In the concluding edition of our lockdown series Digging The Archive Bluecoat’s Bryan Biggs picks out some musical moments which have defined the arts hub’s rich history.
Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director/Project Director at The Bluecoat:
Music at Bluecoat stretches back to its early 20th century origins as an arts centre. This story is told in a new book I have coedited with Liverpool historian John Belchem, Bluecoat, Liverpool: The UK’s First Arts Centre. It includes a chapter by esteemed Liverpool broadcaster Roger Hill, charting key music strands at the venue, starting with adventurous classical music by the likes of Stravinsky, who dined at Bluecoat in 1931, in Liverpool to perform a new work.
Roger charts developments across the decades, focusing on individuals like Jayne Casey and Dinesh Allirajah who introduced diverse, risk-taking global music programmes, together with pop acts like The Cookie Crew and Salt-N-Pepa that saw Bluecoat’s average audience age drop significantly! There have been jazz seasons featuring international stars like Jan Garbarek, Sun Ra and Carla Bley; programmes of folk (June Tabor, Bert Jansch); minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass; African music giants like Ali Farka Toure; British Asian fusion from Nitin Sawhney and Talvin Singh; a Factory Records video evening; exhibitions of Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees; and local heroes like Ian McCulloch, Walking Seeds and Black.
It’s a dizzyingly eclectic mix and a history that tends to get overlooked in accounts of popular music in Liverpool. Much of the story is, however, archived and I have dug into this to select five images reflecting some of Bluecoat’s more unusual music-related events.
Whirled Music, 1983. Max Eastley’s gallery exhibition of sound sculptures was accompanied by a performance of ‘whirled music’ upstairs in the concert hall, where he was joined by prominent players on London’s improvised music scene, Steve Beresford, David Toop and Paul Burwell. They literally whirled instruments and objects tied to lengths of elastic and string above their heads, to startling – and dangerous – effect. The audience had to sit behind a safety net and the performers wore protective wicker masks. One of the ensemble was running late and I was asked to stand in. ‘But I can’t play’, I protested. ‘You don’t need to’, came the reply, ‘just follow what we do, and no one will know it’s you behind the mask!’ Luckily the fourth performer turned up just in time.
Granada TV previewed the gig but this went out that evening and I suspect people were put off from coming by the perceived potential for injury from the whirling objects. Eastley’s gallery exhibition, though was a gentler affair. One sculpture – a series of metal wind chimes based on the idea of the Aeolian harp whose strings are played by the breeze, was installed outside on the balcony. Its calming sound could be heard from the garden below for many years after, the artist having asked us to leave it there.
Live From the Vinyl Junkyard, 1996. When the death of vinyl was officially declared, killed off by the arrival of the CD, Bluecoat commissioned artists to respond through performances and installations in a series entitled Live From the Vinyl Junkyard. Jane Sanders, in Elvis Evils Lives, took on the persona of a intersex Elvis as she swayed hypnotically in a fan’s bedroom bedecked with Elvis memorabilia. Today in her Newcastle studio, Jane continues her music obsessions, making incredibly convincing textile portraits of pop stars.
Acclaimed turntable artist Philip Jeck had just moved to Liverpool, and his gallery installation, Off the Record, consisted of 80 record players, programmed ‘with lo-tech bravura via timers and dislocated grooves, to generate from the vinyl a continuous soundscape evoking all popular music and none in particular’ [writes Roger Hill]. Two other local musicians – originally in art school band Yachts – John Campbell (It’s Immaterial) and Henry Priestman (The Christians) created a room-sized tape loop, sampling 96 iterations of the word ‘baby’ from pop records. Kevin O’Neill set up a comfy space in which to share anecdotes about his record collection with gallery visitors.
The series was followed up in 1997 with Mixing It, a response to the culture of the remix. Cornford & Cross turned the gallery into a record fair for a day, confusing crate diggers ad gallery goers alike. In future Turner Prizewinner Jeremy Deller’s first significant commission, Acid Brass, a Northern brass band, ingeniously reworked house music anthems. We premiered this at LIPA where Factory Records guru Tony Wilson was MC for the night, providing a commentary about the Detroit and Chicago origins of house, as favourites like Voodoo Ray, Strings Of Life, Let’s Get Brutal and What Time Is Love? were pumped out by the uniformed Williams Fairey Band.
Other commissions involved Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard assembling a superstar tribute band comprising Bowie, Morrissey, Kylie, Jarvis, Damon and Robert Smith; Laurence Lane and Matt Wand slowed the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations down to 1 rpm. Local collective Reformat created the total experience of an electronic dance environment; and Colin Fallows and J. Naughton explored space’s ‘vinyl frontier’.
David Murray and Lemn Sissay, 1996. Jazz has featured at Bluecoat periodically since the 1950s, and in the 1980s and 90s it was possible, through working with agencies like Jazz North West, to bring significant players to Liverpool. The Contemporary Music Network also enabled us to host more experimental music, including a commission from New York-based David Murray, described as ‘the most significant tenor saxophonist to have emerged since John Coltrane’.
What made the event special was Murray’s USA/UK Big Band collaborating with the then relatively unknown Salford poet, Lemn Sissay. The band rehearsed and premiered the commission at Bluecoat, before touring it nationally. It was tremendous having the performers resident at the venue and presenting, over two nights, a combination of poetry and jazz that really worked. I do however remember Lemn, who would return to perform at Bluecoat on several occasions, saying how petrified he was to be in the company of such brilliant musicians.
