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Stairwell to pop history heaven

The Beatles posed on it and now the famous backdrop is moving. Robin Stummer reports
AS stairwells go, it's, well, a stairwell. Seven levels of wood, steel and glass - anonymous, even by 1960s standards. In fact, the only striking thing is that part of the first-floor handrail and glass screen is missing. But add four mop-tops from Liverpool and all becomes clear. Yes, it's that stairwell. The one pictured on millions of Beatles album covers, and its most famous section - the one the Fab Four leant over to be photographed - was last week unscrewed, prised apart and taken away.

But the removal of one of rock's holiest relics from EMI's ageing headquarters at 20 Manchester Square, London, was no act of architectural vandalism, for the next day it reappeared three miles away as the focal point of the company's new offices at Hammersmith.

The Beatles were photographed twice on the EMI stairwell. The first shot, of the baby-faced fabs fresh from Liverpool, was taken in February 1963 by Angus McBean and used for the cover of Please Please Me, the group's first album. Years later, McBean, who died in 1990, recalled that during the shoot he had asked John Lennon how long he thought the Beatles would stay together. "Oh, about six years I suppose," retorted Lennon, "Who ever heard of a bald Beatle?"

Six years later, in May 1969, the group returned to Manchester Square to recreate their pose, but their faces had started to show the strain. As a working entity, they had all but broken up. That shot, also taken by McBean, was originally intended for a new Beatles album entitled Get Back, but amid increasing rancour and business disagreements, it never appeared. Both photographs were used for the two greatest hits double albums, released in 1973. EMI's debt to the Beatles is enormous; the group recorded on the company's subsidiary label, Parlophone, and later, Apple (the band's own venture whose recordings were distributed by EMI). The company's decision to move the stairwell to its new building is an uncharacteristic display of sentimentality in a hard-nosed industry. "The Beatles' working career was centred on 20 Manchester Square," said David Hughes, an EMI vice-president. "The group was responsible for launching British pop as a world export, and we were lucky enough to have them signed to EMI. Commercially, the Beatles are as important to EMI in 1995 as they were in 1962."

But to many Beatles devotees, the EMI stairwell's dismemberment is yet another heartbreaking loss of a landmark associated with the group. "It's sad, but inevitable," says Richard Porter, who takes up to 7,000 tourists a year on tours of the Beatles' London. "It's 25 years since they split and most of the places associated with the group have changed in some way. But there's still a lot around."

In the early Seventies, Liverpool's Cavern Club, the subterranean "birthplace" of the Beatles, was demolished to make way for a ventilation shaft for an underground car park. Another site, the former RAF station at West Malling in Kent, where scenes for the Magical Mystery Tour film were shot, is due to be replaced by a business park.

But while the sites disappear, collectors are willing to pay huge sums for Beatles relics. Two weeks ago, a metal stud from the pedestrian crossing at Abbey Road fetched pounds 380, while parts of the old Cavern Club have soared in value. "In the early Eighties the going rate for a brick from the Cavern was about pounds 5," says Richard Porter. "But now they are selling for around pounds 200. It's big business."