Lost Liverpool #23: Neil Tilly – starting fanzines, interviewing Paul McCartney, 81 Renshaw Street and more


Neil Tilly (centre) with Breakout staff Lawrence King and Tim Wilday

Starting a fanzine, nabbing a world exclusive interview with Paul McCartney, promoting gigs across the city and more from Neil Tilly of 81 Renshaw Street as he chats with Getintothis’ Paul Fitzgerald.

At the launch of the new Liverpool City Region Music Board held at the British Music Experience recently, the plans were outlined for what the board sees as its remit in supporting the music industry in the Liverpool City Region.

The board has been established to strengthen the region’s place as one of the world’s music capitals, and will focus on several focusses.

As well as strengthening the Beatles’ legacy the city enjoys (some may say endures), increasing access to music education, engaging and developing new talent, and growing the area’s future and current musical heritage, the board is tasked with the unenviable task of safeguarding and protecting the city’s music venues.

That in itself is some ask.

It’s a more than familiar theme now.

We all know the threat posed so often and to so many of our much loved venues. Gentrification, redevelopment, the seemingly relentless march of the ‘cranes of greed’ threaten so many off our treasured creative spaces: we’re right to want to defend them.

And even though it seems to be a disappointing national trend, there’s no safety in numbers, so every venue counts. Perhaps even more so in a city such as Liverpool.

But while the good fight still needs fighting, it’s always worth celebrating the venues that not only survive but grow stronger as time goes on.

Neil Tilly opened 81 Renshaw a few years ago, turning what was then a simple and pleasant enough cafe space in a shop unit, transforming and growing it into what it is today.

A fully licensed cafe and bar, a record store selling new and used vinyl, and of course, a unique and intimate venue space holding a diverse and eclectic range of gigs and events. Driven by his passion for music, a strong DIY ethos, and a desire to challenge himself by returning to the roots of his youth spent as a promoter, music writer, publisher and band manager, he couldn’t have picked a more appropriate space. 

Breakout Issue 8

In 1961, on the top floor above a wine merchant’s shop at 81 Renshaw Street, an art college friend of John Lennon called Bill Harry started what we’d only later come to know as a fanzine with £50.

He called it Merseybeat and the idea was to celebrate the booming vibrant and energetic music scene of the city. The first issue sold 5,000 copies.

These were heady times for music in Liverpool. A city of venues and dancehalls, of gigs and record shops. A city of bands and guitar shops, of singers and songs. And of course, a city of packed and sweaty brick-built cellars, one of which was in Mathew Street.

It was to that particular cellar that Bill Harry took his good friend and local record store owner Brian Epstein to see his mates’ band one afternoon. After that day, nothing would ever be the same again. 

Merseybeat was a huge success, with the local music scene falling over each other to get themselves in amongst its hallowed pages, often paying very good money for the privilege

At one point the magazine was shifting a staggering 75,000 copies a month, and eventually it outgrew the top floor at number 81 and Bill moved the office down to the 1st floor, to what is now Neil Tilly’s living room and kitchen.

Lennon sobbed uncontrollably when he discovered that somehow during the move a box of his notes, doodles and sketches had been ‘lost’. When Neil Tilly found this out years later, he was understandably tempted to set about ripping up the floorboards sadly to no avail.

Eventually, the paper outgrew the city. Epstein, a man who it’s fair to say, knew an opportunity when he saw one, persuaded Harry to join him in London to begin work on a national version of the paper, the Music Echo.

Disputes over staffing and money led to Harry walking away from the deal. He took work first as writer on publications such as Record Mirror, and later became a successful PR working acts like Bowie, Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Mott the Hoople, Supertramp, and Kim Wilde in her pre-gardening days.

 I’ve never heard Dark Side of the Moon- adventures of a prog neophtye

To this day, 81 Renshaw is a popular stop off point for Beatles tourists, second only to The Cavern.

On the wall in the cafe is a copy of the telegram Brian Epstein sent from the Merseybeat office when the band signed their first deal. Bill Harry is alive and well, living in London and has remained in touch with Neil Tilly over the years, pleased to hear that the place where his own story began is being used once more to bring music to the masses.

The record shop is well established, selling new and second hand vinyl, the cafe has one of the best playlists in town, and once again, the place is a hangout for musicians and music fans.

They’ve built a strong community around number 81, working with people like Liverpool Acoustic, Klee Music, and a starry gallery of independent promoters such as Harvest Sun.

One thing Neil Tilly doesn’t worry about is having enough demand for the venue.

They’re often fully booked six months in advance. It’s a close, intimate space, without being claustrophobic or uncomfortable.

The idea for this diverse use of the space came to Tilly on a Route 66 driving trip in the States, when he found himself in a cafe bar, with its own record store and a fanzine library.

He resolved to bring the idea back to his hometown, and set about doing exactly that.

The building, with all its history and heritage, just happened to become available and so it was pretty much a decision which made itself.

And for Tilly himself, this was a totally natural extension to his story.

A necessary continuation of something he started many years before. His past life as a gig promoter and band manager took its early steps as a follow on from his music writing and publishing. Like so many of these stories, it began at school.

‘I used to take a poll in the class, get people to write down their top three songs each week. It was kind of a New Heys Comprehensive Top 20. I’d compile it all together and pass it round to everyone. I did that for 6 months or so but it got a bit too big to handle. I did a hand drawn comic which I got printed up and it all kind of started from there really..’

Leaving school at 16, fortune found this budding young publisher when he found a job in a shipping office in the Cunard Building.

‘We used to print these shipping manifests and tariffs, so we had this huge Xerox machine that just flew hundreds of  pages off in a few seconds. It collated them too. It was only a photocopier, but it was great quality and really fast. That got me thinking.’

