❉ Ace Records celebrates some of the more obscure and forgotten female Merseybeat artists.
“Many of these women were trailblazers – fighting their way into a male-dominated world, and opening up a gap to allow better, stronger and more talented performers to bring on a more permanent revolution… Not everyone had the luck, courage or mega-talent required to fight their way to their own table at the boys’ club banquet….”
I was never a huge fan of John Lennon’s more polemical pronouncements – be they literal, figurative or gnomic.
“Give peace a chance,” was OK, as was “There’s Nazis in the bathroom and just under the stairs” – because that’s generally where the bastards tend to hide.
“Imagine there’s no heaven,” he sang back in 1971. “I could do that, John,” I thought. He even suggested “It’s easy if you try” to further assist his listeners and also the viewers of the his hairy-coat-tastic classic Imagine video, but it wasn’t easy for me to imagine no possessions, as John sat there in front of his ostentatious white piano, with Yoko dressed in the finest shimmering samite and all of this taking place in the grounds of his opulent Tittenhurst Park estate.
Now, everyone remembers and concurs with Lennon’s most famous quote: ‘A man carrying two takeaways is either very hungry – or KNOWS someone who’s very hungry’.
But as it’s from The Young Ones, it doesn’t really count.
The title of the recent, well-received musical Girls Don’t Play Guitars is taken from an off-the-cuff comment made by Lennon to up-and-coming girl group The Liverbirds in 1963. I’m sure that the quote was meshed in irony coming from such a complex and contradictory character, but the verbal barb seemed to spur on the group to a modest but satisfying career which was celebrated in Ian Salmon’s and Bob Eaton’s recent theatrical production.
As everyone must know, Merseybeat took the UK and the world by storm in the early sixties. There were almost thirty number one singles by Liverpool artists during this fertile time and She Came from Liverpool! celebrates some of the more obscure and forgotten female artists over this six-year period.
Track number one gets the album off to a great start. Cilla Black is the only well-known artist on this splendid 25-song CD and I may have slagged her off in the past, but Cilla’s Love of the Loved is tremendous, and the second-best track on the album. It’s a fantastic vocal performance and indicative of what she could achieve when all the right elements were in place. It’s a brilliant early Lennon and McCartney song (and was recorded for their Decca audition) with a storming production from George Martin. Weighing in at just under two minutes, Cilla’s debut single reached no.35 in the charts, but should have been number one, with its fabulous hooks, punchy brass section and its understanding of the dynamics of what makes a great pop single:
The Liverbirds are next up. One of the very few all-female rock and roll bands of the time, die weiblichen Beatles (as they were dubbed in Germany followed their (sort of) male counterparts and played a long residency in the Star-Club in Hamburg. Unlike The Beatles, they simply never came back.
Long Tall Shorty is very similar to The Kinks’ version of written by Don Covay’s original, and though in some ways it’s almost a generic bluesy/rock/Merseysound single (and sound), the fact that an all-girl band could compete in an almost exclusively all-male environment is a testament to a group of some very remarkable women.
Next comes Beryl Marsden (née Hogg), a cult figure amongst the sixties girl singer fan cognoscenti. Introduced on this live performance as “the swinging sixteen-year-old songstress from here in Liverpool – the bouncing, bubbling Beryl Marsden!”, her version of Everybody Loves a Lover is a treat. Beryl supported The Beatles on their last-ever tour and received wisdom suggests that she should have been the star rather than Cilla, but it was not to be. This is a brilliant, raw performance with Marsden sounding like a less drippy Helen Shapiro as the song showcases her talent and courage to great effect. (Yes, that’s right, courage – maybe you should have tried singing in front of a bunch of pissed-up strangers when you were sixteen!)
Beryl Marsden was Toxteth’s finest – until The Real Thing came along, that is, and it might just be me, but I lived in Toxteth for a short while and there wasn’t one single day when I didn’t think of Toxteth O’Grady, USA as soon as I woke up and looked out of the window.
Yes, it might just have been me come to think of it.
