Revolutionary Spirit – A trip through Liverpool’s music history

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Some of the cast on new album The Revolutionary Spirit

Some of the cast on new album The Revolutionary Spirit

Revolutionary Spirit is a five CD box set looking at Liverpool’s eclectic musical journey from 1976 through to 1988, Getintothis’ Banjo and Jamie Bowman speak to some of those who made it happen.

Liverpool has always been a musical city.

Once Merseybeat and The Beatles had focused the world’s attention on the city, music and performance became part of Liverpool’s DNA. However, The Beatles cast a long shadow and, following their split in 1970, Liverpool struggled with what to do next. The answer came a few years later, with the arrival of punk and a new club in Matthew Street called Eric’s.

Punk and post-punk revitalized the city and Liverpool took up its call to arms enthusiastically. Within months of its shock waves hitting the city, bands were formed and a generation was again galvanized into action.

This was quite a common thing in Britain post 1976, but where Liverpool triumphed was in the quality and success of its bands. From one tiny basement club away from the city centre came the likes of Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and OMD, to mention but four.

These bands themselves became an influence on the next wave, not perhaps in terms of their music, but in the way they showed that it was not only possible to be form a good band with your friends, but also to gather good reviews, get gigs and live the dream. Liverpool once again had a music scene to be proud of.

Then the scene splintered and diffused, as scenes do, and the 80s saw this wave of activity spread across the city. There were bands everywhere in Liverpool, from punk to pop, from the cultured to the chaotic, from the shores of Lake Placid to the banks of the Mississippi.

And now those good folk at Cherry Red records have put these weird and wonderful bands from 1976 – 1988 into a lavishly presented five CD box set called Revolutionary Spirt, after the debut single from one of Liverpool’s coolest bands, Wild Swans.

This box set gathers together songs from successful bands, almost unknown bands and those who achieved various other levels of recognition or notoriety. This is a wise step to take, because the city’s musical legacy is not limited to the bands who made it onto Top of the Pops or into the album charts. It is in all of the bands who trod the boards, populated the rehearsal rooms, recorded John Peel sessions or made records.

That this five disc set merely scratches the surface of the city’s vast musical history is proof that something extraordinary has taken place in Liverpool. The sheer number of bands and the quality of the music they made is something that this writer believes is unreplicated in any other city. Liverpool was and is a city that punches well above its weight.

Listening to the five CDs, which are arranged in a loose chronological order, is to hear a cultural progression. From the pre-punk stylings of Deaf School, through the initial stirrings of a punk movement with Big in Japan and Spitfire Boys, and then onto indie, smooth pop, jazz leanings and literally all points in between. This compilation highlights the fact that Liverpool has always had an impressive broad sweep of talent and vision. And all of it filtered through Liverpool’s own sense of how things should be done.

It is good to see the likes of Ex Post Facto, The High Five, Send No Flowers and The Cherry Boys have the light shone on them once more and to be reminded of how vibrant and varied Liverpool’s music scene can be.

To celebrate the release of this look back at the city’s musical history, Getintothis spoke to some of those involved in bringing their musical dreams into reality.

Liverpool’s finest dressed post punk and a founder member of Teardrop Explodes alongside Julian Cope, Paul Simpson is best known for his work with The Wild Swans and Care. The former’s signature anthem gives the box set its name.

Paul Simpson

Paul Simpson

Getintothis: So, a whole box set named after a song you wrote – you must feel pretty proud?

Paul Simpson: ‘It could easily have been called Pictures On My Wall or Sleeping Gas, or named after any one of a dozen songs included in the compilation, so I am flattered they went with Revolutionary Spirit.

Those were exciting, volatile times. We’d just come out of punk, the recession was biting, dozens of Liverpool bands struggling for light like flowers trying to blossom on a bomb site.

It reminds me of that that D.H. Lawrence line. – Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are amongst the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes.’

Getintothis: Tell us about the song Revolutionary Spirit? It’s become the band’s calling card in many ways. Did you know it was a bit special when you’d written it?

Paul Simpson: ‘I remember when we first cycled the chords at rehearsals all those years ago it felt more ambitious and substantial than anything we’d previously written. I recorded it on a portable cassette machine and took it home to think about overnight and at the next rehearsal it all came together; the music and lyrics naturally forming some kind of strange manifesto for the times.

I never questioned the words. They just came unbidden and I wrote them down as if I’d channelled them. Recorded in mono and only available on a 12-inch single.   it was never a going to be a big record, but it was and remains an important record. John Peel adored that song.

Getintothis: Care‘s Flaming Sword is also included. You came pretty close to a bona fide hit with it

Paul Simpson: ‘It was record of the week on Radio One and waking up to it at 8am each morning was surreal. Exciting as it was to have the ear of the nation, I’d find myself cringing when the hopelessly uncool breakfast DJs would gush over it. I remember thinking, I should be happy right now but I am not. What is the problem here? The problem was me.

Chart positions are not barometers of quality, they never were. Back in the day, Bucks Fizz could be at number one while Roxy Music could be stalled at 25. Does that mean Making Your Mind Up is a better record than Both Ends Burning? No. If There She Goes by The La’s had been at number one for twelve weeks, would it still be regarded as the authentic and credible record it is today? It would still be regarded as a great pop song, but possibly not held as close to the heart in Liverpool as it is today. We feel like we still own these songs.

The lone hit single must be a curse for any serious musician. To be tagged a ‘one-hit wonder’ must feel like having a prison tattoo on one’s face. I’m far more Odyssey and Oracle than I am Sgt. Pepper, if that makes any sense?

The Wild Swans’ Paul Simpson chats about his new book Incandescent

Frontman of the Icicle Works and motormouth solo artist and social media addict, Ian McNabb is one of Liverpool’s best known sing songwriters. The Icicle WorksBirds Fly (Whisper To A Scream) is included on Revolutionary Spirit.

Getintothis: Tell us about Birds Fly?

Ian McNabb: ‘Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream) was the first song I wrote that everybody went “wow” about. We rehearsed it for the first time at the Bridewell in Liverpool. I remember Chris Sharrock’s dad coming into the room and being blown away. That had not happened before.

The song wasn’t a proper hit here, although it got to number two in the indie charts though. And then it was a huge radio hit in the USA and Canada but didn’t trouble the chart for long really although I think we nearly got a gold record in Canada.

Nobody knew what to do with the Icicle Works. We had some great songs and we had chart albums and sold out some big places but we didn’t fit anywhere. The singles got oodles of airplay but all except Love Is A Wonderful Colour stalled outside the top 40.

Ian McNabb

Ian McNabb

We all had conflicting views on image and the three of us all looked so different from each other it was comical. Bands like The Alarm did so much better than us largely because they had an image and people would show up at their shows with the same look. I always tried to look like a sixties rocker, Chris Sharrock just went for that cool drummer look and Chris Layhe was very eighties looking. I’d see hordes turning out for Echo And The Bunnymen, The Cult, The Mission and those bands were a lifestyle as well as music. I remember thinking we may have missed a trick there but we were too late into our career to suddenly get image conscious. Everyone knew who we were. At least we didn’t have a mullet in the band.’

Getintothis: Birds Fly has had an interesting after life hasn’t it?

Ian McNabb: ‘Once you have a bit of a hit in America they keep playing it forever on oldies stations. Birds Fly never went away over there. It keeps cropping up in films and TV shows the most recent being Stranger Things 2. That show was very big and has given the song another boost’

Mike Badger is a singer-songwriter, artist and sculptor from Liverpool. Co-founder of The La’s he went on to form alternative country/roots rockabilly band The Onset in 1988 and Mike Badger and The Shady Trio in 2010. In addition, he is co-owner of Liverpool’s independent Viper Label with Paul Hemmings.

Getintothis: Tell us a bit about The La’s tune Get Down Over which is on the box set?

Mike Badger: ‘I was pleased to find out they had selected this tune- it’s one of the songs I wrote in The La’s. Obviously, Lee’s songs tend to be far more well known but it used to open the set for a while and it’s a kind of invocation to get on board – throw off the shackles and join in the fun!

Getintothis: Way Out is also included – it became The La’s debut single but you’d left by then?

Mike Badger: ‘Yes I had left by then. They released it and shot the video and got it out there all before the end of 1987 before everything really ground to a standstill. It was still a time of creativity and the band were still functioning and being very productive.

Getintothis: You left and formed The Onset whose song Precious Love is included – tell us about that one – it sounds like a hit!

Mike Badger: ‘Yeah, we all had high hopes for this one! It was released on the Probe Plus label off the back of Geoff Davies’s success with Half Man Half Biscuit on our Pool of Life debut LP in 1988. Everyone loved it apart from Geoff! I think he thought it too light weight but for me that’s its appeal. It’s very laid back, has nothing to prove and I’ve played it by request as so many weddings! Had it of been on a major label maybe the story of The Onset would have been very different – who Knows?

