Lost Liverpool #15 : The Manweb Music Machine and an infamous night with The Inspiral Carpets at a long lost venue

Inspiral Carpets

Inspiral Carpets

In this month’s Lost Liverpool, Getintothis’ Paul Fitzgerald looks back to a publicly funded scheme to support new bands, the involvement of the City Council, and one incredible night launching the project.

A packed venue, a steaming hot night, live music, and a free and unlimited bar. Such was the setting for an infamous gig in the history of a city internationally renowned for infamous gigs. And it all came about when the private and public sectors came together to support and promote Merseyside music, venues, artists, recording studios, and promoters across the North West and North Wales. Imagine that.

Hardman House stands at the top of Hardman Street, between The Fly In The Loaf and South Hunter Street. Originally opened in the 1940s as Atlantic House, a venue for merchant seaman to use between voyages, with a bar, ballroom and rooms above, it fell out of use in 1984 when it was sold to Bernie Start who owned various venues about town, including The State Ballroom, and Kirklands (as The Fly In The Loaf was known then). It soon opened as Hardman House Hotel, and in a short space of time became a popular venue. The ballroom had a small and low stage at one end, with a dance floor, and a large high balcony at the back with a small bar and seating. It was a strange shape for a music venue, but somehow, it worked.

The La’s, The Real People, Pete Wylie and Wah! all played there regularly, legendary art school pre-punks Deaf School had a three night residency with Nick Lowe in support, there were jazz nights and a few people tried club nights. In the permanently open foyer, stood a vending machine which sold cans of lager and cigarettes. If you wrapped a 10 pence piece with tape, the machine would accept it as a 50 pence. Apparently, obviously. Still, handy for the walk home, if you can’t find a cab. There were comedy gigs were people such as Harry Hill and Julian Clary appeared, and the venue was used as a location for  film and TV. The Icicle Works filmed the video to The Kiss Off in Hardman House, and local dance label Airdog Records later filmed a video for an act called Ill Disco, which featured Liverpool legend Tommy Smith and Robbie Fowler’s horse. The latter also featured this writer, and so thankfully, is now and will forever be unavailable for public consumption.

In the time before privatisation of utility supply, each region of the country had their own supplier, and here in the North West, we had MANWEB (Manchester And the North West Electricity Board). In the late 80s, for some as yet unknown reason, our friendly local electricity supplier decided to reach out to the gig going public by investing in a programme to promote and support music. We can only presume that in a boardroom somewhere, it was decided that bands use electricity, so this would be a worthy and sensible way forward to them. Fair play to them, they put £100,000 on the table, which was no small amount at the time, and set about planning what would become the Manweb Music Machine.

Around this time, the closest Liverpool City Council had to a department to support the arts and culture in the city was pretty much just one man, Mark Campbell. Manweb had reached out to the Council, and the job of developing the plan. Campbell’s previous work on behalf of the city had previously included putting together benefit gigs to support the Miners’ Strike, Rock For Your Rights – a gig in support of the 47 surcharged Liverpool councillors, anti-drugs gigs such as Alternative To Drugs, a drug awareness project fronted by The Farm. He was also charged with the Christmas lights switch on, Chinese New Year celebrations. Later on, Mark Campbell, together with Phil Hayes organised, Big Beat ’89, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the first series of gigs in support of the Hillsborough families, as well as the Liverpool Now festival at The Picket, which was arguably a precursor to what we now know as Sound City.

In short, Mark Campbell wasn’t just a stuffed suit in a smoke filled room at Municipal Buildings. He was committed to supporting and developing the city’s music and arts scene, and finding and building opportunity for young musicians and new bands. As such, he was Manweb’s ideal partner. He knew what the bands needed, he knew who to partner with, and how to put the project into action. Liverpool music owes a huge debt of gratitude to people like Mark Campbell. People who have championed the cause, and continue to champion the cause, without necessarily wanting the spotlight for themselves. People who are happy and content to get the job done, and it see it come to pass, while observing, always busy, from the wings.

MMM Flyer

There would be a tour, which Marc Jones of Medication would put together, the Royal Court would get involved, bringing some big names to the city, the whole thing would be launched with a gig, that infamous gig, and Mark would put together four showcase gigs. As well as this, Manweb would take on sponsorship of gigs at both Mountford Hall, the Haigh building (the Haigh was another sad loss to Liverpool’s live music scene, as the student union of the Polytechnic, which hosted so many great gigs back then).

Marc played a big part in putting the MMM into place, and remembers the Manweb Music Machine well. “It was a huge sponsorship, well intentioned and good people, but no idea about music”.

Appeals went out, via Tony Snell’s radio show and Penny Kiley’s music column at The Echo, for bands to send in their cassettes, and 250 were received, and the three set about listening to them all. Of this initial 250, 12 bands were selected for the showcases. A further 16 bands were picked, and via one of the world’s biggest judging panels, the people of Liverpool, and the listenership of Tony Snell’s show, who’d listened to two songs from each band, a further four bands were selected. Each showcase would feature four bands. Ticket price was set at just £1.00, with alll proceeds going to Radio City’s ‘Give A Child A Chance’ charity. Erica Cain, a student from Liverpool Polytechnic was selected to design and produce the posters for the gigs.

