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Matthew Jacobson ‘On The Streets I Ran’ The British Music Experience Interview with curator, Kevin Mcmanus

The three Graces are a trio of majestic buildings, born, constructed and living symbols of Liverpool’s international prestige and proud emblems of its commercial prowess. They include the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building – all quietly providing a protective wall of defence to the city with style, ease and beauty.

Just below, sits the Mersey, sweeping people into Liverpool or gently, carefully nudging those out to another world. On top of the Liver buildings, you will see two proud Liver Birds singing the Liverpool life to the world. Observing everything around them. Taking the heat from the sun to spread warmth across the city. Throwing out welcoming wings to those arriving at the dock, or waving off those saying goodbye to its land. And strategically raising two wings to the Government that left us for dead, we never give in, we survived, we always will

Part of the trio, the sublime Cunard building, is a Grade II listed building, influenced by both the Italian Renaissance, Greek revival and hearty scouse souls. Today, the passenger luggage room has been transformed by the British Music Experience (BME), with the interior grandeur of the building being maintained within the exhibition.

The Cunard building itself has played a vital role in shaping the history of the music, thanks to the music that travelled across the Atlantic by those travelling on the Cunard vessels. This music influenced artists such as dockside tugboat worker and rocker – Billy Fury and the four lads that crammed the world into their vinyl record sleeves – The Beatles

The BME exhibition celebrates the importance of British music and its influence on society. And is a must for all.

Originally, the British Music Experience museum and exhibition of popular music originally opened at the O2 in Greenwich, London in 2009 but closed and relocated to Liverpool. At the time Museum chairman Harvey Goldsmith said: “The trustees of the British Music Experience are thrilled to have partnered with the city of Liverpool and to have found a permanent home for the UK’s collection of rock and pop memorabilia and artefacts.

The exhibition takes me back to the days before, the minute by minute, stream by stream world whereby, the myth, magic and romance of the music world, I feel, can be lost. The artifacts take me back to the days I scrutinsed weekly music newspapers, magazines and weekly pop shows. It was the only stream I had to peek into the music world. The gap in between the weekly releases, updates and television / radio shows felt like a lifetime, it maintained the mystic, it maintained the romance. And this exhibition takes me back to those days I was quietly observing, quietly dreaming

The exhibition, is dedicated to some of the finest British music artists, from 1945 to present day. It tells the story of British Music through costumes, instruments and memorabilia.  From outfits worn by artists such as Billy Fury, Dusty Springfield, David Bowie, and George Harrison. It also displays musical instruments played by some of the world’s famous artists; Oasis and the Sex Pistols. You can also eavesdrop on interviews and watch historical artifacts come to life.

BME curator is Kevin Mcmanus, who has regularly played a leading and pivotal role in the music industry. Awarded the 2016 Inspiration Award and appointed Producer of UNESCO City of Music, recognising the city’s placement of music at the heart of contemporary culture, education and the economy.

His career also includes writing for the NME, The Face, iD and Mixmag and he has also worked at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Popular Music and contributed to Liverpool’s successful bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2008. Kevin has also played an important role in producing charity singles supporting the Hillsborough justice campaign.

I met the man himself, to discuss the early Kevin Mcmanus, his musical influences, career history and the British Music Experience

The early Kevin Mcmanus – what music artists did you admire?

Bowie doing Starman on Top of the Pops is a standout early memory for me like it was for many people of a similar age but my first real passion was punk. I was a young teenager when punk came along and that was it really – music just took over my life and it has pretty much stayed like that ever since.

We were fortunate that there was an amazing little club called Eric’s and my musical education was really inspired by three things: John Peel’s radio show, Probe Records, and Eric’s. It was the perfect club run by people with a genuine passion for music. I saw everyone there: Joy Division, The Clash, Wire, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Buzzcocks, The Slits, Magazine, Human League, The Damned, The Specials, Madness and so on. I loved the Liverpool bands that played there too – Big In Japan (fronted by the legend that is Jayne Casey), Echo and the Bunnymen, and Teardrop Explodes in particular.

Did you attend gigs in the city and can you name a gig that stands out and why?

How long have you got! I seem to have spent half my life in gigs so there is a lot to choose from. I still love going out and seeing new bands in small venues and we are incredibly lucky with the amount of music talent that just keeps on emerging from Liverpool. There are loads of great new artists coming throw as well as people like The Coral still continuing to make great records. We are blessed with great independent venues too at the minute.

