I was more than halfway through a recent “London Rocks” tour—a jaunt which promises to lead its customers through the landmarks of British popular music—when I noticed that our guide had pointed out many more things that no longer exist than ones that still do. We’d peaked through the windows of the former Musicland record shop where a young Elton John worked in the late ’60s (now, it’s a store that sells pricey wedding gowns). We strolled the alley where Marianne Faithfull languished as a homeless heroin addict in the mid-’70s (currently, it’s headquarters to the Good Housekeeping Institute), then breezed by the studio where Queen recorded key parts of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (a locale since privatized into a $10 million single family home), before gazing at the vestigial entrance to the Marquee Club, where everyone from Hendrix to the Sex Pistols wailed. (It’s now—what else?—luxury lofts).
Together, it represented one long litany of gentrified loss, a sustained reminder of vanished creativity rather than a current embodiment of it. Yet, somehow, each site our guide ably illuminated transfixed me, as if even the ghost of a place once so prized, or notorious, couldn’t help but retain an inextinguishable essence of its spark. In fact, their vanishing only made them seem that much more precious.
A similar feeling gripped me the next day, when I took a tour of prime shooting locations for the beguiling Netflix series The Crown, which chronicles the maturing of a young Queen Elizabeth II. The tour highlighted places that serve as stand-ins for settings on the show, like Buckingham Palace, (transported to the less camera-shy Langham House), and Westminster Abbey (represented by the more publicity-friendly Ely Cathedral). Nearly everything I saw was a substitute for the real thing, in the same way that most everything pointed out on the “London Rocks” tour represented something that had left there long ago. Yet, none seemed any less fascinating for it. In fact, many gained something in the exchange. After all, who needs clumsy reality when you can evoke the fleet version spun by top notch television?
I’ve long been a sucker for such reconstructions and transpositions, which explains why I’ve hopped on pop culture-related tours for years, in cities from Berlin, to Memphis, to Wellington, New Zealand. Last month, I spent an entire week force-feeding myself on the equivalents in the U.K.—a decision made for a topical reason. We’re currently in the midst of a harmonic convergence of hit British pop culture events, including the billion-dollar-grossing Bohemian Rhapsody, the critically lauded The Favourite, and the new Elton John bio-pic Rocketman, as well as such binge-worthy phenoms as Downton Abbey and The Crown.
And there’s much more to come. The Danny Boyle-directed, Beatles-related flick Yesterday, partly set in Liverpool, opened June 28th, followed by the Downton Abbey movie September 20th, to be chased by the third season of The Crown sometime this fall. In music, there’s the impending 50th anniversary of The Beatles Abbey Road, which is guaranteed to draw unending hordes to the “zebra crossing” where the iconic cover of the Abbey Road album was shot. Thanks to our “London Rocks” guide, I now know that the apex of the impending frenzy will occur at 11:38 a.m. on August 8th, the exact second when the cover photo was clicked. Thanks to said guide, I also know that this was one of five shots taken at the crossroad that historic day—a factoid so minuscule, it seems monumental to possess it. In fact, that’s one key lure of pop culture tours. Taking one feels like entering a life-sized game of Trivial Pursuit: It’s as intellectually idiotic as it is emotionally thrilling.
That became clear the moment the Crown tour kicked off. It began by bussing us out to Loseley Park, a half-century-old mansion set on 1400 acres of rolling countryside in Surrey that passes for Lord Mountbatten’s house in the show. The place has also guest-starred in scenes in The Favourite and Downton Abbey. To kill time on the 90-minute ride out, our bubbly guide bombarded us with tasty bits related to whatever building we happen to whiz by. Apparently, that church on the right—Marylebone—is where Paul McCartney married Linda Eastman in 1969. That brutalist housing project on the left was so hated by James Bond author Ian Fleming, he named one of his greatest villains after its architect: Erno Goldfinger. At Loseley itself, we discovered that the property’s grand manor was built after Queen Elizabeth I told the estate’s owner, Sir William More, that his house there at the time was far too tatty for her to stay in. So, he tore the thing down in 1582 and erected the far more august structure that remains to this day. The pleased queen enjoyed four visits there, though she always insisted on bringing her own bed to sleep in.
Even more impressive are the fetishistically maintained gardens of Loseley, full of elaborate topiary and a wisteria sprawling enough to turn a 20-foot wall violet. On the way back to London, our guide pointed out sights like the Battersea Power Station, over which Pink Floyd flew a giant pig for the cover shot of their Animals album, followed by a walking tour of more buildings used in The Crown, all while she gave us a lesson in royal genealogy so confusing it reminded me that bubbling just below the surface of my ardor for The Crown, is an opinion of the actual queen shockingly similar to the screw-you delivered by Johnny Rotten in The Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” in 1976.
