Ode To The Mersey Music Mavericks
Author’s note — to be clear from the off all the opinions expressed here are mine alone, completely subjective and liable to change at a moment’s notice. I have a pretty good memory but can’t guarantee any factual accuracy so feel free to contradict me at any point.
“It’s pretty much stating the obvious to say that Liverpool is renowned the world over for producing a constant steam of amazing musical talent. For the last 60 years our magnificent musical city has provided the world with some of the best and most successful artists ever. If that wasn’t enough I’d also argue that we have been responsible for producing more than our fair share of musical mavericks. We should be equally proud of this. In fact we should go out of our way to celebrate these remarkable, wayward geniuses because for me they perfectly represent the contrary, edgy nature that underpins our city and helps make Liverpool such a special city and its people so distinctive. I’m glad to this say this maverick spirit is still very much alive in the music of the city and the individuals making it. But for the purposes of this blog I’ll be focusing largely on those characters who have a long history of magnificent contrariness.
To be honest the artists who don’t conform to the conventional path have always exerted a strange fascination for me. There’s a whole host of reasons why artists choose not to play the game: it could simply be that they aren’t that bothered about ‘success’, maybe they just don’t like doing what everyone expects them to do, and indeed on some occasions they can even look like they are going out of their way to actively sabotage their own career. Whatever the reason the one connection all these people have is their passion and absolute obsession with music and an inability or unwillingness to follow a conventional path to stardom. For many this innate contrariness and complexity merely serves to add a genuine aura of mystery to the artist and occasionally this can lead to them achieving an almost mythical status.
From the very beginning I’ve I have always been drawn towards the musical mavericks. The first local band I saw and became a fan of at the legendary Eric’s club was Big In Japan. This was a group which somehow managed to host way more chaotic creativity and big personalities than any one group could reasonably expect to contain and who promptly split up just as they were finally starting to get noticed.
The wonderful Jayne Casey who fronted this incendiary rabble went on not just to further musical innovation with Pink Military and Pink Industry but has continued to play a vital and catalytic role in the cultural life of the city ever since. Not to be outdone the band’s guitarist big Bill Drummond went on to become a genuine cultural guerrilla, whose derision for the established music industry was symbolised by him turning a machine gun (firing blanks obviously) on the people who had just awarded his group, the KLF, the Best Band title at the 1992 BRITs. (Before some smarty pants points out that Bill wasn’t actually born in Liverpool let me counter by saying he happily acknowledges that he was shaped by the city and its creativity.)
Then you have a young Holly Johnson, another Big In Japan member who, some years later, went on to change the world with Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Ian Broudie also emerged from this memorable line up and as well as having a brilliant career in his own right I’m sure his early experience with the madness of Big In Japan helped him succeed as a producer with other musical subversives such as Mark E Smith and his band The Fall.
Julian Cope was another incomer to the city who went to Eric’s club, met people of a similar musical mind-set, became a changed man and went on to become one of music’s most revered eccentrics. (I’d recommend anyone with even the slightest interest in Liverpool music should read his book Head On, one of my favourite music books ever).
The list of eccentric talent that came out of that incredible Eric’s scene is a surprisingly long one and includes the the likes of the late Pete Burns, Pete Wylie and Ian McCulloch, and the sneakily subversive pop of OMD. All their ‘career’ paths unsurprisingly tended towards the unconventional while it always seemed to me that bands from outside the city coming through at the same time were much more career minded. Just look at U2, for example, a group who from their very early days always seemed determined to do everything they could to be ‘successful’. As a result they were happy to put in the necessary graft, endlessly touring America and behaving the way bands are meant to. Meanwhile the Bunnymen couldn’t really be bothered with all that slog and carried on doing what they felt like and to my mind were all the better for it . A ‘normal’ band wouldn’t have given us fans such wonderful memories as the mysterious ‘Shine So Hard’ gig in Buxton, or the magical day out at Stratford on Avon when they played the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Closer to home they came up with the Crystal Day concept which ended with a magnificent kind of conventional gig at St Georges Hall but was preceeded by all sorts of malarkey around the city in the daytime. I also have very fond memories of the sneaky little gig they did in the back room of the Munro pub when they were at the height of their powers. The afore mentioned Bill Drummond was a crucial part of this mercurial Bunnymen era and when convention dictated that the Manager should be the sensible one leading bands away from excess Bill in his managerial role appeared to be doing the exact opposite. So when convention dictated they should be playing money making tours they opted instead to play in Scandinavia and the Outer Hebrides all because Bill had decided they should play on the sites of supposed ley lines).
