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Holding back the years

What with a second 1980s photography exhibition about to open, an Eric's book, not to mention the Beatles, Penny Kiley asks if nostalgia is stopping us from going forward

Published on May 18th 2009.

Holding back the years

THEY'RE selling Eric’s T-shirts on ebay these days. They are, of course, fakes. I don’t think such a thing actually existed at the time. There wasn’t enough interest.

There’s never interest in the things that matter at the time that they matter. That comes with hindsight, and with opportunists and revisionists in its wake.

When Eric’s was happening, very few people in Liverpool knew or cared about the city’s music. They hated Eric’s, if they knew about it at all; they’d forgotten Merseybeat. Even the site of the Cavern was the car park over the road from Eric’s that I used to run across to get the last bus. The Beatles industry didn’t get started until after John Lennon died (and then it was used to evict the new musicians from Mathew Street).

I’ve lost count of the number of plays and films about the Beatles I’ve seen in Liverpool. Then there was the Gerry Marsden musical at the Playhouse. And the one about Billy Fury. Even in Capital of Culture year, when you might have expected some forward thinking, we had musicals set in the 1930s (Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi) and the 1970s (Eric's).

Facebook is abuzz with
people wanting to turn
back the clock. But we
can’t. And we shouldn’t

It’s only a matter of time before we get ‘Cream - the Musical’. Someone’s probably writing it now.

And it doesn’t stop. This year, we’ve already had a book about Eric’s and now come not one but two photographic exhibitions. About to open is Kevin Cummins’ ‘The Crucial 3-0’ - named after a band that never existed - at the Hard Day’s Night - named after... well, you get the point. (The blurb promises "the changing faces of Julian Cope and Ian McCulloch".)

And, of course, there’s Francesco Mellina’s ‘Sound and Vision’ show at, bizarrely, the National Conservation Centre (‘the changing face of Pete Burns’, anyone?).

Facebook is abuzz with people wanting to turn back the clock. But we can’t. And we shouldn’t.

The explicit theme of all this nostalgia is “wasn’t the Cavern great?” or “wasn’t Eric’s great?” The subtext is "we were there - aren’t we great?"

Memory lane is culture as comfort food: familiar, reassuring, and something you don’t have to think about. And it’s the default setting for Liverpool. Are we selling a lie to the tourists (we all know the Cavern is a copy, but no-one lets on)? Or are we telling a lie to ourselves?

The more people try to resurrect the past, the less true it becomes. We’ve already allowed history to turn the Beatles into four cardboard cut-outs. Now everyone thinks they know about Eric’s, too.

When the musical came out, we had a Radio 2 documentary with the usual suspects retelling the story with themselves at the centre (only Wylie’s reminiscences about his campaign against Big in Japan rang true); Then there was the Daily Post writing about "the venue’s 1980s heyday" (it closed in 1980). All these stories are as fake as those born-too-late mail-order Eric’s T-shirts (that co-owner Ken Testi is now trying to stop, ed).

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". That’s the lazy way out. Actually, the fact is always more interesting, and more complicated, than the join-the-dots history that becomes the official version.

It’s easy to celebrate something after the event, smoothing over those awkward questions about sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, politics and authenticity that make real culture so hard to take at the time.

What people forget about Eric’s is that the glory days were short-lived. That intensity of freedom and discovery and inspiration could never last. By the time punk became mainstream, Eric’s had stopped being a club and become just a venue.

The part-time punks turned up in coachloads, stopping just long enough to check the pictures in the Daily Mail for how to get a safety pin into their cheek. The best-kept secret wasn’t secret any more.

Eric’s had to burn out, or change. I’m glad it burned out. I cried buckets at the time, but it was the right thing to happen. By the time the club closed down, the ’70s were over, Thatcher was on the throne, and times were changing. Punk was dead, strangled by its more palatable parasites ‘new wave’ and ‘power pop’. A phoney mod revival was even bringing scallies into Eric’s. You never hear that mentioned.

All is not lost, however. If you catch the the long-running exhibition The Beat Goes On, at Liverpool World Museum, you will sense an intention that is less about nostalgia and more about continuity. The material on Eric’s gives you a genuine flavour of what the club was really like: you can even remind yourself how crap Big in Japan actually were.

You could also hear another owner, Pete Fulwell, talk about how he, Roger Eagle and Testi used to joke that these were ‘the good old days’ - because they knew how important Eric’s would become in the future. Unfortunately, they were right.

