25 Aug 2002: Forty years after The Beatles took off, a new generation of Scouse bands is out to conquer the world. Leading the way are The Coral, six young scallies on a mission to inspire.
Liverpool town centre, August 2002. The airless room is a psychedelic blend of colours, the brutally purple ceiling reflecting on to red and green walls. The walls are sparsely decorated: tinted paintings of John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix, a poster of an Amazonian Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC, two hastily ripped-out pages from a porn mag Sellotaped to a window frame. Drums, guitars, a keyboard are positioned to one side as though on a makeshift stage.
The Coral’s practice room is still relatively quiet; it’s just past midday and the six-piece band won’t start playing for another hour or so. There is little sense that this is home to the most celebrated young group of the summer, whose eponymous debut album is Mercury-nominated (‘remarkably assured, eccentric and compelling’ was the judges’ verdict) and who are leading the so-called ‘Cosmic Scouse’ scene: bands in their late teens and early twenties who prefer dope to alcohol and spent their adolescent years immersed in Captain Beefheart, The Doors and Pink Floyd.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Liverpool is undergoing a musical renaissance with a new generation of bands that are creating a buzz not only in their home city but nationwide.
When it was released this summer, The Coral’s debut album, with its inexhaustible energy, psychedelic rock and poetic lyrics (‘Couldn’t take the public scorn/ Changed from human to plant form/ Now he’s swapped his legs for roots/ His arms and soil are in cahoots’) generated astonishingly good reviews from both the music press and the broadsheets.
And Liverpool has more to offer from The Zutons, The Bandits, the Hokum Clones and The Crescent. These bands are gently retaliating against years of nightlife domination by superclub Cream. The Bandits have set up their own club, Bandwagon, where all the Cosmic Scouse bands play.
It’s more than 20 years since Liverpool last boasted a genuinely thriving music scene, when Echo and the Bunnymen were doing joint headline tours with The Teardrop Explodes. The Bunnymen were signed to Zoo, a local label set up by the band’s manager, Bill Drummond (later of the KLF). This time round it’s Alan Wills who has the vision. Once the drummer in Shack – one of a handful of Liverpool bands that stood on the edge of the mainstream in the Nineties – Wills eventually moved into management but disliked the protocol at the major record companies. He saw The Coral play and created the label Deltasonic so he could sign them. The Zutons and The Bandits followed. He believes that what is happening in Liverpool is the Real Thing.
Although Sony now owns a 50 per cent stake in Deltasonic, Wills says he can do pretty much as he chooses. And his money is on The Coral. ‘The other bands are getting there but The Coral are the finished item. At 21, singer James Skelly is the oldest in the band but the way they play you’d never believe it… they are truly awesome.’
On one battered sofa in the psychedelic practice room sits Bill Ryder-Jones, 19. The Coral’s precociously talented lead guitarist sits with his legs folded beneath him, building joint after joint. Brown vintage Adidas trainers, brown cords, a grey Adidas hooded sweatshirt, a McKenzie woollen hat – despite the heat outside.
‘I’m not taking it off, not even in the praccy room,’ he says, biting into an apple. ‘No way. My hair is still in first day spoony haircut mode.’
On the adjoining sofa is Nick Power, almost a veteran at 20. The keyboard player sits strumming a banjo and occasionally lighting a cigarette. Matching brown cords, a red, black and yellow Berghaus coat, baseball cap that constantly needs rearranging, sideburns that join under his chin.
The Coral are very much a gang; none of them wants the focus just to be on Skelly, although he writes the lyrics. ‘If me and Nick do interviews, journalists will ask where Jim is, but it’s bullshit,’ says Ryder-Jones. ‘They just want a new fucking Richard Ashcroft but we’re not interested.’
The Coral formed six years ago at Hillbury high school in Hoylake, a relatively affluent suburb of Liverpool. Ryder-Jones, Skelly, his younger brother Ian on drums and in charge of the swirling Sixties artwork; rhythm guitarist Lee Southall and Paul Duffy on bass.
‘It was five of us jamming cover versions for three years, trying to find an identity,’ says Ryder-Jones, lighting his first joint. ‘We met Nick in 1998 and fell in love with his quirky Scouse temperament…’
Power laughs. ‘You were good.’
Ryder-Jones shrugs: ‘Yeah, we were boss. We were the best band in town. But seriously… Nick was always hanging around our praccy room. Go ahead, big it up, Nick. Explain how you were the missing link.’
Power colours slightly: ‘OK, yeah, I was the missing link. But a link the same size as the other five…’
Both Ryder-Jones and Power had dreamt of being professional footballers, but at some point realised they weren’t good enough. ‘I wondered what I could do that allowed me to sit on my arse, smoke weed and listen to music,’ says Power. ‘Obvious. Make music.’
The Coral formed as Britpop was having its moment. For these Hoylake boys, it offered a welcome alternative to the happy hardcore around. ‘ Definitely, Maybe changed everything for us,’ says Power. ‘No one in Hoylake was listening to guitar bands and we felt like outcasts. It’s all right listening to house music when you’re 13 and getting pissed in parks, but after that you want to find your own thing.’
Generations of Liverpudlians have listened to West Coast American psy chedelia and so it’s no surprise that The Coral have gone back to Captain Beefheart and Love. They also grew up with parents who were old punks, and by then into Echo and the Bunnymen, which has resulted in their offspring being mildly rebellious and jumping back a decade or two to the Sixties.
