Inside the Fight to Keep Liverpool's Punk Scene Alive
“The punk scene is probably the only scene in Liverpool,” said Ollie Fontaine, drummer for a pop-punk group called Sheepy.
Huddled with his bandmates over beers as the rumblings from another set started up in the black box theater behind us, he lauded the new bands coming out of Liverpool, some of whom were also on the bill that night, while noting how attendees had traveled from the outskirts of the city or from nearby towns to perform or just to listen.
With rainbow-dyed dreadlocks and studded leather everything, musicians around us snacked on pizza after their sets and old friends reunited at the bar — almost everyone seemed to know each other — while others bummed cigarettes outside.
On the occasion of the “Dead Good Gathering,” a festival in its third year, queer punks, new wave punks, grunge kids, and old-school rockers (some of whom looked old enough to have been present when the Ramones played Liverpool in 1977), all came together for a weekend of music put on in venues across Liverpool in mid-November. There's no shortage of musicians or historians who claim that punk died by 1980, or that it only existed for a few weeks in New York City, or that it never existed at all — but the same spirit and fierce sense of community of the original Liverpool punks lives on in a determined group of Liverpudlians creating a revitalized, underground scene.
The first night of the festival was housed in Maguire’s, a pizza parlor with a small theater in the back. The restaurant/venue is only a few years old, but it’s already become something of a hub for the city’s musicians, as many smaller venues have shuttered. The smell of pizzas baking only adds to the atmosphere of the bare-bones performance space.
Many of the musicians and artists at Maguire’s and venues like it don’t see themselves as inheritors of their city’s musical tradition, one which produced world famous acts like Echo & the Bunnymen and welcomed the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones to its clubs. Certainly, contemporary punk now differentiates itself from its heyday in the late '70s and early '80s — it's no longer a genre that produces the kind of star power it once did. But the ethos of a generation bursting with political and personal rage endures, particularly in the wake of a 2008 recession that continues to put European young people in a tenuous situation.
Punk has long served as a vehicle for younger generations to express rage: rage at a system, rage at a sense of alienation, rage at a lack of future prospects. And that element hasn’t changed. The political nature of the punk scene in Liverpool perseveres, according to one of the festival’s co-organizers.
Harley Stewart, 20, first became interested in what he calls “the DIY scene” during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011. (Like many other musicians involved in this culture, he uses "DIY" not in the home improvement sense but instead to connote the way they employ grassroots organizing to carve out a a literal and figurative space for themselves.)
“Politics is a lot more intertwined in the punk scene than it ever was,” he said. “It’s all united by a left-wing common viewpoint.”
Organizers like Stewart make a point to book queer and feminist bands, he says, especially ones whose lyrics address political issues running the gamut from immigration to class stratification. (For all of the differences between punk scenes, across eras and across geographic locations, they have often been united in their lack of inclusion of women, and even their outright misogyny.)
“There’s Liverpool’s long-standing class struggle against many governments...and kind of always being neglected by the rest of the country,” he said.
The sense of feeling left behind resonates among many young Scouses, as Liverpool residents call themselves. The British government and local leadership have made a concerted effort to develop the city in the past decade with the goal of making it a cultural center for the North, including building new museums and opening the doors to world-class hotels.
While the campaign to change the face of Liverpool has attracted a growing number of visitors, the benefits of increased tourism haven’t always trickled down to the average citizen. Liverpool continues to see unemployment rates that are twice the national average, and one in four households has no work at all, according to 2016 figures from the Financial Times.
The scene isn’t all social activists, though, and as has often been the case in rock communities, some concertgoers show up just to get drunk or break something. The core group of people who make this music and listen to it, however, are politically motivated in some way, even if that political motivation has less to do with advocating for specific policy changes and more to do with challenging entrenched social systems and discovering personal identity.
Concertgoers sported patches sewn to their jackets or pant legs splashed with slogans like “This Queer Bashes Back,” “Question All Authority,” “Reagan Youth,” and “Global Parasite.”
A strong sense of social alienation, owing in part to the rise of technology, has come to define the Millennial generation and its younger counterpart, Generation Z, making punk a kind of loud outcry in response. Online communities can bring together the pockets of Liverpool and its suburbs that have found a home in this music, and having a physical place to come together is vital.
