As the renaissance of Bold Street continues, Getintothis’ Paul Fitzgerald looks back to a time when two venues helped shape the early beginnings of Liverpool’s dance music scene.
Bold Street. Ever since the Victorians swanned up and down, out of their tree on their latest opium or laudanum delivery, it’s been an ever changing, fluid, transient place. Changes are afoot, blink and you might well miss them. It’s smartening itself up at an alarming pace. Just about every kind of food and drink outlet imaginable is springing up in just about any space as the street becomes re-imagined, the rough edges sanded away and new histories created.
But its more than just a collection of restaurants selling everything from Japanese or Peruvian street food to Madagascan Lemur barbecue joints. Long term residents, such as Mattas, Rennies, and News From Nowhere sit comfortably with the newer outlets on this important arterial route linking the city centre with the Georgian grandeur at the top of the hill. This remarkable street has always forged links with the city’s artists and become a magnet at the heart of many creative communities. In the 1980s, this area of town was a hub of creativity. Holmes Buildings and the creative community based there, was just around the corner. World Earthbeat were Bold Street based. The area was rich in galleries, studios, rehearsal spaces, there was a vibrancy and an urgency to the creative work that went on. There was an optimism borne of the darkness of the political mood of the time, and the neglect the city had undergone from successive governments.
They spent their days, huddled together over coffee and cake in places such as Cafe Berlin (now Miyagi), a monochromed palace of delights, and a creative community all of its own. They had the best coffee, and a good selection of the coolest events there. The Bold Street Coffee of its time, perhaps.
In the days before Ecstasy and dance culture came along to switch the lights on, and blur the boundaries, people found themselves moving towards their own places, their own scenes, and this was so much more evident after dark. Behind two unassuming and anonymous doorways off Bold Street were two clubs, populated by ‘Alternatives’, those who chose to forego the many houses of dreaded chart music and cheesy soul that populated the city, places where hairdressers hunted football players, and the air hung thick with cheap aftershave and aggressive talk. In the Bold Street area, the ‘alternatives’ had Macmillan’s and the Mardi Gras.
A third of the way up Bold Street is Concert Street, which links the street with the dubious pleasure palaces of Concert Square, where today the air hangs thick with cheap cocaine and aggressive talk. As you approach the square on your left is the doorway to Macmillan‘s. Owned by Lenny Macmillan, a savvy man with an eye for an opportunity, who recognised that none of the other gay clubs in the city were open on a Sunday night, Lenny moved the gay night to Sundays, and, ever supportive of the ideas of younger, more tuned in promoters/DJs (and there’s a story there we’ll come back to) opened Mac‘s up on Fridays and Saturdays to a different crowd, eventually adding Thursday to the offer. As well as this, he was no doubt aware of the burgeoning ‘alternative’ scene up in the other end of town at clubs such as The State and The System.
Daniel Davidson was a regular at the Sunday gay nights, and a big fan. He said; “It was the only place to go on a Sunday. It always had a more classy vibe than places like The Masqerade, Jody’s and Sadie’s, which wasn’t hard, and the music was so much better. It was one of the first places I remember were the DJ didn’t talk between records too.”
Another regular, Andrew Winder, agrees. “I always had to get the last bus back to Huyton, so I never got to see Mac’s true colours when the lights came up, on all of the beautiful, and not so beautiful people that went there. I was kind of like Cinderella leaving the ball. But I kept my shoes, and there was generally no Prince Charming following.” The Sunday nights became the stuff of legend, banging out Hi-Nrg classics to a packed crowd each week, and ending at the very Godly hour of midnight, so the assembled throng, suitably topped up with ample cans of Breaker, could make it to the chippy before the last bus or train home.
Mac‘s went from strength to strength for the next few years, with DJ Gary Allen steering the ship. Allen knew the audience, knew what worked, and he kept the city’s most charming doormen busy at the door, as the crowds piled downstairs. The music was an eclectic choice, a pre rave but danceable mix of old and new, electronic, indie and post punk classics. The great and the not so good of the city’s music scene could often be seen staggering down those oh so steep stairs in to that place, an airless basement, without any ventilation system of any note, it was a hot, breathless, busy, and scantily lit place, often only illuminated by the very old, and very soft porn on pause on the portable televisions that hung from the ceiling.
Many regular nights found their feet there, including the legendary Planet X post punk nights run by Doreen Allen. In the days before 24 hour licensing, everything stopped at 2am, and those in the know went off in search of places only those in the know would know of, seeking the holy grail, a late drink. Some would find their way to The Monro pub on Duke Street, run by one Ernie Woo, a smoke filled old school booker, more spit than sawdust, where more local bands often seemed to be engaged in smoking competitions over the pool table. Others, a selected few, stayed behind in Macmillan’s after hours for a warm can of Red Stripe or two.
Another favoured method of finding late drinks in those days was to simply call in to the Everyman Bistro, where, at the end of the bar, people who frankly should have known better would write the address of their house party for all to see, and take note of. And all did. These parties, usually in the Lark Lane area, would often go on for days, and because of their close proximity to each other, it was easy to make an all night journey of it, stopping off at various until the sun came up. To this day, it’s still baffling as to why anybody would advertise their party in such a public manner, but we digress.
Within a year or so, back in Bold Street, and indeed the whole city, the whole country, the waves of Ecstasy washed over clubland, the rules were being rewritten and good times were rethought. The boundaries in people’s imagination were beginning to fall, minds were being freed, and asses were sure to follow. We all began to dance.
The banner, stretched across Bold Street, read “I’d Sacrifice 8 Orgasms with Shirley Maclaine Just To be There” taken from an album of the same name by Peter Coyle, who’d had a summer hit with The First Picture Of You a few years earlier with The Lotus Eaters. It announced the arrival of a new night at MacMillan‘s, 8 Orgasms. Liverpool had not witnessed anything quite like it before. Taking influences from art, theatre, psychedelia, the rave scene, and just about anywhere and everywhere else, it was a complete one-off, an enthralling and absolute experience. The club had been decorated by a group of artists named The F People, there was African drumming, fire eaters, oil projectors, huge dayglo fish, karaoke sets, gigs by rising artists such as A Guy Called Gerald, performance artists, hedonists, transvestites, and courtesy of DJ and writer John Mcready, there were sets of early house music which lifted the roof to wide eyes and fresh ears. Music photographer and filmaker Mark McNulty catalogued these nights, and several of those images appear in his brilliant Pop Cultured book. He recalls it well. “It was out there and all over the place, and quite often very funny, but it broke the rules and it made a difference.”
Nights like 8 Orgasms did make a difference, and absolutely did challenge perceptions and break the rules, and Peter Coyle and his collective of fellow souls were not, by any means, the only people to do so at the time. In fact, quite the opposite, there were many others.
But what’s clear is that the support they received from the club owners, those whose interests in these events was more commercial than artistic, was absolutely essential to driving these ideas forward, and feeding such creativity. Maybe there’s a lesson there, for another time maybe. But this story isn’t over. In a creative, energetic port city like Liverpool, in fact, the story is never really over…
Look out for part 2 next month.
Pictures by courtesy of Mark McNulty.