In the latest Lost Liverpool, Getintothis‘ Paul Fitzgerald on a John Lennon tribute memorable for the wrong reasons and a counterculture response that unfolded across another side of town.
A cursory flick through the many ‘Beatles dates’ websites will find little or no reference to May, 5.
Other than the fact that on that day in 1960, The Quarrymen changed their name to The Silver Beetles, it’s a pretty unremarkable date in the Beatles calendar.
It bears no relevance whatsoever to the story of the band or its individual members. Or at least, it didn’t until 30 years later when Liverpool hosted the John Lennon Tribute Concert at the Pier Head.
To coin the phrase ‘ill-fated’ when discussing this event could conceivably be seen as an insult to the phrase ‘ill-fated’. Time has not been kind to the legacy of this dubious tribute.
In fact, there were many rumblings of dissatisfaction in the city even before it took place, as well as afterwards. Originally pitched as a tribute to the man, and an occasion to put his home city ‘on the world stage’ – as if it wasn’t already – the plan was the city would benefit, it would be a great opportunity to showcase some of the city’s talent, and the world would be watching. It was THAT big. Of course, none of that happened, and that rightly upset many.
The city’s finances were in their usual mess in those days, and people were generally wary of how the Council spent their money, so it was understandable that a major investment in this event from the city’s coffers was felt to be a step too far to celebrate…well, to celebrate what exactly?…. May, 5?
The city’s financial guardians, undeterred by such trivialities as public opinion, managed to find half a million pounds to dig up the area around the Pier Head and create an open air venue in the shadow of the Liver Building.
They expected 45,000 tickets to be sold. That same year, the council also donated money to Merseyside Arts to support Liverpool Now, an initiative created to nurture and promote new local music. The donation was just £750.
So, the idea was born. The venue was being created, and the quest was on to get the three remaining Beatles on board, and Yoko. Yoko jumped on board straight away, wanting to seize the moment to raise funds for John’s charity the Spirit Foundation. Ringo sent a video to be played on the night, as did McCartney, who already had his own gig booked at the King’s Dock a few weeks later. George Harrison didn’t even return the call. Or as Yoko put it in one interview, “He wasn’t in”.
The idea was, of course, this wasn’t just to be a tribute gig. The whole thing would be filmed for the international market and shown in October of that year to commemorate what would have been the former Beatle’s 50th birthday.
A US production company was brought in to oversee the staging of the show, and to book the artists. And this is where it all became a little confusing, particularly to the people of Liverpool.
The only Liverpool band selected to play was The Christians, and all the other acts were selected mainly for the ratings they would pull in the US.
The inclusion of names such as Hall and Oates, Al Green, Natalie Cole, Lenny Kravitz, Lou Reed, Cyndi Lauper, Randy Travis, Joe Cocker would no doubt have pleased the American and European markets, but with each addition to the bill, the perceived link to Lennon grew further away. These were just standard US touring artists.
To appease the crowd at the Pier Head, they brought in the real heavyweights, Terence Trent d’Arby, Wet Wet Wet, and Kylie, at this point still a Stock, Aitken and Waterman popster, all joined the bill. There was no headline act. David Bowie, Elton John (both good friends of Lennon), Madonna and Michael Jackson were all approached to perform, but unanimously took the George Harrison way out.
Of course, an event of this magnitude needed a suitable MC, someone who could unite audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, someone perhaps with a link to John Lennon or The Beatles, someone who could maybe represent, on the world stage, the fine historic city of Lennon’s birth.
They hired Superman. Literally. Christopher Reeve became host and as his assistant, Mike Read off the telly, last seen ‘representing’ UKIP in the run up to the EU referendum with a dodgy racist song. Yes, that Mike Read.
A floor of the Atlantic Tower Hotel was commandeered as a production base for the weeks leading up to the event. Crash Studios and The Royal Court were booked for rehearsals, and work got underway to build the stage.
Build it, and they will come. Well, some of them will. On the day, fewer than half the tickets had been sold, and the box office was offering them for £5.00 – half price.
But still, the voices of unease spoke. Granada TV made a short programme about the event which looked at some of the mistrust and disappointment surrounding this contentious, and incongruous event.
The timing, the lack of opportunity for local acts, and where the money was going.
Penny Kiley, who, at the time, was the Liverpool Echo’s music writer, was keen to point out the imbalance in the Council’s support of this event and the more vital homegrown talent supported by Liverpool Now.
‘Everyone was very disappointed, because when it was originally announced, they thought there was going to be more Liverpool input, but people just won’t invest in current Liverpool music.’
‘The only sponsor they could find for the Liverpool Now event were Merseyside Arts and Liverpool City Council. Liverpool City Council put £750 into it, and just under half a million into the Lennon concert and I think that’s a disgrace. While Lennon was alive, nobody in Liverpool had a good word to say for him.’
‘The opinion was, what has he done for Liverpool? Now he’s dead, they’re all trying to cash in on his name. They’re commercialising his name, and they’re sentimentalising his name as well, which I think is even worse.’
