DIY Dreams, Eric’s & The Pool Of Life
There are certain points in time when enough things fall into place for a new scene to emerge in an area of a city, bubbling with fresh ideas that bestow an energy and vitality upon its surroundings. For an intense, often short-lived period, the location becomes a hub for young people looking for an alternative to the mainstream.
This phenomenon happened twice over two decades on Liverpool’s Mathew Street. As it happens, a Swiss psychologist who’d never actually visited Liverpool may have hinted at this energy that emerged twice out of Liverpool. In ‘Memories, Dreams & Reflections’, Carl Jung recounted a dream he had:
“I found myself in a dirty, sooty city. It was night, and winter, and dark, and raining. I was in Liverpool. I had the feeling that we were coming from the harbour, and that the real city was actually up above, on the cliffs. We climbed up there. When we reached the plateau, we found a broad square dimly illuminated by streetlights, into which many streets converged. The various quarters of the city were arranged radially around the square.
In the centre was a round pool, and in the middle of it a small island. While everything round about was obscured by rain, fog, smoke, and dimly lit darkness, the little island blazed with sunlight. On it stood a single tree, a magnolia, in a shower of reddish blossoms. It was as though the tree stood in the sunlight and were at the same time the source of light. My companions commented on the abominable weather, and obviously did not see the tree. They spoke of another Swiss who was living in Liverpool, and expressed surprise that he should have settled here. I was carried away by the beauty of the flowering tree and the sunlit island, and thought, “I know very well why he has settled here.” Then I awoke.”
In 1974, a local entrepreneur from Bootle named Peter O’Halligan decided he’d find this mythical place in Liverpool Jung had spoken of and when he found the square into which Mathew Street converges he knew he’d found it and quickly purchased a disused warehouse, naming it The Liverpool School Of Language, Music, Dream & Pun.
Coincidentally, The Cavern Club, which played an integral part The Beatles’ early story, had been situated just up Mathew Street and, as such, had turned the area into a ‘pool of life’, bubbling with youthful energy and revolutionary ideas in the early 1960s. However, when The Beatles left everything receded again and Mathew Street, like much of the city, lost its energy.
There was a somewhat uneasy relationship between The Beatles and the city after they left; on one level there was the makings of what would become The Beatles tourism industry but on another there were a lot of people who felt left behind. As the band entered their Technicolor psychedelic era, Liverpool became increasingly grey and monochrome.
That’s why there was so much excitement about a new scene emerging out of the vacuum in the middle of the next decade. Jayne Casey, who was a central, somewhat maternal figure in the ‘70s scene, easily identified by her shaved head with hair dye dripping down it, recalls the impression she made on The Cavern’s DJ Bob Wooler:
“I was walking down the street one day and I noticed an older guy following me and then the next day I noticed him again, and then the next day I noticed him again… And I was starting to get a bit paranoid thinking, “Why is this old guy following me?” So eventually on the third day I gave him a look cause I’d kind of sussed him. Then he came walking up and said, “Hi, my name’s Bob Wooler, I’ve been following you for three days – have you seen me?” And I said, “Yeah, why?” And he said, “Well you know, I was the DJ at The Cavern and when I saw you I just knew that Liverpool was back!”
Jayne had set up a stall in O’Halligan’s warehouse at one of the first independent markets outside of London, called Aunt Twacky’s – after the Scouse mispronunciation of antiques. If you’d have taken a trip down to her stall in 1976, which had become a hub for the city’s leftfield misfits, you’d definitely get the sense that something was in the air but this new energy that was beginning to emerge didn’t yet have a focal point. That’s where Eric’s came into the story.
Having got to know each other initially at Manchester’s Magic Village, and built up a working relationship through their time promoting at The Stadium and tour-managing Deaf School, respectively, Roger Eagle and Ken Testi had decided to open a music venue together. Eagle went down to Mathew Street to check out a property, having recently influenced Geoff Davis to open another branch of his Probe Records a stone’s throw away on Button Street and he knew he’d found the place. Testi chose the name Eric’s for the club as a remedy to discotheque names like Samantha’s or Tiffany’s. This was to be a club for people who didn’t usually go to clubs.
