GOING DOWN TO LIVERPOOL : A MAGICAL MUSIC TOUR
Because I have some idea of how this blog plays out, I want to stress upfront that I live in the Home Counties, and it's a drive of nearly 4 hours to Liverpool. Two nights in the city were enough to convince me that it has a strong claim to be the UK’s music capital. Music runs through its history, its people and its streets
Here’s the thing though. The claim is stronger if you ignore the Beatles.
Packing Away The Sacred Cow
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Beatles. Claiming to love pop music whilst ignoring or playing down the Beatles is like David Cameron claiming ‘Eton Rifles ‘ as his favourite song. It completely misses the point of what you’re listening to and leaves you sounding like a fool. And nobody seems to like him!.
It’s just that I feel that the Beatles completely outgrew Liverpool around the time of ‘Rubber Soul’. They became the ambassadors for pop in the UK rather than a single region. They were the favourite sons who spread their wings, settling in London, conquering America but not returning home in any musical sense. They may have written and sung about Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, but it was looking back to a past they had left behind, a nostalgic remembrance of places they used to visit but didn’t frequent anymore.
The Beatles are a huge industry in Liverpool. There’s a museum dedicated to them. There’s The Cavern Club, except it isn’t because the original closed in 1973. And there’s The Cavern Pub, part of a family of tourist attractions exploiting the city’s links to the Beatles. The pub wasn’t there when the Beatles were.
Neither of the iconic songs most embedded in Liverpool are by the Beatles. ‘Ferry Across The Mersey’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ are both by Gerry and the Pacemakers. ‘Ferry Across The Mersey’ was the choice of the Liverpool acts, including Paul McCartney, who recorded a charity single for the victims of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster. If you ask someone where ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ comes from they’re more likely to suggest Liverpool Football Club rather than the musical Carousel. But there is no museum dedicated to Gerry and the Pacemakers in Liverpool or anywhere else
That’s not the real problem though. The real problem is that while the Beatles grab all the attention, the multitude of outstanding Liverpool bands and personalities that followed in their wake are pushed, undeservedly, under the waves of the Mersey..
Drifting Down Stanley Street
In my experience it’s not Liverpudlians who have a thing about the Beatles. Walking around the city, I didn’t hear many shops blaring out ‘Help’ or ‘She Loves You’, although I avoided the Beatles circus of Mathew Street, simply crossing it to head for the Bluecoat Arts Centre and Probe Records.
The music playing in shops and cafes was a mix of soul, indie, non Beatles 60s and quality pop. My wife needed shoes. Shoe shopping has never been more palatable. Yes, there are buskers playing Beatles songs, but the emphasis is on them being good songs. The busker outside the Mersey Ferry Terminal played ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Don't Let Me Down'. They're two excellent songs, but you’d get long odds on a No. record and a B side being the first two Beatles songs that you’d play to attract the punters.
The record shops I visited - ‘81 Renshaw’, ‘Dig Vinyl’ and ‘Probe’ - didn’t have big sections on The Beatles, but they did offer an eclectic mix of old and new. ‘81 Renshaw’ had a section dedicated to Liverpool bands. They take pride in them, and recognise their worth.
Making It Feel Mighty Real
I don't think it’s a coincidence that the city hosts the British Music Experience, located in the Cunard Building at Pier Head down at the docks. It’s quite simply the most interesting music exhibition I’ve ever seen. The secret is that it gives you so much to read and absorb - setlists, admission tickets, album covers, costumes, instruments, handwritten lyric sheets complete with corrections as well as the context for the times. It gives equal weight to skiffle, rock and roll, prog rock, heavy metal, punk, new romantics, Britpop, dance in all its guises and the modern day superstars of Adele, Ed Sheeran and Coldplay. And yes, they give due weight, but not a surfeit of attention to the Holy Trinity of the Beatles, the Stones and the Who.
They’re all part of the bigger story.
The written notes read like the start of a conversation. I was looking for complete strangers to share my musical memories with. Remember where you were when you first saw Suzy Quatro in her leather catsuit (Left). I was watching her on TOTP with my Gran in the room. I still remember her disparaging comment that Suzy was NOT a nice kind of girl looking like that. The catsuit is not just a memory of my youth but a memory of my Gran.
Elton John’s glasses, Bowie’s flamboyant cat suits and dresses, the Spice Girls’ Girl Power outfits - they’re all there. The most moving exhibit from the temporary Scottish music collection was a Runrig live CD, recovered from the wreck of the Challenger spaceship.
