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How the Liverbirds disrupted the rock ’n’ roll boys’ club

The all-female band shone briefly in Sixties Hamburg, but were prevented from flourishing in a male-dominated scene.

By Kate Mossman

Memory sheds emotion down the years, and the past becomes a fantastic romp free of psychological dimensions: my mother swears she went out with a man for five years just because he had a motorbike. The Liverbirds, who formed in 1963, were a strange crew: low-voiced, trousered and initially dealing in Shadows-style instrumentals. You want to get inside the minds of four teenagers who decided to become a girls’ answer to the Beatles when there were barely any other female rock ’n’ roll bands in existence – but you don’t really get that from this oral history by the surviving members, Mary and Sylvia (bass and drums). Yet strangely, the lack of deep analysis, combined with action upon action of enormous pluck, makes their story thrilling.

Take the Brian Epstein episode. In 1964, the girls say to one another, “We need Brian Epstein to manage us”. They find out the Beatles manager’s address and get a one-way (always one-way) ticket from Liverpool to London. They sit in a coffee bar opposite his office in Seven Dials, and there he is, walking across the street! They dash towards him and he runs, thinking they’re Beatles fans (it is just like a scene from A Hard Day’s Night). When they explain themselves, he gives them his card, saying come and see me tomorrow. Then they head to Green Park to sleep on benches. They apply lipstick the next morning, under the trees. Epstein wants to manage them – but, eternally unperturbed, the girls play him off against the Kinks’ manager for weeks before heading off to Hamburg instead. “If you go to Hamburg you’ll never come back,” Brian warns them – and they didn’t, settling there for much of their adult lives.

The book’s irrepressible breeziness says a lot about how easy it was for a band to achieve their dream in 1960s Liverpool, where around 500 bands were at work at any one time; where Hessy’s music shop on Stanley Street did all instruments on hire purchase and the Mersey Beat magazine ran features on bands before they had heard a note of their music. In fact, the girls couldn’t play for a long time: they used empty guitar cases as props to get into the Cavern Club for free. They’d been signed by the time they thought it might be good to learn some songs. Their opening set at St Philomena’s home for old age pensioners included “Hava Nagila” and the theme from Steptoe and Son.

Rock ’n’ roll history is also the history of ordinary people in the years after the war. With no interest in the 11-plus, leaving school was freedom for the Liverbirds: Sylvia couldn’t wait to get to work with the franking machine at Littlewoods. Mary would spend £4 of her weekly wage (she did  book-keeping at a spam factory) on paying off her Framus guitar, and would give the rest to her mum. There is some Blackadder-style detail about how they struggled in hard times: the size of the Christmas turkey “depended on how well grandma Dunn did with her barrow.” Mary’s entry begins, “starting a rock ’n’ roll  band wasn’t my first choice of profession. In fact, my initial plan had been to become a nun.”

Description of music, on the other hand, is rather challenged: “While Pam and Val concentrated on melody and lyrics, Sylvia and I kept the bass and drums locked in sync.” The band first encountered the Beatles in the changing rooms at the Cavern in 1962. John, always so unpleasant, apparently said, “Girls don’t play guitars”, which spurred them on – but the story has the air of one told to family for decades, with no detail apart from that John and Paul were in their pants. There are many moments apt for a Working Title movie adaptation, such as the episode when Ray and Dave Davies’ guitars are stolen (everyone’s guitars are always getting stolen) and the girls lend them theirs – just in time to hear Ray come up with the opening chords of “You Really Got Me”. And the Rolling Stones were “ever so nice”: when Mary’s bass string snaps on stage in Nuneaton she starts to cry, Bill Wyman jumps up and gives her his own guitar. At this point you see Mary, in her living room, interrupted by the ghostwriter, pointing her towards the 2012 documentary in which Keith Richards described the Liverbirds as “real slags”. “If we ever meet him again,” Mary concedes, “he will have some explaining to do.”

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Women’s accounts of life in rock ’n’ roll  often reveal the bathos, the unexpected rituals and the small pleasures and pains of daily life in a jobbing band. The Liverbirds’ book explodes when they get to Hamburg for a residency at the Star-Club, where the Beatles sojourned between April and December 1962. The girls worked for years at their nightly live slot: hard graft, but the money was great. Their all-female band wasn’t mocked and they even had a top five single in Germany.

All musicians with a residency at the Star-Club lived together on the top floor of the nearby Hotel Pacific, under the care of the promoter Manfred Weissleder. This is the detail I loved. Up at noon, breakfast at the seamen’s mission; tinkering with songs all afternoon and onstage at 8 – then the nights. Oh, the nights: the Star-Club sat in the heart of the red light district. Mary, the good Catholic, becomes close to some of the high-end call girls, who mother her (prostitution was legalised in Germany in 1963); she walks the streets with them, fascinated, and gradually moves away from God. You can feel the women’s memories fire up at the Star-Club days: the butch femme stage manager, the trans dancers, the waitresses who ruled the roost and would swing the lights if they liked a band. Sylvia, a delightfully effervescent drummer, is often high on “Prellies”. There’d be an audience of 50 Russian sailors one hour, and Beatniks the next. The girls were styled by Astrid Kirchherr: Sylvia recalls her obsession with Ouija boards, her little garret bedroom papered in silver foil.

Happily, sex is not whitewashed – I bet this was a condition from Faber & Faber for taking on the book. The two departed members of the Liverbirds, Val and Pam, were real goers, and even Mary loses her virginity at 19. But there is an unmistakable sense that as a group of four women who were rarely apart, the Liverbirds were protected by the very structure of their band: in an early photo-call with Jimmy Savile in London, two sit on either side of him, on top of his bedcovers, and it’s clear even Savile couldn’t have menaced four at once. Mary recalls schoolgirls leaving his hotel room in their uniform in the morning: Savile would tell her he was paying them for odd jobs. A young Paul Gadd (Gary Glitter), who wore make-up and a wig to hide his baldness, had the hots for Pam, but she was lovelorn for a married British musician in Hamburg and went on to work the clubs of Germany for years, never quite leaving the nightlife behind.

Mary and Sylvia pair up with musicians, and Val meets “the most beautiful man in Munich”, the wealthy and fashionable Stephan Hausner. Stephan is paralysed in a car accident and Val is hastily betrothed to him, under the pressure of his parents, consigned to life as a carer at the age of 21. Sylvia gets pregnant, and is told she will lose the baby if she continues playing the drums. That is the end of the Liverbirds – and you see how the die was cast, even for women who had created unconventional lives. It is hard to turn the pages without a sinking sense of sadness and bemusement. But it’s at odds with Mary and Sylvia’s voices, which are breezy and accepting, as always.

The Liverbirds: Our Life in Britain’s First Female Rock ’n’ Roll Band
Mary McGlory and Sylvia Saunders
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £20

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[See also: The joy of Joni Mitchell’s return]

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown