Let the music play…
Covid 19 has hit the whole of the music sector hard and particularly those directly involved in live music — musicians and venues, and all the parts of the industry that allow gigs and club nights large and small to happen. Let The Music Play draws attention to this and calls for support from Government for the sector.
In the following blog our City of Music Head, Kevin McManus reflects on some of his favourite venues of the past highlighting how venues and gigs are a key part of everyone’s cultural life. (This is an edited version of a piece Kevin wrote around Independent Venue Week.)
“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. (A bit disappointing really because I even got given a certificate for swimming a breadth of Bootle Baths when I was 10). But what it has given me is some of the best nights of my life, long-standing friends, and some great memories.
The Baltic Triangle is today awash with venues both large and small.
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.”
Kev McManus, Head of UNESCO City of Music, Culture Liverpool