As you read this, Liverpool Council is deep in discussion. They’re deciding whether to take The Wombats to China – to show the world that we’re still (adopts Smashy and Nicey voice) ‘Capital of Pop’.
While they deliberate, let us do the same…
At the start of our Capital of Culture year, to proclaim our musical prowess to the world, we raised Ringo Starr and The Wombats to the top of St George’s Hall. A drummer from an outfit last active 40 years previously, and a quasi-Liverpool band with a mannered and quirky hit behind them.
They both seemed like curios from another time. We didn’t need Ringo’s paean to a city he was, at best, disinterested in and while the Wombats brand of Napoleon Dynamite quirk rock might have marked them out as ‘band most likely to’ in the LIPA yearbook, the crowd didn’t exactly rush the barriers.
Two years on, and to mark the end of Liverpool’s appearance at the Shanghai Expo next month, the City Council are locked in talks to decide whether they should plug up a cash shortfall enabling us to export the Wombats (OMD and 6ix Toys) to perform for the Expo crowd.
Now, the Wombat’s new stuff is, at least, brave stab at separating themselves with their self-conscious past. But the nagging doubts remain: what’s happened to Liverpool’s music scene? Fractured, unfocused and frustrating, it’s a long way – a very long way – from its vital, essential, and influential best.
So, you have to wonder – is this really something to make a song and dance about?
We should say at the outset – this isn’t a moan about individual acts, for Liverpool has many exciting musicians and bands gigging their way around the city. And SevenStreets will continue to champion them. And it’s not about initiatives like Sound City or Music Week, both creating a stir for visiting bands and industry insiders.
The past two years has seen a resurgent Manchester music scene given a kick start by another creative hothouse. Unlike LIPA, Salford’s Islington Mill isn’t an academic exercise – it’s a series of galleries and spaces where impromptu club nights and gigs take place, and where creative types mix and mutate. It was (and still is) run for love, not money. It was no surprise when the Ting Tings arrived, armed with an artillery of surefire hits, from the Mill: and no surprise that they knew exactly how to work the room. They were knowing, sure, but they weren’t quite like anything else, too.
Similarly, Elbow, Kloot, Doves and co were regulars at Stockport’s Moolah Rouge: part studio, part after-hours pool hall, part creative hang out, always teetering on the brink of collapse, but shot through with the belief that there was a meeting of minds here that would, one day, result in one hell of a big noise.
It’s something Liverpool’s so-called Crucial Three of Cope, McCulloch and Wylie knew all about thirty years ago in Erics: huddling together for warmth – and inspiration – through the lean years has its rewards.
Could it happen now? Well, we turned Parr Street Studios into a trendy wine bar…
Meanwhile, in Manchester, the old guard continues to create work of beauty. At their best, few can beat Doves, Elbow are – finally, and rightly – lionised, and this year, even scrappy underachievers I Am Kloot saw another (deserved) Manchester band on the Mercury list.
But with new kids like Delphic, Everything Everything, Hurts and Egyptian Hip Hop (to name a few) Manchester’s planting the seeds for a thrilling sonic future, too.
Musical cities seem to appear, fully formed, straight out of nowhere. But, in truth, they bubble up like geysers, only when the conditions are right. We did it in the early 60s, and early 80s. Recently the same could be said of Portland, Montreal, Stockholm, Brooklyn, Melbourne and Manchester…
Montreal’s clutch of bands are constantly in a state of flux – mutating, collaborating and reinventing. Over there, it’s less Broken Social Scene, and more ‘fairtrade co-operative’ – yet, despite this, the city never descends into the mutually backslapping ‘scene that celebrates itself’ guff that London suffered from in the 90s. Instead it produces The Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Stars, Land of Talk and The Dears (to pick just a few)…
But this isn’t about Manchester. Or Montreal. Or Melbourne. It’s about us.
