A Sonic Youth (and middle age)

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“I’ve spent a good chunk of my life from the age of 15 in venues and clubs in Liverpool. Unfortunately my dedication to this cause hasn’t resulted in certificates, qualifications or even any kind of discount for gallant service or loyalty. But what it has given me is some of the best nights of my life, long-standing friends, great memories, and it also makes me feel qualified to offer an opinion on the best and worst of venues past and present.

What follows isn’t intended to be a comprehensive listing by any means so apologies if I offend anyone by omission. For example, I’m only touching occasionally on dance music in this blog but I’ll revisit that another time because it’s a vital part of the overall Liverpool picture. But just to be really clear this is a personal view dictated by my own experiences, my occasionally wonky memory and to some extent by my own musical likes and dislikes.

To my mind a thriving independent venue scene is a good indicator of the health of a city’s music ecology. So it’s good to report that at the moment Liverpool’s appears to be in a state of pretty rude health.

That’s not to say that ensuring that this stays the case isn’t without significant challenges. Like cities all across the world small venues in particular are always at risk when a city is going through regeneration and the subsequent expansion of physical developments and city centre living. But we as a city need to do our bit too and make sure that we understand the challenges venues face. We need to support what makes Liverpool special and protect and grow the live music sector so we can justifiably call ourselves a Music City.

The venues themselves are doing their bit by working with each other and co-operating because they know they face similar challenges and that they are stronger together. This is typical of a really positive collaborative music culture at the moment.

On the venue side of things there are lots of intriguing developments taking place at the moment. Last week I was in Kazimier Gardens right in the heart of the city centre. They have to be careful about their noise levels with live music there because while it is a great bar it is also an open air space near to residential developments. So in order to overcome this problem they came up with the brilliant idea of turning the bar’s stock room into a small venue. The new micro venue, which after much thought (and the disappointment of branding consultants everywhere) they decided to call Stockroom, has just opened, less than a month after they came up with the idea.

The people behind this particular venture are well used to dealing with the issues that can confront venues. They cut their teeth just up the road from the Kazimier Gardens with the brilliant and much lamented Kazimier club. Some of my favourite gigs of recent years took place there. It was in many ways the perfect place to see live music: it just had that certain something that makes a venue special. It also helped that it was run by people with a passion for what they were doing and with real respect for the gig going community. Unfortunately the regeneration of that part of the city centre meant they had to close although they did manage to go out with a real bang. This same development also brought about the closure of Nation, the spiritual home of the legendary club Cream.

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The Invisible Wind Factory is the latest incarnation by the team from The Kazimier. Image credit: The Invisible Wind Factory Facebook page.

Sad as this was, scenes evolve and the Kaz crew upped sticks and took the brave step of moving outside the city centre to the then unfashionable old docks area in North Liverpool. They set up a new venue, The Invisible Wind Factory, in an old warehouse there. Building on the success of the old Kaz this has quickly become a Liverpool favourite and gig goers are now used to the short walk or taxi drive from the city centre. Substation, their smaller venue within the larger space, is the perfect space as they term it for “communities, experimenters and dwellers of the underground.”

Near neighbours North Shore Troubadour have now added to the offer in that part of the city with their regular club nights. By contrast, but just as relevant, and only a short walk away the good folk of Drop the Dumbulls play host to a lively punky scene in one of Liverpool’s old dockland pubs.

As ever with Liverpool it is an evolving picture. The displaced Cream organisation as well as huge club nights Chibuku and Circus have become more nomadic in their use of venues. They often now stage events in that same dockhand area, either using mammoth temporary structures or the old Bramley Moore warehouses.

There’s a great example nearby of how an area can be quickly transformed. Only a decade ago the Baltic Triangle area was a similarly ignored and a pretty much culture- free area. Now it’s awash with venues large and small.

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The Baltic Triangle is today awash with venues both large and small.

The marvellous grassroots festival, Threshold has always based itself in the Baltic and they are back their this year with a great line up in venues across the area. Threshold is set to be a real highlight of the 6Music Festival Fringe.

Just a month or so later at the start of May the long running Sound City Festival is back and for the second year running the festival will be based in multiple venues across the Baltic. In the past Psych Fest, Liverpool Music Week, Positive Vibrations Reggae Festival, the Baltic Weekender and Liverpool Disco Festival have all taken over parts of the Baltic to great effect in the past too.

