Believe it or not, bands just don’t walk out on to a stage, plug in and become Spinal Tap. It takes a whole lot of hard hours of craft to step up at a gig and be able to play through a set without making a hash of it, even for those bands who you find utterly boring and you wonder why they bothered. Even with all the advances in technology that the music industry develops year after Auto-tuned year, there’s still only one thing that can get you from hopeful to headliner: good, solid practice. And lots of it.
In our ‘WHO ARE YA?’ series we’ve been looking at the oft-forgotten people who make music happen – the people who work in the shadows, thankless and without the credit they deserve. This month we focus our eyes on Liverpool’s longest running rehearsal studio Crash, and try and cast a light on the hardy souls who keep their rooms open for the noisemakers.
Tucked away between Stanley Street and Cumberland Street, the entrance to CRASH REHEARSAL STUDIOS on Davies Street is without much fanfare. The black door that hangs ajar underneath the ‘Imperial Warehouses’ sign is like a secret entry to a speakeasy, but with decidely less glamour. It’s Friday night and there’s already a knot of people gathered in the street clutching guitar cases and having one last ciggie, before they duck inside for their shot at glory. I’m here to speak to Jon White, one half of the team that’s managed Crash since it opened in 1987: a man who, alongside partner Mark Davies, has helped several generations of Merseyside musicians by providing a place to come and play. They can rightly claim to having given a leg up to dozens of local artists who’ve honed their talents in these rooms: Ladytron, The Coral, Carcass, Anathema, Cast, The Zutons, Clinic… The list goes on, and is in fact pinned up on the wall in Crash’s foyer-cum-communal area. “Clinic were one of the first bands we had in here,” Jon tells me as he pours himself a shot from his flask (tea, sadly). “They’re still here now actually.”
It’s obviously an important place in the development of a lot of these groups as the road outside – Crash Alley, as it’s affectionately known – continues to crop up in promo shots of bands based here. Under certain lighting Crash Alley can look menacing, but it’s always been a safe haven for musicians just out of the glare of the bright lights. The BBC has also taken note of the alley’s rough and ready charm, using it as a backdrop for scenes in Foyle’s War, and even turning the studio in to a replica of The Iron Door Club for the recent production of Cilla.
Our conversation takes place on a busy Friday night, as the evening session ends and the night sessions starts. It’s not long before the hustle and bustle of the changeover gives way to a steady clatter from the warren of occupied rooms, creating an anarchic soundtrack which underscores our discussion of where it all began.
“Before this was Crash it was SOS Studios, which goes back to the mid-70s I think,” Jon remembers. “Mark and I were in a band together at the time and we rehearsed here. Everybody in the early days did their stuff here – OMD, Black, China Crisis – recording on 4-track. It was OMD’s machine actually.”
With Jon and Mark being part of the building’s community already, they were the perfect new custodians when they took the studio on, thinking from a musician’s point of view. And that’s something that continues to this day, with the bar in the communal area supplying everything from strings to plectrums to spare leads, and that most vital of musical lubricants, beer. What’s more it’s just a place to hang out. At one point our chat is interrupted when a band comes in moaning that they’ve got to learn two Bob Marley songs for a wedding they’re playing the following week.
Alongside the regulars, Crash also serves as a perfect spot for touring artists to come and get a bit of pre-show practise in before playing a show. In May 1990 a tribute concert was staged in memory of John Lennon at the Pier Head, with performances from some huge artists. Crash was pressed in to action for the event providing rehearsal space for some of the super stars. Mark remembers: “The room order for that day was something else: Room 1 – Wet Wet Wet, Room 3 – Lou Reed!”
Wet Wet Wet arrived three days early and got to work straight away. They formed a relationship with Jon and Mark, and on one of their last nights the band invited Jon and Mark to join them for dinner. So they all hunkered down on the room of the band’s studio for pizza, after Marti Pellow’s minder had chaperoned it safely back from the pizzeria. On the day of the show itself the studio had yet more visitors, as Curtis Stigers set up shop. And then, in a whirl of police escorts and hangers-on, Lou Reed was ushered in to the building. “He was almost carried in by his entourage of onlookers and helpers carrying his guitars and baggage,” Mark remembers fondly of the slightly manic day, and it wasn’t long before the guests had them running about – well, one of the guests. “Lou needed an ashtray on a stand at all times or he wouldn’t play, so we had to put in a small flightcase with an ashtray on, which was pushed onto the stage next to him.” Then there were the demands from the entourage: ‘No photographs please’, and ‘Lou won`t be having any of the catering laid on.’ “They were concerned about the power too,” Mark recalls. “They said to me ‘That’s 240V supply? He won`t be plugging anything in until that’s tested. We’re used to 110V.’ We hurriedly got a local electrician in to prove the mains were safe! An hour passed quickly before we heard the police sirens approaching to collect him. As he left Crash he was heard to say ‘so this is Liverpool?’”
Another service that Crash provided was in the form of showcases for label A&Rs, from which The Zutons and The Coral ended up getting their major label deals. “We’d send all the demos down to London – to a couple of record companies – and they’d choose who they wanted to see, if any,” explains Jon. “And then they’d book a day with us, where you might have seven bands on through the day. The A&R man comes in, sees one band, finishes with them, sees the other band on the other stage while the first band are packing down – kind of a festival vibe.”
Mansun signed to Parlophone off the back of one of these showcases, having not even played a gig at that point. It was a purple patch for Crash, when it was regularly visited by the industry’s bigwigs come up from London, largely at the behest of Alan Wills. Mansun went on to record four albums, and cemented a bit of Crash folklore on their cult 1998 release Six by naming the record’s central character (Dark Mavis) after Crash’s own Mark.
Those days are long gone now, with the brunt of A&R work done via Facebook and SoundCloud. But Crash is still here, providing the space, creating the vibe. They operate on very small margins, as competition keeps the ceiling of what they can charge low. This works out great for the bands who can get a room with stage, lights, drum kit and a Marshall stack for as little as fifty quid for three hours. But it makes it a labour of love for the owners, who shuttle up and down the stairs between the rooms to make sure that the right gear is set up in the right room for each band, and on hand at all times to replace anything that’s faulty.
Every music community needs a Crash, just as it needs people like Jon and Mark, oiling the wheels of creativity. They’re facilitators, and occasionally motivators. As the last of the bands checks in and makes their way up to their room, Jon shows them the way, seeing them through the door with a parting gift. “Go and make some noise.”