Paul Skillen 
Equinox Publishing   ISBN-13  978 1 78179 123 3  £25.00 

Reviewed by Geoff Wills


    If the popular music of Liverpool and Merseyside made an indelible impression in the 1960s with the Beatles and Merseybeat, then it enjoyed a second coming in the 1980s with a fascinatingly large stream of successful musical acts. Frankie Goes to Hollywood immediately spring to mind, but one would also have to include a whole raft of acts including Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Half Man Half Biscuit, Space, China Crisis, A Flock of Seagulls, Echo and the Bunnymen, Wah!, the Teardrop Explodes, the Icicle Works, the La’s, the Christians, Black, the Lotus Eaters and the Wild Swans. All had successful recording and live performance careers, and, compared to the successful Merseybeat acts - the Beatles, the Fourmost, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, the Searchers, the Merseybeats, the Mojos and the Swinging Blue Jeans – there were more of them. How did this come about? In his book Scouse Pop Paul Skillen provides a detailed and comprehensive explanation which is also an affectionate tribute.  

    The book is divided into five chapters which follow a logical progression. Chapter one describes the economic landscape of 1970s Merseyside which formed the background to a musical renaissance, while chapter two provides an overview of some of the bands who had success in the 1980s, and a theory of creativity that explains their modus operandi. Chapter three examines the wealth of songwriting ability in Liverpool and the phenomenon of the Scouse Romantic. In chapter four the infrastructure which supported the bands – the local record labels, recording studios and radio stations, also Merseyside record shops and the influential Eric’s club – is analysed. The final chapter provides a forum for the views of those without whom the music would not have been successful – namely, the fans. 

    In the 1970s Liverpool was in a state of decline. Hundreds of factories closed and thousands of jobs were lost: by 1981 20 per cent of the city’s labour force were unemployed. BBC TV shows like Boys from the Blackstuff, Bread and The Harry Enfield Show portrayed Liverpudlians in a stereotyped way. But, as Skillen states, ‘Regardless of the negativity surrounding the city, the music scene remained vibrant. It was one way in which young people could express their talent.’ Young musicians metaphorically gazed out from Liverpool across the Irish Sea, cultivating a mindscape in which the Scouse Romantic sensibility could blossom. They also exhibited an attitude which Skillen describes using the model of resilience devised by the organizational psychologist Cary Cooper, which comprises vision and purpose, adaptability, social support and confidence. 

    A further academic model which Skillen uses to clarify the success of 1980s Liverpool music is that of creativity devised by Norman Jackson, a professor at the University of Surrey and a higher education researcher. Jackson breaks down the concept of creativity into four broad areas: ways of thinking, attitudes, effects and feelings. With regard to new ways of thinking, Skillen describes how bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Half Man Half Biscuit, Space and China Crisis adapted and refined previously existing genres rather than creating something completely new. The key aspect of attitude was epitomised by a band like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which exhibited qualities of risk taking, obsession, and the urge to be noticed, as did other bands like A Flock of Seagulls and Echo and the Bunnymen. The third aspect of the creativity model, effects, relates to new ideas leading to change, and Skillen pinpoints three bands – The Teardrop Explodes, Icicle Works and the La’s – who put this into action. 

    The element of feelings was crucial to the success of bands like the Christians, Black, and the Lotus Eaters. The intensity of emotion in their songs had a powerful and lasting effect on the mood of the listener, and in this respect Skillen identifies a significant phenomenon – that of the Scouse Romantic. Romance, passion, sensitivity and a haunting quality in the songs were key elements in the success of 1980s Merseyside pop. 

    In the aftermath of Punk, major record labels had to rethink their methods of promotion of an act via touring and label money, and, as Skillen observes, ‘the guerrilla tactics of the new indie labels unsettled the majors.’ Thus, local record labels like Zoo and Probe Plus, recording studios like Amazon, and local radio stations like BBC Radio Merseyside and Radio City provided an infrastructure which allowed the new music to burgeon. And the global fan response to Scouse Romanticism provided the final seal of success.  

    In Scouse Pop Paul Skillen delivers a wide-ranging account of an important popular music phenomenon. One miniscule nit-pick – on page 97 he refers to ‘Coleridge’s classic poem The Lotus Eaters.’ I think he means Tennyson’s poem The Lotos Eaters. Otherwise, this is a very interesting and worthwhile book.