We've got a ticket to ride. It says so on the Magical Mystery Tour admission stub that arrives in the mail a week before we leave for London and Liverpool: "This portion is your ticket to ride." Our boys, Gabriel, 10, and Charlie, 6, get the reference, of course. It would be hard for them not to, considering that they've been raised to a backbeat of Beatles music. There we were, sleep-starved and half-mad, joggling a colicky newborn on our knees to the insistent rhythm of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," or doing baby Jazzercise to the hypnotic chord progressions of "Norwegian Wood."
Now our boys explore the music on their own. Without prompting, Charlie happily pops Yellow Submarine into the boom box at bedtime, while Gabriel memorizes the lyrics from the back cover of our ancient Sgt. Pepper LP. And why not?Thanks to the success of the greatest-hits compilation The Beatles 1 and the Anthology box sets, the Beatles remain a powerful force in pop music, even among the Britney-and-Backstreet generation. Their sound—more than 30 years after the breakup—is still here, there, and everywhere.
But the story behind the music, as VH1 might put it, isn't as pervasive. To get the full experience, you have to make the ultimate Beatles pilgrimage: first London, then Liverpool, two cities that for some tourists have less to do with bangers and mash or the Changing of the Guard than with the band that launched a million lunch boxes.
The Beatles, in fact, are still very much a visible, iconic presence in London—unattainable yet ubiquitous, not unlike the Royal Family. Their wax likenesses grace Rock Circus, the rock-and-roll branch of Madame Tussaud's in Piccadilly Circus. Their instruments adorn the world's first Hard Rock Café, at 50 Old Park Lane. And we saw their loopily scrawled lyric sheets to "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in the British Museum, not far from the Magna Carta.
But like the Windsors, the Beatles also remain an invisible presence. At any moment, somewhere in London, you might be walking past a site of quasi-historical pop-cultural significance. And for that reason, we decide a tour guide is needed. We could, of course, follow the trails laid out in The Official Abbey Road Café Guide to the Beatles' London, an invaluable source. Instead we go right to guidebook author Richard Porter, president of the London Beatles Fan Club, holder of the Beatles Brain of Britain title, and organizer of the definitive Beatles' walking tours.
Ours begins outside the Marylebone tube stop and rail station, where Désirée, our glamorous, fake leopard skin—wearing guide (the kind of woman Ringo always seemed to date), quickly corrals our cheerful group of 25 fans from around the world. Our boys happen to be the only kids, but Richard Porter later tells us, "Quite often it's kids dragging their parents along—not the other way around."
Désirée gets right down to business, pointing out locations from the start of the movie A Hard Day's Night, the scene that would define Beatlemania forever: throngs of screaming girls chasing John, Paul, George, and Ringo in the streets, through the station, and onto a train. From there it's a short walk to the Westminster Registry Office, where Paul married Linda while thousands of fans blocked Marylebone Road; the former location of the Apple Shop (once a shoplifter's paradise) and Apple Music headquarters; and the flat at 34 Montagu Square where Ringo lived, Paul wrote "Eleanor Rigby," and John and Yoko were busted for marijuana possession. "If you were a teen girl in 1966," Désirée says, gesturing toward the door of the flat, "more than any other place in the world, this was where you wanted to be." Though our kids, in 1966, were 25 and 29 years away from being born, they follow every word.
The final stop is a short tube ride away at the Abbey Road Studios, where our boys add their signatures to the wall outside, covered with writing (it's painted over every four months). And then it's off to the pièce de résistance, the Abbey Road crosswalk. Désirée tells us which way we'll have to face to re-create the cover of the album for a snapshot; we hesitate, but Gabriel and Charlie will have none of our self-consciousness.
"Why did the Beatles break up?" Gabriel asks on the way to the Abbey Road Café for souvenir Lennon sunglasses. But we're no more able to answer now than we were when it happened. Fortunately, we don't have to, because Charlie pipes up, "Where did they live when they were little?" Now here's a question we'll be able to answer.