Liverpool, like Montreal, isn’t short of empty warehouses of the kind that make cheap rehearsal space. Like Seattle we’ve got that maritime weather to keep us couped up inside learning chord structures. And, like Manchester, we’ve got a right chip on our shoulder.
But a scene? That’s something far less tangible to assess right now.
Since the turn of the century, as our city’s economic fortunes have improved, our soundtrack has faltered. Sure, we’ve got swanky new bars, high-end music systems and our own Arena. But at what price?
I’ve spent some time in Montreal (mostly at family weddings, but I was allowed time off for good behaviour) and, for all its musical might, the city is a refreshingly egalitarian place. Its downtown bars don’t have dress policies. The city doesn’t fetishise the wives of its sports stars. Its evening paper doesn’t give a column to tit-headed glamour models, it sponsors local bands and celebrates the urbanness of the city. It’s a place where a jeans-wearing 25-year-old could be a millionaire producer or a penniless guitarist. Maybe that’s what the French Canadians bring to it. Whatever, there’s no tangible aspiration to afford a VIP booth, or to open up a velvet-rope style bar (I doubt there’s that many in Brooklyn, too). And, just as dot–com entrepreneurs followed the hippies to San Francisco, places with an open-door social scene create the kind of alchemy that attracts creativity. Encourage a route in, and you’re opening a doorway out, too. Musical scenes are not just measured on bands who come ‘from’ a city, but bands that are drawn to it – to soak up that magical juice it’s impossible to bottle.
Increasingly, Liverpool’s scene is looking more like so many hermetically sealed silos rather than a Petri dish where strange cultures can shift and mutate into wondrous new things. And this city’s just too small for silos. Musically speaking, shallow gene pools can only lead one way. Jedward and The Nolans.
Forced ever inwards, we become a city that riffs on itself. A city where quirks turn to ticks. A city with not one, but two bands with a penchant for wearing masks on stage. And that’s a trope you can only get away with once. If that. Is just co-incidence that the Merseyside act most responsible for word of mouth (and national airplay) right now is the excellent Delta Maid: who sounds far more New Orleans than New Brighton?
Liverpool ONE, style bars and successful football teams create their own economies (the latter really only in the shops of Cavern Walks, but you get the drift). But for us to build a cultural economy, we have to stop self referencing, getting pissed to Beatles tribute acts and hoping for another slight return from Cast or The Coral. In Manchester, at least the WAGs have the decency to spend their evenings in Alderley Edge.
We need to open up, reach out, and shoot on sight those who think another style bar is the way to save a city that gave the world Deaf School, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Las, The Wild Swans, The Real Thing, The Lightening Seeds and Ladytron…
Let’s not forget, Stevie G got into a fight for the right to play Phil Collins, after all.
In the 90s, it was Cream, not the courses, that made Liverpool University such a draw. Liverpool’s image as an essential, youthful and energetic city fired the imagination of Europe. Yousef and a clutch of great DJs and club nights emerged from the cradle of the Courtyard, and scores of dance acts and producers met up, and started working together.
I remember how the conversation used to start up in Cream. We were all like raving Cilla Blacks, hugging strangers with the refrain: ‘What’s your name lad? Where’ve you come from?’ For one night a week, a sweaty, vibrant, gurning melting pot made anything possible.
No-one much travels here in the same way these days, save for the stags and the hens (and what’s the betting they’re the raw material for the next Arcade Fire? Unlikely), and if you so much as try to engage in idle conversation in Kingdom you’ll risk getting more than your Peroni spilled.
Maybe the light bouncing off all those glittery chandeliers has, temporarily, taken our eye off the task in hand. But let’s get back to what we do best.
Commercial economies are important. But our urban riches are what makes us who we are.
It’s been too long. But let’s get to it. Maybe we can still be whole again.
And the sooner someone rips down that embarrassing wall of rusting CDs on Mathew Street (the one that has our musical legacy literally ending with Atomic Kitten) the better.
– POSTED SEPTEMBER 15, 2010 –