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And The Beats Goes Off
By Phil Thornton
There is a myth, a myth it must be said among many others, that Liverpool has always been a progressive home to dance music, that its clubs have been somehow instrumental in bringing about a vibrant dance scene both locally and nationally. As someone who's clubbed in Liverpool and Manchester for the past 25 years or so, I must admit that I've always found Liverpool's music scene to be very insular, conservative and well, just not very good. The reasons for this cannot be reduced to any one single cause, yet in part I think it can be traced all the way back to Merseybeat.
The Beatles themselves of course were infatuated with black American music and yet the music they made owed far more to the Everleys than the Isleys. That raw strain of black R&B that fused with southern hillbilly folk to produce rock n' roll largely bypassed the Fab Four yet found its way into the music of The Stones, The Animals, The Who, The Faces; bands whose singers desperately affected a 'black' voice to give their music credence. Think of those great white 'soul' singers of the 60s; Van Morrison, Eric Burdon, Chris Farlowe, Stevie Winwood and even the likes of Tom Jones and Jagger at his best on say 'Get Off My Cloud' - they were all singers who wanted to sound black whereas Lennon and McCartney never did. This isn't a criticism by the way because too often these wannabe Otis's and Smokeys and Levi's mistook gravelly for sincerity and patronised the very people they attempted to impress. The Beatles wanted to be Bob Dylan far more than Bo Diddley and that early rock n' roll rawness soon disappeared by the time of Rubber Soul and Revolver.
In the wake of the Beatles success ofcourse, all the other Merseybeat bands traded on familiarity and so the open-minded fusion of source material open to young scousers in the 50s became reduced to a formulaic BeatlesBeat. This was the case in other cities not only Liverpool but the success of the Beatles elevated the city into a centre of musical importance, a city on a par with Detroit, New York or Nashville. Once a city achieves that kind of international status then the shutters come down and a cultural siege mentality sets in, often resulting in a smug complacency and an inflated sense of civic pride. I think this is what happened in Liverpool during the 60s and 70s and even into the 80s and 90s. There were exceptions ofcourse; the post-punk scene that spawned Echo, Wah, Teardrop etc was perhaps the only other golden era for Liverpool music and that was inspired once again mostly by white American acts such as The Doors, Springsteen, the Velvets. That too soon fizzled out by the mid-80s with only bands such as The Farm flying the flag for contemporary scouse pop.
Funk, soul, disco, jazz, reggae? Forget it! Liverpool was a musical ghetto by this time, with little or no cross-pollination. Driving through Liverpool in the 70s and early 80s the contrast between black and white was almost like travelling through Jim Crow era Mississippi. Segregation whether politically or socially enforced or for self-preservation and defence, created an inward looking and isolationist culture that disregarded the rest of Britain, indeed the rest of the world. The legacy of the Beatles, the success of Liverpool FC during the 70s and the cliched 'scouse comedy' antics of Carla Lane, Jimmy Tarbuck and co created a sense of supremacy and a romanticised and selective mythology that bands in the 80s bought into lock stock and barrel, John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Only in Liverpool could bands such as Up & Running and Groundpig immunize themselves from the wider cultural shifts in musical taste and remain popular with little or no traditional record industry resourcing or promotion. Only in Liverpool could unapologetically retro groups such as The Las and Shack claim to be flame keepers for good old fashioned trad scouse musical integrity. Only in Liverpool could long forgotten prog and psychedelic bands and artists such as Floyd, Genesis, Beefheart, Zappa and Hawkwind assume a revisionist importance. And whilst now I can appreciate that this deliberate anti-fashion stance was entirely genuine and indeed an example of scouse contrariness quite in keeping with the times (see ‘Stoner Scal Tapes’ in the archive section of www.swinemagazine.co.uk), at the time it felt like a betrayal of sorts, as if Liverpool was happy enough to listen to the likes of Ian McNabb’s ropey Neil Young impression or Umma Gumma for the rest of time.
The first Liverpool club I went to was The State in 1984 and to be honest, I was immensely disappointed not only by the music but the general attitude of the clientele. My own small-town club where I collected glasses, The Cherry Tree had a more adventurous musical policy, mixing the best scouse pop anthems (Echo's 'Rescue' China Crisis's African & White for example) with electronic synth-pop and hip hop (Human League’s Hard Times, Whodini's 'Magic's Wand' Kurtis Blow’s ‘The Breaks’) classic funk and disco (Rick James's Give It To Me Baby, Funkadelic's 'Not Just Knee Deep' Gino Soccio's 'Try It Out' The Gap Band's 'Burn Rubber On Me’) with crossover monsters (The Clash's 'Rock The Casbah' The Jam's 'Town Called Malice etc) - nowt too startling there and we certainly didn't think it was anything to write home about but once those opening riffs of say Rescue or Try It Out blasted out, the dancefloor was crammed with 400 or so young scals and scalettes. What The Cherry lacked in cutting edge music it more than made up for in atmosphere. It was both fashion catwalk and fighting arena, the girls were impossibly glamorous and unattainable. The lads were impossibly tough and aggressive. The convoluted fashions and attitudes of the ‘hip set’ who frequented those clubs that the likes of The Face and i-D celebrated meant less than zero to the way we dressed and the way we danced.
Ironically it was two scouse girls who taught me the latest moves to the likes of Try It Out and by us it was definitely the scousers who were unashamed disco heads, in part because that was the music the girls danced to and therefore the music you had to listen and dance to in order to cop off, yet there was also a sincere love of disco, funk and soul with the Average White Band and Earth Wind & Fire LPs far more common than say U2 or Big Country. I vividly remember an ex-punk mate of mine showing off his Rick James ‘Streetlife’ LP to me and how I got laughed at by older ‘Simple Minds’ teds at work when they spotted Imagination’s Nightdubbing LP in my bag. Disco still sucked by and large, not only in mainstream ‘Hitman & Her’ style clubs but also supposedly cutting edge venues too.
