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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