Yorkshire-born guitarist Robin Surtees moved to Liverpool and found himself at the centre of the post-punk revolution. He appears three times on Revolutionary Spirit in three different acts giving him a unique insight to many of the scene’s big hitters.

Getintothis: So three songs on the box set – you must feel pretty proud?

Robin Surtees: ‘It never seemed very likely. It’s the great thing about music that something you did almost 40 years ago can still have some kind of resonance now’

Getintothis: Tell us about A Formal Sigh?

Robin Surtees: ‘It was my first band. We could hardly play. Pete Wylie saw us at our first gig, at The Lincolns Inn, and said we were the worst band he’d ever seen. Mick Head and Yorkie asked me to join The Dance Party, they thought I looked good. We worked hard and got better. Played every toilet in the North West. Our Peel session is a bit of a belter.’

Getintothis: What were you trying to do with Shiny Two Shiny – a duo was a brave move?

Robin Surtees: ‘Eric’s changed lots of people’s lives, as did the whole early punk thing. If you wanted to do something you just had a crack at it. After A Formal Sigh split Flo said she really wanted to work with me. She invested quite a lot of money in a Teac Portastudio. We started writing and recording songs together in her living room. Working as a duo really worked for us. We could just concern ourselves with finding the right sounds for each song.

Robin Surtees: We went down to London and just turned up on the door steps of labels we liked, starting at Some Bizarre. We got offered three deals in two days, with Cherry Red, with an off-shoot of Rough Trade and Red Flame. We went with Dave Kitson at Red Flame as he wanted us to record a mini-LP, which we duly did. We only played one proper gig in England, at the ICA rock week, the day after Einsturzende Neubauten had drilled holes in the stage and got beaten up by bouncers. We played about 20 gigs abroad and seemed to gather a decent following in Belgium. I loved touring abroad.’

Eric’s – a personal journey through Liverpool’s original punk club

Getintothis: The box set bunches everyone together over five discs – did it feel like ‘a scene’ as such?

Paul Simpson: ‘Not for me so much. The Wild Swans were a self-contained scene. My best friend Julian Cope had just left town forever so only Echo and the Bunnymen really believed in us, so our two circles overlapped, but aside from them we didn’t socialise with other bands.

Liverpool at the time wasn’t a particularly friendly scene, but that is understandable. The slash and burn of punk had instilled in us all, a near fundamentalist attitude to protecting our vision. Discernment was vital. Cross pollinating with bands with woolier attitudes and sloppier aesthetics wasn’t going to happen on my shift. I was a nightmare.

Ian McNabb: ‘There was undoubtedly a scene going on but once again I can’t say that we were ever part of it. I’ve always felt like an outsider and it’s the same today. It’s always been snipey in Liverpool anyway.

Where Manchester bands all seemed to be matey and supported each other Liverpool was very bitchy. There was a great diversity of music though and a lot of it was very good or at least interesting.’

Mike Badger: ‘Because we always had our own practice room on Dalmeny Street on the corner of Aigburth Road we never really mixed with other bands much. We were managed sometimes and self managed most of the time, so we saw other bands around but weren’t really part of a scene as such.

I like the way Cherry Red has referred to the collection as the Second Wave – in many ways it was. Merseybeat was the first with the massive love of rock n roll and its emergence into pop. Then Eric’s was handed the baton and spawned all these other bands. I always referred to the time at the start of the Millennium with Tramp Attack, The Coral, The Zutons and The Big Kids as the Third Wave.

Robin Surtees: ‘There were scenes within scenes. In the early days Roger Hill’s ‘Merseysound’ and his radio show gave music a bit of cohesion. As an outsider Manchester always seemed to have a more diverse, interesting and arty scene and produced loads of great bands. There were a lot of crap bands in Liverpool, maybe I just didn’t see the Manchester crap bands.’

Lost Liverpool: The Cavern Mecca and the start of Beatles tourism

Getintothis: Which other bands on the box set did you like and which did you think should have been more appreciated?

Paul Simpson: ‘The Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus. They were fearless. I think they only ever had two fans; Will Sergeant and myself. They reformed a few years ago and played a one-off candle-lit gig in Liverpool. It was incredible and just like the first time around, only a handful of people were there to witness it.

Mike Badger: ‘Wild Swans, Dalek I, Cherry Boys, Pale Fountains and The La’s were all cult bands really. Great under achievers!