So for the next bit of self-indulgent nonsense I’ve highlighted a few of my favourite (and very different) Mersey Musical Mavericks below in the shape of Nigel Blackwell, Michael Head, Lee Mavers, and Peter Coyle. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means but I think the choice gives a good indication of this particularly Merseyside phenomenon.
The mere mention of Half Man Half Biscuit is enough to make a select group of people grin inanely and I have to say I’m one of those daft people. I love chief Biscuit Nigel Blackwell and have been lucky enough to interview him a few times. A hilarious, lyrical genius who deserves far wider recognition but who is more than happy with his cult status. He is a man who has admirably stuck to his own very stubborn guns (well you know what I mean). He makes records when he feels like it, wont really tour but will play the odd gig as long as it is on a Friday night and doesn’t involve too much travel . He famously wouldn’t play on The Tube (a huge TV show at the time) because it clashed with Tranmere’s Friday night home game. Less famously he very politely turned down an offer from myself and a mate because the proposed gig we had offered him clashed with the final time trial of the Tour De France which he followed religiously on the tele. John Peel was justified in his adoration of this band who brought us such gems as Joy Division Oven Gloves, All I Want for Christmas is the Dukla Prague Away Kit, Jarg Armani, and Tending The Wrong Grave for 23 Years. Thankfully Nigel shows no sign of changing his ways. The last album was brilliantly titled No One Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fx xxxx Hedge Cutand the bands exhaustive touring schedule shows them committing to three gigs over a punishing five month period. ( Before anyone tells me I am only too aware that Nigel would hate being called a maverick and he would also be quick to point out that he is from Birkenhead, not Liverpool. But he wouldn’t do that gig when I asked him so I’m not too bothered to be honest).
Slightly more prolific than Nigel is Michael Head who I first met when we were both 18 or so. I was writing about his band The Pale Fountains for NME at a time when they were beginning to be noticed. The Pale Fountains released two great albums and while they attracted a large loyal following never quite made it. Mick wanted to talk about his love of Arthur Lee and write perfect pop tunes while his record company wanted him to play the good looking pop star doing Saturday morning TV shows. Mick quickly re-emerged from the end of the Paleys with his brother John and a new band caked Shack, and in more recent times had fronted The Red Elastic Band. You could easily make claims for Mick being one of the finest songwriters of his generation and he has a devoted following all over the world ( including a certain Noel Gallagher who released a Shack album on his own record label). I once went to Paris for a gig Mick was doing with Shack and he was revered there as though he was one of the world’s biggest rock stars. Mick’s career has been beset by problems but thankfully he is still here and still capable of writing some of the most gorgeous tunes you will ever be lucky enough to hear. Rumour has it that we can all look forward to hearing more evidence of his unique song writing talent soon.
I could write a very lengthy article about the quirks of Lee Mavers and his band The La’s but that’s for another time. Suffice to say he has played the maverick card to its very extreme and continues to exert a strange fascination for music fans everywhere. The writer of one of the finest pop songs ever in the shape of There She Goes he continues to frustrate music fans everywhere with his refusal to follow up The La’s classic debut album. This is a record that he has always professed to hate and didn’t want released but that everyone else adores. (There are numerous reasons why Mavers didn’t like the record but my favourite is his alleged refusal to use any recording equipment that didn’t have proper 1960’s dust on it). Adding to the intrigue is that for most of the last 30 years, since the record’s release, Lee has been largely invisible.
