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Manchester book reviews

Sit Down! Listen to This! by Bill Sykes

Sit Down! Listen to This!

The Roger Eagle story by Bill Sykes, published by Empire

Reviewed by Charlotte Starkey August 2012

 

Sit Down! Listen to This! by Bill Sykes is a fascinating book for many reasons. It is mesmeric for those born during the Second World War or thereabouts and who remember The Twisted Wheel in both its venues in Manchester and/or Eric’s in Liverpool and for those who know ‘Northern Soul’ and its origins. It is a compilation of interviews, reminiscences with some of the friends and acquaintances of Roger Eagle, and with Roger Eagle’s own account in interview. It tells a story of the music clubs of Manchester and Liverpool for well-nigh thirty years until Roger Eagle’s death in 1999 at the age of fifty six. Specifically it is a story about Roger Eagle himself, placing him at the centre of the key musical developments in Manchester and Liverpool from the 60s to the late 80s: his amazing record collection, his influential contacts with musicians from Britain and America, the clubs in which he worked, which he came to run.

 

Some will still say that they have never heard of Roger Eagle but many have heard of The Stone Roses and the Hacienda. The Stone Roses were at The International (1988) when Roger Eagle had been brought in as part of the club. Tony Wilson missed out by not signing them; and Tony Wilson himself, when interviewed, admitted the Hacienda quite possibly would not have happened without his meeting with Roger Eagle in Liverpool. This account counterbalances two distortions to the story of music in the region: the significance given to the Beatles and what many consider to be the myth of Anthony H. Wilson (Tony Wilson).

 

For those unfamiliar with the name, Roger Eagle was born in Oxford in 1942. His formative musical years would have been, as for so many of us, to the sound of skiffle and Rock and Roll in the 50s from America and, of course, the blues. His mother worked for Oxford University Press. He remained in touch with her throughout until her death. He moved to Manchester in 1962 and decided to remain in the North West. He had a passion for what he obviously saw as ‘serious’ music, the music with its roots in Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American traditions, ska, reggae, the blues. He began work as a DJ amassing an amazing record collection and seeking out the new, unusual, unheard sounds of American blues. He was not a musician in the conventional sense: he loved music and, first as a DJ and then as the powerhouse in various clubs, behind major bands, inspiring them, organising, supporting bands, he introduced young white audiences at The Twisted Wheel in Brazenose Street in Manchester (1963) to live performances by musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. He opened numerous clubs, possibly the most famous his two Twisted Wheels in Manchester and Eric’s (1976) in Liverpool. He knew most of the key rock and roll, rhythm and blues, reggae and punk musicians of the time. He came to be perceived by many Afro-American musicians as a route through which black musicians could find a voice across the Atlantic for white audiences when, in America itself, their music and their lives were often contained and constrained within the rules of white supremacy.

 

It is relevant to note that, in parallel with this drive in Manchester, and not the subject of this book but already in exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, there was the music of the African, Afro-Caribbean clubs in Manchester from the 1940s onwards (cf. Endnote 1). It was a vibrant, rich and complex vein of black music in the clubs dotted around Brooks’ Bar, Alexandra Park and Hulme. From the 1940s onwards these clubs catered first for the African seamen that arrived by ship from Liverpool to Salford Docks, ex-service personnel who had served in the war, and then the immigrants of the 1950s and 1960s who came with government support to find work as the post-war demolition and new developments began: the PSV Club in Hulme variously owned and known as The Public Services Vehicle Club and then The Caribbean Club, The Reno Club in Moss Side, The Russell Club (to be leased by Tony Wilson in the 70s), The Nile Club on Princess Road. Intermarriage also meant that some English-born people had already heard the music of the Caribbean and Africa and the music was known through some vinyls brought over from America by servicemen stationed in the surrounding region.

 

The Nile Club, with the Reno at the sideNone of this community figured in the growth of the music specifically encouraged by Roger Eagle; nor does it figure in this book about him. Certainly racism and segregation led to a ghetto atmosphere where clubs like Reno’s and The Nile Club provided a ‘safe’ environment for a targeted immigrant clientele. Equally many ‘white’ clubbers chose to visit the mainly ‘white’ clubs for many years and the initial clientele for Eagle’s clubs, as the book demonstrates, identified themselves as the ‘Mods’ of the 60s. In the Leicester Highfield area in the 1960s, immigrant Caribbean groups would gather on a warm weekend afternoon with the percussion, saxophones, clarinets and bass and make the most amazing music, only for the police sirens to send everyone indoors till the coast was clear again.

