❉ Another splendid addition from Cherry Red to this fertile and febrile period in pop music history.
It’s fair to say that the Liverpool/Merseyside music scene is in its healthiest state since the post-punk days of the late seventies and early eighties. Liverpool’s creative quarter, centring on its Baltic Triangle hub has created its own northern Camden Town and the collision of like minds, like souls and any number of rehearsal and smaller gig venues has allowed the burgeoning talent of its locals and adopted locals alike to flourish in a gently competitive counter-cultural scene. This creative re-birth has been further bolstered by yearly festivals such as Liverpool Sound City and reached its zenith when 6 Music chose the city as the setting for its own three-day festival back in March.
Bands and artists such as Zuzu, She Drew the Gun, SPINN, The Fernweh, Jane Weaver, Beija Flo, Bill Ryder-Jones, Professor Yaffle and Clinic will all be familiar to Radio 6 listeners, and many of them will become the big stars of tomorrow. If that’s what they want. For me – as a fan and a listener – that’s usually the point at which I part company; not out of any musical snobbery/I discovered them before you (well, a bit), but the joy for me has always been in discovering and cherishing new talent. I can’t say I’m that interested in anyone’s ‘difficult second album’, much less their sixth.
Many years before this renaissance, there was an earlier Liverpool Scene. This post-punk (for want of a term) resurgence in the city’s music fortunes was the city’s second recognised scene following Merseybeat and the colossal domination of The Beatles more than a decade earlier. Bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, OMD and (eventually) Frankie Goes to Hollywood would move from the parochial to the national and worldwide stages in a few short years after evolving from their earliest incarnations at the legendary Eric’s club in Mathew Street in the city centre.
Last year, Cherry Red brought out the wonderful box set compilation Revolutionary Spirit which chronicled the fortunes of Liverpool’s independent and major label signings from 1976-88, and like its fabulous big brother box set Too Scared To Get Happy, it was just too beautiful to take out of its shrink-wrapped packaging and sits there looking serene and wholly loved on a display case in my ‘music room’.
Birth of a Nation is another splendid addition to this fertile and febrile period in pop music history. The Inevitable label was the brainchild of former 70s Liverpool musician and micro-studio boss Jeremy J Lewis (who writes the rather lovely accompanying booklet to the three-disc collection). The label sprung up amidst Liverpool’s creative earthquake – and its Eric’s epicentre – as the seventies came to an end. Inevitable emerged in 1979, and though it was never to have anything near the success or impact of its one time Manchester rival Factory, Inevitable records would foster some big talents who would go on to shape and influence the music industry, have number one records and many of whom are still around to day.
I remember seeing the posters for the bizarrely monikered Wah! Heat in the midden that was Eric’s back in 1979. I think it was 75p to see a band that first showcased the talents of Pete Wylie. Listening to Steve Lamacq’s Liverpool festival interview with ‘The Aigburth Road Bruce Springsteen’, it was good to see that the years hadn’t changed him too much as he slagged off his then and now contemporaries in his usual machinegun /verbal diarrhoea stream of (paradoxically) good hearted invective.
It’s Wylie who opens disc one – Singles 1979-82. In his home town, he is a divisive figure. Loved by many and kept at arm’s length by many more, Wylie was legendarily part of the mythical The Crucial Three, a group that may or may not have existed for one South Liverpool kitchen meeting, and also comprised Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope. Both the Bunnymen’s and The Teardrop Explodes’ debut singles were hardly the finished product – the Bunnymen’s Pictures on My Wall sounding particularly unformed and rudimentary – but Wylie’s initial incarnation Wah! Heat (and he would have may monikers throughout his long career) sound particularly accomplished on their debut single/ Inevitable’s first release Better Scream.
Around this time Wylie – a perennial go-to rentaquote for the inky music press – campaigned against rockism – a semi-ironic fight against the values and sounds of the awful and hedonistic excesses of all that had gone before Punk Year Zero. I bought into this whole heartedly, but Wylie’s early output always sounded like ‘rock’ to me and lacked the otherworldliness of both the Bunnymen’s and the Teardrops’ vision. In retrospect, I was wrong. Better Scream is superb and sounds like (what Wylie actually was) an accomplished musician fashioning a paired down ‘rock’ sound for a new era that eschewed the identikit, second hand, imitation blues licks and histrionics of the rock musicians of the previous fifteen years. Better Scream’s impressive b-side Joe (Hey Disco Joe on the label of my battered and partied-on copy) is also included on Disc One.
