Eric’s Classical at Sound City: “We want to open people’s minds to something different.”

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Eric’s Classical looks to merge punk classics and an orchestra at Sound City and Getintothis’ Getintothis’ Banjo chats with Alan Tyson, the man behind this unlikely pairing.

Orchestral interpretations are nothing new.  In fact, in these very pages we have made the claim that they are so commonplace they are heading towards overkill.

This new trend first appeared in my consciousness with the excellent Cream Classical nights at the Anglican Cathedral.  These were soon followed up by similar events such as the Hacienda Classical and Pete Tong’s Heritage Orchestra.

Now, while dance music’s keyboard sweeps and diva vocals may lend itself well to lush reimaginings, it is hard to imagine this being applied to punk.  Punk was a stripped down, back to basics music, which is an ethos which would not seem to fit well with classical reinterpretations.

But Sound City’s Alan Tyson has decided to do just that at this year’s event, creating an Eric’s Classical event that will apply orchestral treatment to a selection of songs from artists who played at the club during its short reign.

On closer inspection, looking beyond the stereotype of punk as basic thrash, there is a wealth of material for Alan to get his teeth into.  The likes of Ultravox, Human League and Simple Minds were all Eric’s regulars and bands such as Gang of Four, Joy Division and The Clash all had much going on in their musical minds.

Even so, the translation to orchestra is an involved and difficult one. Getintothis spoke with Alan to find out more about how this musical meeting of minds came about and what the potential pitfalls might be.

Alan is a talker. This of course is always a gift to an interviewer, especially when they speak with such genuine passion and fandom as this. His answers are full and considered and it is easy to form the impression that he would give the same answers if we were simply having a chat at a local pub.

It is this enthusiasm and love of the music that may well be the making of this project, because that is what it needs to negotiate the many problems that can and probably will arise.

Getintothis: So how did the idea for Eric’s Orchestral come about?

Alan Tyson: “Well basically, I’m from Liverpool, I was 13 when Eric’s opened.  I lived in Thornton, went to Merchant Taylor’s and basically there was no way I was going to be going there.  No-one I knew was going there, but even at 13 I was obsessed with music.  I read all the music papers so I was aware of Eric’s and of the great bands which I was desperate to see, but obviously couldn’t. I think it helped me get into the music knowing that this place was nearby.

And then at 18 I left Liverpool and went away to college. I was still obsessed by music but didn’t know how to get in to it.  I hated the degree I was doing and so I walked out on my finals and went to Glastonbury instead in 1982. 

A mate had bought two tickets and he said “Isn’t that when your finals are?” and I said “Oh it is yeah.  But sod it, I’m going” and it was literally life changing.  I just thought “This is what I’m going to do.”  So from then on, for the next 20 years or so I was involved with venues, bands, DJing and promoting.  I ran the Jazz Café in London, The Underworld in Camden, all sort of venues in London and then got into promotion.

But it was always in the back of my mind that there was this thing up in Liverpool that I’d never got into.  It was strange, I was from Liverpool and obsessed with music but I’d never done anything there.  In the early 80s I thought there was nothing there for me because I hadn’t been part of any scene in Liverpool, I had to escape to get into it.

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And then, married, two children but still doing loads of clubs and never at home.  So about 15 years ago I just stopped and moved to Devon, put it all behind me and stopped listening to music completely.  And then when the children got a bit older, my wife and I came up to Liverpool to go to the first Sound City at the docks.  And I thought “God, this is really cool” and I wondered if I could blag it at Sound City.

I met Becky Ayres and told her about an idea I had and she suggested I do it at the next Sound City.  So we went along and did this pop up life drawing thing.  And then Dave, the head of Sound City said “What are you going to do next year then?”

So we had a tent the second year and we thought that we can’t do anything with bands, as that’s what Sound City are doing, so we looked to the alternative arts.  So anything that was left field we did.  We always knew that to keep ahead of the game you had to do something different, so last year we did an opera.

We’ve always been trying to push different things artistically.  So then I wondered what we could do next time that would be different again.  And then I thought “How can I do some sort of homage to Eric’s?  This place I never went to, but had a huge influence on me all the same.” 

And then one of our musicians came up with idea of doing Eric’s Classical.  He was doing orchestration at Liverpool University and I had no idea!  And then it just seemed to fall into place.

I was thinking we need classic bands who played at Eric’s, but could we do this as a classical rendition?  And it was instant – “yeah, I can do that” And that’s how it all started.

And then somebody told me that Jayne Casey [from Eric’s supergroup Big in Japan]ran District, so I met up with Jayne and she put me in touch with other people and it all just seemed to fall into place. 