District (formerly the Picket) was an early pioneer in the Baltic and suffered in those early years when people weren’t accustomed to going to the area for drinks or music. Thankfully the venue, managed by the maverick Liverpool legend that is Jayne Casey, has survived the perils of being an early adopter and has a clear place in the area’s music ecology.

24 Kitchen Street, Constellations and its sister venue Hinterlands are now all well established driving forces in this area. Both are real labours of love, driven and guided by people who have put heart and soul into these ventures. In fact both sets of owner/managers also pretty much built the venues with their own hands before building up loyal audiences. If I was 20 again these are definitely amongst the places I’d be hanging out in. Kitchen Street is my favourite type of venue: a small, sweaty place with loads of character and a brilliant sound system. They book what they believe in and this makes for an exciting, diverse, innovative and genuinely inclusive programme. Passion for music and a real desire to look after artists and audiences seep out of a venue like this. The Kitchen Street team are also behind another great multi venue festival in the shape of the Baltic Weekender.

Becky at Constellations is just about to launch a new smaller venue, Best Before with the larger space- a brilliant place for new, young promoters to cut their teeth. It is a brilliant concept: a minimally lit 150 cap club where the sound system and dancefloor take centre stage and no phones are allowed on the dancefloor so everyone can live in the moment. As the team behind it say it is the perfect space for musical and artistic exploration and a venue where new promoters/artists can break ground or established promoters can take a risk.

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Elsewhere on the Baltic there’s Hangar 34 and the huge Camp and Furnace, now seemingly most famous for hosting Bongo’s Bingo and occasional Chibuku/Circus events. It will also feature heavily during the 6 Music Festival

The city centre still has great things happening too. The Zanzibar has been a cornerstone of the local music scene for 25 years now and continues despite the recent death of much missed owner/manager Tony Butler: a good friend to me and a supporter of countless young local musicians throughout that time. I’ve had many great nights there although the Bandwagon nights that ushered in the careers of The Coral and The Zutons and featured a brilliant early appearance by The Libertines stand out for me.

Just around the Corner is the Jacaranda or Jac, famous since the days of The Beatles and near by is its new sister venue Phase One which is a great small club that doubles up as a record shop. (The lovely 81 Renshaw St has the same sort of record shop/venue set up). Parr Street’s Studio 2 has always been a firm favourite for cosy gigs and near by Leaf serves a similar purpose. While just down the road on Duke Street you will find the intimate confines of Sound. Both Sound (with the lovely Eggy Records crew) and Phase One have stand out 6 Music Festival Fringe gigs.

Back to the current position and it would wrong to forget the options offered by the bigger venues like the Arena, The O2, East Village Arts Club, the Philharmonic and it’s smaller studio venue The Music Room. The news that LFC are promoting gigs at Anfield this summer too is great news for the city as the lack of a stadium option has meant that Liverpool has missed out on big names in previous years.

Just outside of town we have the Olympia where I’ve seen a few great gigs. It reminds me of the Royal Court when it was a gig venue and it is good to see that this amazing space is now having regular live shows (including hosting some 6 Music Festival gigs). Central Hall is another unique space which makes a gig feel special just because it is in such a magnificent building.

Gigs in unusual spaces seem to be a real speciality of the city. The city’s churches and cathedrals occasionally provide beautiful backdrops for live music. Even the museums have got in the act with a lovely gig by Mick Head at the Museum of Liverpool last summer and the British Music Experience has hosted recent memorable gigs by The Charlatans and Pete Wylie.

We shouldn’t forget the gigs that take place in the city’s parks and other public spaces. There’s a long tradition of gigs in Sefton Park through Larks In the Park and Earthbeat and this tradition has continued with the wonderful LIMF and Africa Oye festivals for years now. Fusion are there this year too as is Cream Classical. Croxteth Park is getting in on the act now as well with Let’s Rock taking place there for the first time in July this year. And after a remarkable debut in 2018 the Feis is back at the Pier Head bringing the very best of Irish music to the real capital of Ireland.

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LIMF aka the Liverpool International Music Festival is a regular feature in Sefton Park.

Of course for most people Liverpool is still most famous for the Cavern. Thanks to the good people of Cavern City Tours it is now a flourishing venue again as well as a must see place for visitors. Of course a lot of the music is Beatles related but they have plenty of original music there too. Big names like Arctic Monkeys and Adele have done shows there and a certain Paul McCartney popped in recently for a fairly high profile but intimate gig. It is only fitting really that 6Music are beginning their week in Liverpool with a live show from The Cavern. It is after all only the most famous venue of all time.