The bit of the Eric’s play that I took away with me last year is the bit that said punk was about looking forward, not looking back. It’s something that Liverpool needs to learn.

In the words of Johnny Thunders (as sung by Pete Wylie): ‘You can’t put your arms around a memory... don’t try.’

Penny Kiley is a former music journalist from Liverpool who now has a normal job somewhere else.

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17 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

One of Three MillionMay 5th 2009.

When I was a teenager Supplementary Benefit was only about £13 a week, I couldn't actually afford to go to Eric's when I was on the dole! When I did get a job there were all the cronies jumping the queue and let in without paying!

Two Sevens ClashMay 5th 2009.

The first punks I ever saw were wearing dark overcoats and they were being legged across Williamson Square by sweaty, fat old teddy boys in their drape suits.

scousekrautMay 5th 2009.

Dear Beatlesguru: Mozart was Austrian not German.in my view a little bit of nostalgia is ok though it tends to get commercialised and marketed in pop music. I would say that in view of how big the Beatles are around the world Liverpool has probably got it about right in terms of its marketing except for this ridiculous Beatles Day which is a step too far.

AyCarmelaMay 5th 2009.

Nobody ever accuses London of looking backwards.yet it markets history on a massive scale. The simple fact remains that, in the absence of mass employing heavy industries and a decimated merchant navy, we have to chase the tourist dollar.

Stanley StreetMay 5th 2009.

The photograph of the Lennon statue in Mathew Street says it all.Apparently true Beatles ‘fans’ couldn’t recognise the young Lennon with the historically-correct quiff and D.A. so cynical profiteers welded that ridiculous crash-helmet ‘mop-top’ onto the head of the statue. It’s fake, it’s fantasy.

WD40 fanMay 5th 2009.

I thought it was Ernie Wise complaining about being left off the billing.

12XUMay 5th 2009.

There were indeed Eric's T-shirts, but they were only ever worn by the likes of Roger Eagle and the woman who worked on the door. (I once saw her on Hardman Street wearing a gold lamé bomber jacket with a huge Eric's badge on it.)Proper punks didn't buy such merchandise, they dressed in secondhand clothes and if they wore T-shirts at all, they painted them themselves.

UB40 fanMay 5th 2009.

Isn't that Fat Git as a young man (top left) before he went on incapacity benefit and was merely just on the dole?

AnonymousMay 5th 2009.

There is a difference between culture looking at the mastery of the past and Joe Anderson and Warren Bradley making themselves look ludicrous on a convoluted Beatles Day. It sends the message that we, the city of Liverpool, had nothing but the past to show for itself.

JBMay 5th 2009.

EDITORIAL says Rant removed.

BeatlesGuruMay 5th 2009.

The whole point about culture is the past, for example classical music and old masters. It is like saying that looking back at Beethoven and Van Gogh is stopping us going forward.In my oipion the truly great legacy of the Beatles is Liverpool's classical culture just as Straus is to Vienna Austria and Bach, Mozart and Beethoven is to Germany.So don't knock it and never forget that Liverpool is the brithplace of the Beatles.Looking back is not holding us back any more than it is for the classical music of Austria and Germany. As a further point, the Pope to Rome and Jesus to Jewruselem & Nazereth.

zmalagradsterMay 5th 2009.

Erics was the Cavern of its day. Brilliantly original music was performed by great artists with 10 times the talent of wasters like the beatles or jerry marsden and his phony popstars.Erics was true music deep from the heart of the oppressed people of liverpool and should be a shrine of great value. It was the centre of a vibrant leftwing youth movement and its suppression by the Liberals was a shame. the same old story, Liverpool people are cheated by politicians and money grabbing capitalist monsters from London.

DigMay 5th 2009.

Not according The Echo. They said Mozart was born in Fazakerley.

P. EdantMay 5th 2009.

"Straus"? Oscar Straus was an American who wrote musicals such as 'The Chocolate Soldier'. The Viennese family famous for their waltzes spelt their name 'Strauss'.

TourmanMay 5th 2009.

Is that John Lennons statue, I thought it was Princess Di. But that's looking back again.

tucaps for sarahMay 5th 2009.

We need more books about the beatles and merseybeat, it is almost impossible to find anything on this subject matter.

Mike NearyMay 10th 2011.

Great to see a bold and controversial piece of journalism that puts opinion at the very forefront and is free of self agrandisement. More please!

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