It’s a lottery as to what gets through. It certainly isn’t just about talent. It helps if you’ve got a great product but you need to have the luck of the draw too. I think most of the musicians on here will be proud to have been represented though because we all know how many others were out there. One thing Liverpool has done and always will do is have music busting out at the seams.

Ian McNabb: ‘I haven’t got a copy of the box yet but the inclusions look fair. It’s a shame Pete Wylie wouldn’t participate, you can’t really talk about Liverpool from that time period and not have a Wylie tune. Of the other acts I always loved It’s Immaterial and never felt they got their due

Pete Wylie

Pete Wylie

Robin Surtees: ‘Barbel were great. I’m not just saying that because Roger and Greg are dear friends and my brother was in them! They just had great songs and a darkness. The Walking Seeds should have been bigger. I was always surprised that The Wild Swans weren’t huge. The Tractors always made me smile. The only group I know who mixed their Peel session pissed and naked whilst singing ‘Roll Away The Stone’ to Dale Griffin the producer.

Plus The Bunnymen. Four lads who shook the world. The first four albums are pretty flawless. I used to love watching them live. Will is a superb guitarist. He demoed on the first Benny Profane sessions before I joined and I had to play his guitar parts. I was daunted!

Getintothis: What are you up to at the moment?

Paul Simpson: ‘I am culling words right now, editing my memoir Incandescent for the publisher Unbound. I’m trying to get it down from 120,000 words to about 90,000. Aside from that I am incubating songs for one last Wild Swans album. It’s only at the home demo stage but I love that part of the process when everything is fluid and all is potential. I just need to nail the album title, because once the record named, it’s heart will start to beat

Mike Badger: ‘After accidentally moving to North Wales a year ago I have been fixing up the homestead and walking in the mountains in between building a new studio. I love construction work and DIY so when that’s done I have a third album ready to record with Mike Badger and The Shady Trio. I’m still getting into town once a week, which is basically what I did when I lived in Wavertree, and I’m putting on my Action Packed! Rockabilly nights at the Magnet twice a year and my Shy Lowen Horse Sanctuary fundraiser and I’m off to Stockholm in April on a little tour and tying in a book launch for The Rhythm and The Tide over there. The devil makes work for idle hands!

Ian McNabb: ‘I just carry on doing what I do. I’ll always make records and do gigs that was always the plan. There have been many ups and downs over the years and some scary moments. Apart from a few occasions I’ve always been in the margins.’

As ever though, there is a lot of interesting music made in those margins. Getintothis also spoke to some of Liverpool’s illustrious sons who make Revolutionary Spirit such a fascinating listen.

Getintothis: What are your main or favourite memories of being in a band at the time?

Dave Jackson (The Room, Benny Profane): ‘Between the two bands, we did 7 John Peel sessions, toured the UK, the West Coast of the USA and Canada, Poland, Germany and the Soviet Union. I remember being drunk a lot and enjoying myself enormously. Lots of long drives in the back of transit vans and the joy of being able to express myself in song with a bunch of fun and capable teammates

Joe McKechnie (Benny Profane, Chinese Religion): ‘They were happier, simpler times, which suited us, we were happy & simple. We played our debut gig in the kitchen at a house party, by gig two we’d stepped things up, we played the living room at the next party. REM turned up for that one, we were introduced to them and they laughed at how drunk we were.

Yorkie (The Balcony): ‘The idea behind The Balcony was to try and do something a little bit different. My friends had all gone off to conquer the world in various ways and with various levels of success. I wanted to stay home, experiment and observe. The music scene in Liverpool was thriving, with almost an excess of fantastic bands.

I wanted a band that would reflect the time, but also a band that could retain a certain detachment. The original line up incorporated elements of jazz, pop, exotic rhythms, funk and Dadaism. It was quite confrontational to say the least. I had a passion for the Dadaists, their ability to fuse unlikely elements together and create something never seen before. And this carries through all of my work with The Balcony, Space, Shack and my present band Moongoose.

Paul Kelly (Magic Carpets): ‘We weren’t particularly active as a group. That said, main memories are playing The Cavern I guess, and the Playhouse, the early demos on a Tascam recorded upstairs in Vulcan Street (rehearsal rooms), with the guy who did some Half Man Half Biscuit tracks and then having that wonderful audio cassette in your hand. Obviously Vulcan Street and the stench of Bibbys where they rendered animal carcasses into oil.

Obviously recording the album with the Probe guys was a hoot. One long 24 hour run at their studio getting all 10 tracks down fueled by various substances, cigarettes & lager. And then what seemed like an eternity before getting my mitts on that piece of vinyl & the thrill of that.