Wah! Heat’s second single for Inevitable is also included here. Seven Minutes to Midnight is an urgent, impassioned reaction to the fear of the ticking nuclear clock that seemed to be racing to twelve just after Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The song is a young man’s clumsy address to a burning issue, but I’m sure it helped its target audience to understand the nature of impending Armageddon, and though it doesn’t have the visceral power of Alan Moore’s treatment of the concept in Watchmen, it certainly advances the idea with greater emotional effect than Bruce Dickinson and his gang’s ‘take’ in Iron Maiden’s less than nuanced, balls-to-the-wall rocker Two Minutes to Midnight. (See also their take on the extermination of the native Americans in Run to the Hills – the only song about genocide I’ve seen performed by a more mature gentleman in a dickie bow and crushed velvet loons at a working man’s club. Probably the nadir of my existence on Earth, that one.)
Next up are Nightmares in Wax, whose Birth of a Nation EP (INEV 002 for all of you still ordering your singles by catalogue number) was the second shot at rock/pop stardom for the much-missed Pete Burns. At that time, there were a number of people that you would see going about their business in Liverpool who could stop you in your tracks because they looked simultaneously fabulous and scary and almost like a living work of art – albeit a living work of art that shopped in Woolies – or a human aesthetic masterpiece you might catch sneaking a risky visit to Boots or British Home Stores or C and A for some ‘blusher’ or a particularly nice snood .
Big in Japan/Pink Military singer Jane Casey was always a delight – she was often a ghostly, ethereal and often surreal (in its truest form) presence, glossed over in blanched white foundation, with a shaved head and draped in asymmetrical, theatrical outfits to complete what was always a challenging (in its best sense) original look. The other major player was Pete Burns – an enjoyable nightmare of darkly hennaed ringlets, in full gothic make-up and attire, and sporting completely black irises and ‘eye whites’. These disconcerting lenses were supplied courtesy of a local vet/optician (according to my mate), although such an unlikely eye specialist to the animal world must have studied for the strangest combined degree in the history of medical science if you ask me.
Burns worked at the legendary independent record store Probe where he was infamous for abusing customers for their poor-quality record choices. The pre-fame record store clerk Burns is celebrated in the 2004 hoolie film Awaydays where its main middle-class protagonist earns some street spurs by headbutting a Poundshop simulacrum of young Peter (who has been ignoring our hero’s tough Tranmere Rovers-supporting friend and unrequited lover’s attempt to buy a David Bowie bootleg from a facsimile version of Probe).
I remember seeing Nightmares in Wax in the flesh. They were like a bad Bauhaus. Black Leather (from the Birth of a Nation EP) is the sort of record I’d imagine would force any parent of a traditional John Peel listening-teenager to shout: “Turn that shite off!” (especially a particularly foul-mouthed parent) as it’s a stodgy fetishist paean to BDSM, suffused with murky guitar playing and only enlivened by an unlikely chorus of ‘That’s the Way I Like It!’ (yes, the KC and the Sunshine band one) to remind you that Pete always had a trash aesthetic. There are two other Nightmares in Wax tracks on Disc One, and hopefully I’ll never have to listen to them again.
Much better is Pete’s third shot at stardom, Dead or Alive. The ubiquity of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman-produced You Spin Me Round has enshrined Pete Burns in the world’s consciousness, but in these early songs Flowers, Number Eleven and particularly the indie chart hit I’m Falling there’s a sense of a group developing and maturing and gaining some understanding of pop dynamics. The Teardrop style organ on Flowers shows how much the diverse Liverpool bands were influencing and cross-pollinating (sorry) – as is the case in most scenes.
