Other Voices: Hidden Histories of Liverpool's Popular Music Scenes, 1930s-1970s

May 13, 2010

Liverpool as a place of music culture and a space of myth creation through the virtual sanctification of its most popularly significant band, the Beatles, has been the subject of many journalistic histories, biographies and popular music tomes. It is therefore refreshing to read Michael Brocken's work on the city's Other Voices.

Like Ruth Finnegan in The Hidden Musicians (1989), an exploration of musical scenes in Milton Keynes, and echoing Howard Becker's book Art Worlds (1984), in which art production and processes are considered as collective acts, Brocken guides us through a cultural history of Liverpool's many music scenes.

In the process, he unearths names unlikely to mean much to the majority, but who are greatly significant to music archaeologists, various music fans and participant populations.

Bands such as the Merseysippi Jazz Band, the Kirkbys, the Crofters, Leesiders and the Liver Birds; artists such as Joe Rodgers, Pat Kelly, Alan Richards and Stan Ambrose; record labels including Stag Music and CAM; and the generic musical "worlds" of jazz, folk, country, cabaret and R&B are illuminated in a way that reveals the interconnectedness of scenes likely to have been historically and journalistically reported as disparate. Brocken offers a palpable sense of the cultural and geographical landscape of the city across five decades, and shows that popular music scenes are always more than the sum of their historical accounts as laid out in the annals of halls of fame and museums dedicated to star performers.

Brocken ably uncovers the complexities and heterogeneous nature of the musical worlds he describes. In considering the Merseyside folk scene, for example, he emphasises the role played by geography, class, religion and politics in the development of diverse traditions, with each developing its own authority, history, mythology and measures of "authenticity". Other Voices argues that focusing on the "exclusivity" of a particular folk tradition can obscure the many traditions that preceded, fed into and helped to create it. Folk's discourses can be seen to revolve around understandings of national "heritage", racialised histories, "lost cultures", left-wing and communist narratives, the prioritising of voice over instrument and the use of guitars to broaden the genre's appeal.

The author also charts the importance of the development of the recorded form of music as an "authentic" sound, and its consumption via record shops, radio and the music press as a form of cultural transmission of new musical and social ideas. He suggests that in Liverpool, a number of shops, radio shows and key individuals including collectors and DJs were a vital part of the popular music-making process. One voice heard throughout the book is that of Mick O'Toole, a record collector, avid music consumer and Cavern regular in the 1950s. His myriad passions (including rock'n'roll, trad jazz, skiffle and country) suggest that musical taste is never monogeneric. One account tells of his after-hours forays into the North End Music Stores shop at the invitation of its owner, Brian Epstein, the man who would become the Beatles' manager.

It would be surprising if a book about Liverpool during this period did not offer some discussion of the Beatles, and Brocken turns his attention to the Fab Four via the story of Joe Flannery, the band's booking agent until 1963 and someone whose knowledge of the personalities, domestic spaces and musical culture of the city provide a valuable oral-history angle on a much-documented story.

The success of Other Voices lies in Brocken's ability to research and present these histories, discourses and cultural spaces in such a rich and detailed way. It is an important contribution to the study and understanding of popular music.

Other Voices: Hidden Histories of Liverpool's Popular Music Scenes, 1930s-1970s

By Michael Brocken
Ashgate, 268pp, £55.00
ISBN 9780754667933 and 699170 (e-book)
Published 1 January 2010

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