When I was old enough to know about Liverpool it was almost being talked about in the past tense. Liverpool for three hundred years was a magnificent seaport, the second city of Empire, with a flourishing trade with Virginia and the English colonies in America. It grew even larger during the industrial revolution as most of the English north east’s trade left via Liverpool docks.
During the 20th century, especially after World War II this great nautical city was in decline and times were getting tougher. A musical culture was growing, though, thanks to the availability of rare imported American music at the port of entry into the UK.
By the 60s a genuinely competitive band scene had emerged, and many played the latest imported songs to get the attention of their growing audiences. Mix that with the local sense of humour and a more homegrown influence and you had the birth of Merseybeat.
Judy Collins – Liverpool Lullaby
It’s so tempting to start out with those loveable mop tops but here was a song that every young mum inevitably sang to their little ones. The song was later covered by Liverpool’s own Cilla Black, but this was the song we heard on the radio. It was a song based on a much harder Tyneside melody (listen to it here) that also came from hard times. To me this is childhood come back to life.
Gerry & The Pacemakers – Ferry Cross The Mersey
Another favourite from childhood, this song is one of the Merseybeat classics, which came from a movie of the same name that was shot in and around the city. I was about five when it came out.
They seem to smile and say
We don’t care what your name is boy
We’ll never turn you away”
The Beatles – Penny Lane
Penny Lane was released in February 1967 as a double a-side with Strawberry Fields Forever, in what has been described as the greatest single ever released. I’m not going to argue. Odd to think that Paul McCartney wrote it on a stand up piano in London.
It’s part fact, part nostalgia for a great place – blue suburban skies, as we remember it, and it’s still there. And we put in a joke or two: ‘Four of fish and finger pie.’ The women would never dare say that. except to themselves. Most people wouldn’t hear it, but ‘finger pie’ is just a nice little joke for the Liverpool lads who like a bit of smut.
The Beatles – Strawberry Fields
Flip the vinyl single and you find another location just off the Allerton Road. Strawberry Field was the name of a Salvation Army children’s home near John Lennon’s childhood home in Woolton. Lennon was in Algeria, Spain when he wrote the song, and in his hands the song moves from a simple nostalgic tune to something far deeper.
What I’m saying, in my insecure way, is ‘Nobody seems to understand where I’m coming from. I seem to see things in a different way from most people.
The Beatles didn’t sing about Liverpool often, but managed to put the idea of Liverpool into the minds of so many around the world. A girlfriend of mine once took me down to see Strawberry Fields and it bore no resemblance to the place in my mind. Which may be exactly what John Lennon meant.
Bangles – Going Down To Liverpool
As a student during the early eighties I got very lucky indeed. I’d come very close to dropping out of studying because I’d lost my focus. And a group of fun, hard partying and very creative lasses breezed into my life and I just got caught up in all the momentum of it all. Suddenly I was having fun and knuckling down to studying.
Two of these gals were as Liverpool as they get, and I got a crash course in caustic Liverpool wit and laughter. Through Chris and Susan I got to know the city so much more, and I’m forever in their debt for it all. This song is, lets face it, a bit rubbish but the video is sweet – just like a cabful of the gals all doled up, off to the Poly Bop for a few scoops with Mr. Spock.
Echo and the Bunnymen – Villiers Terrace
Liverpool in the early eighties was so full of great new music. Echo & the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes were joined by an array of stunning bands – Icicle Works, Wah! Heat, Pale Fountains, Wild Swans, China Crisis, Dead or Alive, Lightning Seeds, Lotus Eaters and OMD just off the top of my head.
The Bunnymen – although channeling The Doors a little too often – were the best of the bunch. Villiers Terrace spoke of the darker side of an urban drugs scene, the narrator troubled by the darkness he finds.
