What does it sound like?:
Liverpool was a decaying city in the late seventies to the late eighties. It was as though the heatwave in the summer of 1976 had drained the city of all its colour. It was ashen grey and derelict with record levels of unemployment and crime, bordered up businesses, endless strikes and dire poverty. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher won the first of her three elections. By 1981, draconian application of ‘sus’ laws led to ferocious riots in Toxteth, which continued off and on until 1985. There was a large black population but it was almost all confined to Liverpool 8. Less than a mile away, in the city centre, black faces were rarely seen. The Militant Tendency wrecked the Labour Party, dominated the council and constantly battled with Westminister for ideological reasons, while neglecting to serve their population. Businesses saw no future in Liverpool and decamped elsewhere. The people followed. In 1961, the population was well above three quarters of a million. By 1985, with unemployment at 20%, double the national average, it had fallen to less than half a million. As the city shrank, the cold grip of heroin took hold and guns exacted their merciless toll. Rioting football fans at Heysel, leading to 39 deaths, simply confirmed Lord Scarman’s scathing description of Liverpudlians, in his report on the UK race riots, as having an ‘aggressive nature’ and a ‘belligerent attitude’. 1976-1988 has a good claim to be the darkest in Liverpool’s history. A night out was cheap but generally involved wasted drunkenness, the threat of violence and a long, rain-soaked walk home past the bombed-out church, a prescient monument to those worst of times.
Music-wise, in the wake of Punk, an independent spirit prevailed. The Cavern Club had been demolished in 1973 to make way for a ventilation shaft that was never built. Roger Eagle opened up Eric’s over the road, taking his booking contacts with him from his years at The Liverpool Stadium. Geoff Davies established Probe Records and its associated label, while Bill Drummond and Big In Japan’s David Balfe founded Zoo Records. Young Scouse odd-balls and misfits, with only a dole cheque and plenty of time on their hands, suddenly had somewhere to go, somewhere to exchange ideas, to create and innovative, some place to be part of a ‘scene’, a scene as sparkling and as spectacular as its backdrop was grim and bleak.
Cherry Red have done their usual outstanding job putting together this 100 song, five CD set. Ninety per cent of it is Indie-Pop, white boys playing jangly guitars. The bass lines add a bit of meat and the drumming is invariably energetic, bordering on frenetic. On earlier tracks, there is an organ that sounds, strangely, like a toy, until the synthesisers take over. They aren’t afraid of a horn section either. Mostly, it’s whimsical melodies and garrulous, witty lyrics often drawn from the copious well-thumbed paperbacks that were swapped around at the time. The vocals powerfully emote, even when they are “just messin’”. They took the trouble to learn how to play their instruments. There is very little that is an angry three chord thrashing. That isn’t to say this music lacks passion. In fact it overflows with passion, confidence and swagger. There is a conscious rejection of The Beatles, turning instead to Sixties America for inspiration resulting in a generous sprinkling of psychedelic fairy dust across all five discs. Somehow, it appears the production values of the eighties mostly passed Liverpool by but there is a definite dip into a dull gloom towards the end of CD2 and the politics rudely intrude on CD5.
In their heads, these acts were major Pop Stars by simply making a support slot at Eric’s. A session for John Peel was seen as a triumph. Many of them did fulfil their dreams but for every Echo & The Bunnymen, there are plenty that only managed to stick together long enough to create a few obscurities. Only four acts get a second track: The Bunnymen, Deaf School, The Teardrop Explodes and The La’s. The presence of a mainstream number one, Two Tribes, makes one wonder why Doctorin’ The Tardis was overlooked. Once you accept that The Real Thing belong on a different box set, the only big miss is Pete Wylie. None of his incarnations of Wah! are included. Perhaps, he refused permission. There are also very few women. Those present seem to have been picked out from the typing pool for their ability to chew bubblegum with attitude. Even the band called Geisha Girls consisted of four blokes.
The whole story is documented in a detailed 56 page booklet, including personal recollections from those that were there. There’s a lot of incestuous cross-fertilisation. Bands split up and new ones form with different combinations of the same musicians. Ian Broudie, or one of his family, seem to have been in 25% of these acts. If John Peel were still alive, he’d make a very convincing case that the two albums Broudie made as a member of Original Mirrors are among his best. The band on The Planets Break It To Me Gently is actually The Blockheads and now that’s pointed out, you’ll wonder how you hadn’t noticed before. It turns out that the bass player in The Bunnymen, Les Pattinson, isn’t Dame Edna Everage’s nemesis. Andy Cave explains the spiteful lyric to Pat Nevin’s Eyes, written before he signed for Everton (after would have made perfect sense if Andy was a Liverpool fan). It was more to do with Andy than Pat. Both Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Royal Family And The Poor had to make the trip up the M62 to Manchester and Factory Records to make their mark. One made a bigger mark than the other. Having been impressed by their track on the A Trip To The Dentist compilation, Tony Visconti agreed to produce Afraid Of Mice’s Intercontinental. Alternative Radio won a battle of the bands contest in 1982 at the Liverpool Empire, as judged by Seventies has-beens Noddy Holder, Roy Wood and Angie Bowie. Alternative Radio released two singles, neither of which was a hit. To be fair, the one presented here is pretty good. The prize for best name and worst song goes to Attempted Moustache. It all concludes with The Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus invoking the Holy Spirit in a prolonged electronica freak out.
Revolutionary Spirit is testament to the ephemeral nature of Pop (only The Bunnymen and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark enjoyed any real longevity) and it’s all the better for it. Overall, it’s hungry and joyous, care-free, passionate and ambitious, bubbling over with hope. This is everything you could wish for in a box set compilation of the sound of Liverpool 1976-1988, a dark time for the city itself but, for the most part, a bright one for its music.
What does it all *mean*?
Back in the day, before mobile phones, when there wasn’t much on the telly, apart from Boys From The Black Stuff and Top Of The Pops, we had to make our own entertainment.
Goes well with…
Big hair and Army Surplus coat and boots.
Might suit people who like…
A dim memory of the whiff from the fur-lined toilet seats in the Armadillo Tea Rooms. The Teardrop Explodes. Everything sounds a bit like The Teardrop Explodes, even the Bunnymen tracks.
It’s interesting to compare with its sister box set, Manchester: North Of England ~ A Story Of Independent Music From Greater Manchester (1977-1993), which is two CDs longer, stretching into Britpop. The Boo Radleys, Cast, The Christians, The Lightening Seeds, among others, could have represented Liverpool into the nineties. Otherwise, Manchester post-punk is generally more doomy and less poppy but, by the later eighties, is more funky and danceable.