Imagine, just past the red gates leading into the now-overgrown Strawberry Field children’s home…down a bit farther along Penny Lane…through the roundabout now, with the barbershop right where it’s supposed to be…
Imagine if, under these suburban Liverpool skies, John Lennon hadn’t met Paul McCartney.
Until this past decade, it was as if the Beatles had never existed here.
Now, just in the nick of time, Liverpool is capitalizing on its status as the birthplace of the Fab Four.
A half century ago Ringo Starr made his first appearance as the Beatles’ official drummer.
They played at the horticultural society’s annual dance.
Some girls cried out for dumped drummer Pete Best, but their sobs didn’t last long.
You know the rest is history, as much as Best does.
However, the port city by the Mersey, which was the spiritual birthplace of the Titanic as well as the British Invasion, has had a difficult time figuring out what that musical history has meant here.
As Memphis shook every rhinestone and gaudy souvenir out of its association with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Liverpool hesitated and faltered and still debates how hard to hug their own sons.
"The city didn’t want to embrace the Beatles until recently," says Jerry Goldman, head of the large dockside museum The Beatles Story.
It’s now just one of a number of Beatles-themed tourist attractions, from a refurbished upscale Hard Days Night Hotel to so many double-decker tours of the childhood homes of McCartney and Lennon their front yards are like downtown bus stops.
But for decades local politicians argued the city should be looking ahead rather than back. They had seen Liverpool — once Britain’s second most important city — hobbled by the downturn in the shipping industry. They had seen the city lose about half its population between 1930 and 2001.
They weren’t going to repeat history just because of four wildly successful musicians.
After all, Liverpool is more than 800 years old. It owned the oceans and survived the Blitz. The town clock is bigger than Big Ben. Its city green space inspired New York’s Central Park.
Today there’s academic research and a steady flow of cruise ships. It’s home to the Grand National steeplechase and to arguably Britain’s best known football club in a place that takes the sport so seriously its fervor dictated the color of the garbage bins (to stop rival fans from setting them on fire).
So there have always been those who cringe as the Beatles are held up as Liverpool’s greatest asset.
"I am sorry, but it is time to send the ‘Yellow Submarine’ below water once and for all," argued a recent piece in the Independent, penned by a Liverpool native who was editor of the local paper 20 years ago.
And resident Michael McDonough, in response to an article in The Atlantic Cities online magazine, grumbled, "Tourism, like the much exhausted Beatles brand, is and should always be an add-on economic benefit to a city the size of Liverpool."
Yes, locals point out, there is much more here than just being the "capital of pop": Liverpool has turned out more number one hits than any other town on Earth.
But it’s the birthplace of the Beatles that has sold the city worldwide over the last 50 years.
So in the last decade, tour buses, themed hotels, museums, the "Fab4D" movie experience and John Lennon Airport — where the slogan is "Above us only sky" — have replaced reluctance and stubbornness.
It’s not as crass as Memphis, but Liverpool finally owns the Beatles.
And that’s a good thing, says Julia Baird, John Lennon’s half-sister.
Sitting in the deep reaches of the Cavern Club — the resurrected Liverpool haunt where the Beatles played so often — Baird says it’s taken Liverpool decades to understand the legacy.
"They didn’t consider the Beatles as a hook to bring people in," she points out, while a tribute band in another room does a respectable job of Love Me Do before a packed house.
For decades, few people wanted the old photos of the group, and legends became distant from the truth. Liverpool, Baird recalls, was a black hole as far as the Beatles were concerned.
"(But) look at it today – it’s a multimillion-pound business," she says.
If you ask her what it was like having John Lennon as a half-brother, you can see boredom fill her eyes.
"It’s like asking what it was like having your grandmother as your grandmother," she says.
She figures the more interesting question is: If Lennon hadn’t become a Beatle, what would have happened?
Maybe he would have become a more ordinary artist or writer, she imagines. Maybe he’d be married to a local girl and have five children today.
But then she balks. "I can’t imagine John not being a Beatle."
Just the way, 50 years on, much of Liverpool – finally – can’t imagine itself without the band.