"Wednesday morning at five o'clock as the day begins . . ." Actually, our train leaves at 10 on Wednesday, bound for Liverpool. This time, partly to accommodate our kids' short legs, we've chosen the luxury of wheels: a Magical Mystery Tour bus ride with sing-alongs. But the British rail system leaves us stalled just outside Liverpool for so long that by the time we arrive, the tour has taken off. Trying to salvage the day, we approach a taxi driver and ask if he knows where some of the Beatles sites are. This, we realize in retrospect, is like asking a Parisian cabbie if he knows how to get to the Eiffel Tower. Without missing a beat, our driver coolly flips down his visor, pulls out a yellowing photocopy of the Beatles Pocket Map & Guide to Liverpool, and says, "Where to first, guv?"
Soon we're hitting all the biggies: Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army children's home sporting a Beatle graffiti—covered gate; Penny Lane, once a commercial street and now the name of the entire area (even if it technically ended at the roundabout in the song); the boyhood homes of all four Beatles. Nothing brings to life the band's working-class-hero origins like seeing the 1930's semi-detached house at 251 Menlove Avenue where John lived with his Aunt Mimi from 1945 to 1963, and Paul's narrow brick quarters at 20 Forthlin Road, the only council house to become a National Trust site.
Or, for that matter, walking down the brick alley leading to the re-creation of the Cavern Club, the hall where the pre-Ringo Beatles played 292 times. This is at the last stop of our pilgrimage, the Beatles Story, a museum in a refurbished brick warehouse on the Albert Dock along the river Mersey. It follows the trajectory of the Beatles' career in elaborate detail, displaying such memorabilia as the EMI tape machine on which the Beatles recorded much of their music. But equally cool is what's ersatz: in addition to the Cavern Club, the museum houses a replica of the passenger cabin of the Pan Am plane that brought the band to New York, and an explorable yellow submarine.
We've gotten what we wanted out of this trip, but how about our kids?Was our journey to Britain just one of those self-gratifying adult ideas dressed up to look as though it might be "fun for the whole family"?
We get our answer later that night, back at our London hotel. "Gabriel, can you help me write a letter to Ringo?" we hear Charlie ask. Gabriel looks up from the telly, which is tuned to the original British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. It's couples night on the show, and, amazingly, the question is "Which Beatle was barefoot on the cover of the Abbey Road album?" Though the pair in the hot seat is stumped (as is their "lifeline"), Gabriel isn't. "Paul," he answers blithely, then settles down on the rug to transcribe the letter his brother dictates. "Dear Ringo," Charlie begins. "I really, really like you. . . ."
Richard Panek's forthcoming book is The Invisible Century (Viking). Meg Wolitzer's new novel, The Wife (Scribner), will be out in April.
Preparing for a Beatles Quest
You know what to listen to. Here's what to watch:
• A Hard Day's Night A day (or so) in the life of Beatlemania. Once your kids get past the black-and-white visual barrier, they'll respond to the comedy. One of the best rock-and-roll movies ever.
• Help! The follow-up to A Hard Day's Night, in color and less spontaneous, but still memorably madcap.
• The Anthology series (Capitol) At eight videotapes averaging 75 minutes each, this career-comprehensive documentary can be overwhelming even for the most ardent young fan. Consider focusing on Tapes 1 to 3, which cover the Beatles' years in Liverpool and London and introduce many of the places you'll be seeing on your trip.
The Hit Tours
LONDON Richard Porter (The Original London Walks, 44-207/624-3978; www.beatlesnews.com) has organized two 2 1/2-hour walking tours that he and others lead: the Magical Mystery Tour, focusing on the professional part of the Beatles' story (the Apple offices, Carnaby Street), and In My Life (Paul's house, Ringo's flat). Porter also conducts private tours on request. Check his Web site for times, meeting spots, and to order The Official Abbey Road Café Guide to the Beatles' London.
LIVERPOOL The Magical Mystery Tour (44-151/236-9091; www.cavern-liverpool.co.uk) is a two-hour ride on a yellow-and-blue bus, with sing-alongs. Ticket to Ride (44-151/330-0844; firstname.lastname@example.org) provides taxi tours (up to four passengers, starting at $114 per group for a 2 1/2-hour whirl); a driver will even meet you at the train station. Or wing it, as we did, by finding a knowledgeable cabbie—our hour-long, unscripted tour cost about $33, with tip.