There were limited venues about when I was growing up so I saw lots of my early gigs at larger venues like the Empire Theatre. My first ever gig was Elton John at the Empire when I was about 12 and I can still remember it. My sister took me and made sure I didn’t fall off when I was standing on the chair during the many encores. In fact I still have the programme. (No apologies I’m just sad like that). I also managed to meet Elton earlier that day — me and my sister chased his fancy car and managed to grab him and get his autograph when he got out at the Adelphi hotel. (I very much doubt old Elton will be staying at the Adelphi again when he stops off in Liverpool on his final tour). But I also saw some of the punk/ new wave giants there like The Jam, Buzzcocks, the Stiff tour with Elvis Costello, Ian Drury, Nick Lowe, and the brilliantly bonkers Wreckless Eric. I saw the Banshees play there with support from The Cure (whatever happened to them eh?) and Subway Sect. A couple of the Banshees left at the start of the tour so The Cure’s Robert Smith filled in on guitar for the headliners too.

My all time favourite venue has to be Eric’s. When I was about 15 punk exploded into the world and changed my life. I quickly moved on from Elton John and was able to see all my new musical idols up close and personal in the little bit of heaven that was a sweaty, dirty cellar on Mathew Street. I saw everybody that mattered there: The Clash, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Magazine, The Slits, The Cure, Undertones, The Banshees, Wire, XTC, The Specials and local bands like the brilliantly chaotic Big In Japan, OMD, the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes. It was dirty, smelly, small and sweaty but completely brilliant and life changing for me. The jukebox and the DJ’s at Eric’s also contributed to your musical education through the characters that you met there and the music you heard on the famous Erics jukebox and the records played by the club’s DJs. Roger Eagle, the promoter at Eric’s was a massive reggae fan and via the influence of Roger and John Peel I became a lifelong fan too. It was also memorable for me for other reasons too. My first serious relationship began there when I asked a girl from school to come to a Cramps gig with me one Saturday night. Anyway she agreed to accompany me (and my mates came too because they all loved The Cramps and I hadn’t quite got the hang of the dating thing at that stage of my life). Fortunately she loved the extreme weirdness of The Cramps (and as a bonus my mates weren’t too annoying).

A week after The Cramps gig the club closed but 40 years later Eric’s maintains an almost mythical status in the history of Liverpool venues.

Around this time I started to get to know a few musicians too and started seeing their gigs. A lad we knew was the drummer in a band called Pscycamesh. I remember us all going to the see them play in the Third Room at the Everyman. We felt really grown up being in such a cool place at the tender age of 15/16. On reflection we probably acted/looked like the young idiots from Bootle that we were. We felt important anyway because we knew ‘the band’ and we were out in town at this strange but great bar. The headliner was Pete Wylie playing his first gig with Wah! Heat which on the night featured Julian Cope on keyboards. They played a storming set in the tight confines of the Third Room. That night has always stuck with me and the Everyman Bistro remained a favourite haunt for another 30 years or so.

At that stage of my life me and my mates were obsessed by the rock and roll bible that was the NME. So it felt bizarre that a few years later in the early 80s) that this august journal was publishing reviews of mine. And they were even paying me for the privilege — suckers!

Eric’s had closed by then and from memory a lot of my live reviews from this time were of gigs that took place at the Warehouse. This was a dedicated live music venue on Fleet Street I think and had gigs on almost every night. It was a great place to see bands. The nights that stick in my memory are gigs by the likes of Dead or Alive, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and the Icicle Works (who I said in my review were a bunch of ‘hippies’). A mysterious fire brought a premature end to the Warehouse’s life.

Other small venues like The Masonic pub on Berry Street had live music every night but the lack of regular venues meant some unlikely places were called into use. My favourite was Mr Pickwicks which was exactly like you would expect a nightclub in the early 80s to look like. It had a circular sunken dance floor but bizarrely it also worked really well for gigs. My first ever NME review came from there and featured two local bands Black and Send No Flowers. I’ve still got my ticket for a Pale Fountains gig there which was in the shape of an old fashioned luggage label. On that night and other memorable occasions like an early Orange Juice gig the venue was fabulously renamed as Plato’s Ballroom.

There were a couple of other places around this time to see live music occasionally like the Pyramid Club, or the Left Bank Bistro on Mathew Street. Roger Eagle, the hugely influential promoter from Eric’s was also promoting the odd night at Adam’s Club where I remember seeing a great show by Martha Reeves.

