Liverpool is on the cusp of something special. I firmly believe that the cogs are clicking into place and the connections are being made as we enter a new cycle in this unique city’s cultural quest.
Over recent years the Baltic Triangle has emerged as fertile ground for the city’s creative community. It puts me in mind of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, which underwent major re-generation thanks to the artistic community that brought the area alive, and, as a consequence, became absolutely central to the resuscitation of New York nightlife. The same process has seen this once abandoned area of Liverpool thrive in the contagious self-confidence that’s been a recent feature of the city’s rise. It’s a world apart from when I resided there during the mid-80’s - Liverpool was on its knees and in a spiral of depopulation. I was one of those who had to get out in order to find a way forward – these were bleak times for the city, unemployment twice the national average, with a Thatcher government happy to put the boot in at any opportunity. It was brutal, as depicted in the groundbreaking drama series ‘Boys From The Blackstuff’.
Now here we are almost 3 decades on, and it’s crystal clear to anyone who spends some time in the city that things are on the up and up. The planets are aligning and Liverpool’s star is in the ascendancy - it’s time for artists to brave and bold, pushing against the same old to create a new approach that chimes with the times in which we live.
If you look at the history of popular culture in the UK you’ll see patterns of innovation in different provincial cities – periods of peaks and troughs. Places like Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield, Glasgow and Liverpool can be hives of activity at one point in time, then apparently barren artistic wastelands but a few years on as the zeitgeist moves elsewhere.
The highs can’t be maintained indefinitely, otherwise they wouldn’t be highs, everything moves in cycles. Whilst the conditions in the city need to be conducive to artistic expression, with the necessary infrastructure of venues / art spaces, the main ingredient that sets one city apart from what may be regarded as an equally innovative city, Manchester and Liverpool for example, is always down to individuals – passionate obsessives who are willing to put in the time and energy to push their vision through, often against initial resistance.
Liverpool has had 2, perhaps 3 great cultural eras. The first being the Merseybeat years of the early 60’s, which spawned The Beatles and a whole host of hit paraders. The next being the scene that grew up around Eric’s, a club on Mathew Street (just near where The Beatles famously played a generation earlier, at The Cavern). Opened by Roger Eagle and Ken Testi in 1976, Eric's was the catalyst for the emergence of a new wave of bands who’d enjoy various levels of mainstream success throughout the coming years. These included Echo & The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Dead Or Alive, concluding with the near global domination of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, whose first 3 singles all topped the UK pop chart in 1984 (this feat was previously achieved by another Liverpool band 21 years earlier in 1963 – no, not The Beatles, but Gerry & The Pacemakers). Bill Drummond, who managed both Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes, would also turn up later down the line as a key player in popular culture, re-emerging as a member of The KLF.
The more debatable 3rd great cultural period would be the Cream era, beginning in 1992 when the superclub-to-be was launched at city centre nightspot Nation. This was very much in the slipstream of Manchester, and what had happened during the late 80’s at The Haçienda. Whilst it undoubtedly put Liverpool firmly on the map as a clubbing destination, and brought many legendary DJ's to the city, you can argue as to whether Cream really enhanced the overall movement in terms of innovation – this wasn't a grass roots scene, like what had happened at The Cavern and Eric's (by this criteria The Underground and Quadrant Park would be the more seminal Liverpool venues of the rave era), and many would cite Cream and Ministry Of Sound in London as the beginning of the end for what had previously been regarded as an underground movement, ushering in the age of the Superstar DJ.
Times had moved on, and with Madchester descending into Gunchester as the gangs moved in to control the increasingly lucrative drug trade in the rainy city, Liverpool, previously regarded as a dangerous place to visit, was all of a sudden a much safer option than its neighbor from up the East Lancs Road, less than 40 miles away. Cream was in the right place at the right time, and became a juggernaut that would overshadow everything else, not least G Love, who had tested the water with their nights at Nation prior to Cream moving into the venue.
