Liverpool’s modern music scene: the class of 2008

This was my own personal ‘Capital of Culture’ project, and was published in two parts on Drownedinsound.com

According to the Guinness Book of Records, Liverpool is the world capital of popular music, with more number-one hit singles produced by it than any other city. On closer inspection, a lot of these records are absolute shite. Atomic Kitten anyone? But, nevertheless, Liverpool has produced a fair few important musicians over the years.

The city’s musical vibrancy has gone up and down throughout the history of pop. Top of the world in the early ‘60s, by the hippy era the scene had lost its spark. It didn’t recover again till the late ‘70s, when a strong scene emerged out of the famous Eric’s nightclub that was the inspiration for Tony Wilson’s Factory. But whilst Factory and Manchester went on to change the face of popular culture, Eric’s was closed by the authorities, and in the face of continued economic stagnation and social decay, the music declined once more, driven underground and fragmented.

By the ‘90s, venues had dwindled and the music scene in Liverpool was dominated by people getting fucked in generic dance clubs where Scouse House ruled. During this period, only The Lightning Seeds, Space, Shack and Cast made any sort of impact in the mainstream. With some noble exceptions such as Clinic, most local musicians formed generic Oasis/La’s-style rock and roll combos and did little other than mooch about local venues looking for blow jobs.

There was a brief resurgence of the city in the national musical consciousness a few years ago when The Coral, a band from nearby Wirral, created some brilliant, surreal prog-pop, and spearheaded a scene based around a series of gigs with like-minded bands at The Zanzibar venue. The Coral and The Zutons continue to plough their own furrows with a dedicated fanbase and a measure of fame, all the other bandwagon riders long since disappeared in a puff of media overexposure.

But, it seems, things are on the up once more. Musically, in the last year alone, The Wombats have stormed that archaic thing, the pop charts, with their witty, indie-dancefloor anthems. Hot Club de Paris have won both critical acclaim and a dedicated fanbase with their poetic and dynamic sound, while long-time local resident Eugene McGuinness’ debut album has had DiS readers salivating. None of those artists worked together much. There’s is no ‘movement’ there. But that’s the point; there’s a lot of good music coming out of the city and there are many other musicians biting at their heels.

One guy who’s been a driving force in local music for the last few years is Stevie Law, sometime music journalist, DJ, promoter and band manager. Originally from Essex, Stevie, like many, originally came to the city to study, but stayed for the music.

“The music scene in Liverpool is like no other in the country,” he says. “For a band to make it in Liverpool they have to have songs and they need to be tight. You can’t pretend to be a rock star here. Everybody really knows their music and everybody can REALLY play. I mean, you can be sat at a house party and be sat next to a rocky-burned shell-suited scally and he’ll pick up an acoustic guitar and play the most beautiful piece that you have ever heard. That was probably the biggest shock to me.” Dave McTague, another local promoter whose Mellowtone acoustic night gave an early leg-up to Eugene McGuinness, The Wombats and John Smith, also sees music as something intrinsic to the fabric of the city itself:

“I suppose it can be attributed to some extent to Liverpool’s links with Ireland, where you go into a bar and someone will be in sat in the corner playing the guitar, playing the fiddle, whatever. And while it’s not quite as extreme as that in Liverpool, if you walk down the street you’ll be ten buskers, music coming out of all the bars. There’s a real buzz about the music here, so while other cities have more venues and bigger venues and better venues, there’s something about the music scene here. I suppose the key points are the vibrancy of it, and the frequency of it, it’s all the time, not just at weekends: it’s embedded in the culture.”

One of Stevie’s charges, and one of the hottest-tipped of the current crop of local bands, is Elle S’appelle. Since their June 2007 debut, the trio have quickly gained popularity for their surreal, giddy pop. They’ve been tipped by the likes of DiS, Zane Lowe, Steve Lamacq and had their first single out on trendy Moshi Moshi records. They’ve also just completed a national tour with another fresh local act, goFaster >>. The tour went under the name ‘Bosspop’, a banner under which both bands are happy to unite. They see it as the perfect description of the sound that them, and others like them, are currently creating in the city.

Elle S’appelle’s co-singer and keyboardist Lucy Blakely explains the thinking behind the label: “I think a lot of people are scared of pop music because they think it makes them less credible, but I think ‘It’s pop, it’s great, you’ve got to embrace it’. We’re having such a good time. And I think the phrase ‘Bosspop’ is great, ‘boss’ is such a Liverpool word and I think if we didn’t coin it ourselves, the NME, or someone just as cool would have come up with something worse.”

