As Louder Than War’s Banjo approaches the 41st anniversary of the first time he went to the legendary Eric’s club in Liverpool, he looks back at this life changing event and picks the 5 best gigs he saw from within its walls.
There are things that happen in life that, although they may seem nothing more than an exciting interlude, can change the course of your existence forever. I’m not talking of things such as births, deaths, marriages or anything like that, more the kind of thing that you might find yourself doing in your teens that at the time felt like nothing more than a day’s adventure.
Sometimes when you look back at an adventure, you can see it as the start of something bigger than it seemed, something that altered the direction of your life or your mindset. Changes such as these tend to become deep set, once the results of it make themselves known, they are there to stay.
One such event in my own life happened a staggering 41 years ago this very month; the first time I went to Eric’s in Liverpool. This was in 1978, but it took a while for the punk explosion of 76/77 to reach the backwater I grew up in. Plus I was only a youngster when it hit, so it took some time to fully absorb its impact, it grew on me one record, one John Peel show and one outraged news item at a time.
As 1977 came to an end, the conversion was more or less complete. The long hair had gone, drainpipes were bought or made and the world already seemed different. But, living where we were, the chances of me and my friends becoming more involved seemed slight. Punk was happening in London, or at least in the cities, it was never going to come to me. The filtered, Chinese whispers version of punk that we managed to find was far from the real thing, deep inside we surely knew this. But it was all too exciting to let it just fade away.
Alongside all the upheaval that punk brought into our young lives, another major life event happened in 1978; our time at school came to an end. Our carefree childhood had finished and we entered a strange hinterland, caught between being kids and being grown up, not really one thing or the other. What a perfect time to be caught up in the onrush of punk.
One of my school friends had moved away, only about 5 miles down the road, but enough at that age to make it difficult to maintain an out of school friendship, although we have, in fact, remained friends to this day. We got into punk together at school, neither of us knowing the full seismic effect this would have on the rest of our lives.
A week or two into our new post school life, this friend phoned up and asked me to join him and his new friends going to see Magazine play a matinee show at a punk club in Liverpool. To my eternal regret, I bottled out and stayed at home, seething with jealousy. When I found out the day had passed without major incident, we decided to go the following week to see Rich Kids, the band Glen Matlock formed after leaving Sex Pistols. So when the next Saturday came around, I got my £2.50 pocket money and headed off to a brave new world.
Arriving at Eric’s, we found we had to first become members before being allowed entry, something about it being a members only club gave it extra freedoms within the law, such as staying open late. At first this extra expense was dismaying, taking as it did my last 50p, but looking back, 50p for a year’s membership of Eric’s must be classed as something of a bargain.
I paid this and the £1.00 entry fee and went down the Eric’s staircase for the first time. Memories of this portentous event have faded, but it was like nothing we’d seen before. Previous experiences of music played at anything above front room levels of volume had been local discos, and Eric’s was nothing like that. Dark, damp and with dirty red walls, walking down those stairs was walking into another world. Proper bands played here, proper punks came here and we were entering their world. This was a big deal, although how big a deal was not immediately apparent.
For the next couple of years, Eric’s put us in the centre of the punk phenomenon, it moved us from being spectators to active participants. It made us part of something that has become almost legendary.
Not that we ever knew this at the time. I remember stacks of Damned and Banshees poster piled up on a table near the entrance, being sold off for 50p each. I bought one of each, stuck them on my wall and lost them over the years. They are now worth hundreds of pounds each. It’s easy to think that I should have stocked up on them and kept them somewhere, but if a mysterious visitor from the future had told me that punk posters would become valuable collectors items we would have laughed them back to the future.
Punk was such a minority concern back then, bands like The Damned, The Cure and The Slits would attract only a couple of hundred people to a gig. But more than that, it was shunned by the mainstream, put down as worthless and nothing more than an unpleasant blip in the timeline. We never thought for one single second that what we were doing had any historical value. Otherwise I would have got dozens more Joy Division autographs!
But, as the anniversary of this portentous episode rolls around again, I cast my mind back to those momentous times to recount, in no particular order, the best 5 gigs I saw at this dirty, dank, utterly magnificent venue.
