Friday 19 August 2016

A Civil Service

Merseyside Civil Service Club
Lower Castle Street
L2 0SL

I started working in one of the big Insurance companies in Reliance House, Water Street during the summer of 1988. My Dad worked there and thought it would be an opportunity for me to "earn my keep" until I returned to college that September to finish my A-Levels.

Unfortunately I got used to having money and decided to stay. Even now, after all these years, I'm still in Insurance, the job for people who don't know what they want to do when they leave school.

Once I'd worked there for a while and been accepted by the "lads" I was invited to accompany them on Friday lunchtime to a pub called the Castle Court, situated in a back alley off Water Street down the side of the General Accident Insurance office (now the Il Palazzo restaurant) facing the enormous Martins Bank building where I'd take the days' banking at 3pm every day.

A blend of the old and new. The Castle Court merged with my recent photograph

Today I can find very little on-line or elsewhere about the Castle Court. At some point it may have been owned by Tommy Smith the former Liverpool FC player. We had a Christmas do there one year and it seemed to be available for functions. I don't know if it was open every day but on Friday's at least it seemed to do good business by featuring a stripper.

Strippers? I was just seventeen (you know what I mean?). The entrance to the Castle Court was about half way along Lower Castle Street* on the left. The door was lower than street level. You had to step down to enter and found yourself at the top of a flight of stairs leading down to a low lit room, obviously a former basement or cellar of one of the buildings on Castle Street.

The bar was straight ahead as you walked in and the toilets were in the far left corner next to it. If my memory serves me the room was covered in dark wood with some lighter paneling nearer the ceiling. Tables and chairs were arranged in the main space and in the near left corner was a stage, though frankly I've seen higher decking in people's back gardens. Nearby was a wall mounted jukebox.

Quite a crowd of men had gathered, most if not all suited office workers, clutching pints and smoking, waiting for the "act" to appear. 

She didn't keep us waiting long. A pale woman, maybe in her thirties, with a frizzy 80's style hairdo made her way to the stage and ready to begin alluringly purred:
'as anyone got 50p for the jukey?'

"What you doin' down there Queen? Oh". A good old fashioned 1980s stripper (perhaps THE stripper) in a Bootle pub. Photo by Steve Conlan.

She wasn't what I'd imagine strippers are like today. Who was she? A full time stripper? A prostitute? A bored housewife trying to make some extra cash, or perhaps just any cash for her family, unemployment was rife in the eighties. 

I can't remember the song but suffice to say by the end of it she'd taken the lot off to the cheers of the baying crowd. Gathering up her clothes and pushing her way through the suits I can still remember one of our admin men - in his late 30's, a bit slow, blonde bryl-creamed hair, pencil thin moustache - politely thank her with "it was very nice that". Very civil.

The Castle Court is no longer open. I stopped working in Water Street in 1995. I've no idea if it went before I did or sometime afterwards. There were five Insurance companies and the aforementioned bank there in 1988 but over the next 15 years or so they all closed and moved elsewhere, taking the Castle Court's customers with them.

It's amazing what you find on line sometimes. Shortly after writing the above I found this photo of the Castle Court on the In A City Living website showing the stairs and some of the seating. I remembered the colour scheme. What I'd forgotten (If I'd ever noticed) was the bar was done in the style of a medieval room, hence the white "mock Tudor" panelling and painted shields.

Anyway, let's move swiftly away from my memories of that perfect pair and focus on a fabulous foursome.

In the 1950s and 1960s this was the social and leisure club for the Merseyside Civil Service. Through one of Pete Best's contacts, the Beatles secured a £5 engagement here on Tuesday 7 February 1961. The club was normally only open to members (civil servants), but guests could be admitted with permission, paying three shillings for the privilege. Here's an extract from Pete's diary confirming the booking:

The Beatles played four further bookings here, consecutive Tuesday nights on 7, 14, 21 and 28 November 1961. While exclusive, these events seem to have been poorly attended.

These November gigs were witnessed by Frank McCormick. I'm amazed by how similar his memories of the layout of the venue are to mine: Late in 1961, aged 17, I first saw the Beatles at the Civil Service Club in Lower Castle Street (a narrow street off Water Street and parallel to Castle Street). In those days we referred to it colloquially as 'Back Castle Street.' In this below ground venue there was a bar room, a card school room, snooker room, and the main function room which had tables and chairs surrounding a dance area, and small dais in one corner for "the groups." In passing, the term 'band' wasn't used then, except maybe for jazz bands which were on the way out more or less. That's how I met my wife. I borrowed her 'Civvy Club' membership card - as I wasn't a Civil servant, but worked for the City Council in the offices at Liverpool Airport.

I saw the Beatles at the 'Civvy Club' about four times in their early Hamburg black leathers worn in the 'Pete Best days.' The only book I ever recall which accurately listed those gigs was something by Bill Harry (of Mersey Beat) published quite a few years ago. We went there for years (got my own membership card eventually, just by being a regular!). Every group played there, Searchers, Pacemakers, Big Three, Derry and the Seniors....the lot. They all played the same songs, but that was fine for us.

