Show Hide image

From Berlin to Bootle

A new exhibition of work by leading photographer Kevin Cummins celebrates the highly fertile late-Se

“The Crucial 30”, a new exhibition by the acclaimed rock photographer Kevin Cummins, frames the bands that emerged from Liverpool’s legendary underground club Eric’s in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

While much of the UK was thrilling to a second wave of punk – fast, anthemic, three-minute bursts of energy by bands like The Skids and Stiff Little Fingers, Eric’s throbbed to an entirely different beat.

It was housed in a filthy cellar directly opposite the old Cavern club, where the Beatles once played. Its decadent, preposterous and defiantly pretentious habitués shared a devout antipathy to all things Beatles and a preference for more artful and complex pop music. There was reggae, rockabilly, lots of electronica, synth pop and some plain weird shite – Leonard Cohen shared pride of place on the jukebox with Tapper Zukie and Rockin’ Dopsie and his Cajun Twisters.

The kids all had monstrous cyclops fringes and wore buttoned-up shirts and PE pumps – there was barely a Mohican in town. Big in Japan, Pink Military Stand Alone, Dalek I Love You, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – if your group had an arcane name, more or less four members and, preferably, a tape machine, you’d get a gig at Eric’s.

I was besotted with the place from the moment I first ventured down its slippery steps. It was like entering Hades, with all the inherent threat as the regulars – including the likes of Pete Burns and Hambi, with their shock-white warpaint – would stare out football lads like myself, who they saw as squares in our duffel coats and corduroy shoes.

Thunderous dub echoed round the room, and nobody really spoke to each other. Yet there was a community there. It felt like the centre of the universe.

Forget the Fab Four, it was The Crucial Three – Pete Wylie, Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope – that drove this fey and fanciful scene, and they quite rightly dominate Cummins’s exhibition.

One of the most eloquent pictures of the collection features Winston, Orchestral Manoeuvres’ tape machine, on the quayside by the Mersey with the docks and the Liver Building in the background. It was these docks that fed Merseybeat’s fledgling scenemakers two decades earlier with abundant supplies of American R&B records, transistor radios and, in the case of George Harrison, a Gretsch guitar.

Yet with their stripped-down sound and machine-driven metronomic beat, many of the Eric’s bands looked not to America but to Europe for their cue.

Cope and OMD’s Andy McCluskey revered the spare Krautrock of Neu!, Can and Kraftwerk, while McCulloch was the ultimate Bowie kid, spurning the cod-rock fantasies of The Clash and The Damned to worship at the altar of David Bowie’s Berlin-era soundscapes.

The first of Bowie’s three Berlin albums, Low, was the reference point for a multitude of Liverpool guttersnipes in 1977. With that classically subversive combination of outrageous, vermilion, wedge haircut and austere, brown duffel coat, Bowie invented a look for a lost tribe who found punk too mannered and soul ludicrously overblown in its styling.

His androgynous fusion of robot, rent boy and razor gang chic lit the touch paper musically and stylistically, and nowhere was it embraced more enthusiastically than at Eric’s. A generation of terrace ruffians annexed that look as their own, and between 1977 and 1979 a streetwise outfit of narrow jeans, Adidas Samba trainers and drooping wedge became the Liverpool uniform.

The character Elvis in my novel, Awaydays, embodies the spirit of Eric’s – a council estate wastrel with poetry in his soul and Berlin on his mind.

Cummins’s 1977 photo of Big in Japan captures the type and the detail of those rough-arse Eric’s bohemians magnificently.

Stage left you have the quintessentially art-school pose of Bill Drummond and Holly Johnson, almost beseeching people to smite them with cudgels or, at the very least, call them names. Bang in the middle there’s Jayne Casey – half baby doll, half mannequin, totally out there. Then there’s the two Scousers, Kevin Ward and Steve Allen – wedge haircuts, plastic sandals, Bowie kecks.

And that, in a snap, was Eric’s. The world in one dive bar.

“The Crucial 30: Post Punk Liverpool” by Kevin Cummins runs at The Hard Day’s Night Hotel Gallery, Liverpool, from 22 May to 22 June. The film adaptation of Kevin Sampson’s novel “Awaydays” (18) is on general release from 22 May

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom

Show Hide image

Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.