Think about Liverpool for anything more than a few seconds and there's a good chance you'll conjure up images of its most famous sons, The Beatles. The story of their rise from barely competent skiffle outfit, through residencies in Hamburg dives, lunchtimes at The Cavern and eventual international stardom on an unprecedented scale has been told time and again. There's a great lost Beatles documentary that you'll struggle to find since Apple Corps commandeered the band's 'official' history. It sets out the prevailing critical attitude through bleak shots of Liverpool tenements; stoic close-ups of what could only be working class faces; gritty images of dockers loading and unloading their cargo. The visual tropes of social realism, overlaid with a grim narration:
"Nothing much ever came from Liverpool but soccer teams and British comedians... In 1956 there was little to suggest that out of this provincial seaport would come four young men and a musical revolution that would captivate and change the world..."
It's an attractive thought and it's tempting to believe the most popular cultural phenomena of the century sprung fully formed from nowhere. It feeds our seemingly endless need for creation myths and neatly packaged narratives. The first half of Get Back, the new feature-length documentary that explores the enduring history of popular music in post-war Liverpool, goes some way towards, if not exactly exploding the myth, then at least placing The Beatles' initial success within a broader context of music making within the city.
Mersey Beat founder Bill Harry features heavily, as do various Quarrymen and The Swinging Blue Jeans' Ray Ennis, but though the cast of characters is often familiar and their stories equally well known, by broadening the context within which they are told to include examinations, albeit brief in some cases, of early pop idol Billy Fury and of the 1950s folk, jazz and country scenes they shed a little new light on a familiar narrative. Archive clips and plenty of photographs help flesh out these accounts and with less familiar interviewees like DJ and professional scouser Billy Butler, The Hillsiders' Kenny Johnson, The Spinners' Tony Davis and his wife Beryl there's the sense that the film is tapping slightly less well-worn seam than one might expect.
It's not just The Beatles who feature: Harry recalls a conversation with Cavern DJ Bob Wooler where they identified 250 groups in the city at one stage and several of them are name-checked in Get Back. A number of influencial clubs and coffee houses are also given their due: The Cavern in Mathew Street of course but also The Jacaranda, Casbah and other perhaps less celebrated, but no less influencial venues that played crucial roles in nurturing the nascent talents of the day.
Around half the film's 94-minute running time is taken up telling this part of the city's story but it's time well spent. There may be little that's truly revelatory but by broadening the perspective and speaking to a wider variety of people, the first part of Get Back breathes modest but welcome new life into a familiar story.
By the mid-70s the city may have possessed an all-conquering football team but any residue of the 60s optimism that had been a by-product of the Mersey Beat boom had largely faded. The exception may have been The Real Thing, a quartet of Liverpudlian singers with the look and sound of a Philedelphia soul outfit who enjoyed success, albeit relatively fleetingly, on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite his, by the second half of the decade the idea of a renaissance of musical creativity in the city seemed about as improbable as a slump in the fortunes of their famous scarlet-clad footballing heroes.
The punk movement may have provided the perfect template for teenage rebellion, if not necessarily musical virtuosity, within many a British provincial town in the late-70s, but it had only a modest musical impact on Meresyside, as the second half of Get Back goes on to explore. Mathew Street again proved the melting pot for what developed through the late-70s and early-80s into a more artistically inclined and musically diverse cultural movement which adapted the DIY principles of punk into a broader musical aesthetic. The now legendary club Eric's and the influential record shop Probe, each within gobbling distance of the original Cavern Club, helped nurture a new generation of musicians who cared little for the achievements of their 60s predecessors.
Several of the main protagonists from this period are interviewed, including Bunnymen Will Sergeant and Ian McCulloch, Pete Wylie and OMD's Andy McCluskey. The overriding sense is of individuality, with each band adopting very different approaches, evidenced by the diversity of music they managed to produce. Again, photographs and archive clips help bring the story to life, with some incredible live footage of Echo and the Bunnymen in their pomp as the standout example. Whilst there's a definite pride in their scouse roots, there's much less of a sense of a coherent 'scene' amongst the key players, perhaps due to the range of musical approaches they adopted.
The chronology continues via a revealing cross-generational anecdote from Big In Japan's Jayne Casey and onto Frankie, represented by Brian Nash and clips from their notorious early S&M influenced video for Relax, filmed on location at Liverpool's State club. The success of the Cream club nights, from their beginnings in inauspicious surroundings to the later international dominance of the Creamfields festival franchise, is symbolic of the ascendancy of the UK House scene and there are interviews with Cream founder James Barton and other key figures. Terrace culture and the early-90s indie/dance crossover period are epitomised by The Farm who achieved considerable success despite facing early record industry indifference and looking 'like a bunch of plumbers'! Elsewhere, The La's bassist and Cast frontman John Power receives a substantial cameo.
The final act of Get Back takes in a number of the city's more recent acts including The Zutons, Wombats, The Coral and others. It feels a bit like a race through this latter part of the story and it might have been interesting to have dwelled a bit more on some of these. In fact, the whole second half of the film might have benefited from being twice the length as there are certainly more fascinating stories to be told but it nevertheless manages to cram in an enormous amount of detail into the time available.
So, 'nothing much ever came from Liverpool but soccer teams and British comedians', right? Get Back proves otherwise.=
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