The celebration of what would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday, coinciding with the re-start of the English football season produced the usual silly season journalism: the combination of Liverpool, soccer and the Beatles being far too much for people to keep their heads. Locally, Mark Heywood of The Maverick produced an article in which he assured us that Liverpool was a socialist football club and we got a lot about the advanced political thought of Lennon (always referred to as “John”).
The truth is interesting but different. Professional soccer was born in Lancashire and even now it is remarkable how Lancashire clubs dominate. Usually the richest cities (Paris, Madrid, Turin, Milan, Barcelona) dominate, so you’d expect London clubs to lead the way. They don’t. Instead Liverpool, Everton, Man City, Man United lead with a long Lancashire tail behind (Burnley, Blackburn, Preston, Bolton, Blackpool etc) .
I grew up on Merseyside amidst the two ruling passions of the area, rock music and soccer. Although mine was a rugby school, we played soccer in the schoolyard every day of the year. Liverpool in the 1950s still had an extensive Atlantic trade and this meant that American rock ‘n roll records circulated in Liverpool long before they got to London. You could sometimes see black American seamen in the streets and they all seemed to be R and B experts.
Liverpool was always deeply conscious of its connection to America. As a child I remember my father showing me the chains in the dock walls in Liverpool where the slaves had been tethered, for there was no hiding the shameful fact that Liverpool’s maritime glories had derived from the slave trade. But the huge Irish migration to the US had created family links to America for many Liverpool Irish families.
One result was that quite obscure black US groups like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers would play to packed audiences at the Liverpool Empire. Indeed, fading American rock stars soon learned they had fans on Merseyside long after they’d lost theirs in Memphis. In later years, when his career had a long downward dip, Roy Orbison would return time and again to Merseyside and North Wales where he was always massively popular.
To say that soccer was a religion was to miss the point. There has been a huge Irish migration to Liverpool, both Protestant and Catholic, and sectarian feelings were strong. Everton was known as the Catholic club, Liverpool the Protestant. My father, though cheerfully atheist himself, had an Orangeman father and I suspect this was why he signed for Liverpool. He was a phenomenal centre forward and had just scored 120 goals in a season for a local club. (“Mind you”, he said, “eleven of those were penalties. And you should never miss a penalty.” He certainly didn’t.)
Only in recent time have these sectarian tensions faded and, indeed, Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool star who now manages Rangers has found that in Glasgow such tensions are still very much alive: he cannot prevent Rangers fans from singing anti-Catholic songs against their Celtic enemy.
Liverpool has always been a massively working class city so naturally both Everton and Liverpool had huge working class fan bases though of course neither of them would ever have aligned themselves politically. What is true is that Bill Shankly, the manager who very much created the modern Liverpool club, was a Scottish socialist and drummed it into his teams that they owed everything to the fans. The fans appreciated this and it helped the club become a sort of expression of working class Scouser life. To this day the Liverpool fans organise themselves as The Spirit of Shankly. And, of course, Jurgen Klopp has been quick to declare himself a Scouser.
Most Liverpudlians, being working class, tended to have their fists up against the London Tory Establishment. This was true even of many Protestants but it was axiomatically true of the Catholics (at school I was warned that not long ago Protestants had burned people like me at the stake). Mainly the Catholics were Irish and hated the Tories as oppressors of Ireland. This led to a regular spirit of revolt which fed into violent strikes, support for the IRA and general anti-social behaviour.
This had striking results. In the 1970s it was still true that British women voted more Conservatively than men. Except on Merseyside. If you examined the poll data you found that the most heavily Labour voters in the country were practising Catholics. And since women tended to be more devout than men Catholic women were almost 100% Labour. My mother being a case in point.
By the late 1950s even this Catholic world was feeling the pressure of secularization. Few of the boys at my Catholic school still seemed to believe in God and the Christian Brothers who brutally enforced our church-going all later left their order and ended up as barmen, bouncers and in other violent professions.
This created a strange result in the Irish Catholic sub-culture of Merseyside. On the one hand it retained its spirit of revolt (the passion for rock fitted into that for such music was still not respectable) and in every sense it was cheeky, irreverent and looking for trouble. But its Catholic raison d’etre had ceased to matter. Indeed poking fun at the church was part of the irreverence which was its main motif.
I knew many, many young men like this – they were instinctively anti-Establishment though seldom straightforwardly political. They might vote Labour but they certainly hated Tories. They were only vaguely sympathetic to Ireland – that had mattered more to their parents. But they were up for trouble of any kind. And they were passionate only about soccer and rock.
This was the world that produced the Beatles. Lennon and McCartney are both Irish names and you can pick up the Catholic echoes in their songs – Mother Mary comforts me, Father McKenzie darning his socks and so on. McCartney’s familiar name, Macca, is pure Scouse. But what John Lennon really represented was how completely screwed up and disoriented that sub-culture had become, a fact of course greatly accentuated by the tragic mess that Lennon’s home life was. McCartney always said he was sure that it was the agonies of John’s childhood that had made him so unusually creative but that he, Paul, was delighted to have missed all that.
So there’s no point in beatifying Lennon. He was extremely mixed up. He was in a state of permanent revolt without knowing quite what he was for. In some ways he was not a nice man. Given his childhood, that was too much too expect. Liverpool remembers him through its airport being named after him, its motto being “Above us only sky”. Doubtless, he would have jeered at that too, just as he had riled the Catholic Church by boasting that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus”.
It was a Beatle contemporary, Gerry Marsden (of Gerry and the Pacemakers) who finally joined everything up, taking along to Bill Shankly a record he’d just made, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, the old Rodgers and Hammerstein song. Shankly listened, immediately saw that it could become a Liverpool anthem and said, “Ye’ve given me a song, Gerry. And I’ll give you a football team.” Ever since Liverpool crowds have sung that song and now probably they always will.
By the time the Hillsborough disaster killed 96 Liverpool soccer fans in 1989, Gerry Marsden had become a symbol of Liverpool FC. He organised a special benefit concert for the families of the bereaved at which, of course, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was sung. But the climax was a rendition of an earlier hit, “Ferry Cross the Mersey”, for which Gerry joined up with another Liverpool fan, Paul McCartney.
This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.