There also seemed to be a lack of clarity at Council level as to where the proceeds would go, as Leader of the council Keva Coombes appeared to hint during one interview in the week running up to the gig
‘I trust them, I think we’ve got to yet understand more details about where the money’s being applied. We need to make sure that the promises we got are kept and that a large part of that money comes to benefit the environment and education for the people of this city.’
Garry Christian, when asked how he felt about being the only Liverpool band on the bill, was more confused about being asked to play.
‘There’s a lot of bullshit going round, and I don’t really know. I feel really… a bit weird about the whole thing.’
Events such as this come with their surreal moments, of course. Such as Lou Reed arriving with a police escort to a rehearsal in Crash, escorted by a gaggle of assorted heavies as his personal security, as well as a food tester to check his Perrier hadn’t been tampered with.
A buffet, an ashtray at an exact pre-requested height, music stands despite no sheet music being used, a sweep of the building before his arrival, all requisite ingredients for a two song rehearsal by a paranoid former Velvet, before he returned to the safety of his hotel suite.
Or the beautifully strange vision of a diminutive Aussie pop star rehearsing on the Royal Court stage while the theatre’s staff walked across the stage behind her carrying their weekly stockpile of maggot infested, rat chewed bin bags off to the skip outside.
Or Lenny Kravitz walking up and down Bold Street continually for no apparent reason. All of it unseemly and incongruous in those most unglamorous times, and in a city barely surviving the fall out from the Tory government’s previous ideas of managed decline.
And so, on the afternoon of May 5, the doors opened, the crowd poured in, and the show commenced. Although at times the production was stilted, with cues being missed, some PA issues, and the crowd being urged to re-shoot some scenes, those who were there enjoyed it. Mostly.
Mark McNulty’s abiding memory is ‘I saw Al Green sing All You Need Is Love at The Pier Head. It was boss, but it all went downhill from there.’
Getintothis‘ Del Pike also recalls the oddness of it all. ‘I just remember being strangely impressed with Kylie, strangely unimpressed with Lou Reed, confused by Superman, and bored to death by Lou Gramm and Wet Wet Wet. Al Green was there though, and Cyndi Lauper. Bizarre, it was.’
Yet, as the bizarreness continued into the night, another event at another of the city’s most prominent of sites was taking place, away from the gaze of the Council, who were otherwise engaged in hospitality at the Pier Head.
Visual Stress was an inspired and inspiring collective of creatives, as well as a series of events. Devised as an answer to the cultural malaise into which the city found itself engulfed, as both a response to and a demand of the decisions made around us and on our supposed ‘behalf’, Visual Stress brought noise and colour to the streets, by harnessing the talents of drummers, musicians, dancers, performance artists and poets and delivered these interactive and immersive, fluid rituals on a grand scale, and predictably, with little funding.
Less a protest, more a reply in some form of opposition to the Lennon tribute, up at St George’s Plateau, Lemon: Death By Free Enterprise Part II took place. A series of linked and themed vignettes, separate parts of the same statement, there was a choir singing ‘Hell, I need somebody’, someone dressed as a lemon playing Lennon songs, a Scouse version of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, crowds of mourners in all black costume, a WW1 officer in a coffin on top of the cenotaph recalling the part played by General Haig, a Kylie impersonator, speeches, drama and music.
As Adrian Challis of Visual Stress puts it:’The Beatles ‘culture’ we certainly saw as an unhealthy weight dragging down the city. The hagiography of the dead St Lennon I guess was one of the zombies we’d prefer to see buried, but not really a protest, more a ritual exorcism, a declaration of intent, a call to cultural warfare, an intoxicating explosion of a vitally alive urban creativity.’
When asked if they’d sought permission from the Council for these events, as it seemed at the time they just seemed to happen organically, almost spontaneously, Hue Mann replied: ‘We had permission, yeah, but always pushed it further than we promised them. So much went on then, but this was basically just an opposition to the travesty of the Pier Head mess.’
The aftermath of the Lennon tribute was double edged at every turn. Yoko Ono declared ‘John would be so happy’, while McCartney wasn’t so sure, questioning the choice of artists and the lack of a headlining act. Wet Wet Wet complained that they’d been forced to sing a John Lennon song instead of one of their own.
The show was slated the next day in much of the British press, as well as in the US. The show, or heavily edited highlights of it, was finally aired on December, 9 in the US, with Michael Douglas compering the links between, and released on VHS in the UK the following year. Kylie went on to become certified pop royalty. Mike Read went on to become a dodgy racist.
While some enjoyed the day, many still today are wondering what exactly it was all about.
This month’s Lost Liverpool track comes from The Lightning Seeds.
On the same weekend as the Lennon tribute was happening, Ian Broudie gathered a band of dodgy looking ne’er do wells around him and headed off to London for the weekend to film this video for the less well known Lightning Seeds song All I Want, the third single from the Cloudcuckooland album.
It’s a typical piece of classic Broudie pop, heavy on catchiness, and big of chorus. After filming the video, they headed back up north to perform on the Saturday morning childrens’ show 8.15 From Manchester, before heading to the hotel bar where they were offended by a member of The Drifters. Another story for another day.