Mark Campbell was keen that the bands got the maximum opportunity from their involvement, so as well as the exposure on Radio City, and a biog each in Penny Kiley’s column, they all got soundchecks at the gig, which though commonplace now, was certainly not the case back then. Regional and national press came to all shows, as well as A&R from 16 major labels, management companies, promoters, agents and venue managers. Each band got a day in Amazon Studios, which was still then based in Kirby, before its later move and renaming as Parr Street. And most of all, in another unprecedented move, each band got that most treasured of all prizes to any self respecting musician, a rider.

A series of gigs at the Royal Court were put together featuring US soul duo Inner City, The Sugarcubes, and two sold out nights from Gary Glitter. A little perspective here. At the time, Glitter’s career was largely centred around university towns, which he played regularly. He was a big draw wherever the students were, and still had an older following from his glory days in the 70s and earlier in the 80s.

On a wider basis, the Manweb Music Machine spread its wings over to Chester and North Wales, by linking venues together and establishing a local circuit, seeing gigs by Primal Scream, and some early shows from the magnificent Psych heroes Dr Phibes and The House Of Wax Equations. The legendary Prestatyn Soul Weekenders of 1988 and 1989 also received some Manweb funding, with ‘89s bringing De La Soul over for their first live UK dates.

Of the bands who played the showcase gigs, Rain, The Hoovers, The 25th May, The Real People, and Mike Badger’s band The Onset all went on to get signed, as did Tommy Scott’s band The Australians after a name and line up change, when they became Space.

They packed in tight at the Hardman House Hotel for the launch party. The Inspiral Carpets were to headline, their baggy, swirling star very much in the ascendence. Something was in the air on the streets of Manchester, it was about to go stratospheric, and the Inspirals were always a great live band.

Though, to some  it seemed strange that a band from the other end of the M62 would headline such a show, Marc Jones remembers “I think Liverpool was having one of its fallow periods music wise and I took some stick for the Inspirals being from up the road, but it was so obvious Manchester were on the crest of something very special, were all those Liverpool bands that were about to happen needed something that captured the zeitgeist”.

It would be a very select invite only affair, with invites very selectively only allowed to just about anyone who wanted one. Building capacity regulations went out of the window, as pretty much the whole Liverpool music scene was in attendance. The great, the not so great, the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. Bands, managers, promoters, record companies came. Manweb could’ve been forgiven for wondering what they’d got themselves into. But someone at their head office, some bright spark (yes, I did just use that phrase), had made a decision that would have repercussions across the city, throughout the night, and decades later when at least one writer would struggle to find anyone with a clear and focussed memory of the night.

Manweb decided on this night of nights, this launch of launches, to make the bar a free bar for the whole night. Some would say a foolish decision, or at best costly. Those who were there remain eternally grateful to have been a part of the medieval bachannal the evening would become. At one point, someone from The Farm ordered 100 pints of lager. Well, someone had to. They were neatly arranged, like a big beer buffet, on tables at the back of the balcony, and if memory serves, many didn’t even get touched, despite the stoic and heroic attempts of the assembled mess of guests.

Just before the Inspirals took to the stage, at this event in Liverpool, sponsored by an Electricity supplier, and with an overfilled room of ridiculously inebriated music types, the inevitable happened. The one thing that those who were there DO remember of the night. A power cut. Some bright spark (so good, I used it twice), had found the fusebox and plunged the entire venue into darkness to massive cheers all round. It really was quite a moment, and its beautiful irony wasn’t lost on anyone. To this day, nobody knows, or will even admit to turning the power off, and far be it from me to point the finger or cast any aspersions in any direction, but its certainly worth remembering The Farm were in the building that night. It really was an incredible night, and The Inspiral Carpets lifted the roof off the Hardman House Hotel.

Hardman House Hotel

The sad, yet inevitable end to the Hardman House Hotel is on the cards at the moment, as plans have recently been submitted to the City Council to knock it down. Apparently, there are some students who need accommodating on that part of Hardman Street. So far, so predictable. The village of Liverpool continues to eat its own.

When the Manweb Music Machine project came to end the following year, the last £4000 of the fund was donated to Big Beat ’89, Phil Hayes and Mark Campbell’s project to support the Hillsborough families, where after 11 gigs and with the support of an incredible list of artists, £15,000 was raised.

Lost Liverpool track #3

This month’s Lost Liverpool track is The Icicle Works song The Kiss Off, a firm favourite of the band’s fans. Taken from their fourth album, ‘Blind’, which is the last album with the original line up of McNabb, Chris Layhe and Sharrock, it leans towards the 80s production sound of Robert Palmer and Nile Rodgers. The video is filmed entirely at the Hardman House Hotel.