Although I went a few times here and there, I was never personally a big fan of Cream, although I appreciate that for many Liverpudlians this represents the greatest time of their life – horses for courses. I preferred The Undeground, which came before it, and the more intimate nights that Girls On Top were throwing during the early-mid 90’s. The initial Garlands period was also great, but it was at that point I pretty much disconnected with the club scene completely. Everything became increasingly compartmentalised in the 90’s, and I wasn’t the type of person who enjoyed hour upon hour of the same narrow style of music, which was what was generally being served up throughout that decade.
During the 80’s Liverpool wasn’t even at the races with regards to black music in comparison to cities like Manchester, Bristol, Nottingham, Sheffield and London. This, in my opinion, was due to the racist door policies that existed in the city centre, especially following the Toxteth riots of 1981. DJ’s were dissuaded from playing anything but the more commercial, chart-based black music, which was the reason that, although Liverpool was my home city, as a black music specialist I found a much more receptive audience in Manchester. Clubs like Kirklands and Quinns valiantly tried to buck this trend, but it was a losing battle.
The reason Manchester took off the way it did was a result of the coming together of black and white, on the one hand in areas like Hulme, popular with the students, but also with a large black presence, on the other in city centre clubs, most notably the mid-80’s Haçienda, creating the conditions for the rave explosion there at the end of the decade. It was the black kids, who already had their specialist dance networks, who sowed the seeds.
I’ve written elsewhere about the time of Liverpool’s black music scene following a fertile period in the 70’s when Les Spaine was at the helm at The Timepiece, one of the UK’s leading Funk clubs, whilst Terry Lennaine hosted an influential Soul show ‘Keep On Truckin’’ on BBC Radio Merseyside. More here:
When I started out again a decade or so ago I immediately re-connected with Manchester, choosing it as the location of my comeback night. It wasn’t long before I was booked as the main guest at what I believe to be Manchester’s greatest club night since the demise of The Haçienda, and the UK’s top underground party of its era - the Electric Chair.
By contrast, it was harder to get a foothold in Liverpool. There was a different set of references than Manchester. Most of my early bookings were in The Magnet, a venue I really liked, but although some people were connecting with what I played, there wasn’t enough of them to push things to the next level. I’d then play Circus from time to time, but whilst I always had my eye on that upstairs room at the Masque, which I thought would have been perfect for my vibe, I remained very much a side attraction, confined to the bar area – room 3 in effect. I had some good fun in there, but it wasn’t what I was after.
Remarkably, for the 2 years between December 2010 and 2012 I never played in Liverpool at all – I’d all but given up on finding my place in the city. I finally returned for a Voodoo Nouveau Boxing Day appearance at The Shipping Forecast, which was a really good night, but the turning point can now be traced back to the following February when I was booked to play in the bar for Freeze at Camp & Furness. I’d really expected nothing from this gig, as I wrote in the blog post that followed my Bombed Out Church appearance earlier this year; “It was an odd one because I was on really early, from 9pm–11pm on a normal Saturday night – I’d wondered if there was going to be anyone in there whilst I played, but was assured it would be fine, which it turned out to be. In fact, it was more than fine – it was a great crowd, all vibed up nice and early, and eager to get their groove on.”
Since then things have really clicked into place for me with some spectacular dates for Freeze and Motion, culminating in a truly incredible day at The Bombed Out Church in July – a definite candidate for my gig of the year:
I’m back in the city on October 18th, the penultimate leg of our Super Weird Happening 5 date tour of the UK, a 12 hour special at Constellations and the adjoining building The Observatory (formerly Haus) in the Baltic Triangle, which kicks off at 4pm Saturday afternoon, and runs through until 4am, taking in talks, art, a live performance from Blind Arcade, and a DJ line-up of Kermit & Organic Gav, Bernie Connor, Derek Kaye, Autocycle, Danny Fitzgerald and myself. I’ll actually be playing 2 sets, one at 8pm in the evening, the next at midnight. It’s a charity event, part of the Oxjam Takeover, which we’re hosting in conjunction with Oxjam and Freeze.