 

It is a strange twist to the whole story that, whilst black American musicians were visiting the white clubs of the North West, the Afro-Caribbean community settling in Britain with powerful and direct links to the roots of reggae and blues [Harlem Spirit – Dem a Sus (In the Moss), for instance, 1979 - a call against ‘stop and search’ tactics; the Mighty Diamonds at the PSV Club, 1988] did not find a voice or a venue for some years in the club world that Eagle’s followers inhabited. Factory Records signed up only one reggae band – X-O-DUS (1979) through Tony Wilson. Their English Black Boys recording has a wonderful sense of tempo and rhythm with a title indicating the central preoccupation with living in a kind of exile. The Factory flyer changed the spelling to EXODUS.

 

A book such as this inevitably requires re-reading to appreciate fully the enormous amount of detail it contains. It is divided into sections which chart, through interviews around common topics in different chapters, the chronology of Eagle’s work in the music scenes of Manchester and Liverpool from his early days notably at the original Twisted Wheel in Brazenose Street, Manchester, close to The Oasis Club on Lloyd Street. The reader is left to piece together the various narratives, memories and impressions to form a complete picture; and this makes the book all the more intriguing.

 

To appreciate what Eagle was attempting it is important to remember that this was a Manchester far removed from the slick developments of the Hacienda in later years. When Roger Eagle came to Manchester premises could be leased or obtained, ventures set up, relatively easily with the ‘right’ contacts. As late as the 1950s, when skiffle was king, Piccadilly was a mudbath and the frontage of the northern end of Deansgate opposite the Cathedral was a shell behind which bombed craters still menaced. The coffee house or bar with its jukebox was the magnet for rock and roll. As a young teenager one was warned not to venture to the back of Market Street (one did, of course). The coffee house was the stop-off point if one had the cash, near to the original Twisted Wheel in Brazenose Street, close to Oasis. In the evening The Twisted Wheel, when it opened in 1963, became a mecca. Soon after, Eagle’s R&B Scene magazine/fanzine appeared – a nugget of musical history of those years.

 

Bill Sykes’s book was launched on 17th July this year from the second Twisted Wheel reborn in July 2000 and now under threat of demolition (cf. Endnote 2 for update). Bill Sykes and old hands of The Twisted Wheel gave valuable accounts of their memories at the book launch. The place still has that unique chill dark cellar atmospherics when you enter, which gradually steam into sweaty beat as the evening wears on to the sound of vinyl. Still in operation with original vinyl pressings the club continues that tradition of R&B which formed the basis for Eagle when he opened it in Whitworth Street in 1965 after the closure of the Brazenose site.

 

The book captures well how drugs such as LSD and music fuelled one another during this epoch of the 60s both among musicians and the clubbers who enjoyed the music. It was a complex mix and the two created a sense of spontaneity, creativity and rebellion which so confused the procession of pundits in the media, particularly the BBC with assumed outraged interviewers by turns challenging musicians and giving voice to the eager-to-be-heard representatives of the churches, the police and the suburbs of middle England. These voices of a kind of moral rectitude were always going to founder on the wider corruption of politics itself. Yet, meanwhile, Roger Eagle’s initiatives, separate and uninvolved with all this, drove forward a revolution in musical taste that will forever be his legacy in Britain to the music of the blues always outside the equally platitudinous sounds of commercialised pop.

 

Eric's in LiverpoolThe roll call of his root contacts is magnificent and this book recaptures the memories of those days with the great names he brought to Manchester: Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Rudi Pompili (Bill Haley’s band), Otis Spann, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – R&B and its derivatives, twentieth century music itself, cannot get bigger than a list that goes on – Carl Perkins, Spencer Davis, John Lee Hooker, famously Sonny Boy Williamson. Roger Eagle was in some ways the ‘fixer’, the one who made it happen here. These and more were filling venues across the country, of course, but in this book we are looking specifically at the impact in Manchester and the North West. Eagle was to manage Mick Hucknall when Hucknall was with The Frantic Elevators as Eric’s in Liverpool closed. Hucknall, with his acknowledgement of Roger’s role in his early career, moved on with Simply Red but Eagle was central in Hucknall’s early experience.