The Beatles were acutely aware that every group in Liverpool was playing the same songs, as Paul McCartney would later recall: There were millions of groups around at that time - There was a group called the Blue Angels that sounded exactly like Roy Orbison; they were immaculate....The Running Scareds - but they were mostly lookalike groups; The Shadows and Roy Orbison had a lot of followers. The Remo Four did a lot of Chet Atkins stuff, with clever guitar picking. So we decided we couldn't keep up, we couldn't better any of them, we had to find our own identity.

I think we sussed early on that we weren't going to get anywhere unless we were different; because if you weren't original you could get stranded. An example: I used to sing 'I Remember You' by Frank Ifield. It went amazingly well anywhere I played it; but if the group on before us did 'I Remember You', that was our big number up the spout. We'd ask bands, 'What numbers do you do, then?' If they ever mentioned 'I Remember You', it was, 'Oh dear.' So we had to play numbers no one else had or, if we'd both got the big number, trade off with the other band. And because we had the unusual songs, we became the act you had to see, to copy. We realised everybody and his uncle knew all the tunes we knew, so we started to move towards the В sides and the more obscure tunes like Ritchie Barrett's 'Some Other Guy' (1962].

I had this very diverse little record collection from which I was culling material. I remember I had the Coasters' 'Zing Went the Strings of My Heart' [1958], which was on the В side of 'Yakety Yak'. I can look back on these records and see what it was I liked. With 'Besame Mucho' by the Coasters [1960], it's a minor song and it changes to a major, and where it changes to a major is such a big moment musically. That major change attracted me so much. (Paul McCartney)

There wasn't much pop radio. You had Radio Luxembourg on a Sunday night, that was it. Through the merchant seamen you could get a lot of American records that weren't being played in England. And whichever of the bands heard a record first got to do it. So if Gerry Marsden found a number before everybody it, it was as if they were copying Gerry.
(Neil Aspinall, the Beatles road manager)

Of course you only had to do 'em once and everyone had 'em. Arthur Alexander's 'Shot of Rhythm and Blues' [1962], Gerry and the Pacemakers did it. But we always feel we did it better. 'Let them do it, doesn't matter, we'll do it better.' We took James Ray's 'If You're Gonna Make a Fool of Somebody' [1961] to the Oasis Club, Manches­ter, and Freddie and the Dreamers had it the next week! It was one of our numbers. That was a waltz, a funky soul waltz, and nobody did waltzes. We were looking to be different because we realised the competition out there. We had too much material anyway. We couldn't record it all when we did get a deal, so other groups took songs from our act and made hits out of them - like The Swinging Blue Jeans with 'The Hippy Hippy Shake', which was one of my big numbers.

We looked on Bo Diddley В sides, we looked for obscure rhythm and blues things: 'Searchin" by the Coasters [1957], 'Anna' by Arthur Alexander [1962]. We did the Shirelles' 'Soldier Boy' [1962], which is a girl's song. It never occurred to us. No wonder all the gays liked John. And Ringo used to sing 'Boys' [1960], another Shirelles number. It was so innocent. We just never even thought, Why is he singing about  boys? We loved the song. We loved the records so much that what it said was irrelevant, it was just the spirit, the sound, the feeling. The joy when you did that 'Bab shoo-wap, bab bab shoo wop'. That was the great fun of doing 'Boys'.

So at the Cavern we started to introduce a couple of our own songs along with these obscure В sides. We thought, There's one way they can't do it, they wouldn't dare do one of our songs. The first couple of songs we did of ours were rather laughed off, but a couple of girls in the audience quite liked them and would request them. 'Like Dreamers Do' was one of the very first songs I wrote and tried out at the Cavern. We did a weak arrangement but certain of the kids liked it because it was unique, none of the other groups did it. It was actually a bit of a joke to dare to try your own songs. (Paul McCartney)

Outside the M.C.S. Club on Lower Castle Street looking towards Water Street and the former Martins Bank building.


*I'm not sure if Liverpool is unique in this respect but it does have a number of alleys situated behind a main street or road given the suffix "Lower" or "Back". In fact Lower Castle Street is often referred to as Back Castle Street.

Neil Aspinall quote from "The Beatles Anthology" book.

Paul McCartney quote is an amalgam from "The Beatles Anthology" and "Many Years From Now"


  1. Mark, Thank you for your entertaining and interesting blog. It's original, well written and avoids the boring old clichés of many others. You obviously do your research! As a London-based enthusiast who rarely gets up to Liverpool, it's fascinating to see articles like this.


    1. Thank you Lefty for your kind comments. There will be more shortly. Cheers

  2. I was involved with the strip out and conversation of castle court. It became office stores circa 2010. Was fascinating seeing it before the strip out.