The band never set out with a plan, but they certainly wanted to avoid being fashionable at all costs. Unusually for a rock band, they don’t cite Radiohead as a major influence. They are flattered that Coldplay are fans (alongside Oasis and Badly Drawn Boy, to name but a few) but they’re not really interested in the music.
The Coral are special because they exist in their own universe of dope and ska and Russian cossack music. Describing their music in simple terms has defied critics. Even Power struggles: ‘It’s simply a good album. There are no lies.’ He frowns. ‘I don’t know how to explain it. It’s honest.’
Is it soul music? As in music from the soul? Ryder-Jones, who has been lying down, sits up. ‘Yeah! Exactly.’ Power nods. ‘In the same way as Otis Redding or Syd Barrett. It’s honest soul music. It’s passionate. It’s almost like we’ve all got to make this music; if we don’t, we’ll go crazy. It’s in everyone’s heads so we’re compelled to make it.’
The Coral are happy to be part of a Liverpool scene. The Bandits and the Hokum Clones have ‘praccy rooms’ in the same building – the former are presently using The Coral’s spare gear. The bands regularly play on the same bill and often end up on stage together. Ryder-Jones and Power laugh at the ‘Cosmic Scousers’ tag, but it doesn’t really bother them.
Ian Broudie – guitarist in Liverpool band Big In Japan in the late Seventies before producing Echo and the Bunnymen, latterly frontman of the Lightning Seeds and writer of ‘Three Lions’ – produced The Coral’s debut album. He saw the band live, phoned them and asked if he could work with them. The Coral refer to him as the seventh member of the band; he can barely find enough superlatives to describe them.
‘A lot of the Liverpool bands around could be great, but The Coral in isolation are special and fantastic. It’s rare to get bands who have been at school together; because of that, they have evolved very naturally. Usually there are one or two special musicians in a band, but The Coral are all virtuoso. Bill is a fantastic lead guitarist… in fact, they all complement each other so well. It’s hard to explain. It’s a bit like The Beatles; John Lennon was great but then so was George Harrison.’
Broudie recalls the first time he met the band. ‘One of the most amazing things about them was the fact that they had listened to every record in the world ever, from Doo Wop to The Beach Boys and the Yardbirds. I thought kids just played on PlayStations all day. They restored my faith in music. And they haven’t even started yet.’
If this has been The Coral’s summer, it looks set to be their year too. Next month the wonderful, Manfred Mann-inspired ‘Dreaming of You’ will be released, the band will stand against the likes of The Streets for the Mercury Prize and they will return to the studio with Broudie to record a second album.
Yet talk to Ryder-Jones or Power about ambition and they look a bit lost. Ryder-Jones says more equipment, more CDs and a girlfriend from the Liverpool soap Hollyoaks would be nice; Power would like to buy his own house because he’s fed up with living with his parents (half the band still live at home). They’ve pretty much run out of money: Ryder-Jones had £3.19 in his bank account last night.
When they talk about money, it is largely with disinterest: the music is the thing. Doing the next album with Broudie is going to be ‘boss’. They can barely wait. Broudie himself says The Coral truly live and breathe music: ‘Every now and again you come across a band who would be in a room doing what they do, regardless of what the world thought – regardless of the world even knowing they existed. I don’t get that impression from the new punk bands around now.’
Before they go back into the studio, The Coral will be watching other Liverpool bands, ‘telling them they are amazing’. Broudie recently went to see The Coral play on a bill with The Zutons and The Bandits. ‘When The Coral came on stage, the other two bands went to dance at the front. There is a great feeling of the bands wanting each other to do well. They drive each other on. They’re all mates and they’re very strong for each other. A renaissance in Liverpool? Yeah, I’d certainly go along with that.’
Cosmic Scousers on the up
Aged from 20 to 24, this six-piece spend their spare time running the Bandwagon, the small venue where all the ‘Cosmic Scousers’ play or hang out. The Bandits impressed Radiohead producer John Leckie so much that he worked on their debut album for free. Like their mates the Coral, they possess an awesome knowledge of music. Their new single, ‘The Warning’, is released on Centro Del Blanco on 2 September.
More ethereal and dreamy than their scene mates, the Cranebuilders are obvious fans of Velvet Underground, Buffalo Springfield and Galaxie 500. Vocalist and guitarist Tommy Roberts and guitarist Simon Reynolds met while working at Crane’s Music Store in Liverpool and formed their own label, Ten People Tell. Championed by Steve Lamacq on Radio 1, their debut EP, Bitch, is out now on Ten People Tell records.
The Crescent have borrowed not only from Captain Beefheart and Love, but also from legendary Liverpool band the La’s (remember the perfect pop song ‘There She Goes’?). Also from Huyton, home to the Coral, the Crescent boast a Richard Ashcroft-esque frontman in Wayne Whitfield – a lead singer who talks of their debut album as a ‘melodic masterpiece’. The Crescent’s eponymous debut album is out on Hut on 30 September.
This bluegrass duo have yet to sign a record deal and find a manager, but their recent outings with the Coral have drawn attention to their individual style. They should have a record out by Christmas.
Also signed to Alan Wills’s Deltasonic label, the Zutons will become a five-piece, as 19-year-old sax player Abby joins full-time. Influenced by Talking Heads and Hank Williams, their live shows are vibrant affairs, moving fluently from R&B to Mexican vibe. Singer Dave McCabe used to do acoustic sets with the Coral’s James Skelly, and drummer Sean Payne acted as stand-in for the Coral at their V2002 show. The Zutons’ debut EP, Devil’s Deal, is released on Deltasonic on 2 September.