Number 11 would be DOA’s last single for Inevitable, but it would be almost four years before Pete and the boys hit the number one spot and (for a very short time) ruled the pop world. In the accompanying booklet, label chief Lewis points says that he parted company with good grace with the band and adds that Burns’s fascination with the shape of his (Lewis’s) girlfriend’s nose set him off on an never-to-be quenched thirst for cosmetic surgery that would ultimately contribute to the singer’s untimely death.
Other bands included on Disc One include Modern Eon, whose brooding, Joy Divisionish Euthenics led them to a big label contract, and the quietly moody Faction whose eponymously-titled first single is enjoyably and quietly moody. Neither band would ever trouble the charts.
Manchester/Liverpool band It’s Immaterial’s one single for Inevitable A Gigantic Raft (in the Philippines) is much better and gives hints of the greatness of their two big hitter singles, the fabulous Ed’s Funky Diner and their beautiful, dreamy chart hit Driving Away from Home.
The real revelation for me are the final two tracks from Kirkby’s own China Crisis. Kirkby is a tough (relatively) new town built to house the ever-growing Liverpool population before Thatcher and her hench-people decided that a “managed decline” would be their surreptitious and spiteful way of punishing the city and its Labour rebels, thus creating a modern day diaspora that thankfully has now been reversed.
I’ve always wondered why Liverpool and Glasgow produced so many fey pop groups and characters. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who dared to dress differently from that time period who doesn’t have their own tales of being verbally or physically abused by the local ‘don’t you dare do anything different or we’ll batter you’ lumpen populace (a herd mentality of fear that’s brilliant explored and explained in Anna Burns’s astonishing Booker prize winning novel Milkman); and how I escaped being maimed, trepanned or killed for wearing punky, foppish or just plain poncey gear during those formative years is beyond my understanding.
My girlie friend once said that however tough an image they try to present, all Liverpool men sound camp. “That’s outrageous,” I replied, blowing on my glitter nail varnish to diffuse my anger.
Anyway, in the world of Merseyside toughness, Kirkby is particularly ‘nails’ and though its former inhabitants are wont to wax lyrical about it once they’ve buggered off to other climes, not one of them has the nostalgic impulse to move back. It’s bizarre that the youth of Liverpool and Kirkby never showed any real like for heavy rock or heavy metal, and often veered towards the melodic, winsome almost gender-neutral pop which was beginning to take over the charts in 1982. Kirkby’s This Island Earth were a Peter Powell fave of the time and their charming See That Glow single should have hit the charts with a bang. Less ostentatious, but equally floppy fringed were the almost introverted China Crisis, a band who were to have the greatest number of Top 40 hits of all the bands who ever recorded for Inevitable.
African and White was a big indie hit for Inevitable before it reached the proper charts when China Crisis signed for Virgin. I don’t think I’ve heard it properly since I bought my copy back in 1982, but I was amazed by its yearning, lyrical quality and the way the song just seemed to gradually fill the room. It’s a brilliant, brooding track and its sparse enigmatic lyrics suggest the workings of a troubled, emotionally damaged mind:
We need your faith and hostility
To be certain of a change;
And could you ever recover from –
Forever recover from this prejudice?
African’s b-side Be Suspicious is almost as lovely and China Crisis ‘s departure from Inevitable (after this one great single) was a sad loss. In the accompanying booklet, Jeremy Lewis tells us that Stock Aitken and Waterman remixed the single for Virgin with predictably hideous results.
Disc Two (Singles 1983-86) of this mini box set is much more mellow, less overtly political and sadly not as satisfying as Disc One. The fact that opening band Freeze Frame took their name from a Godley and Creme track indicates a growing shift away from Year Zero credentials. Their debut single for the label Your Voice is pleasant enough, but once the keyboards and synths take over, it’s clear that the shiny New Pop of 81/82 was talking hold (and I’m a big fan of synths and 80s new pop) to the detriment of anything vaguely political or hard-hitting. The b-side Conversation Piece highlights one of the problems of late 70s/early eighties in that it’s the first female voice (as backing singer) to be heard on Inevitable. I remember going to so many random gigs from the late seventies and there were rarely any female bands or female participation. It was an institutionally sexist closed shop, a boys’ only club where only the really brave and radical women could fight their way to visibility.