The Pyramid Club on Temple Street was also the home of Club Zoo. This was the product of the maverick thought processes of Teardrop Explodes front man Julian Cope and his even madder manager Bill Drummond. Just as the band were enjoying real chart success with singles ‘Reward’ and ‘ Treason’ they decided to not bother touring as any sane band would do. Instead they chose to do a residency in Liverpool at the Pyramid Club which would be rebranded for the duration as Club Zoo. I saw a good few of these gigs and anyone who was there will be able to tell you tales of the chaotic brilliance of those glorious nights.

The Royal Court was definitely my favourite of the larger venues. It was one of those big, old atmospheric spaces which crackle with electricity when band and audience are on song. I saw loads of big names there like U2, REM, Gill Scott Heron etc but the ones that stick in my mind are by local returning heroes like The Bunnymen, The Farm, The Coral, The Zutons, and even Elvis Costello. Playing a sold out Royal Court show or two was a real statement that the band had arrived and the crowds always welcomed them back with a real fervour.

I missed out but other people have told me how great a venue Liverpool Stadium was earlier on in the 1970s. The Stadium was primarily a boxing venue and was a big old hulk of a building around St Paul’s Square. The only time I remember going there was when my Dad took me and my sister there to see wrestling one Friday night. Don’t snigger at the back — it was a boss night la. We saw the giants of the ring that Friday night- Les Kellett, bad guy Mick McManus, and even bigger baddy Giant Haystacks. Obviously while I was watching the wrestling the Stadium was hosting some amazing gigs by bands like Led Zeppelin, Roxy Music, Bowie and Captain Beefheart all booked by the same Roger Eagle who went on to Eric’s. It was worn out when I was there and was finally put out of its misery and demolished in the 1980s.

During this late 80s/early 90s period I tended to be at gigs or clubs nearly every night because of my work for various national music publications. So I ended up in places like the gothic underground dwelling that was Planet X, run by the legendary Doreen. This was a world inhabited by the likes of The Boo Radleys, Dr Phibes, Scorpio Rising, Mr Rays Wig World et al. It was a club that inspired real devotion from its audience although not being goth inclined it wasn’t somewhere I hung out unless I was there to see a band. I was once meant to review the Wedding Present there for NME. At the time the band were still a big deal and this was a secret gig in a very small venue. Their press person told me they would be on stage at 10. Me and the photographer took her at her word and played pool in the Hanover pub over the road until 10. We walked in only for Doreen to tell us the band were on their last song because the gig was sold out and everyone was in so they went on early. I spoke to front man David Gedge and offered to fabricate a review based on the set list. (Sadly, this wouldn’t have been the first time I’d missed a gig but still reviewed it). David is a very honourable man and looked pained at the suggestion so it was agreed not to follow that route. The result was that I then had to leave a message for NME Live Editor Steve Lamacq explaining why he wouldn’t be getting a review faxed to him on Monday morning. What made the whole thing even worse was that the gig was on Friday Feb 14th. Yeah, that’s Valentines Day! And somewhat surprisingly my then girlfriend didn’t want to spend the evening in a cellar full of goths. So in one short evening I had managed to seriously annoy my partner and mess up a review. A memorable night.

There were regular gigs at a few venues on and around Hardman Street around this period too. Hardman House was one, as was the the Haigh Building student venue where I saw the likes of Lenny Kravitz and The Charlatans and many others.

The Picket was the main one in this area and another place where I was almost a resident. I had a strong affinity for the place as I’d worked at the Trade Union Centre where it was based and its manager was an old friend. As well as reviewing bands there I also did the occasional bit of DJ’ing at the venue, did the door a few times, and even did the lights once. (I actually didn’t know how to operate the lights but the bands on stage didn’t seem to notice.). It was run with real love, was a great place to play and lots of Liverpool bands cut their teeth there. I had so many glorious nights there watching local bands like The La’s, Pete Wylie, The Tambourines, Shack, Space and Cast. I saw an incredibly loud Happy Monday’s supporting The Farm there, and Travis played just before they took off. There was also the famous occasion when the venue manager had to ask the audience at an Ian Prowse gig not to jump up and down because the floor was going to give way! I was there the day The La’s Lee Mavers sound checked for about 4 hours with a hired in PA that he then decided a half hour before show time wasn’t suitable for The La’s particular vibe that day. He went ahead and did the gig anyway with the Picket’s much smaller, less sophisticated PA.