There was a kind of comeback tour in 2005 which brought Lee back together with original band mate John Power. I knew people who were working with them at the time and they were enthusing about the new songs being played in the rehearsal room. I went along to their first ‘secret’ warm up gig in Cork before their proper tour dates. While it was great to see them back on stage it was a little disappointing to hear them playing pretty much the exact same set they’d been flogging to death for around 4 or 5 years before their initial demise. In true Mavers fashion he then sacked their poor young drummer after two more Irish dates and replaced him with his old friend Jimmy the Pig. This sort of thing often happens in bands but normally the person you bring in is actually like another drummer who you know CAN play THE drums and that. Obviously this was The La’s so Jimmy had no drumming experience whatsoever. I’m reliably informed that Jimmy was hurriedly taught how to drum in Lee’s kitchen with the help of all available pots and pans. Based on that exhaustive tutorial Jimmy went on to play Glastonbury and numerous other festivals all over the world with the band that summer. (Of course Jimmy had to play the drums standing up because that’s what Lee insisted upon. I believe this is based on Lee’s theory that drummers have to be able to dance). Talk of new recorded La’s material never materialised and John returned to his own successful career. Many years later a stripped down version of The La’s popped up doing guerrilla gigs and I was lucky enough to see a few of these at one festival. The line-up consisted of Lee joined on stage by an old mate of mine Gary Bandit, who had been a guitar tech-on their 2005 tour. I still remember those gigs with real affection. Of course it was a set made up of the same old songs — but what a set of songs. If you want to know what all fuss is about The La’s album (despite Maver’s views on it) is well worth a listen. However my favourite recorded version of these songs are The La’s BBC in Session album or for a taste of what might have been look up The Kitchen Demo Tapes on the internet
All of the people I’ve talked about so far tend to have an obsessive following (eg Mick Head) or an almost mythical status (Lee Mavers) but there’s one artist who I think sadly gets overlooked far too often. I’m talking about Peter Coyle and he came into my thoughts recently for two reasons. Firstly someone asked me about my favourite songs by Liverpool artists and one of the ones that I always put near the top of my list is the The First Picture of You, his gorgeous debut single with The Lotus Eaters. The second reason was that I saw that he was appearing at the Let’s Rock festival in Liverpool at the end of July (as is the local legend that is Pete Wylie).
I first became aware of Peter when he was in a short lived group called the Jass Babies that I really liked. Then he came to national attention when his new group, The Lotus Eaters, recorded First Picture for a John Peel session. Record companies spotted its potential immediately and the band quickly signed to a major label and had a big hit with that very tune in summer 1983. Do yourself a favour and have a listen — it is the perfect summer tune which will make even the greyest of days feel sunny.
Following such a big hit so early in his career Peter could easily have gone the pop star route that the record company wanted for him. He was young, good looking and articulate so was a perfect candidate but even as a young lad he knew that THAT wasn’t the route for him. He simply wanted to make music and everything else was relatively unimportant. His philosophy throughout his ‘career’ has been to focus on the music and not to bother with the promotion and the marketing which sadly means he has made loads of great music but people often don’t know about it.
As an aside I love the story Peter told me about the video for The Lotus Eater’s It Hurts single. Both Peter and the band’s co-founder, guitarist Jerry had ideas for the video to accompany the single and both produced storyboards of their vision for the video. The Director preferred Peter’s concept and went ahead and shot the video based on that. Meanwhile Jerry, unhappy with the choice, made his own small protest at the decision by having a scarf over his eyes during the video shoot so even though he is in the video he didn’t have to see any of it!
I also remember a hilarious incident when The Lotus Eaters were performing at a miners benefit gig at the Philharmonic Hall. Peter was a dramatic live performer and on this particular night the band opened the set playing with no sign of Peter on stage. In fact Peter was making a dramatic entrance from the rear of the hall running past the seated audience before leaping on to the stage. Unfortunately nobody had informed the security staff about this theatrical manoeuvre and poor Peter found himself being grabbed AND forcibly restrained by a rather burly bouncer while desperately trying to explain that ‘I’m like the singer in the band mate’.
