Most British cities are palimpsests. Turn the corner from a row of 1960s council houses, and you’re equally likely to run into a thirty-story glass skyscraper or a medieval cathedral. And those cities have microcommunities, often only a few streets across, from which people often don’t venture. So it’s natural that a lot of British fantasy set in urban environments features the idea of two cities coexisting — a real and a fantastic one.
Liverpool, more than most cities, has that distinction. Its two cities are defined largely by sound. The real city of Liverpool — the one that most of the city’s population inhabits, the one with the pubs and the train stations and the shopping centres and the office blocks, the one where people do their work and live their lives, the one whose civic statuary is full of local dignitaries like the businessman Sir John Moores or the centrist Labour MP Bessie Braddock — the sound of that city is the sound of seagulls echoing overhead, and the sounds of the different Liverpool accents.
But at random spots you can turn a corner out of Liverpool and enter Pepperland. The sound of Pepperland is the sound of the Beatles, and as soon as you enter Matthew St, or the Albert Dock, or any of the other parts of Liverpool devoted to tourists, all you hear are American or Japanese accents and the Beatles blasting from all directions. No other music is allowed in Pepperland, although brief exceptions are made for solo McCartney hits, the more vapid songs from Lennon’s solo catalogue, and the song “Ferry Cross The Mersey” by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The only Scousers here are the ones who are catering to the tourists — most Liverpudlians don’t visit Pepperland much, in the same way that very few Londoners stand outside Buckingham Palace and say “you know, the actual Queen lives there”.
And the highlight of Pepperland’s year is International Beatleweek, when thousands of American and Japanese tourists flock to Pepperland, to watch tribute bands from Brazil or Sweden pretending to be the Beatles for a week. They’ll fly into John Lennon Airport, stay in the Hard Day’s Night Hotel, and visit Lennon’s Bar, the Rubber Soul pub, and the Beatles shop, and maybe go on the Magical Mystery Tour bus, stopping off at the Beatles Story exhibition. But mostly, they’ll be watching tribute bands.
It isn’t *only* tribute bands, though — they also have performances by people who knew the Beatles, or knew a Beatle, or were sort-of Beatley in the 60s. At least once, this led to an intrusion of Liverpool on Pepperland. A couple of years ago I went to one of the Beatleweek shows — the Rutles, with support from two of the Scaffold (Mike McGear and John Gorman), who were chosen because McGear is Paul McCartney’s brother. The Scaffold’s surrealist whimsical songs about black puddings, patent medicines, washing day and buckets of water are about the most Liverpudlian thing ever, but three quarters of the audience had left within fifteen minutes. They didn’t want Liverpool, they wanted Pepperland.
This may sound contemptuous. It’s not meant to. Growing up as an obsessive Beatle-fan kid, in a small town with Liverpool as the nearest city and the only one accessible by public transport, I did the Beatle-tourist thing often enough myself as a teenager. The artificiality of the experience doesn’t invalidate it. There is no such thing as an authentic experience when you’re a tourist, and that’s OK. As Iain Lee (who hadn’t visited Pepperland before) said to me during the interval on Tuesday, the Cavern and the area around it is Disneyland for 60s music fans, and in my opinion the world has few enough sources of pleasure in it without knocking something specifically designed to be fun simply because of the design element.
This year, one of the performers at Beatleweek was Micky Dolenz, in the only UK performance this year by any of the Monkees, so of course I went along. Dolenz, of course, was not an actual Beatle, but he gets to perform under the having-known-the-Beatles criterion (other performers of that nature this year included Billy J Kramer, a bloke who used to play guitar in Wings, the former lead singer of the Swingin’ Blue Jeans, and George Harrison’s first wife’s sister).
In actual fact, he did two performances on the same day, both at the Cavern — one at 2PM for Beatleweek tourists only, and one at 8PM for a general audience. I had a ticket for the second. I went along early, partly because my day ticket got me into a lot of the tribute band performances (though I ended up not seeing many), and partly to see if I could blag my way into the earlier performance.
I couldn’t, but I did get to see Dolenz (flanked by minders to ensure that none of the public bothered him for autographs or conversation) add a brick with his name on to the Cavern Wall of Fame — a wall with the names of all the bands that played the Cavern in the 60s, along with the more famous of those who’ve played the reopened venue in later years. Amusingly, Dolenz wasn’t the first member of his family to have his name on the wall — while the person introducing him didn’t point the connection out (and may not have known it), Dolenz’s first wife, the TV presenter Samantha Juste (the “wonderful lady and she’s mine all mine” from “Randy Scouse Git”), has had a brick on the wall since it opened.