The NME also gave me some, strange and exotic assignments in places like Paris, Birkenhead and Bootle. I was sent to a heavy metal club in Birkenhead called Stairways to interview and review an American shock metal band called GWAR. Suffice to say it wasn’t a place I felt at home in (the club that is, not Birkenhead). Bootle was far easier because it’s where I’m from and at that time still lived. I was actually born off Marsh Lane in Bootle and Marsh Lane Community Centre bizarrely hosted the first Bunnymen gigs after there was a split with singer Ian McCulloch. They did three brilliant shows with new vocalist Noel. The Bunnymen were a huge deal at the time so the gigs attracted loads of interest and brought visibly confused fans and media from all over the world to deepest, darkest Bootle.

That Concert Square area isn’t somewhere I’d choose to go out now but in the late 80’s/early 90s there was a club called Macmillan’s which I loved ( and was also the place where I met my wife). It was a proper basement club where everyone involved in the music scene seemed to hang out. During that period I pretty much lived in that place and as well as the regular club nights there were frequent gigs there. Standout shows that I can remember are an early DJ set by A Guy Called Gerald as well as nights when Shack, and The Farm played. The Farm gig annoyed some of their old fans because it was the first time they unveiled their new dancier sound featuring sequencers and all that modern music technology. Some people don’t like change.

Another of my regular haunts around this same time was the Mardi club just off Bold St. It was more of a club venue than for live music (and hosted G Love for a while, one of my all time favourite nights) but on one memorable occasion The Stone Roses played a gig there not long before they really took off.

A couple of years later on and in the same area of town was one of my all time favourite venues, Le Bateau club on Duke Street. I think it may be apartments now but it is one of those places that will always have special memories for me. I was DJ’ing there when Oasis played their first Liverpool gig. They weren’t meant to be playing but Digsy’s band, Smaller were. The Real People were helping Oasis out at this early stage of their career and they asked me if these Manchester lads could sneak on and do a 20 minute set. Fortunately I agreed and using Smaller’s gear Oasis delivered a set of raw and ferocious brilliance. My favourite club nights also took place in Le Bateau in the form of the Voodoo and Liquidation. Really different nights but loads of great memories from them both.

A few months after that night at Le Bateau I was stage managing a gig just over the road at the Krazy House where they played another storming set as support to the Real People. That was a great live music venue too. In the late 80s there was a regular Thursday night gig there promoted by Marc Jones, who has gone on to run the successful Medication night for the last 20 years. At the Krazyhouse I saw amazing early gigs put on by Marc including Suede, PJ Harvey, and Radiohead to name just a few. I’m pretty sure drinks were 2 for 1 so that helped too. Marc has recently returned to the Krazyhouse (now renamed Elekrik Warehouse) with his Medication club night.

We have had lots of small venues that have come and gone over the years. The Lomax in Cumberland Street was a great place in the early 90’s for touring and local bands. Oasis and verve gigs stick out particularly in my memory. A decade or so later Korova opened on Fleet Street. I had an office in the building above so subsequently spent far too much time in Korova. A great bar and musicians hangout with a small venue attached. Revo was the promoter and he was brilliant at picking acts early in their careers to play in this tiny venue just a few months before they really took off. It is another venue that people felt a lot of love for.

The magnificent St George’s Hall is another occasional gig venue. The Bunnymen’s famous Crystal Day gig was staged there. I’ve seen them countless times but that one still stands out. (Although at the opposite extreme I also saw them do a secret gig in the back room of the Monro in the same sort of period of their career and that was equally brilliant ). Sound City 2010 hosted a storming set from the Zutons at the height of their fame in the gorgeous confines of the Hall’s Small Concert Room). Now that really is a classy gig.

The Hall’s plateau has also been used to memorable effect for live music performances. I remember the 1996 gig that was put on by the old County Council as a final act of defiance against a government that was putting them out of business. There must have been an audience of 40,000 watching a line up headlined by local lad Pete Wylie. And who could forget The Wombats and Ringo Starr performances that were seen all over the world as part of the Capital of Culture opening ceremony in 2008.

That’s Liverpool for you: music everywhere you turn. That’s the sign of a real Music City.”

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Telling stories. Delivering events. Championing creativity. Inspiring audiences. Thinking forward. — Culture: the rocket fuel for regeneration.

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