It’s 7pm on a drizzly Saturday evening in South Liverpool, and Smithdown Social Club has just opened its doors for WAVERTREE WORLDWIDE’s second party. It’s a new, socially-conscious programme of community events, run by a collective of friends who wanted to bring together a love of music, fashion and art. The long unloved and untouched venue is now at the core of the project. It’s time for this forgotten space to become a stomping ground once again.
The exterior of the old working men’s club – located at the end of a row of terraced houses just off the resurgent south Liverpool thoroughfare Smithdown Road – is battered and devoid of glamour, but has an undeniable charm. We follow the sound of muffled house music, after questioning whether we’re even in the right place, and make our way inside. The space is near untouched from its original use and is overwhelmingly nostalgic. Back rooms boast original full-size snooker tables, fluorescent tube lighting and patterned carpeted chairs, which appear as sticky as they would have been in the 90s.
The main function room could well have been used for a 60th birthday party the day before; it’s understated but full of character. But tonight – with the homemade, custom deck table sitting proudly with top-end CDJs and Technics – is all about the music. And we truly feel like we’ve stumbled into something special.
Rewind to last year, and Smithdown Social Club was very much closed. That was until plans laid by a project group drawn from Liverpool Independent Cooperatives, Naked Lunch and City of Liverpool Football Club were put into action – and rejuvenation was finally on the cards. Once the venue was back up and running, it was time for creatives to make it their own. “I had just moved to the area at the start of this year, so I really wanted to get involved with something on my doorstep,” says Lee Fleming, who started Wavertree Worldwide as well as Anti Social Jazz Club. He was then joined by local DJs Kelvin Slesser-Marriott and Elliot Ferguson, united by a fight for more cultural spaces in Liverpool.
“We worked backwards to a degree,” explains Lee. “We didn’t have an event, we had a concept and a venue.” At a time when the collective were trying to figure out how they could bring something unique to the space, Emma Warren had just self-published her first book, Make Some Space: Tuning Into Total Refreshment Centre, an entertaining insider’s perspective of a DIY venue and community that incubated the present wave of London jazz.
“Without realising, me and Lee had both bought the book and began to read it,” says Kelvin. “Half way through the book, Lee had arranged for Emma to come up and do a workshop all about preserving these cultural spaces and why they’re important to live music and people. In the final chapter of the book, she talks about wanting to do ten of these workshops, so we’d got in there and booked it, completely unaware that she wanted to do it.” The workshop, which took place at Naked Lunch in June, encouraged people to think about the cultures which they are involved in and how they highlight them, whether it’s through an Instagram account, photography or blogging.
The introduction to Emma and the London venue’s story inspired them to book Lex Blondin, Total Refreshment Centre’s central character, for Wavertree Worldwide’s first ever Community Dance party just two days after. “I guess we wanted to tie it in to our early booking ethos; programming artists that are more esoteric but so well versed in controlling dancefloors that we are able to deliver an intimate party in an atypical club space that everyone can enjoy,” explains Kelvin. “We didn’t want to pigeonhole it as a live or DJ event, we wanted it to be dictated by the space rather than the style.”
Emma Warren refers to ‘musicking’ regularly within her book. To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether it’s through performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance, or by dancing. It has even been extended to the person who takes the tickets at the door or the cleaners who are there after everyone else has gone. It’s a contribution to the event, and that is an ethos which runs strong in Wavertree Worldwide.
Wav.ww has a membership at its core. A monthly direct debit to them of £5 helps build it from the ground up by funding events, paying artists and supporting the venue. In return, supporters get lifetime free entry to Wavertree Worldwide events, members’ discounts and quality merchandise. As memberships grow, the parties can too. “You are Wavertree Worldwide,” says Lee. “You’re in this community and in return, whatever incentives we can offer, we will. Over time, as the events get bigger, we might be charging £10, £15 per ticket if the act is bigger, but the price for members will always be the same. It’s a bit of an antidote to all the staggered tickets and early birds.”