I go to a lot of gigs, but I’m far more informed these days. I’m rarely interested in all male bands and sometimes go out of my way to avoid them or question their artistic world view; this may seem a ridiculous stance which excludes any number of brilliant artists, but the great thing about 2019 is that if I can’t find a female-fronted band within my normal thirty mile radius of small gigs, it’s a very strange and anomalous evening.
Now is better than then. Certainly, pop music-wise.
The equally poppy, dreamy Box of Toys are classy and very China Crisis-like. I’m Thinking of You/Old Man Rome are lovely A and B sides. BoT are the sort of band that BBC Radio One DJ Peter Powell loved as their music is shiny, tasteful and bathed in non-threatening synths. Powell is still much derided, but in the horrorshow world of Fab FM, he was a fairly harmless character. Powell presented the late tea-time show where power pop, synth pop and the sort of light airy British pop so beloved of American film director John Hughes found its natural home. Powell ‘s show formed a gentle gateway between the slightly harder, more indie show of David Jensen/Janice Long and the usually much harsher content of the John Peel Show. A good proportion of Disc Two is take up with the vaguely pastoral works of Freeze Frame, Box of Toys, The Builders and Venus Adore, and as the oboes, clarinets and part-orchestral backings kick in, the general effect is ‘pleasant’ rather than ‘indispensable’ Any one of those bands could have made the lower reaches of the charts with major label promotional backing but for most it was not to be.
One of the more interesting tracks in the whole collection is from Liverpool face-about-town Margi Clarke. Fashioning herself as Margox! post-1976, she was a familiar figure who enjoyed a regular spot on Tony Wilson’s pioneering late seventies Granada TV pop programme So It Goes and is best known for her glammed-up factory worker in (her brother) Frank Clarke’s 1981 film A Letter to Brezhnev. Margox’s Jimmy’s Grin owes a lot to fellow travellers Pink Industry and American/Japanese band Sandii and the Sunsets, but it earns bonus points for its spiky, vaguely electronic pop and due to the fact that it’s the only female act in the whole collection.
Remember what I said about boys’ clubs in the bad old days of rock and pop?
The rest of Disc 2 is essentially to be filed under ‘tasteful’. The Builders’ Daytime Assassins is very B Movie (the Mansfield electronic band, that is), and the twisted vocals of Venus Adore’s Burning Arrows bring to mind early XTC. Box of Toys imploded, and lead singer Brian Atherton brought his fine chiselled features back into the fray with solo project The Light. His elegiac Contrasting Strangers showcases his pleasing baritone and sees the (un)welcome return of the oboe to early to mid-eighties pop.
Disc 3 consists of the collected Peel Sessions from Dead or Alive, Freeze Frame, Box of Toys and It’s Immaterial.
The Cult and Sisters and Mercy must have been listening to Pete Burns’ goth/rock/Doors-y synthesis and in many ways Dead or Alive’s Peel Sessions improve upon the vinyl originals, with particularly vibrant versions of Number 11 and Flowers being particularly good. It’s Immaterial are a delight, but I always felt their shelf life was limited as they pursued their own idiosyncratic vision to ever dimishing returns as the decade progressed. For me, it’s Freeze Frame’s melancholic Personal Touch which provides the highlight of the disc, with its sparse electronica complemented by a distant (and uncredited) female vocal adding a sense of unearthliness to a lovely song.
Birth of a Nation – like much of Cherry Red’s excellent output – represents a particular time and place for a group of people who were ‘in the know’ at the time, and a group of music fans who eschewed the usual manufactured tat in favour of seeking out an often beautiful world which lived in the shadows or just below the surface. It’s a lovely artefact that chronicles and archives a fascinating and almost-forgotten scene for posterity.
I doubt that the talented crowd of bands and singers who comprise the current Liverpool scene will make it to Rihanna or Ed Sheeran levels (good!), but it would be nice to hope that there will be an equivalent Birth of A Nation for them – in whatever form – some forty years from now.
❉ Birth Of A Nation Inevitable Records: An Independent Liverpool 1979-1986 (CDTRED 755) is out now from Cherry Red Records on 25 April 2019. RRP £14.99. Click to order from Cherry Red.
❉ Stephen Porter has written for Esquire, Backpass and a host of other publications.