So The Lotus Eaters had their moment of fame but irrespective of if he had a deal or not Peter was going to continue to produce music and get it out there and he continued to collaborate and release music that sadly didn’t reach beyond a small fan base.
My next real interaction came just as house music started to take off in the UK and Peter was at the vanguard of the movement in Liverpool, although his role is largely overlooked.
I remember the nights he did at Macmillans, which on one occasion featured an early set from A Guy Called Gerald. This was really early on when very few people outside of London had seen how important this new music was going to be. There was also a riotous appearance by Peter’s latest musical project rejoicing under the name of the Donny and Marie Handbag Revolution. Donny and Marie went on to produce a brilliant white label release Beautiful House– a track I’m still fond of for its flamboyant ridiculous brilliance.
Not long after this Mixmag magazine, which was fairly new on the scene, got wind of what was happening and asked me if I’d interview Peter and his associates, who were by this stage producing a load of great music under the collective banner of Eight Productions .The track that first brought wider attention was the sublime Sly One featuring local singer Marina van Rooy. The music industry was confused by this track and thought a dance track this good from the north had to be from Manchester! There was quite rightly a real buzz about Sly One and it was eventually picked up by the mighty De Construction label but somehow failed to become a hit although the tune was adored on dancefloors all over the country.
Peter has always been prolific and over the next couple of years an amazing catalogue of work was produced under the Eight Productions banner with a variety of singers including local legends Jayne Casey, Connie Lush, Marina, and of course Peter himself.
But where Peter really made a mark locally and nationally at this time was with the incredible club nights he master minded. I’ve already mentioned the nights at Mac’s but after this he went on to give us G Love– probably my all time favourite club night. I’ll have to check the dates to be sure but it was around 1989/90 when Peter and his collaborators put on a once a month night under the G Love banner at the Mardi — a small club just off Bold Street.
It was a night that was curated with real care and beautiful taste and it quickly became the night everyone was talking about. Influencers (although they weren’t called that then) from the London based dance music industry began to regard this monthly trip to Liverpool as essential. They were special nights- great DJs, good people, and the sense that you were part of something magical.
It became so successful that after a time they had to relocate to the recently opened Nation (which later went on became Cream’s home) and rebranded as Deep and Devastating. John Kelly and Nick Warren continued to be the perfect resident DJ’s and somehow the nights just got better and better. I’m not sure why it ended because it never stopped being successful but it’s relatively short life meant that it was never ever less than amazing.
From memory at this point in his life Peter decided to become an adult and do a degree but he still never stopped making music. A lovely acoustic album, Earthstate, with Barry Sutton that he produced at this point remains a particular favourite of mine.
For the last sixteen years or so Peter has lived in France with his wife where he continues to be incredibly creative. He has collaborated extensively with the likes of Martyn Ware (and also performed with the British Electric Foundation), Stephen Power and Toyah.
He released a solo album under the name Peter Coyle Fractal called The Way The World Is Drawn in 2020 which is as good as anything he has ever done and as 22 Layers (his collaboration with Tony Lowe) has just released the Isotope album .
If that wasn’t enough he has also moved into the art world and everyday posts a piece of his abstract art on his Instagram page, in May he had a piece of his work shown at the I Love You Moi Non PLUS Love exhibition in Paris ( which also included work by Brian Eno).
Here’s to the Mersey Musical Mavericks: our lives would be so much duller without them.”
As I was finishing off this rambling blog I began to think about others who should really be in this list. In reality there are too many to mention but one whom it would be remiss of me not to mention is the late Alan Wills. Alan tragically died just over seven years ago now but everyone who knew Willsy will never forget him. People are often described as a force of nature but with Alan it is an apt description. Any conversation with him was a memorable one: he was a man who had a million ideas a minute and had no hesitation in telling you about them all. I first met him when he was a drummer but his real impact came when he set up Deltasonic records with his wife Ann. He was a creative dynamo who influenced a whole generation of young musicians including The Coral and The Zutons. Alan is the true embodiment of a maverick musical spirit and is much missed by everyone who knew him.
Kev McManus, Head of Unesco City of Music, Culture Liverpool