“It’s not like we’re trying to adhere to anything,” continues Andy Donovan, singer/bassist of Elle S’appelle. “It’s completely genuine, it’s not like, ‘Oh, we should sound like goFaster >>, how did they get that sound?’ If we influence each other it’s happening because we’re literally in each others houses and flats listening to the same music.”

Chris Smith singer, guitarist and synthman for goFaster >>, details when he felt that the Bosspop ‘thing’ was coming together:

“[The band] 28 Costumes have got a practice room, and they started putting on warehouse parties and stuff and pretty much everyone who went was in a band who played on the night, it was just great fun. I think at that point, everybody realized that there was, not so much a scene, but a big group of like minded people. That was October/November last year. It was in the run-up to Elle S’appelle’s single coming out, and ours had been out not long before, 28 Costumes has released and EP, and at that moment, that’s when it all came together, I think personally like.”

But, although they may all know each other, Hot Club de Paris’ Paul Rafferty is extremely wary of calling it a scene.

“I don’t know,” muses the frontman, “it’s one of those things, I’ve been in Liverpool eight or nine years and I’ll go to [trendy local venue] Korova and I’ll know a bunch of people there, because my band’s played there loads of times before. I do a lot of music with a lot of musicians in Liverpool. We’re all mates, but then again, the only reason I can work is that people aren’t self-consciously assuming they’re part of a scene or a movement. In my experience, the only way that scenes exist is in retrospect. And then when people form a movement, it looks shit, and it is shit and flawed. If you look on a larger scale at New York in the ‘70s, you’ve got The Ramones, Blondie, Television and Talking Heads, and it’s like ‘fuck man, those guys all played together.’ But you think, that’s four bands from that time, there must have been 40,000 piece of shit bands were everyone knew each other and stuff. It’s only when all those bands got really fucking massive that you could take a step back say, ‘right, okay, that’s the New York scene of the ‘70s’.”

He’s also keen to point out that geography can only be a small part of the myriad of influences of the individual creative:

“Just because The Wombats are getting all massive now, it doesn’t mean that because we’re from Liverpool as well that we have anything in common. It’s a shame when journalists are more interested in geography than music, when people don’t have their own frame of reference to measure bands on their own merit.”

Ouch, but despite this understandable fear of scenedom, there’s an undeniable level of friendly collaboration in the city. Liverpool is a small city, but a small city where a lot of people like music and don’t have much money. This means people meet, hang out and play together. This creates a culture of record swapping and cross-pollination, as different random bands and sounds discovered by one individual one crazy evening filter out into all the other music makers.

It is this friendliness which is consistently what people say they like the most about making music in the city. Despite the difficulties of working in the arts outside the capital, it is this attitude which keeps people like Dave McTague working in Liverpool: “What I like is that, although it’s a big city, obviously one of the biggest cities in the country, but it still retains more of a villagy sort of feel, especially within the wider creative industries, the arts, and the smaller scenes within the music scene: ‘everybody knows everybody.’ Whereas in other places, you find people are cagey around each other and treat each other as competition, here people are much more willing to just help each other out to make it be a good event or a good party, they’re not as bothered seeing who’s better than who.”

Nik Glover, frontman of The Seal Cub Clubbing Club, prog-pop masters who are one of Merseyside’s most original acts of the moment, leads a band that like The Coral comes from ‘over the water’ on the Wirral peninsula. They still class themselves as a ‘Liverpool band’. But, he also thinks that the ‘friendly’ scene in the city can also have the air of an exclusive club about it sometimes, for those outside this tight-knit circle:

“There’s the whole lifestyle thing about Liverpool,” says Nik. “I’ve got no problem with that, I wouldn’t mind being part of that if they actually had a good venue to play at. But we’re actually quite choosy about the venues that we play at, because we want really, really good sound. But we can’t be part of that scene whether we want to be or not, but I don’t think we really sit in with any of the Liverpool groups. We’re not weird enough to play at Class A Audio (more of them later) and we’re not cool enough to play at Korova really.”

Unlike many of the currently successful local bands, recent press and pop chart darlings The Wombats operated largely on their own, being graduates of LIPA, the city’s often mocked school of performing arts and an institution of which many in the music scene are suspicious. This despite the fact that LIPA graduates are responsible for many positive things in the city’s music scene, including adding exponentially to the skills base in booking, programming, sound engineering, PR etc.

“We didn’t feel part of anything,” says Wombats frontman Matthew Murphy. “I felt there was a scene but we never felt like we fitted in, or wanted to fit in. We played with other bands, but we never got really suited with anyone.”

But Nik Glover also thinks that the city has improved immeasurably over recent years in terms of musical diversity: “Liverpool’s got a great thing at the moment, that there’s so many different bands that play in the city. When I started going to see gigs like six or seven years ago, there was like the future Emo scene, then on the opposite side of that The Coral and The Zutons, and there wasn’t really a great deal else on then.”

Indeed, despite appearances, the city does produce more than catchy and witty guitar pop. Class A Audio is a night of… well, alternative music doesn’t cut it. They’re constant champions of underground esoteric sounds, and their gigs have been some of the only shows at which this writer has been genuinely lost for words. Certainly it’s a million miles away from Bosspop.

One of the key acts to grace the stage of Class A is a.P.A.t.T.. One of the most interesting and idiosyncratic bands ever to emerge from Liverpool, a disturbing and wonderful musical project, utilising laptops and violins and many other things: they will blow your mind. They epitomise the maverick and uncompromising spirit of music in the city, perhaps the same spirit that saw Lee Mavers of The La’s reject what is still one of the most popular indie records ever released because it wasn’t quite good enough. General MIDI, a.P.A.t.T leader, elaborates:

“The minute we started it, it was slightly anti-music or something like that, but it’s absolutely guaranteed, set on, to be our life’s work, whatever goes on with it, this is what we’re going to do, even if it’s just goes back to giving out CD-Rs to our friends or something. And it’s me learning, the band learning, it’s us all learning together, and that’s why we enjoy it loads.”

People work incredibly hard to make music work in the city, even though they almost certainly have to have a second, often shit, job, and even though any financial reward, or even any measure of recognition, is also hard to come by, especially, when infused with that maverick spirit.

“[Class A Audio is] basically a small circle of people who work hard to promote music that they enjoy,” General MIDI explains. “And you’ve got to appreciate that. We’ve got a split 12″ coming out that we’re doing with Stig, and that’s being done with funding we’ve got from the nights, so it’s a self-funding little vehicle for us all. Being creative is the only thing that stops us killing people with biros.”

But does MIDI feel any connection with bands like Elle S’appelle or The Wombats?

“I don’t know, I suppose not,” he says. “But, even though we make oddball music, we don’t try and isolate ourselves into an oddball music bracket, we want to be on lunchboxes,” he laughs. “we’ve got no qualms about playing Pebble Mill at 1 or the National Lottery or something like that, it would be great.”

Music journalist and occasional DiS scribe Joe Shooman is sceptical about talking about any sort of ‘scene’, but in general terms of people making music in Liverpool he sees the culture of ‘getting on with it’ and the general anti-authoritarian and non-deferential nature of the city as something which helps to create good music:

“There’s a kind of bullishness to just DO stuff. Everyone seems to be always scheming things which is a very healthy sign. Of course, there’s the occasional whinger but they seem to be outvoted by those who just go out and grab some action – that’s very inspiring sometimes.”

But are the ‘doers’ like that because of the difficulty of doing cutting-edge stuff in the regions and perhaps more controversially, because the general population are uninterested in cutting-edge music?

“Perhaps,” he retorts. “Or maybe just that people don’t give a fuck about people telling them what to do. As in, if someone wants to do something they will; as regards the regions I think it’s easier to do cutting-edge stuff because culturally and traditionally there’s less media and cultural pressure to conform.”

One man who almost epitomises the DIY nature of music in Liverpool is Foxy of growing thrash/hardcore crossover act SSS (Short Sharp Shock) who have recently returned to the city after supporting Gallows on tour.

Foxy is also the man behind Thrashgig, one of the city’s finest underground promoters and constant champions of good new grassroots music. And he’s been doing it for a long time:

“You’re going back about 20 years. Thrashgig is me, and whatever I want to do in terms of music, the music that I like is what gets put on at the gigs. It’s not a question of putting a band on for popularity; it’s a question of the quality of the music. A lot of the time it’s a good mix of bands. If the passion is there, they’ll get a gig. It’s a personal interest in helping people out who are worth helping, not just people who just want popularity or girls or money or anything like that.”

“You’ve got to do it yourself to do it right,” he continues, “because otherwise someone’s going to suddenly say, ‘Right, I’m going to take this off you, what you’ve started and make money off it’. You’ll never fill a bigger venue with it, and if it does get to that stage, you’ll just get dropped. So many things I’ve got into, it just got too big for its boots. You’re talking two thousand people, and all kinds of drinks companies, shoe companies, all kinds of sponsors wanting to get involved, and I just couldn’t be bothered anymore. I just don’t need it. I think it just dilutes everything. This is for us, this is ours, this is what we’re going to do, so some sponsor is not part of what we’re involved in.”

There isn’t a big metal or punk scene in the city, but SSS have gained fans across the music scene for their quality and incendiary live shows. If there is ghettoisation, it’s not along musical lines:

“Again, it comes back to everyone being friends,” says Foxy. “It’s a little bit incestuous and we all know each other and have been in all kinds of bands together. Hot Club [de Paris] have been saying to us, ‘do you want to do a tour with us?’ and we can see were they are coming from, even though we’re going to stick out like a sore thumb. And we do feel part of that, and that’s kind of reflected in the gigs that go on, because they’re not afraid, SSS want to play on this gig, which is poles apart from their musical style, but they just look it as I look at it: you’ve got four different bands and each of those bands has got something good going on.”

One of the aspects of Liverpool’s current changes via urban regeneration has been the transformation of whole areas of town that were considered derelict and dangerous (and thus home to venues, record and second-hand clothes shops, practise rooms and nightclubs) into areas full of trendy bars, expensive restaurants and bland flats. While many accept that without some form of economic renaissance the city will continue to slowly die, the fear of gentrification is strong in this place that is about as far from middle-England, middle-class respectability as you can get, as is the loss of available space for ‘underground’ activity in this compact city. This has provoked a fierce resistance movement that many elements of the music scene have been involved with. Cultural resistance, as often happens, has created some great art, but sadly, has done little to stop the onslaught of pavement cafes.

SSS’s Foxy, has been at the forefront of this resistance in his promoting: “To do gigs in Liverpool is getting really hard. They banned flyposting, clamping down to make the city nice and tidy, new shopping centres, bang. It’s just going to drive everything back underground, where people are just going to do it in little crappy pubs, people doing gigs in their practise rooms and houses. No one will touch it because it’s not an accessible kind of music for anyone. The city as a whole doesn’t want to deal with it; there’re only a couple of places that will entertain it, and then you’re paying through the nose. I think some of the tarting up is a positive thing, but the whole underground is just grinding to a halt, because people are putting up so many fences that people will just give up. Or there’ll be a migration to another area and it won’t even touch Liverpool city centre: people who are interested in it will find out by word of mouth.”

But this drive for authenticity can be as self-destructive as a drive for fame. Refusing to compromise is a quality in Liverpool that is to be admired in people doing creative work, but like so many of the city’s qualities it is an extreme one, which can alienate and disenfranchise others.

Dave McTague, Mellowtone promoter, sees a negative side to the city’s maverick attitude:

“It’s almost a double-edged sword, that the things that are really good about the industry in Liverpool are also the things that hold them back. Opportunities that exist in London aren’t available in provincial cities, so it’s always harder to make a break in that sense. But in Liverpool, there’s almost a bit of a maverick attitude and a dissenting attitude, and I think that unwillingness to fit the mould and do whatever for ‘The Man’ will hold people back. I do know that people in London, and maybe say the bigger Northern cities like Leeds and Manchester, often think that people in Liverpool are quite difficult to work with because they’re quite outspoken and they’re unwilling to do as they’re told, there’s a certain attitude that people in other cities pick up on when dealing with people from Liverpool, that they’re a bit of a pain in the arse.”

At some point we have to poke the elephant in the room. The Beatles ‘thing’ must always be mentioned. The fact that the biggest act in popular music history, a group of people who, whatever criticisms you can throw at them, changed the face of western culture, came from this little port city. That fact is both an inspiration and an albatross. Any musician working in the city knows that they will never match the significance of what went before them. In fact everyone doing anything in the city, art, science, sport, commerce knows that they will never match the ground shaking significance that those four lads had. The Beatles changed the world and they are far more significant to the world than the city itself. But what do they mean to musicians working in the city today?