For that Friday night at least, the punks and the DIY-ers had a place of belonging in Maguire’s, and the obstacles concerning the future — including gentrification and the closure of some of their best-loved clubs — didn’t weigh down the atmosphere, which felt overwhelmingly celebratory.
Locals who grew up in the scene of the first punk bands in the 1970s spoke of a similar atmosphere where the music and the performances themselves served as a vehicle to reckon with their historical moment.
“What [punk] really did was perhaps just captured that experience of hopelessness, or of boredom, or the sense that people had of worthlessness,” said Nick Crossley, a Manchester-based sociologist and author of an extensive history exploring the birth of British punk. “And it was able to channel and reframe that in a way that gave people a language for speaking about it, or perhaps gave them an alternative, a sense of somewhere they did fit in.”
When punk first started in the 1970s, evolving out of a combination of garage and glam rock influences, British listeners in particular remember a feeling of despair that pervaded daily life at the time, especially in northern England where widespread unemployment plagued cities like Liverpool.
“Punk was very political. It was about throwing out the old guard of overblown rock music, but it was also a really unhappy, poor time for Britain as a whole, for young people,” said Kevin McManus, curator at the British Music Experience and a native Liverpudlian who attended almost all of the major punk gigs in the ‘70s.
Punk served an escape not just from the mundanity of daily life but from a bleak and oppressive future.
So much of that escape took place in Eric’s, the famed club that welcomed the Sex Pistols, Ramones, Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Runaways, and Joy Division, to name a few.
Like so many other teenagers and young adults in Liverpool at the time, McManus grew up in that club, sneaking in to matinee gigs at age 15, or taking his first girlfriend on a first date to see the Cramps swallow mice onstage. With his ears ringing in the days that followed each show, he was hooked.
Rock historians and modern day fans have eulogized that era to the point of ossification, but at the time it was a small but nebulous living thing — McManus estimates there were about 40 other concertgoers when he first saw The Cure perform. Part of what made the idea of punk so lasting was the sheer number of iconic bands that passed through Eric’s and clubs like it in those few years, becoming a veritable anthology of the biggest punk and post-punk bands of the decade.
”There was that rare coming together of some real maverick talent,” he told Travel + Leisure. “Liverpool has a history of militancy and of being outspoken politically, and so when you’ve got something like punk coming along, people are immediately drawn to that.”
Eric’s lasted only a few years before police raided and shut it down in 1980, around the time that the height of punk fervor had begun to dwindle. “Forty years later, I can still smell it. I can still remember the layout of the club,” said McManus. “It smelt like a damp, horrible cellar, which it was, but it was magic.”
Maguire’s might smell like cheese and pepperoni instead of a cellar, but it’s magic in its own way, too.
As the night wore on, the bands grew more hardcore. Where some of the first sets had veered into pop-punk with at least one acoustic song, by the third and fourth bands, things were distinctively more metal. Sam Davies, the lead singer of the band “Habits,” strode onstage with the confidence of a seasoned performer, soon drenched in sweat with his shirt off, shoulder-length hair covering most of his face. He leapt into the crowd, a Levi’s waistband creeping out of his pants, surfing the concertgoers in the front. People jostled each other, tossing him around the room before he finished out the set, red-faced with eyes closed as he shouted from the makeshift stage.
Contemporary punks lament a similar phenomenon to their ‘70s counterparts in which their best-loved venues are shut down over noise complaints or run out of money for rent within a few years of opening. In Liverpool’s mission to rebrand, some of its ubiquitous warehouses (which were often used as venues) have been replaced by luxury condominiums. It’s a narrative of gentrification that music-lovers in metropolitan areas around the world are familiar with, from Brooklyn to Berlin.
“We’ve seen a lot of smaller, independent venues tumbling under the pressures of the private sector,” Christopher Torpey, editor of the Liverpool music magazine Bido Lito, told T+L.
Dozens of venues still remain in Liverpool, including the Echo Arena or the Cavern Club, but those venues overwhelmingly cultivate and book big name artists. Meanwhile, a supply of the type of stages that welcome this self-organized music community have continued to dwindle.
“There’s no historic DIY, grassroots venues that are still around,” Stewart said.
Still, threats to their community have perhaps strengthened the bond between musicians and fans, and Stewart credited a robust network of promoters and independent record labels with helping bands play in other cities in the U.K. and even into mainland Europe.
“People just go out of their way to help each other,” he said. “It’s that DIY ethic that unites people.”