Lost Liverpool #4 – The Liverpool 1990 Festival: Lost in France

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John Head, Shack, Paris 1990

John Head, Shack, Paris 1990

In our fourth Lost Liverpool column, Getintothis’ Paul Fitzgerald searches his memory of three magical days and nights in the city of lights, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Liverpool 1990 Festival.

This article has been scheduled to be published this month for some time, as it celebrates the 25th anniversary of a three day festival of Liverpool music in Paris in November 1990.

Given recent events, we discussed whether to publish it at all, but we took the decision that not to publish would be to cower. 

We believe in the power of music to bring people together, we believe in the healing power of music, and the importance of the arts. We believe in people, loud and live music, and the importance of living a life  full of love, light, and laughter.

Paris is one place that stands for all of those things, and so we have published the article this month as we originally intended.

Nestled away in the back streets­ of the Pigalle, surrounded by the beauty and filth of Paris, the cafés, sex shops and strip joints, the guitar shops and dodgy jazz bars, and lurking in the shadow of Montmartre and Sacré-Coeur, sits the Royal Fromentin Hotel.

Housed in what was once a 1930s cabaret, Le Don Juan, the hotel retains the charm, and the spirit of those heady days with a quiet dignity. History hangs heavy in these streets. Streets where Picasso, Lautrec, Monet, Dali, Mondrian and Van Gogh lived, worked and sought their inspiration. And in the dark hours, the streets ran green with Absinthe. Hedonism was king.

Read about 1987’s Earthbeat Festival in our first Lost Liverpool column

So, it made perfect and fitting sense, given this backdrop of excess, for the Royal Fromentin to be the hotel of choice when the circus that was Liverpool 1990 rolled into town. A festival of Liverpool music, and all that entailed in the early ’90s. Six bands, three days, two DJs, one NME writer, one photographer, a graffiti artist, and a whole host of assorted wronguns, landed on the Rue De Fromentin and checked in on the morning of Thursday November 8.

The whole crazed scheme was the brainchild of Andrew Erskine, manager of Shack and Eat My Dog, who together made up the line-up for the Friday. Not a man to run scared from a challenge (after all, this is the man who made sure, against considerable odds, it must be said, that Shack‘s classic Waterpistol album actually got made and released). Adding in The La’s, The Boo Radleys, Dr Phibes and the House Of Wax Equations, and the hotly tipped perfect-pop trio, Top.

Andy Carroll and future Cream supremo James Barton DJ’d for the weekend, and Liverpool artist Luke Walsh spent the whole weekend working on an enormous graffiti piece in the venue, while the bands played. Acclaimed Liverpool photographer and filmmaker Mark McNulty was brought in to catalogue and capture the mayhem and the madness, and many of his images from the weekend can be found in his book Pop Cultured.

Arriving by train, plane and the back of a transit van, with a ‘Paris or bust’ attitude, they gathered in the ornate art deco surroundings of the hotel reception area early in the morning. It would be a full 12 hours before the first band was onstage, and yet the first thing former NME writer Kevin McManus, who’d been sent to review the goings on, remembered, was being handed a bottle of JD by one of what he later described as “scally comic strip rappers” Eat My Dog. We have no way of verifying whether this is true. But it is certainly likely.

As McManus pointed out in his review:

It probably seemed a good idea at the time, but letting a loony Liverpool posse loose over a weekend in Paris, and placing everyone in the same hotel, was always going to be a recipe for madness and mayhem, with music an optional extra. It was like being on holiday with a bunch of cranked-up randy schoolkids with absolutely no excesses spared”

Just around the corner from the hotel, and 100 metres or so down the Boulevard De Clichy, stands the Moulin Rouge, one of Paris’ major tourist attractions, thanks to the Can Can, and Lautrec‘s love of the place. This iconic and legendary facade with its trademark rooftop windmill shows litle evidence of what lies beneath in the bowels of the building. La Locomotive, a well known and widely respected subterranean rock venue, slightly broken, unloved and rough around the edges, it made a perfect location for three debauched days and nights.