Being a music obsessive, I experienced no lulls on “London Rocks.” Even our guide’s cheeky vow to point out “every place where major rock stars fell over or sneezed,” didn’t dampen my fascination. Highlights included Trident Studios in Soho, where Queen’s first four albums were cut, along with “Hey Jude” by The Beatles, who were drawn by the studio’s 8-track recording capability at a time when Abbey Road Studio had just 4. (Depressingly, the place is now used solely for commercial voice-over work). Just as excitedly, we gazed up at the second floor of the brick building on Duck Lane where the initial version of the Rolling Stones formed, then strolled Berwick St. where the cover of Oasis’ What’s the Story, Morning Glory? was created. For a chaser, we were brought to gawk at Jimmy Page’s Tower House in Kensington (we saw his gardener!), Brian May’s dwelling (across from a monstrosity currently being constructed for Simon Cowell), as well as the house where Freddie Mercury died. I had made a pilgrimage to that sad place back in 1995, just after the singer’s demise. At the time, the wall before the house was so sweetly low you could see right over it. Impassioned graffiti covered it, and the cracks between its bricks were stuffed with notes of love and pain, turning it into rock’s answer to the Wailing Wall. More recently, its fed-up inheritor (Mercury’s ex-girlfriend Mary Austin) raised the wall significantly, turning the place into an impenetrable fortress, fronted by a sign that menacingly warns “graffiti is a crime.” For a kicker, we trucked over to 3 Saville Row, site of The Beatles' old office and their final rooftop concert. Now, it’s an outlet of Abercrombie Kids.
Undaunted, I continued my pop tour gorge several days later, up north in Liverpool. The city, far lovelier and livelier than its reputation, boasts as many Beatles-spoliation businesses as you’d imagine—the “Sgt. Pepper Bistro,” “Penny Lane Hotel,” “Fab Four Café,” etc. The sanctioned version of the Fab Four tale takes place at The Beatles Story, a semi-immersive museum plopped on the Albert Dock. Colorful to the point of near-cartoonishness, Story has whiffs of Las Vegas but its brightness eventually proves infectious. I especially enjoyed the recreation of the venue where The Beatles established themselves locally—The Cavern Club—right down to a facsimile of its snack bar stocked with plastic meat pies. Much of what you see in the museum is an approximation rather than the real thing. There’s a mellotron, “much like” the one used on “Strawberry Fields,” and silk suits mimicking those worn by the band on Sgt. Pepper’s cover. Still, for $21 U.S., it’s not a bad deal.
At the same time, I preferred the new Magical Beatles Museum, which opened on Matthew Street last July. It’s run by the family of Pete Best, the drummer who got famously sacked right before the band exploded. One third of the 300 item display here amounts to “The Beatles: The Pete Best Years,” featuring things like his bongos and leather trousers. But, given what happened to him, they seem poignant. More, they’re foundational to the band’s legacy. The memorabilia Best collected, which covers the band’s entire career, often feels fresher than the stuff in The Beatles Story museum. I especially appreciated the inclusion of the only known footage of the group performing in their leather outfits, as well as the items preserved from their financially disastrous Apple Boutique, including a homoerotic bed sheet.
Any number of local tours can drive you out to Beatles staples like Strawberry Field, the children’s orphanage near where John grew up. (This November, a section of it will open to the public for the first time). Then there’s Penny Lane and the childhood homes of John and Paul, the former far more upscale than the latter. As if by law, I also checked out the current incarnation of The Cavern Club, located near the original one on bustling Matthew Street. Today, it’s about as vital as a Hard Rock Café, but bands still play original songs there, and there’s the occasional drop-in from a superstar looking for a p.r. hook. To close my Fab Four tour, I ducked into the “Double Fantasy” show at the Liverpool Museum, dedicated to the relationship between John and Yoko. (It runs through November 3rd). Because Yoko was my (sometime) favorite Beatle, I found the display moving and, at times, hilarious, especially given the subversive art stunts she and John devised in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Of course, touchstones like The Beatles’ Abbey Road have been replaced in resonance by things like Downton Abbey, so my pop culture crawl found its logical conclusion down south, where much of that show and upcoming movie were shot. In Oxfordshire lies Bampton Village, a town which makes an ideal stunt double for the imaginary Downton. Strolling its streets, you half expect to overhear one of its characters fire off another condescending comment or launch a devious new plot twist. I took special glee peering over the wall before Churchgate House (used in the show for Isabel Crawley’s residence) and by entering St. Mary’s Church, the scene of so many Downton weddings, funerals and christenings.
Still, the star setting lies in Newbury, at Highclere Castle. Dating from 1679, it features 300 rooms on a sprawling state of 5000 acres. It’s financially ruinous to keep such a behemoth going, but the show has proven so successful at drawing tourists, it has transformed Highclere from a money pit into a cash cow. The aristocrats who currently run it, Earl and Lady Carnarvon, have exploited that brilliantly, offering scores of elaborate tour packages that can run between $125 and three times that. Luckily, you can get totally satisfying tours of the place for just $20. As you stand in Highclere’s soaring halls, they feel even more grand than they appear on TV. The library alone is as long as a football field. After you’ve been there for a few hours, you’ll feel like you’re a part of it.
Of course, that’s the pay-off to all pop culture tours. At the same time, there’s a poignancy to them. They’re as much about loss as preservation, reflecting back at us what’s gone from the culture’s history and from our own. As compensation, the tours re-connect us to the significance of the sites they show, letting us to bask in the only place they still live: memory.