And then I was reading Bill Sykes’ book about Roger Eagle [Sit Down, Listen to This] and I read that he died on the 4th of May, which was when we’d decided to perform the Eric’s Classical, which would be the 20th anniversary.

So it just seemed that this was exactly what we should be doing on this date, both artistically and to mark the event.” 

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Getintothis: So what are the challenges of orchestrating songs that were meant to be stripped down musically?

Alan Tyson: “Well the first thing we realised was that bands are very straightforward to work with, but the minute you get involved with anything classical the artists are totally different.

We found this with the opera last year, they were very up for performing at a festival until they actually got there and then they said “Oh, there’s a lot of noise isn’t there Alan?” and they weren’t happy.  It wasn’t their fault, but there were very, very different acoustics, etc. 

So one of the first points was getting this across to the musicians, they had to be open minded because we had no idea what the acoustics would be like and they’ll just have to adapt on the fly. 

But it works remarkably well, a lot of the punk songs, even though they are stripped back, it all works really well.  And anything involving a synth is great, the minute you had post-punk you could have an orchestra, because with a synth that was kind of the sound they were trying to capture. 

You just need a certain combination of chords and notes and you’ll recognise the song.  And that’s what we’re looking for, we’re not looking for a full orchestral experience as such.  We’re going to do it on the street, so it’s going to be very raw.  It’s one of those things – we’ll see!

We’re not looking for perfection, we’re hoping people will see something that they haven’t seen before. One of the things I hear about Roger Eagle is that he wanted to open people’s minds to different types of music, so our ethos is to put something different in front of people.

Classical interpretations are big at the moment, but I just wanted to so this strange homage to a club I never went to.  [laughs]

We have Norman [KillionEric’s DJ] playing and Bill Sykes is bringing up some of Roger’s tapes and these will be played as well.”

Getintothis: It sounds as though as well as orchestrating punk songs you’re also punking up the orchestra a bit.

Alan Tyson: “Yes, that’s exactly it. The musicians we’re using are young, but we’re saying come along and open your eyes, because the sound is going to be not necessarily challenging, but interesting to work with. And that’s what we’re trying to get across to everyone involved, it’s going to be interesting. 

I think that’s the way to make a success of any artist’s career, don’t be blinkered. From what I’ve read about Roger and everyone involved with the club, the message was keep your eyes and ears open to everything, don’t think anything is not for you.”

Getintothis: One of the criticisms that’s been leveled at the likes of Cream Classical is that it’s a gentrification of Dance music.  Do you think that applies at all to what you’re doing?

Alan Tyson: “Well punk was 40 years ago, and one of the big criticisms of it is that it was taken over and commercialised very quickly.  But I think that’s what punk was meant to be in a way, to be short lived and to have an influence. I’ve always thought that Dance music was sort of the bastard son of disco and punk, and I think that’s what happens in life.  You’re never going to keep anything musically pure, punk had to evolve and pass its influence on. 

You’ve got to be careful you don’t commercialise things and go into them with the right ethos.  I think it’s very easy to criticise if people are trying to make money, if you question their motivation, but everything we do is completely self funded, we do it all ourselves so we can avoid having to keep people happy. 

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And Sound City have been great to us, they’ve just given us a space and said ‘Let us know what you’re going to do eventually’, they’re not using this to enhance their ability to sell tickets. 

So I think it’s very easy to say it’s the gentrification or the commercialisation of the arts, but that’s always been the case.  And that was the thing about Eric’s, they never did anything for the money.  Sometimes they made money and sometimes they lost money and that didn’t bother them. 

And I think that as long as you have that ethos there, that the art is what matters, and can we introduce that scene to a younger generation then it’s fine.

Punk didn’t die 40 years ago, it just changed and morphed into something else.  And that’s a good thing, you’ve got to experiment.”

Getintothis: So is this a one off performance or can we expect to see you all again?

Alan Tyson: “Well it depends how it goes.  Sound City will be on the 4th and 5th of May and The Eric’s Classical will be on the Saturday afternoon and we’ll see how it goes and how people react to it. 

We’re not planning any further performances, it’s very much a one-off at the moment.  We might, but it’s not planned as the moment.

We’ve got Norman and Bill playing, then the orchestra so it will be running for three or four hours, and I’m looking forward to that as it’s the closest I’ll be able to get to going to Eric’s.” 

And with that, Alan heads off to ply his enthusiasm elsewhere.  We look forward to seeing his vision realised and made flesh.  It is a huge thing to undertake, but with reserves of passion, we don’t doubt for a moment that this will be one of Sound City‘s must sees.

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