The gig itself was one of the most physically uncomfortable experiences I have ever had. The Cavern is not the world’s largest venue (I have played there twice, which should give you some idea of the kind of audience size it normally expects), is underground, and has no air conditioning. When a star as big as Dolenz plays a club that small, in those conditions, the resulting humidity from the mass of humanity packed into that small space leads to sweat dripping from the ceiling — my clothes were soaked through by the end, as if I’d been in a bath with them on.
That I stuck around (and missed my last train home and had to wait til 3:30AM to get the first train back to Manchester) is a testament to how good Dolenz actually was.
There were two support acts. The first, the Tearaways, are a band I would definitely recommend seeing live again. A powerpop band from Santa Barbara, they’re good enough that when their drummer had to drop out of their UK gigs they were able to get Clem Burke (the drummer from Blondie, and one of the greatest drummers of his generation) in as a substitute. After a few songs, I started thinking to myself “I bet these are regulars at the IPO”, and of course their very next song referenced the IPO in its chorus. I don’t know how well their material would work on record, but if they play IPO Liverpool next year I’ll be there.
The next act, Mark Hudson, I wouldn’t recommend crossing the road to see, sadly. Hudson used to be a star in the 70s with his brothers, but appears at Beatleweek because he was Ringo Starr’s musical director in the 90s. His set consisted of a few poor covers of Beatles classics, along with hits he’d written for people like Aerosmith or Celine Dion, interspersed with long anecdotes about how he’d met Aerosmith, and they’d said what a great songwriter he was, and how much like the Beatles his songs were, or how he’d met Celine Dion and she’d said what a great songwriter he was, and how much like the Beatles his songs were, or how he’d met Ozzy Osbourne, and… well you get the picture. Of course, it wasn’t *all* him saying how great he was as a songwriter — he also managed to jokingly imply that he had a large penis, make a few homophobic comments, and do a comedy Scots accent that made Russ Abbott’s “see you, Jimmy” seem like the height of witty observation.
And then on came Micky Dolenz. He was backed, not by his usual band, but by a local band, the Rockits. However, he *did* have his usual guitarist and musical director, Wayne Avers, with him, and it shows how good Avers is at his job that even though they were performing with a pickup band, the backing was almost indistinguishable from Dolenz’s regular band.
(The main distinction was actually a positive one — the addition of two female backing vocalists gave a very pleasing thickness to the vocal harmonies, meaning that the other Monkees were missed far less than they otherwise would have been).
The setlist here is from my memory, so may not be perfectly accurate as far as order goes, but it’s about 90% right. The show opened with Mary Mary, and it was immediately apparent that Dolenz was in great voice. I saw him twice last year on a Monkees tour with Peter Tork, so I knew he could still sing, but it’s always surprising every time I see him live just how well his voice has held up compared to the other singers of his generation.
Unfortunately there was a problem with his mic, which at first (judging from his reaction) I think Dolenz thought was a problem with his in-ear monitor. The problem didn’t get fixed, but after this song he figured it out and compensated (the mic was cutting out when held at certain angles, presumably a loose wire — so he just didn’t hold it at those angles).
Steppin’ Stone followed, and was as good as ever. That Was Then This Is Now came next, and as always in a Monkees show seemed a little out of place — it’s a fun track, but performed with the 80s keyboard sounds it doesn’t fit the 60s garage-pop feel of most of their material.
Words followed, done as a duet with the bass player, and had a gratifyingly psych-pop sound (the keyboard player did a very good job throughout, covering a variety of parts, and here got a very good swimmy Hammond sound).
Dolenz then spoke for the first time, making one of the old jokes with which he’d pepper the show (this time saying “any Monkees fans in tonight? [applause] Well we’ll soon fix that!”) before introducing Some Time In The Morning as a Carole King song. This is one of the few songs where I think, unfortunately, Dolenz’s older voice doesn’t suit the song as much as his younger one did. He still gives an excellent performance, but while in his twenties he sang it very softly, with a light breathiness, these days he belts it out somewhat, and to my ears it loses something. That’s just my take on it, though, and I know a number of Monkees fans who consider this a highlight of the show — it’s certainly a technically impressive performance, and one that I can’t fault except on purely personal preference grounds.
DW Washburn was next, a Leiber and Stoller song that was the Monkees’ last top twenty single in their original incarnation, and which hadn’t been performed live much until Micky and Peter added it to the setlist last year. While it loses a little in a Micky solo performance by not having Tork provide the bass backing vocals, and not having the interaction between the two, the song itself is still a lot of fun, and got a great reaction from the audience.
Last Train to Clarksville was next, introduced by him talking about the various songwriters who had written for the band (and doing his standard joke about their writers including “Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Neil Armstrong… he wrote Blue Moon”. Dolenz’s stage patter is almost as predictable as Mike Love’s — but works just as well on audiences who don’t know it all by heart).
Johnny B Goode followed, introduced as Dolenz’s audition piece for the Monkees, after talking about the covers band he was in as a teenager. After the song, he talked about going to Monterey Pop, seeing Jimi Hendrix, and getting him to be the Monkees’ opening act. He then did his old routine (one he’s been doing for at least thirty years) of starting Purple Haze and interrupting it with yells of “we want Davy! We want the Monkees!”, before performing the whole song, surprisingly well. The song ended with the “the colours! The colours!” schtick with which he normally ends Randy Scouse Git.
The Girl I Knew Somewhere was next, and had the one tiny rough note in the performance — the Monkees added a short a capella break to the song for live performances last year, and the break was kept in for this show. It didn’t *quite* come off, but it wasn’t horrible either, just a tiny bit sloppy — not enough to spoil one of my favourite Monkees songs.
You Bring The Summer was next, after a brief intro talking about the songwriters who’d written for the new album. This worked *really* well live, though I missed Nez’s goofy backing vocals.
Daydream Believer was dedicated to Davy’s sister
Heather Hazel (corrected 2/9/16), who was in the audience. It was followed by the other Davy song in the set, A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. I think Micky actually does that one better than Davy did (and it was another one where the additional backing vocalists really helped thicken the sound), but no-one can sing Daydream Believer like Davy.
Randy Scouse Git was next, with the usual story about the name, and about the Beatles throwing him a party (“I’m told I had a great time”) which went down very well with a crowd of Beatles fans. After this, he talked about going to Beatles sessions during the recording of Sgt Pepper, and said he was going to play one of the songs he heard there — but instead did Oh! Darling, which wasn’t recorded until a couple of years later. I suspect he got used to telling that story when he used to do Good Morning, Good Morning in his set, and just reused it for the later song. However, he was *staggeringly* good on the song, which perfectly suited his white-soul voice (and the sound engineer added a great-sounding Sun Records echo to his vocal, which helped).
Pleasant Valley Sunday was the final song of the main set, and as always *that* riff, arrangement, and vocal brought the house down.
For the encore, he did a very creditable cover of The Spencer Davis Group’s Gimme Some Lovin’ (in the US arrangement, which had more backing vocals). This went straight into I’m A Believer (without his normal “I sang this before Shrek!” intro) and hearing the two songs back to back was a minor revelation — I’d never realised before how much the arrangement of the Monkees’ single was based on the Spencer Davis Group track (try singing the “gimme gimme some lovin'” backing vocal parts over the bass riff that comes after “then I saw her face” and you’ll see what I mean). It gave me a very different perspective on what the artistic intention behind that track was, and I’ll have to think about it further.
The gig wasn’t perfect — if I’d been asked to construct a perfect setlist I’d have dropped a couple of the covers and added Goin’ Down and Porpoise Song, arguably the two best songs Dolenz ever sang — but seeing someone who has sold over sixty million records playing a tiny little club venue and put as much into the performance as he does when playing venues ten times the size was a reminder of just how good Dolenz can be.
Sat on the steps to Lime Street Station after the show, waiting in the dark in Liverpool for four hours before my train back home, and listening to the seagulls echoing overhead, disoriented, dehydrated, and sleep-deprived, I thought about all this. About manufactured images and Pepperland, about Micky the Monkee and the balding man on stage, about tribute acts, pre-Fab Fours, and “playing their own instruments”.
The 60s generation of musicians is dying out. Most of the bands that were cited in their time as being “real musicians playing real music”, in opposition to the plastic Monkees, now tour with one or no original members, playing simulacra of their hits to audiences who don’t really care who’s on the stage so long as they can tell themselves it sounds a bit like the records they loved fifty years ago. And Micky Dolenz is out there, doing the same thing they’re doing — but with more showmanship, a better voice, and better songs than they’ve got.
Right now, Dolenz still doesn’t get the appreciation he deserves. But in another fifty years’ time, if any of the music of the 60s survives and is listened to at all, when all the participants in the arguments about authenticity have gone… well, the Beatles will still be listened to. Probably the Beach Boys, maybe Dylan and the Kinks. Not much else. Most popular culture disappears — who now reads Sapper or Dornford Yates? — and 60s pop will be no exception. But along with the Beatles, Beach Boys, Dylan and Kinks, if anything survives from the 60s, people will still be listening to Pleasant Valley Sunday, Last Train to Clarksville, and I’m A Believer.
That’s the thing about synthetic stuff, about plastic. Unlike “authentic” organic materials, it doesn’t rot away.
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