 

Whilst the book explores the complex mix of music and drugs in the clubs, it does not include the politics which, in student bodies, merged into a heady cocktail of inspiration, creativity, revolt, assertion and sometimes self-destruction. Eagle’s own clubs attracted some of the 60s ‘Mods’ and became a central base in Manchester for their fashions and friendships. In days when students lived away from home and still loved the sounds which Eagle was introducing, any form of transport, hitching, tramping, rebuilding old wrecks, would aid a wilder lifestyle opening up routes to other venues for the music centres as well. The throaty power of Triumph motorbikes or patched up ‘bangers’ filled with guitars, drums, banjos, records, books and sleeping bags contrasted sharply with the ‘sewing machine’ sound of the Lambretta: that was for those with attitude. It is a unique history of multiple often conflicting identities shaped around the musical traditions which were heard in Britain from the 1960s onwards and even before then.

 

The early years in Manchester and Liverpool covered by this book, and other cities elsewhere, are arguably the key years in the growth of Eagle’s club world. It can appear as an exciting kaleidoscope of shapes, colours, sounds, relationships, connections and experiences all tinged with a purple glow and a strong beat. The narrative does not pretend to be a social commentary. It does not cover the terrible political realities outside the clubs beyond this book, in the civil rights marches of Ireland and America, war in Vietnam, destruction of communities and racism in Britain, in Manchester itself. In 1968 Dubcek’s Czechoslovakia was invaded by Russia (a Yugoslav friend of mine, crazy on ‘soul’, was called home urgently); the Civil Rights Movement in America was galvanised by the assassination of Martin Luther King; Vietnam was increasingly criticised by the American public and in August the first Civil Rights March took place in Northern Ireland, just days before Soviet Russia invaded Czechoslovakia.

 

Vietnam demonstration in Grosvenor SquareOn 17th March 1968, the protests against American involvement in Vietnam led to the London Grosvenor Square riots outside the U.S. embassy and the battle with the police. Protesting buskers were not far away in the side streets with the songs of Bob Dylan, Ewan McColl, Donovan. On 13th May French workers joined students in revolt with the aim of bringing down De Gaulle’s right wing government. There was, too, a tranche of music supporting the protests against the increased instability of the world with nuclear arsenals in some ways separate from the club world. All this is outside the scope of the book but part of the wider related picture of the age: the seemingly rebellious nature of the music, the return to roots, paralleled the questioning that was taking place in other spheres.

 

On the individual level, too, for some the atmosphere was an escape when lives otherwise were chaotic or simply felt to be mundane. Money did not wash around because the credit card hadn’t been invented in the early days; often the bands that Roger Eagle played, the followers too, were skint. The 70s brought recession just as the descendants in Northern Soul filled Wigan Casino to seek another kind of escape, fifth formers in those days on speed some of them. Then, as digital sound kicked in, the music moguls once again took over, and what Eagle initiated in Manchester was left to reggae, hip hop, drum machines and the blues yet again to assert in the face of increasing commercialisation.

 

There will always be a danger of mythologizing the myths, embellishing the narratives, of this period. Other towns and cities had equally important clubs and similar connecting wider issues. The value of Eagle’s musical antennae in the 1960s can be glimpsed if one looks at his lists of gigs and that of many another town and city where music was strong. This is another link in his story between the music clubs of the North West, the pirate radio stations and the wider connections into cities like London (Flamingo Club), Leicester and Brixton in the 1960s. Leicester had a rich music scene at a time of critical political, social and intellectual tension and power. Major names appeared in both cities: 1964, Long John Baldry (Twisted Wheel at an ‘all nighter’) then at Leicester, 1965 with the Hoochie Coochie Men; 1964, the Animals with Eric Burdon (Twisted Wheel) twice this same year, the second time with Sonny Boy Williamson on the same gig;1967 the Jimi Hendrix Experience (played at The Twisted Wheel in January, at Leicester University in February), Kaleidoscope, Traffic; 1968 Cream (Eric Clapton, part of Cream, who visited Roger Eagle at his Chorlton flat and knew Steve Winwood of Traffic, a Leicester-based set-up; Ginger Baker of Cream – totally hypnotic, a brilliant percussionist, steaming and shrouded in that wild red hair as he intensified the tempo), The Who, Barclay James Harvest, Led Zeppelin; and then the Rolling Stones both at the University (stoned, too) and then later in the 60s the De Montfort Hall next door. And who turned up at The Twisted Wheel? – the Rolling Stones (‘bloody good backing band’ according to Roger Eagle who had them at the Wheel, too), John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (Leicester at Il Rondo then Eagle’s Magic Village, 8th June, 1968). Geno Washington … another list of interconnections.