Rooms within rooms, and a surfeit of nooks and crannies made the venue all the more interesting. On the lower level, a giant hole in the floor featuring an ancient railway engine, it was the only part of the weekend that wasn’t going off the rails. Upstairs on the top floor was one of three bars, with a trippy ceiling lighting effect that changed colours through the rainbow, much to the delight of this gaggle of wide-eyed Scouse space cadets.

Thursday night’s gig, the opening night, featured Top and The La’s. However, the latter outfit were not at this time, widely known for actually turning up to their gigs, and sure enough, in that respect, they didn’t disappoint. They’d remained firmly put, back in Liverpool, ill at ease with the concept of a 9am soundcheck, and with bassist John Power nursing a fractured wrist following some sort of altercation which may or may not have included somebody else’s chin.

The ball, then, was firmly in the court of the recently signed three-piece power pop machine that was Top. This fine trio featured the much-missed Alan Wills, later founder of Deltasonic, on drums, Paul Cavanagh, now with Mike Badger’s Shady Trio, on vocals and guitar, together with Wills‘ fellow Deltasonic honcho Joe Fearon on bass. Top had been lauded and courted by just about every label in the country before finally signing to Island.

Paul Cavanagh, Alan Wills, Joe Fearon, TOP, Paris 1990

Paul Cavanagh, Alan Wills, Joe Fearon, TOP, Paris 1990

They were purveyors of sweet slices of harmonic and melodious perfect power pop, and Liverpool 1990 was only their second ever live show. It was easy to see how and why they’d started such a scrap in the industry, such was the immediacy and purity of the writing involved here, and, second show or not, their various experience in other bands meant that they more than cut the mustard live. With songs like No 1 Dominator and Buzzin in their baggy pop cannon, it’s hard to understand why Top didn’t reach far giddier heights and much wider appeal.

 

The rest of the night, and most of the Friday morning saw this gathering of wasted wastrels partying to Barton and Carroll‘s soundtrack and stumbling around repeatedly declaring their undying love for each other, before decamping to the hotel as the sun rose over Sacré-Coeur, for, well, more partying. Much more, in fact.

A full day was booked in for Shack after their breakfast time soundcheck, as some bright spark had decided that the morning after the previous night’s excesses, it would be a spffing and sensible idea for them to hire scooters and drive around Paris, helmeted, hilarious and hungover, swerving in and out of the insane Parisian traffic and filming the action for a video for their next single I Know You Well. Off they went. Fingers were crossed they’d make it back in time for their headline slot. Meanwhile, somewhere in the Pigalle, Mark McNulty was grabbing whichever member of the throng he could for a photo session. Having done their soundcheck, Eat My Dog were up, and just about breathing, so off they went in search of locations, strong coffee and brandy.

Thankfully, no members of Shack were injured during the filming of the video, and come the evening, DJs were waking from their slumber, The Boo Radleys had arrived, as had Dr Phibes and The House Of Wax Equations, and the Scouse contingent began to gather around the bars and cafes of Montmartre, ready for Round 2, night two of the festival.

High on, erm, life and drunk on, erm, emotion, Eat My Dog took to the Locomotive stage, bedecked, as were most of the contingent, in the commemorative Liverpool 1990 event shirts that Erskine had made, and brought their Scouse hip house set to the adoring Parisian masses with stunning ease, and some impressive showmanship. Songs included a housed-up mash-up of the theme from Loveboat, as well as Shaft, a fine and fitting tribute to a well known Liverpool traffic warden, and rounding off with their own World Cup anthem.

Writing for the NME though, Kev McManus saw things slightly differently:

Friday night saw scally rappers Eat My Dog, performing for the very last time, and I can say with complete confidence (and without offending the band in the least) that they will not be missed.”

Possibly the NME‘s man on the ground had been a little too ‘on the ground’ that weekend too, his judgement seemingly somewhat flawed. Perhaps he was right. Thankfully, we’ll never know.

