Lost Liverpool #3 : A scene unseen – Black History Month

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Bantu by Mark McNulty

Bantu by Mark McNulty

October’s Lost Liverpool column sees Getintothis’ Paul Fitzgerald looking at the often ignored and under appreciated contribution of Liverpool’s Afro-Caribbean community to the city’s musical and cultural life.

Liverpool. Outward facing, and inwardly welcoming. For over 800 years now, people have arrived, and many have stayed. The city has one of the oldest Afro-Caribbean communities in Europe. Yet, as anyone who saw the L8 Unseen exhibition at The Museum Of Liverpool during the summer, and saw the video of Ramon ‘Sugar’ Deen discussing his experiences will testify, the music of this proud and active community remains, largely, unheard. A history untold.

In the music business’ relentless search for the next bunch of white lads with guitars, generations of A&R men have strolled the streets of Liverpool, blinkered and refusing in their attitude, and happy enough to pay scant attention to the music coming from Liverpool 8. Things are changing, the internet has undoubtedly played a part in that. Recognition and respect are easier to gain now for women in music in the city, for instance, than has ever previously been the case.

You’ll find little or no mention of black music in the seemingly endless stream of books about the fab four and The Cavern, yet they were there, writing, singing, and performing alongside the many grinning besuited Merseybeaters of the time. American music flooded the streets, from both the US airforce bases, and the dockers and seamen who brought records back home from their travels. Sugar Deen remembers being the first person to find out that Ringo Starr had joined The Beatles, when he bumped into him outside Brian Epstein‘s NEMS record shop on the day he’d signed.

At the time, Deen was singing in a band called The Valentinos, playing regularly in the city’s many cabaret clubs, and hustling round the record companies in London, trying to get a deal for their Frankie Lymon influenced doo-wop songbook. They’d spend hours hanging out with The Beatles, often against Epstein‘s wishes, at NEMS, waiting for a chance to meet the likes of Martha Reeves or Edwin Starr, when they came to town. “Eppy would try to throw us out, but we just refused. We weren’t gonna miss our chance to meet people like that”.

After a year or so, EMI expressed a big interest, and booked them in to Abbey Road Studios at the same time as The Beatles were working on their early sessions. “We wanted to go through into the next studio, and say hello to the lads, cos, you know, these were our mates from back home, but the whole ‘Beatle’ thing was starting back then, and they inisted that nobody was allowed to bother them while they were recording, which we all found a bit strange”.

Read the first edition of Lost Liverpool here

After their initial interest, EMI cooled off pretty quickly, insisting that they didn’t know how to promote ‘a band like them‘. Deen just saw this as another example of the ingrained cultural racism of the time. Another key point at this time, was that the record companies saw the many black British groups as somehow less worthy, less authentic, particularly when the market was being so easily and readily flooded with US soul acts at that time.

As the 60s progressed, the realisation was dawning that the only way for these acts to make a living from their music was to travel the length and breadth of the country to play the many cabaret clubs that each town had at the time. “Often though, we’d arrive to find a gang of fellas waiting outside the venue for us, looking for trouble, some nights, we’d have to fight our way in to the venue, and then fight our way out after the gig”. Such were the times.

Many was the night, in fact, that bands like The Valentinos, or later, The Chants would be booked to play in the same air bases that had played such an important part in their musical upbringing. This was the mid 60s, and segregation was still strictly enforced on all US soil, so they’d find themselves having to use a different entrance, different bathrooms, and even at one point, Deen recalls a burly US sergeant with a deep south accent, putting a gun to his head in front of his soldiers while he delivered a tirade of racial abuse.

Despite the troubles endured by the many black British artists of the time, Deen recalls those days with a reassuring fondness, he’s rightly proud of their contribution, and their influence on younger black acts. In the 70s, one black Liverpool band did manage to break through, again with the help of EMI. The Real Thing, formed in the early 1970s by Chris Amoo and later joined by his brother Eddy, a former member of The Chants, they reached number one in the UK, and top thirty on the US billboard chart with the perfect slice of soul pop You To Me Are Everything, and followed up with others such as Can’t Get By Without You. Still playing, still touring, they more than brought the party and the soulful good times to the It’s Liverpool stage at LIMF this year. Their hits have entered the pantheon of British pop music, where their influence doubtlessly remains.

The 1980s brought massive changes to both black American and British music and popular culture, with the arrival of what’s now often referred to as hip hop’s golden age. Angered by the depression and lack of opportunities for the people of Toxteth in Thatcher‘s Britain, Bantu were a force to be reckoned with. Intelligent, articulate, and resolute, they spoke of their world, a world of high unemployment and little opportunity. This fiery rap three piece, could have, and should have been huge.

Ibrahim, Kevin and Calvin took the angst of their community, and fired up by the influence of The Last Poets and Public Enemy, presented the truth as they saw it. Unbending and immovable in their conviction, they would have proved a challenge for any record company, and there were many who were interested. Almost every major label knocked on their door at one point or other, but it was largely felt that the crossover to mainstream success would evade them, such was the overtly political nature of their writing. They wouldn’t have wanted it anyway. Vanilla Ice they weren’t. And again, an indication that such were the times.

Read our take on the legacy of Death Row Records

As Ibrahim told NME‘s Kevin McManus at the time “Being born a black man in England you are born political, and in Liverpool you are definitely born political…so I’m not really bothered if people find it hard to accept. If we were doing the MC Hammer baggy trouser routine we’d be in there but that’s not us…what we are saying is reality and people shouldn’t be scared of reality

Bantu‘s talent was undeniable, their delivery and live act was slick, their energy infectious. Liverpool 8 needed them, the rest of Liverpool needed them, and in many ways, still does. We should pay closer attention to what happens musically beyond the parameters of Hope Street and the Georgian quarter, and give space, time and the encouragement to develop to a wider range of artists, while remembering the contribution always, of those who went before.

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