Boyish Days and Ballroom Nights – Coming of Age in Early 80s Liverpool

1981. Bill Drummond is looking for a direction for the Teardrop Explodes, a band he has managed into a chart career but which is growing ever more easily distracted. He solicits advice from his old mate Ken Campbell, back in Liverpool as Artistic Director of the Everyman Theatre, who offers a solution in return for a hundred pounds.

“Wilder,” he says, trousering a wad of cash.

“Is that it, a hundred quid for one word?”

“Yes, and it’s a bargain. Wilder, Bill, it has to be Wilder!”

And wilder it was. Wilder became the title of the band’s next album, while also describing the band’s social lives, enthusiasms and general behaviour. “Wilder” even encapsulated what was going on, one way or another, in Britain’s inner cities at the time: it summed up the increasing brutality being wrought by Whitehall upon the working class, it epitomised the ever more frenzied attacks upon the country’s industrial base and it crystallised perfectly the spiralling mania of foam-faced greed embraced by the very few. And thankfully, it also told of the mettlesome imagination of some of Liverpool’s poetic apostles, as the punk era’s creative shoots blossomed into a harlequin snook of floribunda in a government-sponsored bombsite. Really, Ken, you could have held out for two ton at the very least…

At this time, a 17-year-old with his own ever-wilder curiosity could easily have viewed Liverpool as the centre of some psychedelic wonderland, as the city’s musical and cultural scenes offered colourful distraction from the monochrome assault of its own government. His coming of age, in 1982, may have been celebrated with works of grandeur and invention, from within a milieu that appeared to have mined a rich seam of exotic-looking arty types – although to be fair, almost anybody could look arty and exotic to a shy Dingle teenager with the arse out of his kecks. There was, as ever, wonderful music everywhere and the clubs – first Brady’s, then The Warehouse – were essential ports of call for any touring band, and great nights out to boot. But the expectations of our wide-eyed youth had been enhanced quite early on by an evening in Mr. Pickwicks…

Plato's 1

Plato’s Ballroom started its fortnightly residency at Mr. Pickwick’s, usually a bastion of more clearly-defined entertainment, on Wednesday, 14th January, 1981, hosting one of the earliest gigs by New Order. Punk-era bands had played in the club before, but under the Plato’s banner it became a bit more than a gig. Covering both Liverpool and Manchester, it attracted hitherto-unseen exotic-looking arty types, in addition to some confused regulars trying to chat up the new clientele. Before the headliners took the stage, projections of Bunuel films had shown us dissected eyeballs and ant-oozing hand wounds, a poet had been largely ignored, a chap had emerged from a box in a cloud of talcum powder, and best of all, a young local group called Send No Flowers had become the first band to play this strange new place. They were nervous but vibrant, and sounded like they’d kept what they needed from punk, its economy and its cunning use of resources, while distancing themselves from its less subtle aspects – little apparent impression had been made upon them by Slaughter and the Dogs. They were altogether more confident on their single, “Playing for Time,” which cooked something deliciously enigmatic from frugal ingredients. A simple uphill sidewinder bass looked for a fugitive root note, the top halves of some guitar chords wove themselves around Lin Sangster’s russet vocals, the drums made sure it didn’t all go scarpering off in different directions. It was utterly ingenious – there really wasn’t much there, but it had an entrancing alchemy and its three-and-a-half minutes were over far too soon!

Send No Flowers

Send No Flowers admit defeat in the search for a fugitive root note

Forthcoming attractions at Plato’s would include A Certain Ratio, Alvin the Aadvark and the Fuzzy Ants, Fad Gadget covering himself in shaving foam and a man in a cowboy suit throwing knives at a woman in a sequinned leotard. Going for a couple of pints down Park Road would never be the same after this! And nobody forgot Box Man, God love him – he’s still here, embroiled as ever in his own world of uncompromised artistry. If only we knew what the mystified habitué at the bar was saying to the lady whose pile of blue hair was held up with knitting needles. Perhaps they made a go of it, maybe they came back to see The Pale Fountains…

The youthful Palies appeared at Plato’s in August 1981, alongside Orange Juice and The

Plato's 3 Trimmed

Wild Swans, a serendipitous bill that showcased not only Liverpool’s affinity with Scottish post-punk, but also the growing romanticism of the city’s songwriters and the unstoppable move towards austere hairdressing. It may also have been the first Plato’s night that didn’t burden the audience with an overwanked, pseudo-funky Northern drugs band. Quite cherubic, their look said Five Go Rambling In 1932, and their sweetly-crafted acoustic loveliness showed us views of Bacharach and David and Arthur Lee, as seen from the splendour of Low Hill. Their debut single, “(There’s Always) Something On My Mind,” was all of this and more, plush with strings and melodic trumpet and with Michael Head’s vocal sounding occasionally like a giddy young boy, made up to be singing his songs on a proper record and everything! These fellows clearly had never even heard of Slaughter and The Dogs, and under their gentle guidance our young man’s fondness for the music of the 60s grew still further. At some point in their early days, a straight-faced conversation must surely have gone: “So if we go down the pub in walking boots and shorts, with big thick socks and that, we might get signed by Virgin or someone?” “Nah, we’d have to get a mad ol’ fella’s haircut first, off me granddad’s barber…”

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The Pale Fountains fan club crosses the ‘oller to London Road on their way to Mr. Pickwick’s

Severe haircuts were indeed becoming a matter of paramount importance, and Liverpool was blessed with any number of traditional barbers, one-cut wonders who had learned their trade in the armed forces, perhaps in an effort to be discharged. Jax, Max’s, Torbo’s, Blind Wally’s, there were plenty who could perform a cheap and effective back-and-sidectomy with half a dozen passes of a Wahl Number One. Victor, in his tiny room in Liverpool’s city centre, remains the most fondly remembered. People would queue inside and out, sometimes for hours, such were the demands of the individual vision of clippering nuance. Our curly young man, trying to sort his bonce out in time for a night on the town, would go home and forlornly inspect his trim, wondering if the problem lay with his own hair or with the exigencies of a salon with no bathroom. Truth be told, there were people whose cuts suggested that they’d been seen to as the man approached Peak Bladder! A poorly-executed or slightly outgrown Victor’s shearing could leave the victim looking like he was wearing a special helmet made of loaf. Nobody would want to go out looking like that, apart from the few with the chutzpah to carry it off as unique.

And who might they have been, then? Well, The Wild Swans would certainly have gotten away with it, although, curse them, nothing about their personal appearance had to be brazened out. Whether by accident or design, no band better epitomised the fleabitten

Wild Swans

Having being turfed out of an absinthe bar for public decadence, the Wild Swans head to the Everyman Bistro where they can still cut it in the Third Room.

splendour of Weimar Liverpool’s merchant houses, the frostbitten crumble, the wisely-shopped jumble sale and the yellowing, derelict glamour of the army surplus store. Their first John Peel session, in May 1982, might have been their defining moment, building on their debut single, “Revolutionary Spirit,” while even more evocative of a sepia absinthe advert filmed in an artists’ club. “No Bleeding,” for many their best song, finds the band sounding almost afraid of their own muse, an elegiac yet unvarnished performance flecked with moments of diffidence, as if they’re trying to grasp what they hadn’t expected to come out of them. Indeed, a more polished version, stripped of the Decadence Verité of the Peel session, may have been the song’s worst possible fate, the nervous heat of incandescent creativity gone in the air. Our now-18-year-old, flush with tiny romantic calamities, was one of the many who were stopped dead by the song, their hearts broken on the spot. He rather liked having it broken so deliciously, and that wobbly mono cassette with the session on it would break it afresh every time it poured out of the speaker, each glass tasting as good as the first.