We have to start with my first gig, my first experience of this other world, partly because of what it led to, but also because the first band I saw there were Joy Division. As I mentioned above, we went there to see Rich Kids and to get up close and personal with a Sex Pistol, but the little known support band just totally blew us away.
They played most, if not all, of the tracks from their An Ideal For Living EP, along with other early tracks such as Ice Age, They Walked In Line and Exercise One (Surely a lost classic of theirs). Amongst these primary, punky offerings however were songs that would become part of the Joy Division legend. I can remember She’s Lost Control because that bassline tends to stick in the memory. I can also remember Transmission for the same reason.
At the time we didn’t really have much in the way of comparison, but Joy Division stood out as being something special. At future gigs we compared other support bands to them, such as Durutti Column and Swell Maps, often telling each other that ‘they’re good, but they’re no Joy Division.’ It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I realise we were using a very unfair yardstick to measure them by.
We took every chance to see Joy Division again after this. Thankfully Eric’s gave us many chances to do so.
And if we had to start with my first Eric’s gig, we may as well continue with my second. This definitely does not mean that Eric’s peaked early on, just that my second gig there was The Clash, supported by The Specials. I’m sure you can see my point.
Eric’s was ridiculously crowded for this, way beyond capacity I would imagine. The Clash were a big name in the punk world and had already delivered a now legendary gig there a few months earlier. But whereas we were able to get front and centre for Joy Division and Rich Kids, this gig was so well attended that while The Specials were on we were only able to glimpse them through the doorway that led from the bar to the stage area. So although I tell people I saw The Specials in 1978, it is more accurate to say I heard them.
They did seem massively popular though, so when they came off stage, there was a rush to the bar and the loos and we managed to take advantage of this and grab a spot near the front of the empty stage and wait. We were only 16 and the bar only served soft drinks so after our first glass of coke we were done with the bar anyway. My memory tells me that this was the Tommy Gun tour, but there are probably Clash fans who could look at the chronology and tell me I’m wrong. Either way, this is not just one of my favourite Eric’s gigs, but one of my favourite gigs ever.
The thing that males this even more impressive is that I’ve never really been a Clash fan. The only records I bought of theirs are a handful of (admittedly classic) singles, but their albums never really got me. That said, they were quite simply a magnificent live band, unmarred by the poor production of their first album and the professional sheen of their second.
The energy and attack was immense, all four of them giving it their all. Seeing them I could totally understand why so many Liverpool bands credit The Clash with being the inspiration for them to form bands of their own.
Iggy Pop’s gig at Eric’s has to feature here. The first thing that strikes me about this gig is how the hell such a tiny club managed to book Iggy for their cramped stage. His star has risen and fallen over his career, but around this time he was playing the comparatively huge Manchester Apollo and then, a few months later Eric’s managed to not only get him to play a show, but to also get him to play a matinee show for a bunch of kids.
Our excitement was slightly tempered by the price of the tickets, which were a shocking two pounds! Most gigs at Eric’s were only a quid, so this was a 100% price increase. By not buying records for a couple of weeks we managed to save enough for this extravagance and bought tickets.
Iggy walked on to the stage and launched straight into Kill City. My first thoughts, after months of seeing him only in the pages on the NME and Sounds, was amazement that he was actually in colour, not just black and white like in the photos. As an added treat for us young punks, ex-Sex Pistol Glen Matlock was on bass duties.
Somehow, and this used to happen fairly regularly, I managed to work my way to almost the front of the crowd and had a view of the gig from about two rows back, although I am at a complete loss as to how I managed it.
The audience were aware that this particular day was Iggy’s birthday. Whether he actually announced it from the stage or not I can’t remember but, as the majority of the audience were young kids, we burst into a spontaneous version of Happy Birthday.
There was always a part of Eric’s crowd who were too cool to clap, but we were 15 and 16 years old and cool was a problem for another age. Such issues weren’t going to stop us wishing Iggy Pop a happy birthday in song, of course, they weren’t!
