What do punk rock, pizza and old-school wrestling have in common? The obvious answer would probably be “Not much at all”, but the truth is that this is actually the winning formula behind Liverpool’s latest, and arguably greatest, DIY venue.
Nestled among famous independent stores in the heart of Renshaw Street – the city’s alternative shopping strip (to use TripAdvisor’s words) – MAGUIRE’S PIZZA BAR sprang up seemingly overnight to become one of the city’s boldest champions of underground bands. Hosting a multitude of events, from doom metal gigs to stand-up comedy and spoken word shows, as well as Sunday afternoon wrestling re-runs and Antipop Records’ now-famous Punk Rock Pizza nights, Maguire’s has garnered a well-deserved reputation for their by-the-people-for-the-people approach to gigging.
Inside, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge of styles, with the bar area featuring a New York pizzeria-style chequered floor clashed with green walls that are decorated with a range of vinyl records and kitsch oddities like a Mexican luchador mask and a framed picture of David Hasselhoff. Moving through the small door and adjourning corridor at the far right of the venue take you into the back room, where things change drastically.
A dark and dank little space furnished only with a couple of chairs, a folding table, some mouldy old carpet and one or two frayed extension sockets, the Maguire’s back room doesn’t look like much. But in the full throes of a gig it’s transformed into an electrifying sweatbox where band and audience are pitted against each other in a thrilling standoff that’s both a guerrilla gigger’s wet dream and a health and safety officer’s worst nightmare.
So where did the idea for Maguire’s come from? Surely a venue that took off so quickly couldn’t have been born on a whim, right? “Well, it pretty much was,” says Helen Maguire, owner and founder, who explains that it came into being pretty innocently after she’d run a dance studio in the space upstairs for a number of years. “A couple of years ago all the squatters and bums got kicked out of the downstairs part, so I remember sitting in the car and ringing my fella like ‘It’d be nice to have a café style thing down there’ and he said ‘Yeah, yeah’, so I thought ‘Why not?’”
“I also knew that the back room was massive and I’d intended it to be a dance studio originally, so I was going to use the front as a sort of reception, but next door’s son’s band got double-booked and came to me and said ‘Well, you’ve got a back room, haven’t you?’ and I thought ‘Oh shit’ ‘cos it was just full of old couches, a pool table and a couple of fridges. It was a total off-the-cuff thing, it just kind of happened. It brought people in ‘cos the first few months here were really quiet, and then all of a sudden about thirty or forty people turned up for that first gig and we were on the bar just like ‘Oh my God, there are people everywhere!’, but it’s been boss.”
Boss indeed. So boss, in fact, that Maguire’s was namedropped in the Guardian’s Liverpool City Guide, in a Top 10 Liverpool Venues online article in late March. “It’s not very punk rock, I guess,” Helen says. “But there are a few places on there that we thought ‘Bloody hell, are we on the same level as them?!’ My mum and dad were very proud and were telling everyone that I was in the Guardian – it’s good for bragging points!”
Let’s not forget, of course, that the music is only part of the Maguire’s success story. Their menu boasts an impressive variety of pizzas and on-the-go bites, including the wonderfully named falafel and feta cheese-topped Things Can Only Get Feta. “That’s the secret to it,” says Helen. “Cheap ale, pizza and letting people use the back room for whatever they want. The food’s good and what we’ve found is that people who come here for gigs will pop in later on to eat. I’m a veggie so I just started making loads of different veggie pizzas and that’s brought a whole new crowd in, especially the vegan lot, and they’re the ones that come more than anybody, I think. It’s somewhere they can bring their friends and they won’t moan; it’s not limited by anything.”
So what came first, the pizza or the punk? No doubt it’s probably the latter. The demand for a no-frills space with as few bells, whistles and management hassles as possible has always been there, bubbling away just below the surface and itching to break out. All that it’s taken seemingly is the right person with the right attitude, and a gnarly location that can be easily transformed into a punk rock romper room.
Maguire’s represents everything that’s so important to the city’s grassroots scene: the room to play, the attitude and openness to allow anybody to pitch up and make a racket for very little cost, and the ‘we’re all in it together’ camaraderie that fuels a self-sufficient DIY ecosystem. In Helen’s own words: “There’s that many people putting on gigs all the time, a lot of places are expensive to hire out so people mightn’t want to go, and a lot of places have also stopped putting on punk gigs and that sort of thing for various reasons. There are so many bands going that need somewhere to play and people that want to come and watch them, so it just seems to work.”
There are indeed so many bands coming and going, but if the sky was the limit, who would Helen choose to have on her dream line-up at the bar? “We’d try and get Andrew W.K. to come and play a DJ set for definite. We keep inviting him round for tea on Twitter, so that would be amazing. He’s playing East Village in July, so we’ve invited him and fingers crossed he’ll maybe come round here for an after-party. Also possibly Less Than Jake or NOFX, somebody punky but big.” And what about Macaulay Culkin’s pizza-themed Velvet Underground tribute band The Pizza Underground, who recently played a similar pizza joint in London? “We’ve joked about this on Facebook, so that would be cool!”
A girl can definitely dream, but while she’s waiting for the Party Hard star’s RSVP, where does Helen see Maguire’s going in the future? “The plan I think is to do a bit more to the back room and get a permanent PA and lights, but a lot of people haven’t been sure ‘cos they don’t want it to lose the DIY-ness. We’re also just trying to get people in to eat during the week; but really just more of the same. We’d joked about doing another Maguire’s on Smithdown Road, but I don’t think I could be arsed with that; I’m not looking to branch out or start an empire or anything. Well, maybe a mini-empire, so long as it’s all within walking distance! It works as it is, so it’d be good to just keep going.”