It’s Immaterial – Driving Away From Home
I love this song for its laid back irreverence. Songs about the road are supposed to be an American genre. To get across the USA it takes 3000 miles and a whole lot of adventure. Driving across England, however can be done in a day, with just a stop for egg and chips at a LittleChef to break the trip. The song’s just a lovely tribute both those American antecedents and the joys of crossing the Pennines, only once bettered – By Gomez’s train-bound ‘Whipping Picadilly’ (Gomez being from Southport, just north of Liverpool).
“There’s a lot of nice places to see out there
So just don’t worry…”
The Mighty WAH! – Heart As Big As Liverpool
One of those great Liverpool troubadours who never quite made it. I have fond memories of a particularly shambolic Wah Heat show where nothing seemed to work. Pete Wylie simply grabbed an acoustic and took requests from the assembled throng, and nothing seemed to phase him. His rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five” fairly brought the house down. I don’t think the roadies ever got it all fixed…
Heart as Big as Liverpool is one of those songs that is associated with the Hillsborough disaster and regularly gets aired on matchdays at Anfield. And before you ask, I’m not tempted to put Anfield Rap on the list…
The Pogues – Leaving Of Liverpool
As Liverpool is a maritime town, sea shanteys have figured large in the city’s past. The oldest version has the narrator leave Liverpool as a sailor aboard a clipper called the David Crockett, under a Captain Burgess. Back in 1863 one John A. Burgess did indeed sail the David Crockett out of Liverpool, so there’s more than a little truth in it. One sailor in the 1940s reckoned the song originated during the Gold Rush of 1849, and that it concerned a person leaving Liverpool to strike it rich in California and then return.
Since the Clancy Brothers had a hit with it back in the 60s this old capstan song been a staple of rowdy folk nights the world over, but no-one does it quite as lustily as Shane MacGowan and The Pogues.
Amsterdam – Does This Train Stop on Merseyside
Ian Prowse, of the Liverpool band Amsterdam has probably written the most eloquent song about Liverpool. A sweeping narrative taking us from the ghost of a slaveship captain all the way to the Hillsborough disaster.
Here’s a sweet little film on the song – one of legendary deejay John Peel’s favorites – made by two fans.
Being a port, a lot of weird and wonderful souls have passed through and there are many stories about the place.The title is a reference to a very old Springsteen song from 1972 and the rest of the lyrics are just general observations and events both good and bad that are connected with this part of the river.
Jeggsy Dodd – Liverpool – So Good They Named It Once.
Liverpool’s black humour is everywhere in movies and television. The blackest of all was Alan Bleasdale’s creation of Yosser Hughes in the drama ‘Boys From The Blackstuff’. It’s not pretty, and not at all comforting, but ”Yosser’s Story’‘ is a vivid example of how effective television can be when it wants to get tough. Yosser became an icon of Britain in the 1980s Britain with his catchphrase of “Gizza job”.
I think that is, particularly a Liverpool tradition, which the poets at least have as well. Where you can say something and you make people laugh but you can make people cry and you can make people think at the same time. And I think that’s part of the local sense of humour and a local way of talking” Adrian Henri
It’s harder to find in music, but performance poet Jegsy Dodd gets close. He’s a bit serious on this one though. If it’s too much of a downer try this one.
The Farm – All Together Now
Now I know this song isn’t about Liverpool, but All Together Now, was a huge hit in 1990 and is as Liverpool as the Aintree Iron. The song was inspired by the story of British and German troops who laid down their guns for a game of football in No Man’s Land on Christmas Day 1914. The Christmas truces are extraordinary and evocative in themselves, grabbing the imagination of even young children. Musically it’s just Johann Pachelbel’s Canon and it emerged into a new Liverpool music scene alongside classic Liverpool bands like The La’s, Boo Radleys, Cast and the Zutons.
The Wombats – Lets Dance to Joy Division
A great way to end the list – a fitful blast of amusing indie pop that was a firm favourite down in the student union. Irreverent brash Liverpudliness. Careless indie cool with some cracking observational lyrics.
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