Shack‘s performance was, for most of those fortunate enough to be present, a sublime and beautiful highlight of the weekend. At the top of their game at the time, they opened with the brilliant single I Know You Well, and the set included a handful of class pieces from the Waterpistol album, including Sgt. Major, Mr. Appointment, and the beautifully stoned and reflective Mood Of The Morning.

 

An incredible set of songs, representative of an incredible, and at the time unfinished album, interspersed with Mick Head‘s usual between song banter. The set was one of many high points in this extraordinary songwriter’s lengthy and varied career. Such a climax to the day called for more extreme partying, and many spread to the various bars and ante rooms of the Locomotive to party onwards. Again, the excess was all areas, and the hotel became host to the early morning session, until everybody pretty much dropped where they fell.

Read our review of Mick Head’s recent gig at Liverpool Philharmonic’s Music Room

Saturday morning brought bad news. Mass eviction. The entire party, some thirty or forty tired and broken souls were cast, unexpectedly, out onto the cold Parisian streets of mid-November, without much, or indeed any, notice. The hotel staff had seen, and heard quite enough of this particular party of travellers, thank you very much.

Enough, it would appear, was enough.

Hopeless, dysfunctional and almost completely skint, blinking into the daylight, they stumbled onto Rue De Fromentin without even the slightest hint of an idea of what to do next. While The Boo Radleys and Dr Phibes checked into the Locomotive for their early morning soundcheck, everybody else set about finding somewhere to spend the third night of this gargantuan Scouse rock bacchanal.

Twenty or so found a hostel just around the corner, in a dimly lit street that tended to see most of its action in the twilight hours. The kind of hostel that you could smell downwind, a few hundred yards before you arrived at its unlit and distinctly worrying doorway. Not the sort of place that could accurately be described as being in any way pleasant. The kind of place, in fact, you’d recommend instantly to someone you don’t care much for. Somewhere to dump bags and nothing more.

Still, Saturday night, and two more gigs to watch around the corner, so off to the Locomotive they went for the final night’s exuberance. The last hurrah, and the upping of the ante, before the wanderlust would come to its inevitable conclusion, and the journey back to Liverpool would begin.

Howard King Jr of Dr Phibes And The House Of Wax Equations, Paris 1990

Howard King Jr of Dr Phibes And The House Of Wax Equations, Paris 1990

An enthusiastic and appreciative welcome greeted the arrival of Dr Phibes And The House Of Wax Equations. Recently signed to Virgin, and already mid way through recording the Hypnotwister LP, their particular brand of psyched out blissful drone-driven heaviness rocked every part of the venue. Freaked out, and funked up, at their best, Phibes always were a formidable live prospect, and on the night, their free-form stoned and droned metal wig-out made friends out of strangers, and the rapidly gathering French audience absolutely loved every minute.

 

The Boo Radleys followed with their own-brand tight psych pop sound. Layered harmonies and screeching guitar solos cemented and celebrated the leaps from dub bass led groove, to full on, all-out rock n roll. With songs that wore their Beach Boys and Big Star influence on their sleeve, the Boos bore no shame in that, and proudly stood apart from the rest of what was at the time an incredibly healthy Liverpool music scene, and they closed their set set with a fuzzy wall of sound explosion of weighty Scouse pop music.

A fitting end to a weekend that Martin Carr of the band has scant recollection of “I remember one thing only. It was when I met my soon to be ex-wife”. Clearly he doesn’t recall his band drinking all of Eat My Dog‘s rider while they were onstage the previous night, but maybe we shouldn’t dwell on that.

And so, on the Sunday morning, bodies were pushed to the final limit. That of getting back to Liverpool, sleep was caught up on, on airport benches, underneath ferry lifeboats. Across the back seats of coaches, and on top of guitar amps in the dark and sweat-smelling rear of many a Transit van. There was talk of a repeat festival the following year, as the tired and emotional, dazed and confused renegade protagonists laughed their way back to Liverpool. And as Kev McManus said in the final line of his NME review…

“Still. Liverpool definitely left its mark on Paris – they say ‘la’ there all the time”

All pictures by Mark McNulty.

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