There are many long-forgotten artists in this collection. I Want You by Jeannie and the Big Guys and Someone To Love by The Three Bells are terrific throwaway pop songs sung with verve and a sense of loving one’s youth, but in many ways these songs make me feel quite sad. Lyrically, many of these songs are simply about the need to find a man, to love a man, to keep a man, to scratch the eyes out of any woman who tries to take that man, and, (mostly) to please a man. And I know that many male-oriented songs covered the same shallow interpretation of ‘love’ (sorry, those inverted commas around love make me sound like Captain Kirk here), and that the female singers of such inconsequential fare are merely reflecting their times, but there’s just something wrong in a woman belting out the lyrics of male control and re-enforcing a system that kept them from achieving equality.
I was watching the brilliant BBC4 documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin the other night, and in the film, Le Guin, one of the greatest of all feminist writers, agreed with her critics that her earlier books lacked true conviction. She reckoned this was so because she often wrote from a traditional male perspective, and by doing so she was essentially perpetuating the male-controlled status quo with her choices in her own fictional worlds – despite her actually creating and controlling those imaginary worlds.
So, what has this got to do with She Came From Liverpool? Everything and nothing really. Many of these women were trailblazers – fighting their way into a male-dominated world, and opening up a gap to allow better, stronger and more talented performers to bring on a more permanent revolution. They have to be admired and respected, and my anger/disappointment is not with them (obviously), my sense of sadness lies in the fact that if society hadn’t been so sexist, misogynist and awful, just think of the pop music that would have emerged had the world had been conducive and receptive to the talents of those millions of other disenfranchised women. Not everyone had the luck, courage or mega-talent required to fight their way to their own table at the boys’ club banquet.
It’s this tokenism v trailblazer argument that sort of stops me from fully enjoying this album – great as it undoubtedly is.
Track 7 is Beryl, again. What She Got? (That I Ain’t Got?) – see what I mean – is wonderful. If you leave your brains and conscience in a jar by the door.
The Vernon Girls’ wonderful Only You Can Do It was later covered (in both English and French) by Françoise Hardy and is one of the key tracks on the album. The Vernon Girls took their name from the Liverpool-based football pools company they all worked for, and they have a really fascinating history of their own. Amongst their fluctuating numbers were Joyce Baker who married British rocker Marty Wilde and was the mum of Kim Wilde, whereas fellow VG singer Vicky Haseman married British rocker Joe Brown and was the mother of pop star Sam Brown. Those of you with a degree in British showbiz ephemera will remember Beazer Homes League Morecambe and Wise copyists Hope and Keen, and it was Vernon Girls singer Maureen Kennedy who married comedian Mike Hope. Maureen was killed in a car crash in 1970, but other members of the group helped to form The Ladybirds, the backing singers featured on The Benny Hill Show and Top of the Pops.
Yes, The Vernon Girls deserve their own We Are Cult article!
There are lots of other gems on She Came From Liverpool: Glenda Collins’ Something I’ve Got to Tell You is a lovely, sub-Spectorish pop song for a British market – produced by Joe Meek and featuring the guitar stylings of a young Richie Blackmore; the rich orchestral production of Nola York’s I Don’t Understand brings to mind the psychodramas of early Dusty, Françoise, Sandy and indeed Cilla; and Samantha Jones’s resolutely lovely Just for Him recalls one-hit wonder Twinkle.
Cilla’s b(l)ack with A Shot of Rhythm and Blues, which features that unusual (and annoying) vocal timbre which was a gift to such comedic geniuses such as Faith Brown (oh my God – I’ve just had a flashback of her Rusty Lee impression; I think – I think I’m going to be sick…..)
After that horrible memory, I thought I was doing OK, psychologically-speaking, but then I heard the second track from Jeannie & the Big Guys. Sticks and Stones is an OK-ish bluesy, I want/I’ve lost my man type of thing, but I doubt if Jeannie’s chorus (with the Big Guys backing harmony)…
I’ve been abused
(I’ve been abused)
In my heart
I’ve been abused
(I’ve been abused)
Right from the start!
…would go down terribly well in this day and age.
