In the early 1980’s the Thatcher Government apparently discussed a novel idea for dealing with a city – Liverpool - they regarded as a problem: the bright idea tossed about was shutting the whole place down and moving its population elsewhere. It seemed a long way from the heady days of less than 20 years before when the ‘Mersey Sound’ had London music agents flocking to Liverpool to sign anything that moved and even folks in deepest Dorset could go about saying “It’s fab gear, wack” without ridicule. As late as 1972 the lasting remains of this image could give Little Jimmy Osmond a UK Number One with Long-haired Lover from Liverpool without any sense of irony. (Unlike Stereo Total who dug up Bonnie Jo Mason aka Cher’s 1964 Ringo, I Love You (Yeah Yeah Yeah) in 1999, in what one must assume is a kind of Gallic joke)
In pop music history , of course, Liverpool has played an iconic role, with artists from there having had 56 number one hits. The Beatles weren’t the first successful pop act from the city - Billy Fury, Frankie Vaughan and Michael Holliday had all had UK chart success before them - but they did spearhead a new era in music, making Liverpool perhaps the equivalent of Memphis .Most of those following in the first wave of the British Beat boom, however, had little lasting musical impact and soon either returned to a day job or found shelter in the supper-club and nostalgia circuit. Even in 2012 you can catch the Merseybeats at Skegness or Ilfracombe with half their original line-up from 1961 intact. The exception here were the Searchers whose 12-string guitar jingle-jangle sound on songs like Needles and Pins and When You Walk In The Room influenced ,in a neat but ironic little circle, the Byrds who influenced back the Beatles and thence a long string of acts from REM to Teenage Fan Club to the Smiths. (In an exceedingly trivial but entertaining diversion below, clips show 4 different versions of Love Potion Number 9 by the Searchers from 1964 to 2009, motivating the listener to wonder what it must be like to sing a particular song every week for 45 years or so. The eagle-eyed viewer will spot that whilst the guitarist and bassist remain constant there are 4 different drummers - in pedantic order, Chris Curtis, John Blunt, Billy Adamson and Eddie Rothe. I sometimes wonder if I should get out more).
Few of these acts –or those that followed in the 80’s and 90’s - featured Liverpool as a place much in their music. The first was probably Gerry and the Pacemakers with Ferry Cross The Mersey, followed by the Beatles with Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, but most acts looked further afield for inspiration. As mentioned in the column on Manchester, many of the songs about Liverpool too tended to a sentimental, even maudlin, view of the place not generally found much with big English cities, where a harder edge is more common. Try transposing Ferry Cross the Mersey to the Woolwich Ferry and it wouldn’t work. Then there’s the Leaving of Liverpool (the Dubliners, the Pogues), Heart As Big As Liverpool (the Mighty Wah!), Liverpool Lullaby (Cilla Black, Judy Collins). The cynical might say people only get sentimental after they have left the place.
Some, however, stood outside the usual framework. Suzanne Vega’s In Liverpool brought an outsider’s –and fresh – view:” In Liverpool, on Sunday, No traffic on the avenue. The light is pale and thin…No sound down in this part of town, except for the boy in the belfry”. It was apparently inspired by finding the city not as glamorous as she thought it would be. There were also a few that avoided the dangers of over-romanticising and reminded the listener of Liverpool’s history as a major slaving port, portrayed at the International Slavery Museum on the Albert Docks where nearby you can also see the Beatles Story or go on a Yellow Duckmarine ride. Again as previously mentioned in the Manchester column, Liverpool’s The Real Thing brought out their 4 from 8 album with its trilogy of ghetto songs, including Children of the Ghetto, in 1977--- to lack of commercial success after their pop hits and , as Eddy Amoo remarked in a recent interview, “Children of the Ghetto finished us” It was a step too far from the image of the city that people wanted to see. Another Liverpool group, Amsterdam, however, had more success with Does This Train Stop On Merseyside in 2005, “See slave ships sailing into port, the blood of Africa's on every wall. Now there's a layline runs down Mathew Street, It's giving energy to all it meets”.
The song here, 100 Miles From Liverpool, from 1995 but originally recorded as a group track in 1986, comes from perhaps an unusual direction - from Alan Hull of Lindisfarne, a group closely associated with Newcastle ,on the opposite coast of England ,with songs like Fog On The Tyne and Run For Home. It chugs along as a road song like Driving Away From Home, with Liverpool the equivalent of Phoenix or Tulsa. It probably says more about Alan Hull than Liverpool and there is a poignancy that comes not just from the regrets of some of the lyrics but the awareness that the recording was done shortly before his death. Liverpool appears almost as a mirage, perhaps as Suzanne Vega had seen it: “But in my dreams I see Liverpool in lights, dancing in the streets 'til the early morning light. The tug boat on the Mersey joining in the Jamboree” .
You realise things aren’t always as they seem. The Dakotas, who backed Liverpool singer Billy J Kramer on his hits as part of the ‘Liverpool Sound’ actually came from Liverpool’s great rival, Manchester. The Cavern Club that the tourist sees today isn’t the original one but a rebuilt construction, like Warsaw Old Town. Many of the grand and imposing buildings in the city centre weren’t philanthropic projects but built with the wealth of the slave trade and Caribbean plantation owners. As with most places, I suppose, we end up seeing what we want to see.