The Wombats’ Murph seems to sum up the general consensus: “I don’t know, I think the Liverpool music heritage should only really be used as a positive thing really. No matter if you’re from Liverpool or not I think everyone in a band is subconsciously influenced by The Beatles. I don’t know, it seems a case the press are always, ‘Ooh, you’ve got a lot to live up to’. As if any band from anywhere in the world is ever going to be as big as The Beatles. I will just use the rich heritage to spur you on even more.”

And a.P.A.t.T’s General Midi has a parting shot for any musos ready to shoot down The Beatles significance: “There’s always somebody trying to be confrontational somewhere, and if you want to say something profound, you say it against God or The Beatles, it’s an idiot’s profundity.”

So, beyond the Beatles, how much influence does the fabric and culture of the city actually have on the people who create music in it? There’s often talk of a ‘Liverpool sound’, jangley and accessible, with lyrics that are often both humorous and surreal. You can, if you wish, see it in everyone from The Beatles to Half Man Half Biscuit to The La’s, The Coral and The Wombats. Most of them would probably disagree, but to this writer at least, there seems to be something there. The taking of, often obscure, sounds from around the world and putting a unique local spin on them seems to be something that the city does well. American blues rock with The Beatles, The Doors with Echo and the Bunnymen, Beefheart with The Coral, Joan of Arc with Hot Club, Mates of State with Elle S’appelle. This Liverpool filter were things always seem to turn out catchy, surreal and slightly comic whatever you put in at the other end.

General Midi isn’t sure:

“If you could possibly nail what a city sounds like. I could possibly answer that.” But he does think it has a linguistic influence: “I suppose, we’ve got quite a few songs, were there’s maybe a play on, the language in Liverpool is great. You can mock it all day long if you want, but it’s quite enjoyable as well to use. And it’s used in a very different way in Liverpool and it’s demonstrated time and time again by a variety of artists. And I think we do quite a similar thing that pops up now and again. We’ve got one track which is just, you know when you’re walking down the road and you just hear the ends of people conversations and various and it’s made up of just those kinds of things in Liverpool city centre and we’ve got loads of them, so I suppose in that sense yeah, the language impregnates into my mind, every single day that that I’m on the bus in this, place.”

How about the tendency towards surrealism, or at least an off-kilter view of things? The Wombats’ Matthew Murphy has as a viewpoint that seems to some up the attitude of many people in the city:

“Maybe we’re just afraid to kind of say exactly what we see in straightforward terms down a microphone; we like to spin it around a bit. I don’t know, it’s better to laugh in the face of disaster than just shit yourself isn’t it?”

But Murph again, disputes the influence of geography: “I don’t know if physical geography plays that much of a part. Despite what a lot of people think, Ian Curtis wasn’t born in the middle of an industrial estate, [his hometown] Macclesfield is quite pleasant.”

The Wombats seem to the latest in a line of bands from Liverpool to whom quality shiny pop is key. Does Murph, like the Guinness Book of Records, think that pop is in the veins of the city?

“Maybe we’re all just after the buck and we just write three minute pop songs and fuck it. But I’ve never found that myself, there seems to be a pop sensibility all over the UK at the moment. I think the question should be rather, why are the Canadians so weird?”

A fair point. And so to the future, will The Wombats carry on up the charts, will Eugene McGuinness become a troubadour extraordinaire, will ‘Bosspop’ conquer the world, or more likely, will a.P.A.t.T.?

Chris from goFaster >> is upbeat:

“Yeah, the last year or so, there’s been loads of brilliant new bands that have come out of Liverpool, and people are starting to take notice. So I think that fact that we’re going on tour underneath the Bosspop label, is that hopefully if we go to these towns, and play, people will go, ‘Ooh Bosspop, we’ll have a look at that’. And if people enjoy the show, hopefully they’ll look further and to what’s going on in Liverpool, and they can discover a few of the other bands that are just starting up at the moment. I think it’s great that we’ve got to the point were we’ve got to a place were there is a kind of a scene we can go out and advertise, I think we’re glad that people have just started taking an interest in it. Hopefully through this tour, a lot of other bands will be discovered from Liverpool.”

I’d advise you to take his advice and go and check them out, along with links at the bottom of this article. Whatever way you spin it, now and again, some good tunes come out of this town. Who knows what will happen to our music beyond 2008. It could all come crashing down around our ears again. But the city will likely survive and continue to make music and, just occasionally, we’ll get the rest of the world to listen.

By Kenn Taylor

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