My first visits to both the Hacienda and the State in that winter of 83/84 were therefore both massive let-downs in comparison to the Cherry; the big city scenes we'd heard so much about and had expected to be blown away by were relatively timid and retrogressive to what we'd been used to. Ofcourse there were 'specialist' clubs and bars but young soulboys were limited to a few alldayers and allnighters that tended to be overwhelmingly dominated by northern soul, itself a self-contained and closed cul de sac living on past glories and sentiments. Although I loved northern I knew that the scene was a cul-de-sac, a culture that relished not only in obscurity for its own sake but in a musical and political purism that forever kept black American music shackled to the past. We wanted to break free from that self-imposed rigidity of thought and yet, with both the northern and southern jazz funk scenes, conservatism held sway and there was very little progression.
The Hacienda was physically and musically cold, the space too antiseptic and clinical. Post-Warhol NY industrial chic that aped Danceteria’s aesthetic with one big difference; Downtown Manhattan and downtown Manchester were thousands of miles apart both culturally and geographically. It wasn’t until the summer of 88 and the ecstatic rush of acid house that the Hacienda briefly fulfilled its promise. And this was more by accident than design. Meanwhile back in Liverpool The State was a more opulent, old fashioned dance parlour and still relying too heavily on accepted musical orthodoxies. Resident DJ, Steve Proctor tried to push things forward but after requesting one song, I remember him telling me that he loved the tune but wouldn’t play it as it wouldn’t go down well in there. That was his predicament as a DJ, to keep the floor moving you had to play it safe and play to the crowd. Breaking new songs, new scenes in this climate is always difficult and reliant on the crowd entirely trusting the DJ, which is what happened in Manchester with Mike Pickering, in Nottingham with Graeme Park and in London with Danny Rampling.
Liverpool missed the boat by a good few years and although there places such as The Underground, The Twilight Zone and later Smile and G-Love, it took a good two or three years for most venues to properly latch onto what was happening. Then of course The Quad came and later Cream and whilst both venues secured their place in popular folklore and legend, neither were exactly cutting edge, moving into the gap that other, earlier clubs had vacated. That’s not to say they weren’t good clubs in their own right, at least initially but that they achieved success and notoriety once other people had done all the hard work.
Cream especially came to symbolise the shift away from clubbing as a musical to an entertainment experience. It also ushered in a form of conservatism that eschewed radical dance and electronic progression in favour of lowest common denominator formulaic grooves. Smile had been the ‘balearic’ night in Liverpool and although it had a loyal and committed bunch of regulars, it soon became obvious that the real money and power was being invested away from niche scenes into would would become so-called ‘superclubs.’ During the 90s clubbing became big business and everyone, the dealers, the promoters, the DJs and yes, the clubbers too wanted a part of it. This was the ‘lifestyle’ people aspired to; it was a fallacy for 99% of the punters ofcourse but the coke n’ champagne n’ Ibiza n’ Miami Utopian dream was what made DJs such as Oakenfold and Judge Jules such big names. They traded on this superstar DJ myth and in the process destroyed any credibility they once had in order to serve a demand for what became laughably known as ‘trance.’
Whether it was because Liverpool’s nightlife venues have always been largely controlled by people whose first love is not music but money and showing off, the fact that other cities of similar sizes could sustain several inter-connected or even unrelated scenes whereas Liverpool became a wasteground of cheesy chart house and ‘scousehouse’ rave. OK so No Fakin and Fukd Up Ravers atleast attempted to do something different during the 90s but the crowd wasn’t there, or not in big enough numbers to sustain themselves anyway.
Chibuku and Circus followed the Cream model; they bought in big and no-one can fault their programming yet they’re not and never will be ‘underground’ no matter how hard they try. Gold In The Shade and the forthcoming Archive are again attempting to narrow that chasm between Liverpool’s ‘underground’ and mainstream. DJs and promoters who made their money in the 90s bear some responsibility for the conservatism of today’s scene. There is a fear of risk taking, a short-term profit incentive that refuses to allow nights to build and establish themselves. As a result diversity and experimentation suffer as everyone chases the easy buck. Manchester seems to be able to cope with self-sufficient specialist club nights and scenes be they hip hop, techno, drum n’ bass or ahem, ‘cosmic disco’ and at the same time provide the funky house crowd with more than enough venues to live out their Fierce Angels fantasies, why can’t Liverpool?
For too many years those of us who’ve tried to put on different nights have complained about the lack of venues willing to support underground nights and about punters who go for the easy option, relying on big names who more than often take the easy buck and rest on their laurels. Yet, when it comes down to it, we all want our own slice of the pie too, we compete against each other or else we don’t bother at all. I’m as guilty as anyone in this respect, disillusion and cynicism took a hold long ago yet over the past few months, I’ve decided that maybe there is common ground between the more imaginative elements of Merseyside’s dance and electronic community, networks that can be built to bring us out of this lethargy and despondency. Liverpool’s lack of an alternative cultural infrastructure has allowed the mainstream to call the shots. A so-called ‘capital of culture’ needs to nurture and support diversity and forward-thinking strategies so that Liverpool doesn’t rely on past glories, forever re-living and regurgitating the past, a theme park karaoke parade of Mop Tops, Erics Punks, Cream Ravers and The fucking Wombats!
We don’t really want to end up Quadrant Park On Ice in five years time do we?
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