I like unusual venues too. I have been going to see Mick Head play since the early days of The Pale Fountains and his gig at the Museum recently was a lovely night. The BME is a great venue too and the feedback on The Charlatans gig has been amazing.

I went to Stratford upon Avon when the Bunnymen became the first band to play the Royal Shakespeare theatre. The band were at the height of their powers and it was a special day with hoards of Bunnymen fans taking over the normally fairly sedate town. The Stone Roses at Spike Island was really memorable too – a proper event as much as a gig.

But I’ll start with early days and from Eric’s there were so many: The Clash supported by The Specials, The Slits, Joy Division, the Bunnymen and Teardrop double bill. Big in Japan’s final gig still sticks in my memory.

But if I had to pick one from then it would probably be The Cramps who were just astonishing.  I was still at school and I took a girl from school along with me on the Saturday night. It was our first real date and fortunately she loved it.  It was the last time I was there because the following Friday it got shut down after a police raid.

But really I could go on forever. I saw thousands of bands at The Picket and gigs by The La’s and The Tambourines stand out. I’ve had some great nights at the Zanzibar and Pete Wylie did some great shows there, and there was a brilliant gig with The Coral and Shack. The night The Libertines played the Bandwagon at The Zanzi was memorable too. I spent a lot of time with Tony Butler who ran the Zanzibar and he was a real unsung hero and a good man who will be much missed.

I was DJ’ing at Le Bateau the first time Oasis played Liverpool and you could tell they were something special. They weren’t actually meant to be playing but they turned up with Real People and asked if they could do a short set, which I agreed to-thankfully. They were great live in those early days and I remember being stage manager for a gig not long after that when they supported the Real People at the Krazy House and they were awesome. They were brilliant at the original Lomax on their first tour not much later on and I also ended up doing one of the first interviews with Noel and Liam just as the debut single came out.

The Royal Court was a special gig and I have fond memories of Echo and the Bunnymen shows there. The Farm doing a couple of sold out night at the Royal Court when they had number one album was really rowdy and great fun.  I’d first reviewed them almost a decade earlier when they were struggling to get noticed. But they persisted and it paid off for them. Those nights were a real celebration. Another standout night at the Court was when Gill Scott Heron played – a genuine one off and musical genius.

I saw Nile Rogers at the Arena last year as part of Liverpool Music Week and everyone who was there left with a massive smile on their face. At the opposite extreme in terms of scale and one of my favourite Sound City memories was Black Lips at the Masque. They are a great live band and I saw them do a brilliant set at a packed District a few years ago as part of Psych Fest – they definitely haven’t mellowed with age.

LIMF and the other local festivals have put on some great stuff and I particularly liked some of the LIMF commissions like the Gill Scott Heron tribute at St George’s Hall, the Love tribute at the It’s Liverpool stage in Sefton Park, Routes Jukebox with Steve Levine at the Epstein, and the Herstory commission which featured Jennifer John, Natalie McCool and Siobhan Maher.

Sometimes it is just about the people you are with. Many years ago a bunch of Liverpool groups played over 3 nights in a club in Paris. I was covering it for the NME and I’ll never forget it. Great gigs with the likes of the Boo Radley’s and Shack, but also just a hilarious weekend with a group of lovely people.

And I was asked to provide the music for LFC in the fanzones in Istanbul and Athens. The Istanbul one was chaotically brilliant as anyone who was there will remember but the whole process of getting a bunch of musicians to the two finals see-sawed between hilarious and stressful.

The Justice Tonight gigs were really special for lots of reasons and the very first gig at the Olympia still sticks in my mind. Let’s face it a stage containing Mick Jones (from The Clash), Pete Wylie and The Farm is never going to be dull.

I’ve always loved dance music and been really fortunate that Liverpool has had and continues to have some great club nights. I covered the early days of house music in the city at great venues like the Underground, then Quadrant Park and eventually on to Cream. I always preferred the smaller clubs and Glove at the Mardi was inspirational and I loved Voodoo at Le Bateau which had a great atmosphere and DJs like Darren Emerson and Green Velvet playing regularly.

I went to Chibuku from early on and one of my favourite memories there was when John Peel did a DJ set. He came out wearing a Wah! T shirt and you could tell he was overwhelmed by the response he got from what was a really young audience.

I think Yousef is hugely talented as a DJ and Producer and he has done amazingly well with his Circus nights and label.

What made you go from music fan, to writer, what was the catalyst? 

There wasn’t any plan. I loved music and was into literature but had no idea what journalism involved.  Me and my mates devoured the NME and I always fancied writing for it but had no idea how you went about doing something like that. At that time (early 80s) the NME had amazing writers and was massively influential. I think it was selling over 200,000 copies a week.

I very naively just sent a handwritten review in and I was fortunate that it was picked up by Paul Du Noyer, who was editing the live pages at the time. He was originally from Liverpool and was looking for someone to cover what was happening in the city. They started printing my work and paying me so by the time my third review made it into print I thought I should appear more professional and bought a cheap second hand typewriter. I wrote for NME and later on for the likes of ID, The Face and Mixmag on and off for over a decade.

I was just lucky really and fortunate that Liverpool has always been a music hotbed so publications like NME always wanted to know what was happening here.

During your music career, what artists have you worked with and did you manage to collect any memorabilia yourself?

I’m a bit sad so yes I have collected a load of memorabilia over the years and my wife gets annoyed that much of it is still cluttering up the house. Although it does come in handy some times.  Some bits I gave to the museums years ago, some bits I used when I worked with Marc and Jason Jones on the Eric’s to Evol gigs a few years ago as part of LIMF. A few records are in the BME.

Bands are often useless at keeping things too. I remember when Viper Records did a couple of their Liverpool Unearthed records and they had to use some of old demo tapes I’d been sent because the bands themselves didn’t have any recordings left. Some of the favourite things I have are just odd odd little bits – I’ve got Creation Records first single with a letter from Alan McGee asking me to review it. So that’s a nice thing to have – It’s just a shame the record is rubbish!

John Peel was one of my heroes and I had a lovely afternoon interviewing him, first in the pub and then his house. It is probably about the only time I got my photo taken with someone and I’ve still got that picture.

With your career so heavily involved in the music scene, writing for NME, The Face, and you playing such an important role in many projects, such as; being part of the teams that wrote the Capital of Culture bid and the Unesco City of Music bid, there must be so many highlights, but can you identify the one that means the most to you and explain why?

I think the opening of the Capital of Culture year in 2008 is significant. When we started working on the bid 6 or 7 years before the actual year I don’t believe many people gave us a chance of winning but Liverpool moved forward massively in those years, partially helped by winning the Capital of Culture title. But the city was transforming anyway – physically and in terms of becoming more confident about its future- and 2008 allowed us to shout about it to the rest of the UK. It allowed us to show the world our inherent creativity but also to demonstrate that it was a city was changing and moving forward with real confidence.

The two Hillsborough singles I was involved in are also personally important to me.

The British Music Experience looks so much at home within the beautiful Cunard Building, what does the building bring or add to the exhibition?

As you know it is a stunning building with an amazing history. I wasn’t involved at the time but I believe that when BME’s founder and Chair Harvey Goldsmith first saw the space he fell in love with it on the spot and knew BME had found its home.

Part of the story of British music is about the links with the US and the influences of music from other countries and cultures in shaping British rock and pop and for that reason alone the Cunard Building is the perfect place.

The importance of its location must have been discussed at length, but I am unable to picture the exhibition anywhere else, do the visitors comment on the Cunard Building and its surroundings in particular?

They do and luckily one of the team at BME, Paul, used to work for Cunard, and knows all about the history of the building and the waterfront so he can regale visitors with all the stories of its past.

The Exhibition and artefacts go back many, many years, and since the music industry and its technology has changed, but the love or memorabilia is still strong. From plecs to drumsticks, from stage worn shirts to ticket stubs (before they changed into a swipe on a mobile phone). What is your favourite artifact amongst the exhibition?

To be honest it changes all the time so it will be different tomorrow. We are lucky to have an amazing Buddy Holly collection for example. There’s a number of original handwritten lyrics on display from the likes of Queen, Adele, Oasis and I always think they are really special. The 78 record of Rock Island Line that was owned by John Lennon is something I love, as is a letter from a Beatles fan to one of the Beatles fan club organisers. We have just got some staggering new Billy Fury objects to display and it’s really exciting when things like that are loaned to us.

I do like guitars although I have no skill as a guitarist at all and there are a number of brilliant ones on display. Some of my favourites are the Bolan Gibson SG, Noel Redding’s 6 string bass, Noel’s Union Jack Epiphone and an early Fender that was played by George Harrison.

You must have some jaw dropping moments when the memorabilia arrives, and the 3D image of Boy George on the stage is truly jaw dropping; how did that come about and are BME visitors stopped in their tracks by it? 

Harvey Goldsmith asked George’s manager and George agreed to do it. We can’t thank him enough really. It wasn’t something he had to do or was going to get anything from but I think George and his manager understood the significance of BME. He found time in his diary and couldn’t do enough to help. I was there for the filming and he was lovely – nothing was too much trouble for him. He was dead chatty and really funny.

You are right it still astounds people when they see it.

But one of my most jaw dropping moments was when I got a call from Robert Plant just before we opened in a march 2017. Very little phases me but to get a call like that out of the blue was pretty strange. But he was great and we had a good long chat. I hope he will come to visit at some point.

Your team, I must say, they are the most warm and welcoming people, so kind and friendly, this is a compliment to you all. It feels like a community spirit and I feel The BME has an inclusive factor; there are nights for all genres of music, children are very welcome, you can try out the Gibson interactive studio and there are film nights for the family, this is a wonderful approach.

You are right. The team at BME are brilliant and it has been great working with them. It makes a real difference to the working environment when you work with good people and visitors are always commenting on how nice/ welcoming and informed the team are.

They are nearly all musicians as well and that is a major asset for BME. They are really knowledgeable, but on a very practical basis they are brilliant with people in the Gibson interactive Studio where guests can play guitars/drums/keyboards. Because they are musicians and really good with people too they can teach beginners some of the basics or can play along with visitors who are musicians themselves.

They have also formed an in house BME band who play in the space during holidays or go out and play to promote the BME. They are brilliant. Visitors absolutely love them.

At the BME events, I’ve managed to meet Tim Burgess (The Charlatans) and legendary photographer Kevin Cummins, But I’ve also heard there are famous visitors to the exhibition including; Mike Joyce (The Smiths) and Mani (The Stone Roses), it seems the artists within the music world truly appreciate the exhibition at the BME – this must make you and your team very proud?

It does. We are really grateful to artists and collectors who see the value in letting us display such significant objects. Mani was lovely when he came in. He just turned up with Andy from Travis and both their wives and kids and they even paid to come in. He was really enthusiastic about the collection and posed for photos and was happy to chat. People like Mani and Andy Scott from Sweet are really supportive of BME and it is great to welcome them when they visit.

To be honest one of the highlights of the job has been meeting so many lovely people. I don’t just mean the really famous ones like Mani and Noddy Holder. Some of the lenders have become friends and I’ve met some fascinating visitors. I don’t think I would have met Freda Kelly (Brian Epstein’s assistant) if I hadn’t done this job and she is just one of the loveliest people I have ever met. Freda introduced me to a woman called Rowena who ran one of the regional Beatles fan clubs (and loaned us some fan club letters) and again she is someone I feel lucky to have had the chance to meet and work with.

Trevor Nelson worked with us on an exhibition and I interviewed him to launch it. He was incredibly helpful on the exhibition and was fascinating to interview. I’d love to do more with him.

Steve Levine did a couple of great events with us. One was on the Clash – Steve worked on their first album – and another on The Beatles. People really love the insights that someone like Steve can provide.

There’s lots on my wish list. Nile Rogers is near the top, and I’d love to get Wiley in – that would be a great night. But my number one pick would have to be Kate Bush.

There are a few with local connections like Andy McCluskey from OMD and Elvis Costello I’d like to see at BME and Chelcee Grimes would be really good to have a chat too about her dual career.

I’d love to get Norman Jay in to do an In Conversation but also to do a DJ set. That would make me really happy!

Finally, “On The Streets I Ran” Can you name three Liverpool streets that mean the most to you, and why they are important to you?

1.) Mathew Street has to be one. Obviously it is one of the most famous music streets in the whole world because of the Beatles and the Cavern Club. What an asset for the city. It is the gift that keeps on giving, attracting visitors from all over the world and creating jobs for local people and bringing in vital tourism income. It is good news that the Council has recently appointed a team to produce a landmark vision and investment strategy for the area which can build on the work of the like of Cavern City Tours and the Hard Days Night Hotel.

But for me it is important for another more personal reason. From when I was around 14 – 18 this was the most important place on earth. Punk had exploded and Mathew Street was the centre of my punk world. I bought my records at Probe – a pretty intimidating place for a shy lad from Bootle but a fascinating one as well.  Punk with its DIY ethos ushered in thousands of indie record labels and Probe was one of the few places you could get hold of these treasures. But first you had to survive the people behind the counter who masqueraded as “staff” but in reality where there to either ignore you or attempt to humiliate you over your choice of record. But once you got confident enough to hang out there (obviously lurking in the background so you wouldn’t be a target for abuse) you got to listen to the brilliant records played by the creatures who ‘worked’ there and were able to witness the weird and wonderful people who were the mainstays of the scene at that time.

A couple of years later I was writing for NME and did an article on Probe and the label Probe Plus (which brought us Half Man Half Biscuit amongst many others) and there’s a lovely photo taken to accompany the article with the Probe Family standing on the steps leading up to the shop.

Just around the corner was Eric’s club and I’ve already talked about how special that was. The Armadillo Tea rooms was the first ‘cool’ place me and my mates got to hang out in. Although I was shocked to learn that salad on its own constituted a meal- that wasn’t the way I was brought up.

2.) Captains Lane – I haven’t actually lived in that many different places and even though I have lived in the same street in Walton for almost 30 years I’d have to say Captains Lane is the most important street in my life.

I was born in a road off Marsh Lane in Bootle but our street was knocked down to build the New Strand centre so we moved to Captains Lane which is also in Bootle. It is significant to me because it is basically where I spent most of the first quarter of my life and continued to visit until only a few years ago, as my mum and dad still lived there until they passed away.

It was a four bedroom council house, which we needed because I was one of seven kids, and generally a nice place to grow up in. That house, my mum and dad, and the rest of my family, and my friends from back then undoubtedly shaped me and my whole life and that is why it is special to me. Both my infant school and senior school where within walking distance from the house so my world was a pretty confined one.

My mum and dad came over from Ireland in the 50s to get work and with 7 kids to feed we never had any money. But I feel really lucky to have been brought up in such a loving, supportive environment. Even though they had both left school in Ireland at 14 they always encouraged me and the rest of the family to take our studies seriously and were supportive of everything we did. They didn’t even mind when I became a punk with my spiky hair, stupid clothes and rowdy records. I’m still really close to the rest of my family and I think they all feel the same about Captains Lane.

I think my love of music came about from hanging out with mates who had older brothers and we played their records. At home the only music I heard as a kid were Irish rebel songs.

I’m not even sure why I became a Liverpool fan. None of my family were interested in footy and it was before Liverpool’s glory days. I think I was a fan from when I was about 5 and my sister’s friend took me to my first game (on the old Kop) when I was about 6 or 7. A neighbour started taking me to all the home games a year or two later and then I started going with my mates when I was around 11.

3.) Jamaica St. I chose this because I love the way the Baltic has transformed over the last 7 or 8 years. My own involvement was in setting up Baltic Creative CIC back in the days when I worked at ACME, a creative industries support agency. The usual thing of small creative businesses being forced out of areas that they had made popular was happening again in Liverpool around the Rope Walks area.

Jayne Casey has done some great work in the Baltic as part of the fringe around one of the early Biennials and she convinced me that the area could develop as a real creative cluster. It took about 3 or 4 years to go through all the processes  and to justify a different model where the creative sector actually owned the  property itself  to break the cycle of developers increasing rents and forcing creatives out. We had to set up the CIC, and get the funding to buy the properties and refurb them. It was definitely wort al that time over around 4 years as it undoubtedly played a key part in the regeneration of an area that only a decade ago was pretty much abandoned and unloved.

Because I was involved from the start it has been great to see how it has changed year on year and is now regularly being cited as a must visit part of the city in travel guides. Mark Lawler, who runs Baltic Creative, has done an amazing job, as have his board members who include Jayne Casey and Chair Erica Ruston. They have shown real ambition and vision.

There have been other key drivers in the area too including the likes of Tim and Paul Speed (Elevator and Camp and Furnace) and Nick and Becky at Constellations and Hinterlands.

There are a load of great music businesses and venues in the Baltic and the challenge now is to support what is there and make sure that growth and continued innovation is encouraged while ensuring that venues don’t suffer because of the continued regeneration of the area.

I find this attraction a wonderful addition to the city of Liverpool. So, much so, I offered the exhibition my own Morrissey memorabilia which now proudly sits amongst the stars within the BME.

The Cunard Building and the British Music Experience is a match made in rock and roll memorabilia heaven.

READ MORE: Matthew Jacobson ‘On The Streets I Ran’ “If Billy Fury has touched your wallpaper – send me your wallpaper”

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