 

Just an idea here of what may appear an almost seamless quality in hindsight to a reality that was sometimes a frantic, fragile thread that linked key blues influences across the country certainly and then across the Atlantic in both directions. Life was sometimes lived at breakneck speed thirty five hours a day but it did not matter.

 

The significance of Eagle, illustrated well in the book, is that he focused on this deep vein of new music emerging from, connecting with, the American blues in a relatively small Manchester club when often these musicians would often be performing to much larger audiences in major venues. It was the club ethos, Roger Eagle’s enthusiasm, the eagerness of new young musicians and the commitment of the music lovers which attracted most of the major figures in the blues to Eagle’s world. He established a port of call as distinct from the one-off venue and the book captures well how intently his followers listened to what he offered them – musicians included.

 

The media perception of a generation wrecked on LSD, purple hearts, heroin and early amphetamines belies the fact, however, that it would be possible to cite chronic older mescaline addicts one knew of at that time in other ‘respectable’ walks of life, including the odd clergyman. The book illustrates well that Eagle’s drive was the music, that he was sometimes impatient with sorting the ambulances for clubbers crashed out on drugs. The psychedelic experience, often attributed to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954) grabbed the Beatles’ business mind, good for the publicity when they met the Maharishi. The commercialised ‘spirituality’ of that venture ended with the break-up. Many did not read the other half of Huxley’s experience, Heaven and Hell (1956) where the effects of the experience could lead in either direction. The music was fuelled by both perspectives, gave it a raw edge in the early days. Bill Sykes captures much of this atmosphere in interviews.

 

Nothing new in all this:- Francis Thompson, nineteenth century writer of The Hound of Heaven (publ. 1893), a powerful poem about a tortured youth’s quest for salvation, lived in Manchester as a medical student and later became addicted to opium. Thomas de Quincey, another opium addict, was born just round the corner from the first Twisted Wheel in Cross Street (in 1785, mind you, so he didn’t get a chance to visit the Wheel, but sometimes I would not have been surprised if he had walked through the door). It was possible to make random, telling connections in a drug-hazed atmosphere and end up talking with angels – or devils.

 

On a number of occasions throughout this book the connection that Anthony H. Wilson (his preferred name - more popularly known as Tony Wilson) had with Roger Eagle is raised. From my viewpoint, Manchester-born, same vintage as Roger Eagle in Oxford, Anthony Wilson was always a problematic figure, eight years younger, arriving at Cambridge University in 1968 when the 60s were almost over. The mix of music, politics and writing was already a heady cocktail. The Guardian obituary of Tony Wilson got it wrong by stating that Wilson arrived at Jesus College “when the revolution in drugs happened” (edition, Monday 13th August, 2007). It began way before then, in the early 60s, and a year, a month, a day, in that lifestyle was a lifetime experience. Wilson arrived late on the scene, relatively speaking.

 

Eagle began years before Wilson and created a much more potent music because, as Bill Sykes’s book emphasises, Eagle remained true to his passion for R&B, ‘hard’ rhythm, especially as the accented upbeat shifted to the offbeat in reggae. Eagle remained in the background, an articulate influence promoting otherwise inaccessible pressings of American music. Wilson was often perceived to be more preoccupied with self-promotion through his media connections (Granada and the BBC). He had been educated a Catholic and seemed to manage badly the worldly ‘success’ which was sometimes preached as a sign of providential gifting.

 

The book hints at, sometimes reveals, the extent to which his most famous product, the Hacienda, is often judged to have failed because bad business, bad publicity, bad management and bad sound-systems came before the music. The Twisted Wheel was a club for music lovers; speculation follows that the Hacienda was perhaps more a stage for Tony Wilson targeting commercialised youngsters in their musical tastes in an unstable framework. Certainly the book has a potent account, substantiated in Wilson’s own words, of how Wilson allegedly took Eagle’s business plan away with him from a meeting in Liverpool and simply decided to go it alone with results that are now well-known. Many in Manchester and Roger Eagle’s fans know a narrative which differs considerably from the popular widely held myth about Wilson perpetuated in the media.

