencies. While the banker ignored the rain, the fireman takes excessive notice of it, rushing indoors in a panic.
The shelter in the middle of the roundabout - the bank is just to the left
Finally there's a pretty nurse sitting in the middle of the roundabout selling poppies from a tray - a character based on both Paul McCartney's mother, and the girlfriend of John Lennon's best mate Pete Shotten. This was the same roundabout I had seen when crossing to the cash point. For the banker, the trends of Penny Lane, its silly hair styles, its change from sunshine to rain and back again, meant nothing. But they obviously have a reality he is missing. Children laugh at his silliness in not wearing a Mac in the rain. In contrast the fireman sees all the trends of Penny Lane, but the fuss he makes about them is equally ridiculous. It's only a rain shower after all and he doesn't have to rush indoors so urgently. The trends of life are invisible to the banker and painfully real to the fireman, and who is to say which view is the more accurate? Perhaps the answer to this question lies with the nurse who sits on the roundabout. Trends tend to flow in circles, changes taking you away somewhere new, before coming back again to a place that does not change. It's like traffic circling a roundabout. You can have a street where things are new and exciting while also being steady and secure. That's the charitable situation you seem to find in Penny Lane.
I went back to Penny Lane in November 2009. There had been changes. It was autumn. There was some building work going on. The shelter in the middle of the roundabout was a boarded up former cafe. The Penny Lane Bistro no longer had lyrics painted in gold above its doors. I was in my forties rather than my twenties, and rather than dragging my long suffering brother along Penny Lane, it was now my long suffering wife and daughter. Barbers might welcome these new trends as a new fashionable style, firemen might worry about them, and bankers wouldn't see any real change at all.
Directions: From central Liverpool follow the A 562. This will take you to the roundabout at the top of Penny Lane. By train, go to Mossley Hill Station. Turn left into Rose Lane, right into North Mossley Road, and continue on until you see Penny Lane on your right. By bus, go to the bus station just outside John Lewis's, and ask for Penny Lane. Buses go along the A562. There is a stop close to the Penny Lane roundabout. Click here for an interactive map centred on Penny Lane.