And it was part of a perfect soundtrack to a fabulous night in the Everyman Bistro, the beloved bolthole of creatives, misfits, flaneurs, food and drink lovers even, and, lest we forget, shameless poseurs. The Bistro experience began with a moment’s surveillance from the bottom of the entrance stairs, followed by a walk to the bar and attendant greetings and cautious half-nods. A drink-laden navigation of the next room took a little longer, the letting-on accompanied by various enquiries about who had done what to whom, and how often; and a right turn at the end led to the third room, where trims and trousers and whatever else would be discreetly inspected while latecomer friends were sought. The wait in Victor’s was justified if only to avoid running this gauntlet in a loaf/helmet scenario. At least our young man’s kecks were now on speaking terms with his arse, however uncertain the relationship of his hair to his ears.

But it wasn’t all beer and bonhomie, of course. Well, not every night. The depredations visited upon Britain’s cities by the Thatcher administration had been particularly brutal to Liverpool. Jobs disappeared hand over fist as the country’s industrial base was dismantled, and while the place limped with unemployment, school leavers faced the corrosive expectation that there was simply nothing out there for them. Thirty years after the Toxteth riots, it emerged that Thatcher was receiving advice to enter the city into a program of “managed decline.” Good of them to tell us. The bards of the town made much of it all, though perhaps none so eloquently or as upliftingly as Pete Wylie. His songs, forceful paeans to strength, empowerment and retaliation in the face of every kind of disaffection, had always bridged the personal and the political, tapping into the zeitgeist of the embattled city yet seldom referring directly to headline events. His mid-82 single, under the name of Shambeko Say Wah!, did all of the above and more.

Remember

From this distance, we can see that “Remember” could have been twin-towned with “Paperback Writer.” Not only was it the last of his old-school guitar-powered belters before the move to more lavish production, but like its twin it had an irresistibly relentless beat, an echo of Motown, no middle eight and it wasn’t long enough. Why wasn’t this number one for the whole summer, in an age when even Scritti Politti were aiming at the charts? To a young chap in a post-A-level limbo it now seemed like the sun was shining all the time, and while he couldn’t afford as many trips to the Everyman Bistro as he might like, he’d certainly walk up Hardman Street more briskly with this breathless exuberance in his mind’s ear! Later in the year Wah! would release “Story Of The Blues” and make their eternally-awaited debut on Top Of The Pops. An entire Liverpudlian generation seemed to have something in its eye, even their mothers were filling up, and the world felt just right for a while, like somebody had finally switched on the third bar of the electric fire.

But what to do with all that “leisure?” Well, you could certainly read. There were bookshops to cater to almost every literary leaning and political bent – feminism, socialism, Marxism, anarchism, bagism and shagism. Atticus, on Hardman Street, offered the most enthralling esoterica to Liverpool’s most inquisitive. Here was every cultish, obscure, or heroically opaque writer anybody had ever heard of, or would get round to shortly, honest, and all in gorgeous editions tailor made for rubberneck protrusion from a jacket pocket. Musicians had jackdawed literature for a long time, of course, William Burroughs being a particular favourite: in the 70s, Steely Dan, The Heavy Metal Kids and Dead Fingers Talk had borrowed from his work, as did Liverpool’s Nova Mob and 051, whose title Breakthrough In Grey Room was a direct quote. By the end of the decade 051 had morphed into The Room, frontman Dave Jackson hitting the bookshop again – hmm, did the name of the band refer to the Pinter play, or to the Hubert Selby Jr. novel, mused our hero, now fancying himself as a bit sophisticated? Er, neither. Bugger! It came from a short story in Sartre’s Intimacy, written in the mid-1930s when he was contemplating Husserlian phenomenology. Honest to God, how could anybody keep up with this? Wasn’t two years spent achieving a low grade French A-Level enough? How many Marguerite Duras novels did a chap have to trudge through before he might gain some purchase on the machinations of his town’s bookworm