The former owner of The Cavern, Roy Adams had purchased the property with the money he received from the compulsory repossession order the council gave him on the original Cavern to sink an airshaft for the underground railway, and, after an ill-fated attempt at ‘The New Cavern’ spread over two floors, he split the venue into two clubs; Gatsby’s on the ground floor which opened onto Victoria street on the other side of the building and Revolution in the basement which opened onto Mathew Street and apparently boasted giant papier maché heads of Ché Guevara and The Beatles at the entrance.
Having experienced life on the road with Deaf School, Ken Testi knew that stairs were a nightmare for bands so decided to do the first few shows on the ground floor. However, feeling it perhaps a little too ironic for Eric’s punters to walk in under a Gatsby’s sign, Ken opened a fire escape onto Mathew Street and placed a rudimentary Eric’s sign he painted next to it outside.
Ahead of their first show, which happened 40 years ago today (1st October 1976), Roger had been into Aunt Twacky’s twice to see Jayne Casey to convince her to bring along her entourage of misfits – and they all came. The Stranglers played their first of many Eric’s shows and the young people of Liverpool who felt excluded from the mainstream club world finally had a place to go.
The second show the following Friday with The Runaways really helped the club establish a name nationally. “The Runaways’ tour was an outstanding success and we were the smallest venue on it,” explains Ken Testi. “Of course, nobody knew where Eric’s was, nobody had ever heard of it. Everything else on the date sheet was a big theatre so every agent in the country was calling us to get a date in, to make their date sheet look good.”
Initially they had been working out of an office in the back of Probe, with Doreen Allen dealing with the nuts and bolts of running a club night with membership. However, once Roy Adams had seen how they could pack out a club – the queue for The Runaways was unlike anything seen before, even at the height of The Beatles’ Cavern days – he offered to sell them the basement space in a generous deal where he’d guarantee the mortgage.
The pair took him up on his offer and brought in the more business-minded Pete Fulwell. “When we were doing the business plan, Pete Fulwell did a cash-flow forecast and he said he could see it grounding in four years” recalls Testi, “And he wasn’t far from the mark but we decided to “Set the controls for the heart of the sun”, which is a Pink Floyd quote. It appeared to have a lifespan from the start but we thought we’d run with it and crash and burn – you know, we volunteered for that.”
There may have been a lack of longevity in their business plan but they felt compelled to move forward with the buzz they had created and coax a new scene out of the post-Beatles void. This was not something new to Roger Eagle, who’d left his native Oxford after an intellectual upbringing and set up The Twisted Wheel club in Manchester, a mod hotbed that later became a crucial venue in the Northern Soul scene, as well as the psychedelically inspired Magic Village, also in Manchester.
With Eric’s there was a sense of wanting to start with a clean slate. Roger Eagle convinced all the young and aspiring musicians in Liverpool to not only stop listening to The Beatles but also to not mention them entirely. “You’d never write a thing if you were comparing yourself to The Beatles,” explains Jayne Casey, who was amongst those lucky enough to be taken under Roger’s wing.
“A couple of years ago we’d been to a funeral and we were all sat round a table,” she adds. “There was me, Ian McCulloch and Pete Wylie. Ian looked at me and said, “Have you listened yet?” And I said, “No, have you?” And he said, “No” and we both looked at Wylie and said, “Have you?” And he said, “No” and we both in the same second said, “Yes you have! We know you have!” And he was like “I haven’t, I haven’t” but we were like “We can tell from your composition that you’ve listened to them for years!” So we’re convinced that he listened, he pretends he didn’t but he did.”
