Episode 2: There’s a Place - Liverpool and Municipalities’ Music Identities
I grew up in the Rust Belt city of Steeltown, USA, aka Youngstown, Ohio. Very much an industrial city that saw its heyday in the 20th century. Nowadays, my hometown is only recognized by people, usually if you connect it to the Bruce Springsteen song called "Youngstown." Why is this? How can a place that, as Bruce Springsteen sings, was where "cannonballs were made to help the Union win the war" only be known now as the subject of a song? That's something that we're going to explore in this episode.
Hello and welcome to LSGS, a three-part podcast about music cities. I'm your host, Rochelle Beiersdorfer, an MA Journalism student at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, England. In the previous episode, we got schooled on the music city paradigm and how it's implemented in the real world. In this episode, we're heading to Liverpool, UK, a seaport city in northwestern England to explore the importance of place when it comes to a city's music identity. While we're there, we're going to also see how Liverpool became a bona fide music city based on historical significance and as a part of the UNESCO Cities of Music Network.
But, before we get into the meat of this second of three episodes, there's one thing that needs to be clarified. Being that this podcast is the artefact for my graduation project, the framework for this trilogy is similar to a dissertation. So while listening to this three-part chronicle, think of it as an audible dissertation.
I think that's all the housekeeping that needs to be done. So, without further ado, let's get aboard a yellow submarine and explore the connection between music and place as it relates to music city designation.
From the streets of New York being known for hip hop, to Beijing, China's traditional theatres being acclaimed for Peking opera, musical styles through the ages have been defined by the places they originated from. I mean, when you think of Nashville, Music City, USA, what genre of music comes to mind?
So, what do you call this connection between place and genre?
From my research for this project, I kept coming across one term: Musical heritage. Musical heritage can be thought of as music, an intangible cultural entity, being used as a distinguishing indicator for a particular community. In the context of what we're looking at in this episode, that association is with a particular community based on their geographical location and the distinctive sound or sounds their music possesses.
So, think of Seattle being the birthplace of grunge rock, sometimes also called the Seattle Sound, or Detroit, Michigan being known for Motown.
As a side note, if you listened to episode one, you'll recall that a distinct sound, or sounds, was part of the relevant elements to the 2015 holy grail handbook, The Mastering of a Music City: Key Elements, Effective Strategies, and Why It's Worth Pursuing.
Now, in the 2003 book by John Connell and Chris Gibson called Soundtracks: Popular music, identity, and place. They define the relationship between place and popular music as, and I quote:
Popular music illuminates place, either directly through lyrics and visuals, metaphorically through heightened perceptions, through sounds that are seen as symbolic of place…and in performances that create spaces of sentiments.
Academic research done by scholars such as Dr. Ballico, Baker and Cohen all reinforce the vital connection between music and place. Dr. Christina Ballico in her studies down under shows the interconnectedness of the isolated area of Perth, Australia and the local music community. In the 2017 paper called Another Typical Day in This Typical Town: place as inspiration for music creation and creative expression, she details the integral link between the seaside capital city and its local sounds.
Through interviews with a few indie pop and rock musicians who were active between 1998 and 2009, Dr. Ballico examines the impact that location and social circles have on creativity. Through conversations with members of the alternative rock band Eskimo Joe and the indie rock quartet Turnstyle, the influence that both natural and urban environments have on shaping creative expression is explored.
During one of Dr. Ballico's interviews in 2010 with members of Eskimo Joe, frontman Kav Temperley responds to a question about the effect that place has on his lyrics. He agrees with his present bandmate that he writes frequently about home and that, and I quote a quote:
....about the ocean and there’s definitely something magical about that kind of harbour/ocean situation I think. I refuse to believe that you can’t be influenced by the land as well. Like, I definitely think there is a spirit and an energy that comes from the land wherever you are and you can hear that in any type of music from any part of the world and I think that you get it here...
By here, he means Perth. This Perth sound, as Dr. Ballico states, can also be credited to either collaboration or friendly competition between members of the local music community, and not solely just the impact of the natural and urban landscape. However, the environment plays a huge role, and as Kav expresses, there is an energy that originates from a physical place.
Other musicians have expressed this too, and not just in interviews for other academic research. In interviews, artist profiles, and other coverage from mass media, artists have divulged the role that place plays on their discographies.
Recently, the singer-songwriter Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin fame, did an interview with Vulture, the pop culture website associated with New York Magazine. In the interview, Plant shared how much our physical environment helped fashion some Led Zeppelin classics. For instance, when talking about the song "Achilles last Stand," Plant mentions that the lyrics were written while being stuck in Greece due to a car accident that put him in a wheelchair. Besides expressing his yearning for adventure, Plant also states that, and I quote:
I longed to head back to the Atlas Mountains, to the place where it was solace and joy
Throughout the interview, Plant also highlights other geographical areas, indicating how either his first-hand relationship with them, or his experience of them through artists of other mediums, influenced his creative expression. When talking about the song, "The Battle of Evermore," Plant conveys the influence that both Morocco, through his first hand experience, and the rolling greens of Tolkien's Shire, had on the song. In his discussion of Tolkien's Shire, he remarks that the Shire was influenced by the Shropshire Hills and the Clee Hills in the West Midlands of England by saying, and I quote:
The Shropshire Hills and the Clee Hills are where he sat and he saw the Shire below
Staying in England, one of Liverpool's most established musicologists, Dr. Cohen, in her book Decline, Renewal and the City in Popular Music Culture: Beyond the Beatles presents how much influence the Fab Four's hometown of Liverpool had not just on their music, but also on secondary content like music videos.
In this book, she highlights that the Beatles and I quote:
wrote nostalgic songs about the city, for example, and Liverpool locations featured as a backdrop in some of the videos and films. They also emphasised their Liverpool origins and identity in media interviews, and their local dialect was a feature of their singing style as well as their speech.
Other bands from Liverpool, where the local sound is called the Merseysound or British Beat, have also stated in interviews how much the city has impacted their music creation. We'll get into this more in a little bit, because it's not just physical characteristics of Liverpool, the city, that are influential, but also what was being brought into this port city.
But, before we get ankle-deep into the musical history of Liverpool, let's first dive into why Liverpool is so relevant to what this whole podcast is about: music cities and music city initiatives.
As an American who has no ties to the United Kingdom, I chatted with one of my British friends, who is also a pop music scholar, and sought out a once-music-journalist-now-Liverpool-civil-servant to get a better grasp on how Liverpool is a bona fide, widely acknowledged music city, and with that, why cultural events such as this year's Eurovision, are hosted in this once depressed port city.
Kevin McManus: Hello?
Rochelle: Hi Kevin, this is Rochelle.
Kevin: Yeah, yeah.
Rochelle: Cool, um.
Kevin: Can you hear me okay?
Rochelle: I can hear you fine, yeah. Could you please describe to me the importance of music in Liverpool?
Kevin: So for me, music is, is central to Liverpool's very being, really.
That's Kevin McManus, head of UNESCO City of Music in Liverpool, which is part of Liverpool City Council's Culture Liverpool. The, as they put it on their website, "hub of all of Liverpool's cultural events, activities, film, cruise, halls and tourist information,” but back to Kevin.
Kevin: It's massively important. It's part of everyday life and it's a key part of our identity. So you know, which is why Eurovision ends up in Liverpool. I think the BBC and the EBU saw that we recognised the value of music and what it, what it means to our city and how we have to embrace it and make the most of it.
It's...I can give you a figure, I mean, the music industry. So there's an economic importance to music in the… so like the last piece of work we did was show the economic importance and the GBA or close value added to the music industry. And over 100 million music tourism, including Beatles tourism with another 100 million on that. So there's a massive economic importance to Liverpool.
In a South China Morning Post article published on June 23rd of this year, local data that was compiled by the Liverpool government estimates that, and I quote:
Beatles-related tourism is worth about £120 million…per year and supports some 2,500 jobs.
In 2022, according to Liverpool's City Council, 31. 5 million tourists visited the city. Now, from my research, this tourism, presumably, was either because of football or music, being that these are the two cultural entities that Liverpool is known for. And with music tourism, a lot of it is specifically centred around the Beatles' local legacy.
As Cohen says in her book that I previously mentioned, the Beatles would incorporate Liverpool locations into their lyrics, music videos, and films. So nowadays, some of those places, like the children's home Strawberry Field from the song "Strawberry Field Forever" or the Cavern Club, the venue where the Beatles got their start, are tourist attractions.
As the South China Morning Post article paraphrases from the marketing director of the company that now owns the Cavern Club, the club sees about "800, 000" Beatlemaniacs of the millions of tourists that visit Liverpool every year. So how is all of this tourism about music generally, and the Beatles specifically, associated with Liverpool's claim to music city status?
Kevin: I think there's a couple of parts to that. So, the official title. I was, I led on that to become a UNESCO city of music in 2015. That was largely because myself and a couple of other people thought it was, you know, we were clearly a music city to our minds, but actually having a sort of status, acknowledgements, through the UNESCO Creative Cities Network was a useful badge. And I've been involved in Capital Culture in Liverpool in 2008. I've seen the value of getting these designations because it brings it brings people together. You know, we set up a steering group which brought different parts of the music community together in the city. Previously often I've met and that sparked collaborations and an interesting conversation. So I just saw the value in the bidding process because I've seen it in the Capital Culture bid process as well.
So that was part of my reasoning for it. I also thought having the designation and being able to use that badge could be a useful addition to our music tourism marks and collateral really. It was so that was that. So, we bid for it. We said why we thought we deserved it. And it was, it's a very formal, very prescribed process. You have to answer certain questions. So, we've done that and we've been part of the UNESCO Music Cities and Creative Cities Network since 2015, I think. But even without that formal recognition, I think Liverpool is seen nationally and internationally as a music city.
At this point, you're probably asking yourself: UNESCO? As in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization? Isn't that the division of the United Nations that deems everything from the Tower of London, a handful of national parks in the U.S., and the Great Wall of China as national treasures in an effort to preserve heritage sites and promote world peace? Why, yes it is. But, who's to say music isn't a national cultural treasure? I mean, musical heritage. So, UNESCO's Cities of Music is a sub-network of UNESCO's Creative Cities Network. An official accreditation program with the objective, and I quote:
To promote cooperation with and among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development.
Started in 2004, UNESCO's Cities of Music Network has to this day awarded 59 cities around the globe the title of Music City. This includes cities in India, Portugal, and Turkey. In the UK, there are two municipalities that have been crowned UNESCO Cities of Music. Glasgow and, of course, Liverpool. So, how did Liverpool become a part of this network?
Kevin McManus told me that Liverpool had actually started the bidding process in 2012, but never submitted. But then in 2015 they got all the necessary components ready, put the pedal to the metal and went for it.
Kevin: I was pushing for us to do it and we realized we needed a bit more time to get stuff together, not rush it. And when it opened again for the designation in 2015, we... I led on it really and wrote most of it with a colleague, Kirstie. At that point, the bid process was quite different. You had a series of questions you had to answer and you had a limited space to do it. You know, we made a strong case. It just seemed obvious. We knew we were a music city, but it wouldn't, hurt to have an official designation. I'm trying to remember the timescale. I think we had to submit it by June, July 2015 and we found out about December, just before Christmas, a week or so before Christmas.
Since getting the UNESCO City of Music designation. What has the title done for Liverpool?
Kevin: What it does is it opens up opportunities to have dialogue with the UNESCO Music Cities and wider Creative Cities Network. And it's, it's what you make of it really.
So I've worked a lot with a few cities and we've sent Liverpool musicians to other UNESCO Music Cities.
As I'm sure you've gathered so far, music is pretty front and centre in defining Liverpool's cultural identity alongside football, which we're not gonna get into in this episode. We're just going to focus on Liverpool's music identity.
So, where did Liverpool's sounds, and therefore its musical identity, set roots and blossom from? To answer this question, I contacted my friend Kirsten.
Kirsten: Hello, I'm Kirsten. I'm a PhD music student, popular music student at Oxford Brookes University. Given how, how old I am and when I grew up, which is during the 80s, the thing that for me is sort of most musically related to Liverpool is the fact that there were all these interrelated bands. Sort of who hung out at Eric's, the Eric's club.
Quick note: in Liverpool, the three most notorious clubs are the Cavern Club, Eric's, and a nightclub that focused on dance and electronica called Cream. Eric's was known for being HQ for the local punk rock scene. Now back to Kirsten.
And they were all in and out of each other's bands, and then a lot of bands came out of that.
Quite different bands, actually. Some sort of "post punk." Some electronic bands. Some sort of pure pop bands. Some quite avant-garde, but, they all originally came from this scene and every sort of people knew people who knew people. So you had bands like Dalek I Love You and Big in Japan. And out of those bands, you got things like, bands like KLF, Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Dead or Alive; loads and loads of bands. But for me, I mean, it's my primary interest anyway, but for me that sort of exemplifies a particular scene. So not sort of a scene in terms of musical similarities, but a scene in terms of collaboration and people knowing each other and supporting each other.
And through all this collaboration and support, songs that really emulate the various Liverpool sounds, such as flower power pop anthems and melancholy yet eclectic medleys, were created. So, what song for Kirsten early embodies Liverpool?
Kirsten: So, the song that I thought about as exemplifying this is "Two Tribes" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
And there's a few reasons for this. Frankie Goes to Hollywood was one of the bands that came out of this sort of melee. And so and they had very distinctive Scouse accents in the media. So very obviously, for anyone who was hearing them speak, were Liverpudlian. But also "Two Tribes," the song, which was number one in 1984, it's essentially about, the Cold War. Less explicit in the lyrics, but really explicit in the video, Which is essentially American and Soviet leaders fighting. Obviously not the real ones. But so for me, it's that sort of social commentary that goes out of the local sort of working-class commentary sphere, but also sort of talking about world events and I think for me, that sort of exemplifies, I mean, obviously a lot of Liverpool songs aren't about world events, but for me, that sort of social commentary aspect is quite indicative of Liverpool. And also the song itself has, it's got a sort of an American funk bit and a Russian bit as well. So musically, it's sort of clashing of cultures. And again, of course, there's a lot of immigration to Liverpool and a lot of sort of cultures.
I think this would be a good time for us to get our feet wet, so to speak, with Liverpool's music history. Being a port city, Liverpool is a melting pot of cultures, and with all the imports and exports via the Atlantic Ocean, came also the sounds of America.
During my deep dive into Liverpool's musical heritage, a group of seamen kept being mentioned: Cunard Yanks. According to my research, this group of young male Liverpudlians would work on cruise ships that went to and from New York, New York carrying passengers and goods. Among the goods that came back into Liverpool would be records that these young seamen would disseminate.
Sounding like an epic origin myth, this transatlantic transaction is credited widely for being the source for the formation of Liverpool's most distinctive sound, Merseybeat. However, even though the vast majority of documentaries, academic journal articles, and media coverage that I absorbed on the history of Merseybeat and Liverpool state that this was how the Merseybeat came to be, there are, of course, still skeptics.
In the book, The Twenty-First-Century Legacy of the Beatles: Liverpool and Popular Music Heritage Tourism, the popular music studies lecturer, Dr. Michael Brocken, raises that, although a lot of the records that influenced the Beatles and other beat bands were hard to get in 1950s Liverpool, it wasn't impossible.
In other words, for music hounds, it wouldn't be a stretch for them to discover obscure bands at their local record shops. Or because of how multicultural Liverpool was and still is, it wasn't unfathomable for four teenage audiophiles to hear R&B at a nightclub or at a party played by an American GI who was stationed at the nearest US airbase, Burtonwood.
Now, let's flash forward to, well now, as in 2023, and look at what made Liverpool the talk of the ...world. Eurovision. On October 7th of last year, it was announced that Liverpool beat out Glasgow to host the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest on behalf of last year's winner, Ukraine. Kevin McManus was one of the local organizers for the festivities, and during our conversation, I asked him how it felt to be chosen to host this global song contest.
Kevin: How did it feel? I mean, it was, it was, it was an amazing, amazing few weeks. To be honest, I watched Eurovision as a child with my family. Back when I was a child, there wasn't many huge set-piece events like that on the TV. It was a different age.
Kirsten: If you live in Europe, it's sort of part of the culture. In some countries more than others.
Um, but to... explain what Eurovision is. It's been around for a very long time, so it's been around since the 50s, and it was one of those things that popped up after the Second World War, um, and it was, um, uh, an initiative by the European Broadcasting Union. That's still who runs it, the EBU. And, uh, it's on the model of, um, the Sanremo Festival, which is a song festival, um, song contest, basically, in Italy, which they have every year, which has been running for even longer, I think, yeah, maybe since the beginning of the 50s.
Kevin: It's quite a big deal. We bid along with about 20, I think it was 20 other cities, and then we got down to the final two, and the amount of, you know, the amount of countries involved, the amount of broadcasters, the viewers for it, I mean, it's been the biggest thing anybody's has ever had anything to do with, which is why we were really keen to do that.
And for me, having a music event here, a major music event, was probably the game changer that I was looking for, really. And so it was, yeah, it was, it was a massive deal. And it seemed like everybody in the city, you know, shopping centers, businesses were massively involved. Everybody wants to be part of it.
So it was, it did, I mean, literally took over the city for two weeks. And the city was decorated in Eurovision and Ukraine colours.
From grunge rock being referred to as the Seattle sound to songs about nature and urban places, it's amazing the influence that location has on particular musical styles as well as musicians' creations. Also, how much a particular genre, artist or band can define a city's music identity.
I'm not going to lie. Before doing this project and researching Liverpool's music communities, I always equated Liverpool with the Beatles. I wasn't even aware of how much of a country music community was present there. Research done by Dr. Cohen shows that country music has a huge presence in Liverpool. With some local country musicians proclaiming that country music should be considered as Liverpool's distinctive sound and not 60s pop.
What genre do you consider to be the Liverpool sound? What's your city's distinctive sound? Let me know on social media. Links to socials are provided in the show notes below.
In the next and final episode, we'll be journeying 4, 894 miles east of Liverpool to China, where we'll venture around the narrow alleyways of Beijing, endure the heat and spice of Chengdu, and see how the concept of music city is implemented within various other cities around the Middle Kingdom.
I hope you give that one a listen.
But before you do, I'd like to thank a few people for their contribution to this project, this podcast, and to this episode. First, thank you to Kevin McManus and Kirsten for taking the time to share with me their knowledge on UK music communities and on music in Liverpool specifically. Next, many thank yous to all the academics and writers whose research and articles were sourced in this episode. By sharing their knowledge and research, myself and anyone listening to this podcast are able to get a better understanding on music city initiatives and music-related paradigms. Many thank yous to all the professors and instructors who helped me hone my journalism and news sense while a part of the MA Journalism program at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, England.
I am very, very grateful to my graduation project supervisor, Leander Reeves, for her guidance, constructive criticism, and for lending a sympathetic ear more than once through this entire process. And last but not least, thank you, the listener, for taking the time to listen to this episode. I hope you learned something new and have new food for thought.
Until the next episode, keep rockin'!