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Why Liverpool Is The City Of Pop Music Written by on May 2, 2023

The Beatles! Yes, who else? Sonia! Yes, and…? Err… Atomic Kitten? Who else? Liverpool has a long and rich history of contributing to popular music. Roy Delaney explores its sonic history and the names worth knowing.

When they put in their bid to host Eurovision 2023 Liverpool played heavily on their image as the United Kingdom’s City of Pop, an honour bestowed upon them by the Guinness Book of Records, no less. Much of people’s understanding of this term seems to revolve around The Beatles and the Merseybeat era. But the city has way more to it than a chirpy-faced boy band from the sixties as far as music goes.

To some people, this history of music in Liverpool begins and ends with The Beatles. But the city already had a distinct sound of its own long before the Fab Four first flicked their floppy fringes in anger.

As a port city, Liverpool had been accidentally importing a world of sounds for centuries, making it a multicultural mixing pot of sounds and smells long before pop music was even thought of. The ships brought in people from all over the world, and the city was home to one of the UK’s earliest black populations, which first started to form in the early 1700s. But while much of this can be attributed to slavery, there was also a significant number of traders and freemen settling in the early days. It’s also the site of one of the first significant Chinese populations in Europe, and saw huge swathes of migration from Wales and Ireland in the early-Victorian era.

Liverpool was rife for a multi-cultural explosion of creation long before most UK cities had even seen the first signs of migration.

Importing The Basics

The first forays into music came in the terms of sea shanties, and many historic old singalongs mention the city, from ‘Blow The Man Down’, to ‘Maggie Mae’ and ‘The Skipper’s Lament’. It was the same ships that first brought the sounds of America to the UK. A gaggle of working-class lads who worked on the cross-channel liners, who became known as The Cunard Yanks, where the first to bring jazz, country and blues records back from the US in the 40s and 50s. This gradually encouraged young kids to get their own guitars and create their own version of the sounds they were beginning to hear coming from across the pond – skiffle. Indeed, The Beatles themselves started out as a street corner skiffle band called The Quarrymen.

At the same time, variety was still a major source of entertainment in the Northern Cities, and Scouse crooners like Frankie Vaughan and Michael Holliday became massive national stars in the fifties with old-time Bing Crosby-style singalongs. But it was a woman who became the first Liverpudlian act to make it to number one – and in fact the first British woman full stop to achieve that honour. Lita Roza hit the top of the charts in March 1953 with her version of ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?’ – still the definitive version for many regional radio stations today. Lita also has a minor Eurovision connection in that she competed in our first three national selection shows back in the fifties and early sixties – coming third, second and fifth, respectively.

How close she became to becoming a legend of our own.

Let’s Add Electricity

But it was when the skiffle kids matured into adults and were allowed into smokey nightclubs that the Merseybeat sound really kicked in. Graduating from the acoustic instruments of their formative days, they picked up electric guitars and forged a sound that would last forever. Early rocking blues bands like Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (featuring an impossibly young Ringo Starr) condensed into more pithy, youth-pleasing acts The Searchers, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas and Gerry and the Pacemakers (who were the first of the Merseybeat bands to hit number one), before four young lads called John, Paul, George and Ringo found the magic formula and helped change the world of music forever.

Famously they found their feet at The Cavern Club in Liverpool’s Matthew Street. There’s still a club in roughly the same spot today, but it’s a rebuild based on the club’s original dimensions built long after the original was demolished. But if you’re in town and looking for a bit of old-school Beatles history, that’s most certainly the place to start – if you can survive the countless buskers hooting out poorly executed covers on the way in.

From Merseyside To The World

So ubiquitous was the Merseybeat sound that bands from all over the country attempted to cash in on its fame, and keeping quiet that although they were British, they didn’t actually come from Liverpool. The Tremoloes famously kept their heads when asked about their Liverpool links. Co-incidentally The Tremelos’ early singer, Brian Poole, is the father of Karen Poole, one of the writers of Mae Muller’s 2023 UK Eurovision entry.

Everything comes back to Liverpool in the end.

After a few fallow years of nothing much more than Cilla Black or Ken Dodd representing the city at the top of the charts (although Doddy’s ‘Tears’ still remains one of the best selling UK singles of all time, would you believe), the next big moment in Liverpool’s musical history came bang in the heart of the seventies with The Real Thing – arguably the first credible British soul band. Taking the sounds of Philadelphia and Chicago and infusing them with British grit they were briefly so successful that they took their sound back to the US without anyone realising that they were a bunch of scally lads from Toxteth. Check out the documentary ‘Everything – The Real Thing Story’ for a really touching look into the band’s history.

Remaining on Matthew Street though, a club that while perhaps not as famous as The Cavern still played and important and near legendary part in Liverpool’s musical history is Erics. Briefly the second home of The Cavern Club when the original was demolished, it went on to become the home of Liverpool’s second musical coming when post-punk and pre-indie bands like Echo & The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, The Mighty Wah (whose frontman Pete Wylie is still the unofficial Bard of the city), OMD and many many other made their first faltering steps onto its stage before they became internationally famous names. A third wave of stellar Liverpool pop sounds emerged soon after with the explosion of Frankie Goes To Hollywood – and band so intrinsically of their time that they’ve probably still got the date 1985 running through their bones like a stick of rock.

Ever since then though, that Liverpool accent had punctured the charts of ever more frequent occasions. From our very own Sonia, to Atomic Kitten, raggle taggle jangly acts like The Las, Cast, The Zutons and The Coral, right through to a plethora of disparate present day bands like the extreme metal of Carcass, the doom of Conan, the edgy alternative rock of Clinic, the electro goth of The Webb, and even occasional Eurovision co-host Chelcee Grimes. And of course not forgetting the poet laureates of Merseyside, Half-Man, Half-Biscuit, who have been pumping out hilariously satirical slices of British life for a good forty years now and don’t show any signs of slowing down any time soon.

But the one thing that seems to permeate them all is a deep – and occasionally dark – sense of humour, a cheeky wink, and an optimistic outlook that is encouraging coming from a city that’s had more than its fair share of deprivation and tragedy.

And while Liverpool may not be that all-encompassing home of British music that its tourist office would like to have you think, it’s played an important and unique part of history not just in the UK but in the world as a whole, and just to walk its streets is to soak up just a little bit of that winning atmosphere. And if you’re lucky enough to be going to Eurovision this year, take a bit of time to get out and about and see the home of that history for yourselves.

Because Liverpool is about much more than just The Beatles, and it’s truly not like anywhere else.

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