Everything was in place for punk to explode in the city but unlike Manchester it wasn’t the Sex Pistols who ignited the spark, it was The Clash. Factory Records’ Tony Wilson infamously dismissed the Sex Pistols even played Liverpool, a claim backed up by journalist Paul Morley in an article in The Guardian. However the general consensus is that they did indeed play, they just weren’t that good. The Clash’s Liverpool debut on 5th May 1977 however, was a maelstrom that shook the city to its core and was the moment that can be compared to the famous Sex Pistols Lesser Free Trade Hall gig in Manchester, in that almost everyone in the city who made a great record over the next decade was there.
The ethos behind Eric’s was always to nurture a community where ideas could progress. In an interview in The Melody Maker back in October 1977 Roger Eagle explained why Eric’s was a membership club:
“Clubs to me are much more important to the scheme of things, because concerts are a one off; you either have a good time and go home, or you don’t have a good time and go home. If you’re part of a club, you’re part of a family and this club is run as a club, it’s not an opportunistic thing where we take the money and run.”
With the necessity for a stream of new bands, the idea soon emerged to grow new ones out of this community. When Deaf School had gone on their American tour in 1976 they had left their PA system at Eric’s and this was used for Saturday morning sessions where anyone could come and plug in and play. “This was the first time any of them would have heard themselves,” noted Ken Testi. “There seemed to be a shortage of drummers because Budgie was the drummer in almost every band at the time. And you’ve got Ian Broudie turning up with various people, you’ve got Jayne Casey turning up with Holly Johnson, you’ve got Julian Cope and Pete Wylie turning up. I never knew which band was which it was just, “Next!” Three or four of them would change over but there’d be couple of them left with the next lot. They were all rehearsing together with different people, which was very confusing but it was great because out of that you got a whole generation of bands. We were very fortunate – we then had a crop of bands.”
One of the bands to emerge out of this scene were Big In Japan, who got their name from a postcard Phil Allen received from his brother Steve, who was fronting Deaf School on their US tour as ‘Enrico Cadillac Jnr.’. He’d found out Warner were shipping a large quantity of their album to Japan noting, “We’re big in Japan!” After the next rehearsal the band had a name.
Big In Japan’s roots can be found in the Liverpool School Of Language, Music, Dream & Pun. Jayne Casey became acquainted with Bill Drummond and Ian Broudie through Ken Campbell when he put on an epic production of Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘Illuminatus!’ as the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool. Jayne was acting, Ian was playing guitar and Bill was building the sets. Having seen Deaf School rehearsing in the same warehouse on numerous occasions they were already inspired, so when band member Clive Langer suggested they form a band, they used the PA system Deaf School left behind to do just that.
Described by Liverpool Echo journalist Paddy Shennan, as “A supergroup with a difference – its members only became super after they left,” Big In Japan included Jayne Casey and Ambrose Reynolds who formed Pink Industry, Ian Broudie who went on to form The Lightning Seeds, Holly Johnson who later fronted Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Budgie, who went on to drum for Siouxsie and the Banshees and of course, Bill Drummond, who went on to become A&R man for the next two big bands to come out of Liverpool, Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes, before forming The KLF alongside Jimmy Cauty and then destroying all of the band’s profits as the guerrilla art duo the K Foundation; burning their last million pounds and deleting their back-catalogue, worth an estimated £5 million.
In his book about Roger Eagle, ‘Sit Down! Listen To This!’ Bill Sykes highlights the fact that the Big In Japan alumni had 8 UK #1 singles, 35 Top 30 chart singles, 2 UK #1 albums and 30 chart albums between them.
However this generation of musicians had seen the ghost town they inherited after The Beatles left and were wary of creating the same void. “Even the artists who did leave, didn’t leave as completely as when The Beatles generation left,” explains Jayne Casey. “Even though some did leave, they still have lives here. I think that happened because of what happened in the ’60s, because we did really inherit a desert. There was nothing cool here, there were just a load of guys with Oxford bags, you know.”
