From Bowie to the Beatles: How to See the England of Its Rock Stars
From a hotel that Freddie Mercury and John Lennon once frequented to the recording studios where David Bowie created “Space Oddity,” here’s where to seek out England’s rich musical history in London and Liverpool.
Britain has yielded some of the world’s most famous rock stars, from the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Who to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and Elton John. In recent years, biopics such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman have shone an additional spotlight on England’s popular music heritage. This June, the international release of Yesterday—a fantasy-comedy that explores a world where the Beatles didn’t exist—marked the latest movie to join the growing list. For travelers with whom these films struck a chord and for rock fans of any kind, here’s how to embark on the ultimate British music pilgrimage from London to Liverpool.
In London . . .
All British music pilgrimages should start in London—more specifically, in Soho. The English capital has long been the epicenter of the country’s music and creative industries, and no place more so than the city’s Soho neighborhood. In this tight warren of streets, alleys, and squares located in the heart of London’s West End, there are no big landmarks indicating the area’s illustrious musical past. Instead, travelers will encounter basement record stores, underground gig venues, and tucked away recording studios with big names attached. One, for example, is Soho’s Trident Studios: Hidden down the rather drab-looking St. Anne’s Court (the street where British singer Marianne Faithfull slept when she was homeless in the ’70s), this is where Queen made “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975 and David Bowie recorded “Space Oddity” in 1969.
On a walking tour with Rock Tours of London, a knowledgeable guide named Lee—who’s been “in and around the London rock scene for 40 years”—will regale you with his own tales of hanging out with the Queen “lads” and seeing bands like the Clash in the area’s British Invasion–era institutions, while painting a picture of what Soho was really like in the ’60s.
Abbey Road Studios
While much of Soho’s major rock-n-roll venues from the 1960s and ’70s have since succumbed to gentrification, one of London’s most famous music hubs, Abbey Road Studios, remains a site where popular acts record music today. English acts such as Radiohead, Sting, Adele, Ed Sheeran, Florence & The Machine, Amy Winehouse, and Pink Floyd have recorded projects at the legendary space. It’s most famous, though, as the the Beatles’ recording studio—and for the crosswalk featured on the sleeve of their 1969 album, Abbey Road.
This August marks the 50th anniversary of that photo being taken (it happened on August 8, 1969, at 11:38 a.m.). To celebrate the anniversary, the Studios are opening up for tours at select times in August (but they’re booking up fast, so reserve now if you want to get the scoop). You can also visit the crossing to recreate the album cover for yourself, and there’s a webcam set up nearby, so if you’re not able to make the trip, you can still watch the mayhem that Beatles fans cause daily for drivers down Abbey Road.
The May Fair Hotel
From London’s grittier Soho neighborhood, head into the upmarket Mayfair district to the May Fair Hotel. Many of the world’s leading musicians rested their heads in this elite London establishment—when Bob Dylan took a suite at the hotel after his 1966 tour, the American singer and songwriter was visited by the Beatles. If you can’t afford your own stay in a plush suite at the hotel, book into one of its smaller rooms or simply have dinner and drinks in the excellent lobby restaurant—this is a prime opportunity to have a classic London gin and tonic, so order the Stratton Street G&T.
With its brilliant street market, trendy coworking spaces, and happening nightlife, this buzzy neighborhood has become the poster child for gentrification in London in recent years. But when David Bowie was born here in 1947, it would have been a far less enticing place. After the influential musician’s death in 2016, Bowie fans adorned the front of his birthplace at 40 Stanfield Road with bouquets, gifts, and messages. Just around the corner, a striking Ziggy Stardust mural by artist James Cochran decorates the wall of Morley’s Department Store opposite the Brixton tube station.
In Liverpool . . .
The Cavern Club
The downtown Liverpool venue hailed as “the birthplace of the Beatles” closed for business in 1973. But in 1984, a new Cavern Club arose at the same Mathew Street address where the famous music cellar once stood. On any night of the week, the live music venue turns into a sticky, sweaty showhouse where new and well-established bands take the stage. The scene at the cellar often recalls what it was like when the Beatles played their first gigs at the original club—though perhaps with fewer swooning teenage girls.
The Magical Beatles Museum and The Beatles Story
On the same downtown Liverpool street as the Cavern Club, the Magical Beatles Museum houses a private collection of Beatles memorabilia, from George Harrison’s Futurama Grazio guitar to clothes and jewelry worn by members of the band. (The museum inventory is owned by former Beatles drummer Pete Best.) The finest way to familiarize yourself with the four lads that made music history, though, is only a 15-minute walk away. The wonderfully immersive The Beatles Story, a permanent attraction located at Liverpool’s UNESCO-listed Royal Albert Dock (a waterfront complex of shops, restaurants, and galleries), charts the band’s rise to fame through detailed exhibits and an audio tour narrated by John Lennon’s sister, Julia Baird.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s childhood homes
By far, the greatest Beatles landmarks you can visit in Liverpool are the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, where some of the band’s first songs, such as “She Loves You,” were originally written. John Lennon’s Liverpool home has been lovingly maintained by his aunt Mimi and is almost exactly as it was when he lived there in the 1950s. McCartney’s home is a more modest dwelling, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with other small red-brick houses on a former government-owned council estate. Both houses are now owned by the United Kingdom’s National Trust and can only be visited on booktable tours led by guides from the organization.
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