Getintothis: Did you feel part of a scene?

Dave Jackson: ‘I suppose we didn’t so much early on. But certainly with Benny Profane, we started to engage a lot more with other Liverpool bands like Kit, Barbel and The Walking Seeds. We put on nights at Ernie Wu’s pub, The Monro, where we’d have stay-behinds after the clubs shut. So yes and no. I think I always preferred Manchester bands like Joy Division, the Blue Orchids and The Fall to the more popular Liverpool acts, Bunnymen aside.

Joe McKechnie: ‘It would often come as a surprise that you’d been adopted by a scene, Profanes played lots of gigs in the backrooms of pubs after C86 had become a thing. Later on we were connected to Madchester, same agent as the Happy Mondays, records released on Imaginary & Play Hard, but we never really got with the beat Baggy. It was a time when the music press used to invent scenes for a laugh.

Yorkie: ‘I feel that although times are difficult for musicians at the moment, Liverpool still has, has always had and, indeed will always have a thriving music scene. It’s in our hearts. This box set is a snapshot of a very wonderful time in the city’s musical history, but I am confident there will be many more wonderful times to come.

Paul Kelly: ‘Personally, I was quite oblivious to any scene but that may have been due to my own personal tastes & antisocial lone wolfery, which is still prevalent today really. That said we featured on the ‘Ways to wear coats’ compilation album that featured all sorts of bands at Vulcan Street so there must been something. There was always a local band on somewhere.

Getintothis: What do you think of Liverpool’s music scene now and then?

Dave Jackson: ‘I Probably don’t know enough about current band scene. Lots of retro and posh LIPA stuff I suppose. Kids whose dads were in bands. That’d be like me joining the Merchant Navy or the GPO.’

Joe McKechnie: ‘Liverpool music has never been livelier, groups, venues, media, festivals all kinds of everything, I’m still as pick choosy as I’ve ever been, & I can’t be doing with groups who have, what I’ve come to call, the ‘LIPA Beat’. I’m talking about groups who come across all excitable, when they clearly have nothing at all to be excited about.

Getintothis: How does it feel being part of this retrospective box set?

Dave Jackson: ‘It’s nice to be invited to take part in the retrospective but I’m more focused on writing new stuff with Paul Cavanagh, also from The Room

Joe McKechnie: ‘Comes with the territory now doesn’t it, an industry appealing to the people who still hold on to the old fashioned notion of buying & owning music.’

I have to say it’s a well put together collection, I listened through, even the stuff I don’t like, no flipping. You know you’ve entered history when people post photos from 1987 on the internet as an example of the olden days.

Yorkie: ‘This box set is a snapshot of a very wonderful time in the city’s musical history, but I am confident there will be many more wonderful times to come.

Paul Kelly: ‘What’s not to like about your work still getting released? I love it to be honest.’

Getintothis: Are you still making music these days?

Dave Jackson: ‘Yes, I will be releasing a new LP with Paul Cavanagh in May on Turntable Friend as The Room in the Wood.

Joe McKechnie: ‘Yes, been putting a few things out online, Shimmer Twin is one name I go under. I have just put the Songs of Vic Godard compilation together, Singing A Song In Prison. It’s out on Bandcamp, released in memory of Vic’s wife George and raising money for Amnesty International.’

Yorkie:’ I produce and play bass for Windmill and Moongoose. With Moongoose, I stripped away the vocals in order to realise a fully instrumental band. One where the musicians involved can be as musically lyrical as they wish.’

Paul Kelly: ‘I still rehearse at Crash Studios doing my Motörhead thing [tribute band Stone Deaf Forever]and recently played the 27 Club on Victoria St. which is a fledgling venue promoting live music.

Liverpool is still one of the most musically active places in the country, with old hands and new bands keeping the momentum going and keeping the city’s flame burning.

What we see in the Revolutionary Spirit box set is a solid foundation that people can build on. It is a foundation that was built by years of creative toil carried out by people who, in the main, were more interested in the art of what they were doing than chasing commercial success, people who have added to the city’s individual creative core rather than conforming. And we salute them all.

Maybe that’s what Liverpool’s real revolutionary spirit is.

lpool original

  • Revolutionary Spirit: The Sound of Liverpool 1976-1988 is now available on Cherry Red Records

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  1. such a shame you continue to give Ian McNabb airtime, the man is a truly vile of dogwhistle racism and anti-semitism, and not nearly as funny as you seem to think

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