Eric’s had done much for the next generation too; the matinee shows were a revelation for the young kids in Liverpool at the time. “We couldn’t let people in who were under 18 but we recognised that a large proportion of the kids who were buying the records were under 18,” Ken Testi explains. “We were quite friendly with The Stranglers and they were increasingly disappointed that the venues they played couldn’t accommodate under-18s if there was a bar, so we decided that if The Stranglers wanted a matinee show, we’d give it a try. And it worked very well.”
After seeing the potential in reaching a younger audience in a new way, other bands took on the idea of playing an earlier show with no alcohol ahead of the main show and a new scene was born. Many of these kids had already been hanging around the Armadillo tearooms, attracted by the energy of the area.
“I’ve always said there’s a holy trinity, a golden triangle between the Armadillo tea rooms, Eric’s and Probe Records,” explains Bernie Connor who was a regular face on the scene, working at Probe and running errands for Eric’s. “What I liked about it was the absolute acceptance of it all. There was that sort of understanding; we’re all in the same boat here. It was like that one weirdo from every neighbourhood acted like a spark plug in the Armadillo tea room. People would joke that they’d form bands sitting round the table; you’d have the album out before you’d finish your tea, then you’d split up before you left haha… I love that!”
In ‘Sit Down! Listen To This’ Bernie Connor notes the importance of the Jukebox he helped lug into the venue. Like the jukebox he’d had at The Magic Village in Manchester, it was used to educate people. Bernie Connor recalled the first record being played as Smokey Robinson & The Miracles ‘Goin’ To A Gogo’. Whilst Testi had a love of live music, Roger’s true passion lay with records and he always had a compulsive need to share music with people, hence the title of Bill Sykes biography of him. If he was in the right mood you’d often find him in Probe recommending songs or passing around his cassettes. “One of the things he taught me when I was really stoned at his was the very, very invaluable nature of compilation tapes,” recalls Bernie Connor. “I was throwing up in his toilet and the tune that I can always remember is ‘Dematerialize’ off ‘Scientist Meets The Space Invaders’ – I keep playing it while I’m DJing, it’s fucking great!”
Roger was originally the DJ at Eric’s until it became clear he was too busy on the nights to continue. When he passed the mantle to Norman Killen he told him not to speak between records, as was the norm of the time, and as such create a somewhat seamless music driven atmosphere.
Impressed by what he was seeing in Liverpool, Tony Wilson made regular trips over from Manchester, featuring Eric’s on his Granada Reports slot ‘So It Goes’ and visiting Aigburth to pick Roger brain. When he started doing his Factory nights in Hulme he was looking to recreate what Eric’s had done and for a while it looked like the scenes of Manchester and Liverpool would unite to compete with London. Bands would come up and play Manchester on Fridays and then do two shows on Saturdays at Eric’s.
An EP was discussed with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark heading up the Liverpool side and Joy Division heading up the Manchester side, however a dispute between format grounded the discussions; Eagle was set on a 12” release whilst Wilson had come up with the idea of a 7″ box set having seen something similar in a recent trip to New York.
Tony Wilson decided to run with the idea as a purely Factory release however they forgot to change the letterhead on the boxset so the initial 500 copies still say ‘Eric’s-Factory’ on the letterset and sell as a collector’s item. Tony Wilson would famously open the Haçienda, which, after a slow start, perfectly captured the next big youth movement. Eagle’s influence on Wilson is often overlooked in that narrative however.
Eric’s had a brief flurry as a record label, the most notable release being a 7” double single featuring Big In Japan on one side and The Chuddy Nuddies on the other – a one-off collective who were mainly made up of members of the Albert Dock, more famously known as Yachts.