Track 17, though, is the absolute gem of this collection. The Liverbirds’ Why Do You Hang Around Me? Is on face value another spurned teenage lover/I’ve fallen for the bad boy pop song, but its brilliant yearning quality, its sense of melancholia and existential sadness elevate it to minor classic status. It also has a corking tune, great earthy (almost manly) vocals and a tremendous lean production.
Former Vernon Girls Samantha Jones is back with I Don’t Wanna Be the One, and it’s another delight – reminiscent of Anyone Who Had a Heart with a fabulous production from Charles Blackwell. Jones went on to have a successful career in Europe, and it wasn’t her fault that her name was chosen as one of the lead characters in the horrid Sex and the City, and by a simple twist of fate, Samantha Jones was played by Liverpool actress and Star Trek alumnus Kim Cattrall.
Another ex-Vernon Girls singer Lyn Cornell’s version of the traditional and awful Sally Go Round the Roses reminds me of my cousin Laura running home from primary school after being encircled by bullies who tormented her with this song when they found out that her mum’s name was indeed Sally. Kids can be such bastards – especially when it comes to tormenting other kids with bullying medleys of crappy chart pop songs. An unlikely scenario? Well, it was years before I found out that my mum’s real name was Bridget. Apparently, she hated the name and I always presumed her name was Christine, as she was Chrissy around the house. Now if I’d have known this earlier, I would have ‘offered’ any kid from my school ‘out’ – after I’d told them my mother’s real name – during the chart ‘tenure’ of Ray Steven’s ghastly, shit, non-PC 1971 hit single Bridget the Midget, that is.
I would have got battered, though.
Next up is The Sharades’ bizarrely-titled Dumb Head, which, to put it bluntly, is a bit odd.
Lyrics such as:
I’m a dumb head (dumb head), I’m just a stupid little girl (dumb head) – do-di-do-di-do
Well gee, now I’m convinced
That I must be insane;
Or else I was born
With a peanut for a brain
were never going to advance the women’s movement and surely would have lent themselves to Sally Go Round the Roses-style bullying, but this version of Ginny Arnell’s American hit is not without merit. The Joe Meek production is ace, and there’s an odd synthesiser effect near the start ‘that’s worth the admission price alone’. Current British star Charli XCX has stated that it’s one of her favourite songs and was a big influence on her second album Sucker.
Towards the end of the collection, The Vernon Girls’ Lover Please sounds like an early try-out for the Ladybirds’ Benny Hill Show career, whereas the Northern Soul-lite Cindy Cole’s Just Being Your Baby (Just Turns Me On) is another feminist, self-determination classic. The penultimate track, The Satin Bells’ Baby You’re So Right For Me seems to uncannily presage the early Philly sound of the Three Degrees, but there also echoes of The Self Preservation Society from The Italian Job and the song has the line “babycakes, you’ve got what it takes!” thrown into the mix.
The collection concludes with Ormskirk-born singer and model Sandy Edmonds’ tremendous version of The Pretty Things’ Come See Me – a fantastic send off to Ace Records’ lovingly-curated collection.
John Lennon thought long and hard about his girls and guitars jibe, and in 1980 he penned Blimey, I Really Did Talk Some Shite Didn’t I? as an admission of how wrong and sexist he’d been. David Geffen – his label boss – convinced Lennon to go back to the studio and re-write the song, keeping the original sentiment, but taking out the salty language which may have confused and appalled a good proportion of his American fanbase. Lennon was as good as word and spent the weekend honing the lyrics in his palatial Dakota suite with just a bust a bottle of dandelion & burdock and two packets of Toffo(s) to keep him company. The resultant Woman went on to become one the most tedious number one of the 1980s.
And as for She Came From Liverpool! (Merseyside She-Pop 1962-68) – it’s generally a marvellous, life-affirming collection, and despite a few minor reservations, it’s a definite and very positive 8/10.
❉ ‘She Came From Liverpool! Merseyside Girl-Pop 1962-1968’ is released by Ace Records 29 November 2019, RRP £12.92. Click here to order directly from Ace Records.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Stephen Porter has written for Esquire, Backpass and a host of other publications.