Our guest for the talks will be John Higgs, who wrote the fab book, to use a good old Liverpool term, ‘The KLF: Chaos, Magic And The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds’ – a must-read recommendation. There’s some real Liverpool history in there, deep stuff that so many people within the city are just not aware of. For example, has anyone heard of Peter O’Halligan? Remember what I said earlier about individuals inspiring a culture, well he’s one of them – everyone in Liverpool should be aware of his legacy via the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun, which he opened on Mathew Street in the 70’s, inspired by Carl Jung’s famous 1927 dream in which he proclaimed ‘Liverpool is the pool of life’, and where Ken Campbell serendipitously staged Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘Illuminatus!’ for the first time – these and other major synchronicities abound. There’s a Facebook page here, dip in and nourish your being:
These connections continue right up to this day. Coming up in November, Ken Campbell’s daughter, Daisy Eris Campbell presents ‘Cosmic Trigger’ at Camp & Furness in the Baltic Triangle, her theatrical adaptation of the Robert Anton Wilson book. Here’s what John Higgs has to say about this event: “Liverpool is a place that likes to look at things sideways, so it’s going to see things in a different way to others. When I came up earlier in the year with Daisy to do an event at the Kazimier to raise awareness of the Cosmic Trigger play, it was blindingly apparent that we were in the right place and that people here really got Robert Anton Wilson and where he was coming from. So the Cosmic Trigger play is opening here not for any practical reasons – both me and Daisy are now living in Brighton, it would be much easier to put it on there first – but because Liverpool is exactly the right place for it.”
To conclude, I’d like to say something about Bernie Connor, who apart from spinning a few tunes, will be our host on the day for the talks. Bernie is one of those people that’s been there all along, witnessing first-hand all the cultural shifts in Liverpool since he was a teenager back in the 70’s sat in the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun with a cup of tea and a slice of cake, checking out a who’s who of bands in Eric’s, working behind the counter of Probe Records with Pete Burns prior to his Dead Or Alive stardom, hanging out with the Teardrop Explodes at Club Zoo. It goes on and on, right through the rave era and bang up to date. Bernie, for me, is one of the great Liverpudlians, and a somewhat fearsome music aficionado – it’s scary that one person can store so much knowledge.
Sometimes the individuals are in place, but the timing is out. I remember listening to one of the greatest radio shows I’ve ever heard circa 1998, when Bernie had been given a daytime slot on a new Liverpool station, Crash FM, with an alternative remit. It was a joy to hear someone play music you just weren’t hearing anywhere else on daytime radio. The track that has always stayed with me is the madcap delight of ‘Dog In The Piano’ by Indian Ropeman.
Sadly, it was too good to last and no sooner had it begun than Crash was replaced by the tepid dance station Juice FM. Now that was some mighty cultural own goal for Liverpool – can you imagine what may have transpired if Bernie’s show had found its way into the city’s consciousness, which it certainly would have given a bit more time. I’ve no doubt it would have led to a greater appreciation of music in its wider scope. Take a look at these forum comments that popped up on a Google, and just imagine what could have been:
It’s no surprise that Bernie’s musical mentor was the great Roger Eagle, a man who, as I’ve stated before, should have statues in both Manchester and Liverpool, given his crucial contributions to the culture of both cities. In this respect Bernie is very much the keeper of the flame, but his opportunity to share this legacy in a way which would have benefitted the city greatly was snatched from his grasp, and he had to return to the periphery, nowadays doing what he can in his own indomitable way, sharing his great love of records via his regular ‘The Sound Of Music’ podcasts:
But no use lamenting the what might have beens, it’s all about the what can bes, and the Liverpool of the coming years promises to be an exciting place to live / visit – I’m confident to state that. It’s a city that should happily draw from its heritage, whilst remaining cautious of the nostalgia trap that has often held it back. For some people it’s enough just to be scouse, dismissing the rest as 'beauts', but for the ones pushing at the barriers the objective should be to redefine themselves as scouse citizens of the universe, shedding the insular cloak and projecting their magic outwards once again, across continents. As Ken Campbell might have said; “the impossible is only impossible if you don’t stand up and do it.”