It was 1979, and together with the advent of photocopiers came the world of the fanzine.

Low on budget, big on ideas, energy and passion, fanzines were cheap and easy to make, and just as easy to sell. convinced by a friend to start a music fanzine because ‘you could get into gigs for free and people would give you free records too, and that was my incentive‘, he set about meeting his first batch of bands, including soon to be John Peel faves Ellery Bop, and the enigmatically titled Attempted Moustache, fronted by a singer who, as a tribute to his time spent behind bars, would perform from behind his own set of bars he’d carry around with him.

Quite rightly intimidated by the idea of asking for an interview, he approached the support band, an early version of Half Man Half Biscuit called North of Watford.

Soon enough, he had the first issue of Breakout written, which sold out in Probe in just a few days, spurring him on to do another issue.

Breakout Issue 4

Emboldened by his new position, he set about creating Breakout Issue 2. Nabbing an interview with Pete Murphy from Bauhaus at the Royal Court by doorstepping their soundcheck, and the support band Vic Godard and Subway Sect (who he managed to get to play at 81 Renshaw Street many years later).

The name he was building with Breakout meant that bands would start writing in, looking for interviews, wanting reviews and advertising their gigs. These things build organically from these early moments, and Breakout was no different. Then came Issue 12 which sold 1000 copies and the move to making Breakout a free publication, prompted by what Neil Tilly understatedly  calls ‘The McCartney Thing’.

In the summer of 1983, Neil took a call in the shipping office where he still worked, from Bernard Docherty, Paul McCartney‘s PR.

Somehow, word about Breakout had reached the former Beatle and he’d requested some copies of the magazine.

He agreed to put some copies in the post, but not before he asked for an interview.

McCartney hadn’t given any interviews since his words after Lennon‘s death were misconstrued and taken out of context by THAT newspaper.

In the previous two and a half years he’d pretty much stayed silent. Neil Tilly thought nothing more of it. Until the next week, that is, when Docherty called back.

He said, “if you can get down to London next Friday, you can interview Paul” I told him I’d have to ask the boss for the time off work. Bernard said I’d have to sign a contract stating that the interview was just for use in Breakout and I wasn’t allowed to ask anything about John Lennon’ 

So off he went off to London with his tape recorder in a plastic bag and headed to Air Studios to meet McCartney.

I had a C60 cassette so I knew we only had an hour. We just chatted about all sorts of stuff, and he started talking about John Lennon and his regrets. I didn’t actually use any of that stuff, there’s a fair bit of that stuff that never got into the public domain. I didn’t want to upset anyone, so I kept it back, naively probably. Basically we spent an hour or so chatting and then I just packed my stuff up and got the train home’ 

Little did he realise the gravity of the fact that in his plastic bag he now had an hour-long world exclusive interview with Paul McCartney which saw him opening up about the death of his friend for the first time since his murder two and a half years previously.

Tales from a city- catch up with the Lost Liverpool stories here

By the time he woke up the next day, the word was out, and the phone was ringing. The press were queuing up outside his mother’s house to interview him about his big moment.

The Sunday Times photographer asked him to hold up a Beatles album for the photo. ‘I said I haven’t got one, I’m not really into the Beatles, to be honest. I had a cassette of Band On The Run, so I held that up instead, and he looked at me like I was stupid’

Naturally, this opened doors for Breakout, giving Neil Tilly access to bigger names, but a natural ending was coming.

As is so often the case with these things, the evolution from hand drawn, photocopied fanzine selling 30 issues to a tabloid, printed format selling thousands and taking advertising from the NME was fast.

A graphic designer was brought onboard, there was a wage bill, and they expanded into more gig promotion, working with bands, sorting shows outside of town for people like The Farm.

Flyer from the Left Bank

Throughout all this time, Neil was finding opportunities to promote both new bands and more established acts in venues all over town. Long gone and much missed places.

The Bier Keller on Mount Pleasant. The Rendezvous on Great Homer Street, where the city’s best post punk bands would share the venue with the strippers the club’s manager insisted on booking.

The Venue on Seel Street. Brady’s on Mathew Street, and the Left Bank, where he gave a keen, young street poet called Craig Charles his first gigs (once he’d met Charles’ Dad to agree ‘terms’).

Craig Charles at The Left Bank

There was the occasional nightmare, such as the night psychobilly rag-tag noiseniks King Kurt came to town for a gig at The Venue.

Sometime after Neil had left for the night, one of the club’s door staff took exception to the band.

Not because of anything in particular. In those days, you didn’t really need to do anything in particular for door staff to take exception to. They were pretty much a law unto themselves. Unlicensed, unregulated, untrained and often unnecessarily violent. King Kurt found this in the aftermath of their Venue gig.

Their shows were always messy affairs, but didn’t always involve them being hospitalised after being attacked with pool cues and baseball bats. The rest of the tour was cancelled and they were forever reluctant to return to Liverpool. Who could blame them?

Echo story following King Kurt’s attack at The Venue

Lessons learned, stories shared. Its through the passion and energy, the commitment and determination and the vision of people of Bill Harry and Neil Tilly that we have something in the city for the new Liverpool City Region Music Board to develop, protect and support.

Obviously, there are others, many others still here, still, like Neil, doing their thing, still offering opportunities for musicians and promoters, still finding spaces for the music, spaces for creativity.

More than ever, we need the new spaces, the new lessons and stories to carry us forward. And now, more than ever, we need to pull together to support, develop opportunities for new artists.

Now more than ever, we need grassroots people like Neil Tilly.