This was followed in 1997 by another CMN collaboration, with Butch Morris, the American originator of an improvisatory conducting method known as Conduction. He worked with leading UK free jazz improvisers to premiere their work at Bluecoat, again over two memorable evenings. This time it was far more experimental, an experience that, I recall, was as unexpectedly visual as it was adventurously sonic.
Captain Beefheart, 1972. When Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, was in Liverpool in 1972 to perform at the Stadium with his Magic Band, he also exhibited his paintings at Bluecoat in what was reputedly his first ever public art exhibition. The gallery director then, Lucy Cullen, had seen the cult American musician on television, on The Old Grey Whistle Test, when he’d mentioned his art. She contacted his agent and an exhibition was arranged for when Beefheart would be in town. All it needed was some new paintings, which were duly delivered by the artist who apparently created them in one intense session in his London hotel room.
The paintings echoed Beefheart’s music: unbridled, expressive and untutored. They were monochrome, consisting of gestural sweeps of black paint on white canvas. The artist was interviewed for regional TV and the exhibition generated much interest, particularly from fans, some of whom visited every day, spending hours in the gallery. The occasion has become part of Liverpool’s psychedelic mythology alongside its embrace of another American West Coast legend, Love’s Arthur Lee.
Forty-five years later, as part of Bluecoat’s 300th anniversary programme in 2017, we worked with independent curator Kyle Percy and poet Chris McCabe on a Captain Beefheart Weekend. This was a celebration of Beefheart as ‘total artist’, looking at his work in a fresh light, exploring how music, art, poetry and performance overlapped and fed off each other. It also focused on his relationship to Liverpool, where he had performed several times between 1972 and 1980.
Preceded by a live performance at Liverpool Philharmonic’s Music Room by a reformed Magic Band, a packed interdisciplinary programme involved poets, musicians, artists, curators, fans and experts. It featured a reading by thirteen commissioned poets made in response to each of Beefheart’s albums, poems that also featured in a ’zine, Click Clack. There was a day-long symposium with contributions from, among others, Beefheart’s biographer Mike Barnes and local musicians. Versions of his music were played by St Helens duo Old Farts at Play, and a gig at District featured Beefheart-influenced local bands Edgar Jones and the New Jonses, a.P.A.t.T, Strange Collective, Dave McCabe (The Zutons), Psycho Comedy, The Cubicle, Karm, and Pale Rider. US guitarist and former Magic Band member, Gary Lucas headlined, announcing from the stage, ‘Liverpool has to be the epicenter of Captain Beefheart consciousness.’
A psychogeographical walk uncovered the city’s psychedelic and alternative music history, visiting sites of venues where Beefheart had played and Probe Records’ various homes. A week-long workshop, ‘Ice Cream for Crow’, organised by artist John Hyatt (of The Three Johns) and based on Beefheart’s unfettered approach to art, involved art students from six universities in northern England and Dublin. It culminated in an exhibition at Make in the north docks, followed by a live gig. On New Brighton beach, Alan Dunn recreated an iconic 1968 Beefheart performance at Cannes, resulting in a short film, while another video responding to his work was created by Bluecoat’s inclusive arts project, Blue Room, who also produced visual artwork, exhibited as part of an archival display relating to Beefheart’s 1972 Bluecoat exhibition. Lucy Cullen, who’d curated that show, presented a film reminiscence of the occasion.
Pierre Henry, Liverpool Mass, 2017. Another Bluecoat tercentenary music project connected to the 50th anniversary of Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral was a performance there of Pierre Henry’s Liverpool Mass. This electronic work had been commissioned for the cathedral’s opening in 1967 but, still incomplete, was only partially performed. We went to Paris with film academic Mark Goodall, who’d suggested the idea, to meet the French composer who agreed to the performance, using the original tapes. The performance related back to Bluecoat’s late 1960s experimentation under programmer Wendy Harpe, whose husband Bill Harpe had coordinated Henry’s Liverpool project in 1967. The Harpes went on to establish the Blackie (today’s Black-E) in Liverpool.
Henry, who died not long after the 2017 concert, was a pioneer of electronic music, an exponent of musique concrète that used found sound and radically removed the need for virtuoso musicianship in creating compelling soundscapes. A new sound design involved 40 loudspeakers arranged around the cathedral’s circular space, and the work was performed by Henry’s collaborator, Thierry Balasse. Pop celebrity and Henry fan Jarvis Cocker introduced the concert, which also included a commission from Paris-based electronic composers Vincent Epplay and Samon Takahashi. Henry’s composition manipulated a recording of the Catholic Mass, the sound building to a crescendo that resonated in the dramatic setting of the cathedral.
An audience of 900 witnessed a memorable and at times harrowing piece of music, that received wide acclaim, with national radio and other media interest. Mainstream coverage of music in Liverpool that May however focused on Sound City’s hosting of John Cale’s reworking of The Velvet Underground first LP, also 50 years old – an outdoor concert that was, by many accounts, underwhelming. It’s interesting to note that both Cale and Henry emerged from experimental music backgrounds, in New York and Paris respectively. While the rock trajectory that the former’s seminal LP helped launch has arguably led to parody and a creative dead end, Liverpool Mass showed that the really uncompromising music from that era can still disrupt, disturb and inspire.