Ask a hundred people to name a famous band from Liverpool and you’ll get the same answer from 99 of them (you always get one who gives an off the wall answer just to be different) but Get Back: The Story Of The City That Rocked The World, a new documentary from director Roger Appleton, aims to prove that Liverpool’s musical heritage extends well beyond the fab four.
The feature length doc takes a traditional approach to telling the story of the Merseyside music scene, working in chronological order from the jazz bars and formal dances of the post-war era, through the emergence of skiffle and rock & roll, the boom period of Merseybeat, punk and acid house right up to modern Liverpuddlian acts such as The Wombats and The Zutons. It’s packed with archive footage of intricate hairstyles, screaming teenagers and live performances alongside talking head interviews with some of the key players of the various scenes that have taken precedence over the years and exclusive live performances – those who’ve seen BBC Four’s music documentary output will be familiar with the style and format.
It kicks off with a quote that pretty much defines what will follow: “I think The Beatles have a lot to answer for. Everything else tends to be either a footnote in history or forgotten,” and indeed Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr loom large throughout the ninety minute duration, universally praised but at the same time somewhat resented for the long, overbearing shadow which their legacy casts.
Some of the most interesting content comes from the period immediately before The Beatles emerged, as skiffle bands began to infiltrate the jazz clubs and formal dances of the 1950s. Blending the ‘make do and mend’ ethos of rationing-era Britain with the independent DIY spirit that decades later would form the basis of the punk movement, bands of young men equipped with a guitar, three chords and a variety of home made instruments, from washboards to broom handle basses, these bands laid the foundations for rock music in the UK.
The film goes on to talk about the arrival of American rock & roll via the records, magazines and electric guitars brought in via the city’s port and nearby air base and there are some great anecdotes, such as how Ringo Starr’s pre-Beatles act Rory Storm & The Hurricanes were pelted off stage at The Cavern (which of course would become a Mecca for rock & roll fans) by the trad jazz crowd which pervaded at the beginning of the sixties and the emergence of local icon Billy Fury, who took what at the time was the almost revolutionary step of actually writing his own songs. It tells of a city hungry for rock and roll, with shows taking place not just at music venues but in just about any building that had the space, from church halls and synagogues to ice rinks and coffee shops.
Indeed there’s a notion presented by the musicians , promoters, record label executives and journalists interviewed for the film that Liverpool is a uniquely musical city. That its position as the major point of contact with the States and as an arrival point for immigrants from around the world gives it a special passion for music and its own style and character. At one point the city is even described as being like “an independent state,” a feeling amplified by the impression that the London-centric music business doesn’t give northern, and in particular Liverpuddlian, bands the opportunities they deserve. There’s conspiratorial talk of the capital sabotaging the Merseybeat scene to regain control after the explosion of Beatlemania.
Strangely for a film aimed at dispelling the Beatle-centric myth, the section of the film dedicated to post-sixties music seems somewhat rushed. There’s some interesting stuff on the art-school punk movement centred around Probe Records and local venue Eric’s from which the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes emerged, and screen time is given to Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s subversion of the mainstream and the rise of global acid house institution Cream, but you’re left with the feeling that there’s plenty more to be told. By the end, rather than feeling completely satiated, I was left with a hunger to find out more, which given the film’s aim may well be exactly the outcome the director wanted.
Get Back succeeds in showing us that there’s more to Liverpool’s music scene than mop tops and Merseybeat and provides a good overview of some of the city’s unsung heroes. A jumping off point rather than a definitive opus, this documentary is an ideal place to start for anyone interested in discovering a Liverpool music scene that goes beyong the tourist trail.
Review by Paul Maps
Get Back: The Story of The City That Rocked The World is available now through Bulldog Film Distribution.