the_room_2

The Room celebrate a fabulous new album

counterculture? Still, in 1982 the Room’s erudite post-punkery would be lightened by the fresco cantabile of “One Hundred Years,” which sounded like someone putting a book down and rubbing their eyes before running out into the sunshine – especially to somebody despondently holding the knotted tatters of sophistication’s burst balloon. Just after this a line-up change would bring an even more ambitious new album, the luxurious “Clear!” ornamented with Paul Cavanagh’s intricately decorative guitar, and in the fullness of time Jackson would become a lecturer in Creative Writing. Who’d have thought?
In case Liverpool hadn’t had enough of Burroughs, in October 1982 Atticus managed not only to present him reading his work in Liverpool’s Crest Hotel, but also to persuade him to come to the shop to do a book signing. Our man with the blown mind, present at both, struggles to this day to comprehend the magnitude of this event which appeared, in the light of the city’s cultural abundance, to have been organised, staged and attended so casually. If he’d read in a countercultural history that something similar had gone on in City Lights or Compendium, he’d have bristled with envy, but this seemed to have been arranged as insouciantly as a gig in The Warehouse.

It was a major event, in any case, and its impact became ever more apparent with the coming years, especially on one eighteen-year-old in the audience. The reading was his first exposure to The Extremely Avant Garde, and Burroughs’ dry delivery of his intractably opaque work brought some semblance of sense to it, albeit, perhaps, a sense entirely of its own. But this was the victory of the evening – in good time the outer reaches of free jazz and any amount of other artistic abstraction would present him with little problem, on account of this early help with viewing it on its own terms. A simple enough lesson, perhaps, but an eye-opener at a time of supernova curiosity!

The imago now surfaced. In two short years an awkward and reserved down-at-heel teenager from the Dingle had become an assured and enlightened down-at-heel teenager from the Dingle, with kecks that fitted where they touched, a vague semblance of a job, an even vaguer semblance of a haircut and a shelf of impenetrable books to read on the bus to the pub. Heaven was in a wild flower, the planets were in his palm, a whole world of excitement and adventure and romance was his for the taking, should he ever get round to it. In the meantime. Send No Flowers morphed into Kit, the Pale Fountains into Shack, Wah! into Wah! Everything, The Room into Benny Profane. Paul Simpson put the Wild Swans on hold for a while to form Care with Ian Broudie and made My Boyish Days a record that sounded like the sun coming up on young adulthood’s rapt awakening, and  encapsulated in three minutes the imagination and delight that grew wilder by the day! Pure joy won out, again!

…three hundred, in fact, Easily. Five hundred, a grand, anything – he was only going to chuck it on the fire!

One thought on “Boyish Days and Ballroom Nights – Coming of Age in Early 80s Liverpool

  1. Marvellous.

    Being the same age, sharing the same ‘vibe’ I soaked it all up. It was only in later years I wondered had I been just a couple of years older would I have REALLY been a part of it. Probably not, football was my drug of choice, the ‘scene’ ? felt much like an after-party at a place where you knew everybody, they know you, but being Liverpool…you just kinda let on and don’t like to impose.

    I didn’t really look upon anybody as ‘cool’ (apart from Bernie C) ..they were all just doing what 19/20 year olds seemed to be doing…us ‘kids’ were a willing and grateful audience who jumped at every chance to see ‘faces’ perform in places we didn’t get knocked back from.

    For every ‘had to be there’ gig at Eric’s there was a ‘that was ace’ at Mountford Hall and many, many more nuggets of legend to be had watching bands cut their teeth in clubs and boozers across the city.

    ‘Two Tribes’ – music and football…I look back at the 80’s as the shittest time the city went through…not all of us will write a book about it, make a living from the memory of it or (as is the Liverpool way) derive heroes from it…in fact now, as then, I consider those who believed their own hype just as worthy of a ‘he needs a slap him’.

    To have survived it all is an achievement in itself. Not everybody gets a medal, not everybody wants one, just KNOWING I’m proud to have been a part of it all…good enough for me.

    I was the fat kid with a wedge at the back wearing the Lois cords, crew neck over a Ben Sherman and a pair of samba.

    See yer in The Mariners 😉

    xx

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