There’s a close link between Scottish rock and pop and the Liverpudlian strain. Both are crammed with unbelievably good groups and music. The Scottish collection includes a handwritten lyric sheet for The Skids’ ‘Into The Valley’. Now that may be the least comprehensible set of sung lyrics in the history of music and I’ve always wanted to know what Richard Jobson is actually singing. I approached eagerly, only to find that his handwriting is as indecipherable as his singing. Ah well, one of life’s little mysteries remains.
It’s an interactive exhibition. We were there for nearly three hours, and still only scratched the surface. There’s an uncannily accurate Bot George hologram singing ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?’ No, George. You’re a hologram. It doesn’t work like that.
And then, finally, there’s a chance to pick up or sit at an instrument and play. I learned three things. First, playing drums, even synthesised ones, is harder than it looks. Secondly, playing a synthesiser draws you irresistibly to the opening of Depeche Mode’s ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. Whatever song you go for it sounds impressive, enhanced like reading a lesson from a grand church pulpit. Thirdly, you can’t learn bass guitar in five minutes.
The attendants and guides are unfailingly pleasant and helpful, united by a knowledgeable love of music. In the cafe a song was playing that I couldn’t quite place. It turned out to be Stornoway’s ‘Zorbing’. Asking the girl behind the counter who it was triggered a 5 minute chat about festivals, great bands and the best pub in Liverpool to hear live music (The Caledonia, at 22 Caledonia Street, if you’re interested.)
I’m still buzzing about this visit. And what it shows is the love for music that runs through this city. It’s genuine and sincere and accepting. I love it.
So, if it’s not the Beatles, what gives Liverpool the right to be regarded as the UK’s rock and pop capital?
Rock Of Ages
My favourite Liverpool band, because of one song that provided me with the unexpected thrill of the whole trip, is The Cherry Boys. Largely forgotten within a few months of their only album, they recorded a song called ‘Kardomah Cafe’. It’s as sweet a tribute to the joys of wasting time in cafes and people watching as you’ll find anywhere at any time. It includes the line “Watching the people drifting down Stanley Street". I stood in Stanley Street and I felt a closer link to the music of a place than I've ever experienced before. There’s also a statue of Eleanor Rigby there but that’s not what I'll remember.
With the help of Wikipedia, I was able to remember over 30 acts that I genuinely like, mainly drawn from the 70s, 80s and 90s or, as I call it, rock's greatest era. If any of these acts released new material today I’d be over it like the rain covers at Wimbledon.
There’s a flow through the years, a musical river alongside the Mersey. Take Ian Broudie. Best known for the glorious and addictive sugar pop of The Lightning Seeds, he was also a founder member of The Original Mirrors - a contender for the most criminally overlooked band in history.
Think about the Icicle Works - just one Top 20 hit (‘Love Is A Wonderful Colour’) but a host of even better songs such as ‘Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream)’ that never made it and, in Ian McNabb, a singer who’s retained all the passion and songwriting quality of his youth for the best part of forty years.
There are the headline makers of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and the post punk and rock of Echo and the Bunnymen through to the sound of their lush pop with ‘The Killing Moon’, ‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’ and ‘Seven Seas'. Who’s the most influential electronic artist ever? According to Electronic Sound, the magazine bible for electronic music it’s not Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream, it’s Liverpool’s Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark.
I could rave about many more but I suspect you're getting the picture. I've compiled
a Spotify playlist to commemorate Liverpool music at:
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And In The End….
I’ve rambled through this blog as I rambled through the streets of Liverpool and its musical history. I make no apologies for that.
Music is about good songs and memories. It’s not about the number of records sold, the number of column inches and pages written, or product marketing.
It’s about the connections that music makes between artists and fans, between residents of a city and its visitors and between the heart of a city and the soul of the listener. The rarest jewels are often hidden in the dirt. They need to be sought out, appreciated and polished. Not all popular music enjoys mass popularity and it’s the better for it.
Liverpool understands that music is for life, not just Beatlemania. It nourishes, encourages and supports pop music and it embeds music in the life of the city and its people.
What more could you want form a music city?
There was another song I particularly wanted to include in the playlist - 'Too Late To Fly The Flag' by Hambi and the Dance.
I couldn't find it on Spotify, so I've added YouTube video here.