In a city often focused on large DJ bookings, the pressure is on for new promoters who need the numbers to ensure their survival in a competitive music scene. The membership aspect of Wavertree Worldwide also pushes against that grain. “As a small promoter, how are you meant to achieve large numbers to start and not come out of it saying, ‘I’ve had my fingers burnt and I won’t do it again’, because they’ve spent half their wages on an event which was great but makes you a nervous wreck all the way through?”, continues Lee. “Do you need that in your life?”
The events run from 7pm until 12am due to licensing and its suburban location, but it allows Wavertree Worldwide to tap into a new kind of night out. “That limitation means that we have to think about what the night will be and do,” says Kelvin. “It’s always going to be a challenge getting people through the door at 7pm – it’s a slow start.” But the early timing adds to the feeling of a pre-party with friends, and once it finishes, people can carry on their night suitably buzzed from the atmosphere and some drinks. “It’s like a gateway to club culture,” adds Kelvin. “People from our party went on to Sonic Yootha afterwards. Why not be in the dance mode and ready to go? It is at that house party level.”
Although Wavertree Worldwide is still in its infancy as a collective, the DIY focus is allowing them to grow steadily and in the right way. It’s the same for Smithdown Social Club itself. “The venue are working within the same structure as we are,” says Lee. “As soon as they get a little bit of money behind the bar, something gets fixed or something gets sound-proofed or painted – if we can build up a series of events that we can enjoy but can also support the venue, then that’s great.”
There’s definitely something ironic about the venue being an old Conservative club, when it has been repurposed as something which benefits the community. “It was a kind of a two fingers up to the Tories,” says Lee with a grin. “It’s now very much a Labour-driven group who have taken it on, and everyone is really keen to make something for the area.”
For those who are a little jaded, a Wavertree Worldwide party is the ultimate opportunity to fall back in love with Liverpool’s music scene. What’s so inviting about the event is the pace – it’s chosen by you. You can come and sit down at a table and enjoy whatever music is being played early on, staying slightly hidden away while you people-watch and tap your toes, or you can be the first and last one on the dancefloor, encouraging others to shake their inhibitions. You can sneak off to play table tennis, or hit the bar for a £2.50 beer. There’s no dancefloor self-consciousness when you arrive at the Social Club. The mix of ages within the party, from 19-year-old university students to 60-year-olds who are looking for something different, make for a warm and welcoming atmosphere. “It’s this intergenerational thing,” says Lee. “You’ve got people sitting off in the corner of the room and having a pint or a glass of wine, while some of the younger ones will be dancing with their tops off in the middle of the dancefloor.”
It’s not just the attendees and the organisers who have been singing the party’s praises – both headline DJs, Lex Blondin and Contours, are big fans. “They’ve played at some serious set-ups,” says Lee. “And they’ve come out of the last two parties [saying] that it was amazing. And I’m left thinking, ‘You’ve DJed in a working men’s club in south Liverpool, how can you buzz off of that?!’ But we all buzz off of it.”
Emma Warren has previously said that “dancing in the dark is a human need” and the stories from people who attend wav.ww, prove that it’s true. “There have been quite a few people who don’t know anything about dance music and have still enjoyed it,” says Kelvin. “There was one guy whose son is a DJ, and he said he’d never appreciated DJ culture until he came to the first one, and it completely changed his perspective. A lot of people have lost their perspective too, and it helps them rekindle it.”
Above all, Wavertree Worldwide shows it can be done; that community projects still have an important place in our cities. Venues are just waiting for the right hands to get a hold of them – with some exciting events in the pipeline for the rest of the year, the future is looking promising for Smithdown Social Club and Wavertree Worldwide. “If we can go on with what we’ve maintained early doors, it could be something really special,” Kelvin adds.
Wavertree Worldwide makes you think about Liverpool’s music scene – what’s wrong with it, and what’s right with it. And this coming-together is definitely the latter. It’s guaranteed joy.
The Wavertree Jazz Dance takes place on Saturday 21st September at Smithdown Social Club, with Paul Murphy, Rebecca Vasmant and The Anti Social Jazz Band.