 

Roger Eagle in Eric's, LiverpoolA large chapter in the book explores Roger Eagle’s enormous influence in Liverpool so close to, yet so many cultural leagues away from, the Cavern and the Merseybeat cult. The book explores how he encouraged, initiated and followed major bands from here – and the account of the closure of Eric’s after a raid is harrowing. In many ways this epitomises how much Eagle lived on the edge, at the forefront of music, in his clubs so different from the ‘clubbing’ of today, on the verge of bankruptcy most of the time. Eagle is portrayed as a giant in the world of musical education for a generation in terms of bringing the best of ska, reggae and then punk. Yet again, however, another point made in the book reveals how much later Factory Records owed to the experience of watching, listening and noting how Roger Eagle was working at Eric’s (p. 187). Jayne Casey lead singer of Big in Japan (and later artistic director of Liverpool’s Capital of Culture) gives fascinating insights into the Wilson episodes with Roger Eagle.

 

Through the interviews in Bill Sykes’s book with various women in Roger Eagle’s world, we realise how much an often perceived male-dominated culture relied upon female vocalists, bands and fixers in their own right. Yet again the cross-connections between major bands associated with Eagle emerge – Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood also in Big in Japan at one stage. The music had an energy, force, dynamism unparalleled in the smooth, sugary melodic wash of commercial pop. There is Val Randall’s hilarious account of being escorted for the first time to the Liverpool Stadium by a gentlemanly policeman who clearly knew Eagle, sparking her comment: ‘God! Does everyone know this man?’

 

One could continue for ever with this story of a man, a time, a music that inspired so many and which, thankfully, has inspired this book. In time to come the book will become a document of a musical tradition, a time, a region, in its own right. It is also, in some ways, a work in progress, a source book for reading, browsing, re-reading, researching. It is well illustrated with photographs of Roger Eagle, of gigs and their line-ups. It has a valuable gigography at the end preceded by that obituary for Roger Eagle written by Bob Dickinson for The Guardian (Saturday, 15th May, 1999).

 

I’m reminded of the final lines of a book by Mezz Mezzrow, a brilliant clarinetist and saxophonist, among many other questionable things, with Bernard Wolfe as co-author, Really the Blues, first published in 1946 and republished coincidentally in 1999, the year when Roger Eagle died. Alan Ginsberg, on his own lifelong messianic ‘trip’, found it a major contribution to the blues story. It is the autobiographical account of a man, whose nickname ‘Mezz’ became synonymous with ‘marijuana’ because he sold so much dope. It is also the amazing story of American jazz, the blues and swing, the very material where Eagle began. It could be Roger Eagle’s epitaph and that of a few others around him:

I sure never suspected I was living a saga and an odyssey, during all those frantic years. I thought I was just trying to keep my head above water, and feed my breadbasket now and then, and maybe chase a butterfly and a soapbubble or two. Now it turns out I was significant! Man, oh man, it looks like you got to watch every move you make. (Repr. Souvenir Press, London, 2009, p.335).

 

Well by now Eagle is significant; for some of us he always was. The book captures his genius, his sometime lonely life, the humour, the sadness of his final illness. He never sought the limelight – how scarce a human quality that now is. Every move he made as a DJ educated a generation of youngsters in the blues and its connecting rhythms; and this book by Bill Sykes is a fitting, timely tribute as well as an important contribution to the debate about Manchester, Liverpool and music. One just can’t help liking a guy who smoked 40 cigarettes a day and worried that the air in Whaley Bridge could be polluted. These are the sad yet lovely touches with which the book is filled – as when, during his last period, he put a record on for KFM Radio during Saturday evening rush hour in Stockport of all places: ‘Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow’. Brilliant!

Endnotes:

1. Ghosts: Disappearing Histories, celebrating the Clubs of Moss Side and Hulme from the 50s to the 80s, 11th August to 4th November, 10 – 5, free admission, at the People’s History Museum in association with Commonword. Left Bank, Spinningfields, Manchester, M3 3ER

2. NOTE: the latest information I have on this is that a verbal undertaking has been made by the developers of the building on Whitworth Street to preserve “the building fabric, fixtures and fittings for the purpose of preservation” see http://www.soul-source.co.uk/_/articles/soul-news/the-twisted-wheel-campaign-r2533.

 
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