At first, he seemed unsure how to react to this and it is easy to imagine that this kind of thing had never happened at an Iggy Pop gig before. But as it became clear that yes, we were going to sing the whole song to him, he relaxed into it. Towards the end, after the “happy birthday dear Iggeeeee” he ran around the front of the stage with the biggest smile I think I have ever witnessed, plastered across his face.
We were all treated to a full Iggy show, taking in 17 songs including the likes of Sister Midnight, Shake Appeal and finishing with a storming I Wanna Be Your Dog.
Iggy Pop at Eric’s is a gig that tends to stick in people’s minds.
For gig number 4, I am moving forward in time to 1979 with The Skids. This was one of the most crowded gigs I have ever seen, or at least up there with the above mentioned Clash and Iggy gigs. The main reason for this, apart from the excellence of The Skids, was that they had appeared in Top of the Pops a couple of days before they played Eric’s, as Into the Valley roared up the charts.
This was part of the joy of going to Eric’s, we could see bands who were very much in the moment, they were taking off at that exact time. The likes of Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees and local boys Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark soon moved from the tiny stage at Eric’s to playing the Liverpool Empire, which was previously home to the likes of AC/DC, This Lizzy and Black Sabbath and there was a real sense that we were taking over and pushing the big boys aside.
The Skids were another brilliant live band, propelled by the mercurial talent of Stuart Adamson and the whirlwind of energy that was Richard Jobson. They had the songs to back up the hype as well, they sounded like a step up from a lot of what was going on at the time, and maybe a step forward.
Everyone knew not only their newly released hit single, but also the b-side, TV Stars (probably more from their John Peel session) and the whole crowd joined shouting ‘Albert Tatlock’ back at the band, an event that sounds a lot more surreal now than it seemed then.
Gig number 5 is a bit of a cheat, because it isn’t just one gig. Gang of Four played Eric’s quite a lot, often as an incongruous support band to the likes of The Lurkers, but it was clear that here was a different take on punk. A lot of what we saw at Eric’s would no longer be called punk, but at the time it was, that was the only name we had for it. The likes of Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Simple Minds played here and were all considered punks, even by themselves. In his recent Louder Than War interview, Human League’s Martyn Ware said “The Human League were punk, we were electro-punk, that was our intention.”
Bands like these made punk evolve in a million different directions. In Gang of Four, thrashing chords were replaced by Andy Gill’s slashing, over-amplified savage guitar work and there was a funk background to what they did. Looking back it is easy to see the likes of Gang of Four and Joy Division creating a different kind of punk, something that would only later be referred to as post punk.
We all knew the tracks from their Damaged Goods single, but Gang of Four were a revelation. As with Joy Division, we watched them grow and move from support band to top of the bill, and from there into almost legendary status.
So that is my top five Eric’s experiences, but we have barely scratched the surface really. I feel honorable mentions must go to the following;
999 were always enormous fun live. Time may not have been kind to their sound or their status, but their gigs are still vividly burned into my memory 40 years later.
Ultravox! played when they still had an exclamation mark and John Foxx. The effect of seeing them then was similar toto have a mediaeval peasant must have felt when they emerged from their fields and saw a huge shiny spacecraft. The future was here. I can still remember the sound from their keyboards hitting me square in the chest in a way that no guitars ever could.
The Slits were another band who seemed to skip punk and go straight to post punk. Their show was a glorious noise and the sight of Ari Up in Probe records before the gig skanking away to dub reggae was a joy to behold.
The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen played many a show together before egos and rivalry got in the way, one of them being a Christmas matinee where they dropped the price to 50p as none of the bands were famous enough to justify the full price. Both bands had very different approaches and identities, but both were different and forward facing. Liverpool’s reaction to punk was very different to a lot of other cities, but here was proof that it’s children were on to something.
After Eric’s finished, our introduction to gigs and to Liverpool club life was something that never left us. There were other clubs and other scenes to come, but it all stemmed from the hive of activity and intellect that was Eric’s. And that is something that I’m sure is true for a whole generation of people from Liverpool and its surrounds.
Something magical happened here and although many of those who were there would be against this kind of rosy nostalgia, it is something that is worth remembering and celebrating.
The Eric’s 77 group can be found on Facebook here