Although it has its reputation as a punk/new wave venue, Roger and Ken were eclectic in their bookings, bringing over folk, R&B and dub/reggae musicians. Initially they were using the popular nights to front the costs of the more obscure nights but with it being a small capacity venue it was hard to sustain so what a lot of people don’t realise is that the club was really struggling as it began to come to the end. “When you have a full night and you’ve got a few hundred people in there, then you’ve got a few hundred people telling the story,” explains Testi. “If you’ve got a really abysmal night and you’re struggling to get into double figures – which happened – then you’ve only got a handful of people to tell the story. So the story that survives is the one told by most people, which is not necessarily the most accurate.”
With their booking beginning to dry up, things were already looking bad leading up to the The Psychedelic Furs / Wah! Heat date on 14th March 1980 and there was a bad omen just before the gig with Doreen Allen being handed a Customs & Excise VAT notice earlier in the day.
This hadn’t come as a surprise. A couple of weeks earlier Pete Fulwell had been visited by the police just as they were closing up shop. They asked him for a drink – a code used by police at the time when they were looking to extort a back-hander out of the venue – but Fulwell just went to the bar and got them a drink.
So heading into that night Doreen Allen kept note of what was happening and realised that the police had seemingly sold drugs to people undercover and were now coming back and dragging them out by their hair. Pete Wylie turned the proceedings into a spectacle by playing ‘I Fought The Law’ but the event really left a sour taste in the mouth of the city’s youth.
As they were up to their teeth in debt the venue had to close immediately and it was highly likely the club would have imploded by itself at any given moment anyway but the city’s youth had a scapegoat in the police and they marched through town in protest – the crowd was mainly made up of the matinee kids, they had the most to lose from the venue closing.
Unlike when The Beatles left however, the vitality didn’t completely dissipate from Mathew Street. Probe Records was primed for the indie-pop explosion to burst out of the city and the Armadillo operated for a number of years too. The DIY ethos of Mathew Street in the 1970s spread out to the rest of Liverpool via things like Earthbeat and Planet X and the spirit was kept alive.
Whether it be in Ambrose Reynolds’ venture with the Bombed Out Church or Jayne Casey’s Baltic Triangle master plan, the DIY ethos is certainly still reverberating around Liverpool’s underground today and is benefitting the city as a whole. “I’ll give this area as an example of that DIY ethos,” says Jayne Casey. “This was an industrial estate and there were old businesses in all the buildings and I decided that it needed to be a cultural estate and attacked it to try and get the city to hand over all the property. At the same time, one of the richest men in the city was chasing the property and I’d done this business plan and he’d got hold of it and I sat in front of the council and they said, “Jayne, he’s chasing it.” And I thought, “Well that’s us fucked then, we accept that we’re the artists, we’ve got no money.” They looked at me – I was a bit tearful and they’d never, ever seen me cry,” and they were like, “Jayne, you know sometimes the little man wins.””
“DIY still happens on a street, and it still happens on a grown up level,” she adds. “This area is an shows that; we got the last £5 million grant from Europe in the end to do all the property up – people spend £5 million on one building – we’ve done hundreds of thousands of square meters of warehouse space. Because all the tech companies live in a hub, one little company of two guys at like 26 years old can bid after an Apple contract for £60 million and they can confidently go after that contract because in the next street are other techies who they can give the work to. So because it’s upped what people can go for, they’ve actually affected the country’s GDP. So there you go, the government and the country is benefitting from our DIY, cause it wouldn’t be here without DIY.”
Emerging at a time of great economic turmoil for Liverpool, just before the government toyed with the idea of ‘managed decline’ for the city, the idea of making your own chances really resonated with the city’s youth and continues to do so today. “I used to have this cassette done by the yippies in Berkeley on New Year’s Eve 1967/68,” recalls Bernie Connor. “I think it was Abbie Hoffman coming on and saying, “This is scoop, if you don’t like the news, go out and make your own.” And I just took that as, “If you don’t like the radio you’re listening to, go out and make your own.” The same with music or anything else, if you don’t like your environment, change it. Don’t ask for permission, just go out and do it!”