Sadly, I wasn’t able to be at the main Liverpool Sound City festival this year, but I was able to sample a taster of it with the opening gig down at Clarence Dock featuring a trio of 80’s electronic pioneers, headlined by The Human League.
This is the next dock along from where the festival had taken place in the previous two years (so quite a hike from Sandhills station), and seemed a smaller site, though it’s a bit harder to judge when it’s much emptier.
It looked a bit better set up, and a little roomier, leaving me to wonder if there were fewer stages this time around. However, the stars were certainly already in attendance, as you can see.
I hadn’t done my homework beforehand, so headed to the main bar to try and get a decent pint. When I asked the woman behind the bar if they had any ale, she very unhelpfully just laughed and wondered why I wanted to drink something warm.
I left her to it and decided to try and track down a map of the site that might help, as they had had ‘real’ ale bars at previous Sound Citys.
First up were A Certain Ratio, a band whose very early work I have known for many years, but had never really bothered with anything by in the last 35 years.
They’re still fronted by bassist Jez Kerr, although the vocals were often also handled by the soulful Denise Johnson, who has previously recorded with the likes of Electronic and Primal Scream, but apparently not Beth Orton or The Charlatans, despite internet claims to the contrary!
Drummer Donald Johnson and Martin Moscrop on guitar and trumpet also survive from the very early days.
27 Forever off 1992’s Up In Downsville was nicely funky, and followed by the anthemic Good Together from acr:mcr that was released in 1990. This had some nice keyboards, but I found it a little uninspiring despite the quote from The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, although I enjoyed the instrumental section which had an air of The Beatles’ Rain about it.
Another track off acr:mcr, Be What You Wanna Be, featured some great soul vocals and top-notch funky ‘waka waka’ guitar, but to be honest this type of music isn’t really my thing.
However, the next track was the reason I had made the effort to get out of the house early enough to catch the band, as they played Shack Up, a single from 1980 that somehow I had forgotten was a cover version of a 1975 tune by jazzers Banbarra.
Live it was sunnier and more soulful than the recorded version, partly due to most of the vocals being taken by Denise Johnson rather than Jez.
Their short set ended with the Balearic instrumental Si Firmi O Grido, from the CD version of 1986’s Force album, with lots of whistling.
I headed off to find the craft ale bar that I had eventually located by downloading the Sound City app, getting a (not warm!) pint of Meantime Pale Ale, in a returnable thick plastic cup, taking the cost up to a hefty £6 (though I got £1 of that back later)
A perfectly pleasant pint, but a shame the concession wasn’t run by one of the many great local breweries instead.
The Art Of Noise came next, although billed officially as Dudley/Jeczalik/Langan. They were scheduled to “reboot” the band’s second album In Visible Silence from 1986.
This record was made by Anne Dudley, J. J. Jeczalik (who had a striking resemblance to my boss – hi, Chris!) and Gary Langan following their departure from ZTT, which also meant the loss of fellow founding members Trevor Horn and Paul Morley.
They’re a ‘band’ I was familiar with from their hit singles in the mid to late 1980’s, and I bought a 2-disc The Best Of earlier this year ahead of this gig, but that was from their ZTT years, i.e. pre-In Viisble Silence and then when Morley and Horn later reformed the act, alongside Dudley and Lol Creme.
The opening cut featured what sounded like a series of Donald Trump samples, which reappeared in Peter Gunn, their set closer (alongside several, presumably ironic, repetitions of “strong and stable”, greeted with great cheers).
Highlights included Paranoimia, featuring the contributions of Max Headroom on the big screen, and Close (To The Edit), their 1984 Top 10 single from debut album Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise?.
I went back to the craft ale bar for a can of Meantime Pale Ale, as the pumps were off (already!), returning a little later to get the refund back on my cup.
I observed the minute’s silence for the victims of the recent Manchester terrorist incident, announced by Mancunian Jez from the stage (presumably the guy from ACR but I couldn’t see from where I was). Apparently, there was a lone idiot who disturbed the silence, but got shouted down and ejected at the end of the minute, but that passed me by at the time as I was some distance from the stage.
I was back down near the front in time for The Human League, with the three be-suited backing musicians (including Ben, playing his first ever gig with them) emerging first, before Phil Oakey (in a dapper leather tunic), Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley joined them.
The set list was utterly hit packed, with several selections from the 1981 classic album Dare! alongside many of their charting singles.
First off was the excellent Love Action (I Believe In Love) from Dare!, before the only song I didn’t really know, Heart Like A Wheel, which was actually a Top 30 hit in 1990.
The Sound Of The Crowd from Dare! sadly seemed to feature some slightly off-key singing by Sulley, the only real mis-step of the evening.
The two women went off stage after Open Your Heart, leaving Oakey to lead another Dare! number, Seconds, on his own. I was slightly surprised they then performed The Lebanon, as I wrongly thought they might be a little embarrassed by it these days:
“And where there used to be some shops is where the snipers sometimes hide”
After a series of their finest post-Dare! singles, the three front people left the stage briefly as the backing band launched straight away into an instrumental version of the band’s biggest ever hit, Don’t You Want Me.
This was the Christmas number one in 1981, and amazingly was actually the fourth single to be released off the album – why did Virgin wait so long to put this one out?
About half-way through, with the audience having already sung about half of it, the main three came back on stage, starting the song afresh to huge joy from the crowd.
They (all) went off again after this, returning for an awesome version of their classic 1978 debut single Being Boiled. I knew they often tended to perform this song, but I wasn’t expecting it, especially at this stage of the set. It was utterly fabulous.
There was still time for one more number, Together In Electric Dreams, a 1984 Top 3 hit credited to Giorgio Moroder With Philip Oakey.
The night was one of largely 80’s musical nostalgia, but none the worse for that, with Being Boiled worth the price of admission alone.
I wore my red Sparks tee, fellow electronic pioneers. Other band t-shirts I spotted included Bob Dylan, The Stranglers, David Gilmour, Peter Hook, a great full face Adam Ant one, Blondie, David Bowie, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and several Ramones ones.
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Here is much of the music from the night on Spotify: