Pete Bentham in conversation…Free Rock’N’Roll, The Dinner Ladies…
Liverpool is currently enjoying a welcome resurgence of its live music scene; go back only 10yrs and things were very different, Cream and dance music had literally taken over the city, live venues had closed, and touring bands more often bypassed the place in favour of Manchester, the city still produced some successful groups; The Coral in particular, but it’s fair to say Liverpool was no longer at the forefront.
Liverpool is a city steeped in musical heritage, from the birth of skiffle through to the development of rock’n’roll back in the 60’s to in the late 70’s being one of the key cities outside of London that embraced the development of punk, but then added its own twist; venues like Eric’s have now entered into mythology with both books and plays being written to mark the venues significance. As the 80’s came Liverpool produced the bands that dominated the national charts, and via venues such as Planet X and The Warehouse still offered an audience to music’s more experimental elements…and then came House; people flocked to Quadrant Park and slowly but surely Liverpool moved to a very different beat…from then came Cream and the birth of the superstar DJ; people no longer seemed interested in watching a band, they would rather watch a DJ play recordings of someone else’s music.
There isn’t anything wrong with that, it’s just that some of us prefer the more visceral thrill of watching a drummer rain down beats, a singer – veins popping as they empty their soul into the gig. Thankfully there were a few others in the Liverpool who felt the same; the result of their efforts now being a city with an abundance of venues, a couple of grass roots labels, and home grown fanzines (Bido Lito) and websites (Sevenstreets) that document the goings on.
Over the next couple of weeks we are going to be chatting to some of the key figures, the promoters, the label owners and the bands to get their view on things.
LTW: Pete, what’s your own background?
Pete Bentham: I originally come from Widnes and my family had no musical background except that I grew up the youngest in a house of seven people and so was exposed to all the different music my parents and old brothers and sister we’re playing. I mostly grew up on all the great Sixties stuff like The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Motown and Stax, Simon & Garfunkel, then later in the Seventies Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, prog stuff and then when punk came out that was my music.
LTW: People don’t believe it of you, but I know you are old enough to have attended Eric’s etc – what in particular do you recall from those days, and is there anything from that era that you are looking to recreate with FR&R?
PB: Yes I am just about old enough to have gone to Eric’s and I can only say that it was as great as everyone says it was, as was the whole punk rock revolution at that time. I saw The Clash, The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers etc. It was totally life changing. But I’m not interested in nostalgia and the new blag corporate Eric’s. If you want the experience of Eric’s go to The Kazimier and Mello Mello, they are the modern equivalent in that they are the place where all the most interesting creative people are.
And yes Free Rock & Roll is defo influenced by Eric’s. Thursday’s at Eric’s was a free night where you could go and see new bands and the ‘free’ is not just in the pocket but free in the mind. So hopefully that ‘anything goes’ attitude that Eric’s had.
LTW: The FR&R ethos – I have mixed views on it; I absolutely love the frequency of the gigs, and the opportunity to see so many different bands, bands that I probably wouldn’t go and see if I had to pay to get in…though as someone who both manages bands and books gigs I also find it frustrating that it perhaps under values a band.
PB: That’s fair enough. I know what you mean. Don’t forget everyone that works on Free Rock & Roll is in a band; myself, the girl that deejays, the lad who does the sound, the lad who does the posters, even most of the people that work behind the bar. So it’s a collective of people who all know the struggles of being in a grass roots band that you mention. And there’s no element of paying to play like at corporate venues, how it works in providing backline, beers and expenses is on the FR&R Facebook page, so it’s all transparent.
LTW: I know the bands you book are at the lower rung on the ladder, so they themselves do not lose out, my concern is that people become accustomed to going to gigs for free, so when a larger band tours there is a reluctance to pay, unless that band are a particular favourite.
Music has sadly become a disposable commodity, the younger age group consider it bizarre that people would actually pay for an album; they would rather help themselves from the net – is there any possibility that a succession of free gigs reinforces that belief?
PB: The question of kids wanting all their music for free is an internet issue. The fact that people are not buying records like they used has made live gigs more important to bigger bands and that is actually what has driven ticket prices sky high. Free Rock & Roll is a chance to get a bit of your money back I guess.
LTW: It’s a real conundrum – I have seen so many bands you have booked, and bought their CD on the night, but often I am one of the few who actually invest in the artist, that said your gigs do guarantee an audience for a touring band – Liverpool would be a long way to travel to for an audience of a half dozen.
PB: You are assuming that the bands don’t get paid but Mello do a pretty good bar take so often we can give a band a decent bit of money. My original idea was that if we could persuade all the good bands in Liverpool (of which there are many) to do one free show a year (That didn’t cost them anything) then we could keep the gigs free to enable people to afford to go to gigs in these tough financial times and that this might help the local music scene to thrive.
People are not daft. They know that all gigs can’t be free. FR&R is just saying here’s a chance twice a monthto get a taste of what’s going on. Plus it has meant that FR&R has become a social event. People come a lot of weeks not even knowing whose playing. They know they can come and see other like-minded people and decent bands in a nice environment. Historically, that’s what has been at the centre all successful scenes if you look back at the likes of Eric’s, CBGB’s etc.
The problem of course is that FR&R has become a victim of its own success. Because it’s got a good reputation, we’ve got bands from all over the place, UK and abroad wanting to play. This is obviously a problem as you have limited resources with a free gig. I have to turn down a lot of requests but if a band is on tour and has decent paying weekend gigs then our Thursday works well for them. What you want most at this level is to get an audience and the chance to sell some merch. I know with the Dinner Ladies; if we are playing a town we haven’t played before, we’d sooner play a free show for expenses than play to an empty room. We now also do the two day FR&R festival at Easter and the all dayer in the autumn for a door donation that helps us subsidise the rest of the gigs.
So yes, your comments are valid. I’m not saying FR&R is perfect but I actually think the pros mostly out way the cons.
LTW: So what’s the selection process you work under?
PB: I mostly book the bands but I rely a lot on Mello Mello and other people recommending bands to us. I just decide on a gut feeling if I think something has the required ‘rock & roll’ attitude. But we actually book a really wide range of bands; acoustic, experimental, proggy stuff, Hip-Hop as well as the more obvious punk, ska and rockabilly type stuff. We don’t book too much indie or metal. Not because it isn’t good but because a lot of other people do it well. Metal’s a funny one I think. It definitely rocks but I’m not sure it rolls!? I think if a band has a certain personalityabout them such as humour, style or interesting lyrical content then we are more likely to book it. Bands like Rory & Ned, Lovecraft, El Toro, Dick Limerick etc fit the bill.
LTW: Have any bands repeatedly said no?
I can’t think of anyone really. And I honestly think you’d be hard pressed to find a band who said they didn’t have a good time. Being band people ourselves and not promoters, we do try and give the band the respect they deserve.
LTW: FR&R has now expanded into a label, the last Dinnerladies album was released on it as was the ‘FR&R Vol 1 Comp CD’, was the label something you had always wanted to do?
PB: I wouldn’t call it a label as I’m not even sure I believe in record labels as such. It’s a collective that promotes the DIY ethic. We released the Dinner Ladies albums on it because that’s what we are…a DIY band. I wanted to do the FR&R compilations because I wanted to document what is going on now, because it’s so amazing. The Best of Free Rock & Roll Volume One is a brilliant record. There’s twenty-three great bands on that and I’m just putting Volume Two together and I’ve listed over thirty really good bands not even on the first volume.
That’s a heck of a lot of good Liverpool bands happening now. Interestingly though, I sent it to all the local media, blog sites etc and not one reviewed it. Maybe we aren’t cool enough? I think that suits me really.
The busker/ poet Tom George has approached us to do his single under the Free Rock & Roll name and for us to help him promote it. Anything he makes will go to him, not us and I think that’s how I prefer it rather than running a conventional label.
LTW: What about your own musical background, who else you have played alongside?
PB: I was in a punk band called The Reaction when I was a kid. We didn’t make any records but just made cassettes and sold them at gigs. We were a bit like The Undertones or The Buzzcocks. Then I was in a kind of post-punk band with Dave Pichilingi who now runs the Sound City Festival. I later played guitar and wrote some of the tunes for a band called Halfway To Eddies (Soundcloud), who released an album on Probe Plus Records in 1989. That was a bit theatrical and eclectic, like a sort of acoustic Deaf School.
Then between 1995 and 2000 I was in a band called OUT. It was kind of a garage artrock band. We did a good single and an album, did a load of gigs, went to America a few times. But that was our downfall, the singer met a girl in New York and stayed there…It was a proper Yoko Ono situation! I then never bothered with a band for years and got into promoting gigs more. You may remember I ran the Inner City Sumo gigs at the Masque between 2002 and 2006. We had some great gigs then.
Then I got really ill in 2006 and had to go into hospital for a while and I started thinking if I got out alive I’d start a band and call it the Dinner Ladies after my mum who visited me every day on the bus from Widnes. So that’s how it started. It’s the first time I’ve ever been the lead singer and had my own band. And the fact that we are doing OK proves that it’s best to not take it too seriously and make it fun.
LTW: Tell me about the Dinner Ladies, they seem to be steadfastly lo-fi – often dividing audiences, certainly challenging people conceptions.
PB: I guess we are lo-fi. Is that bad? As for dividing audiences, I know some people on the punk scene have said that we aren’t a punk band. Well to us, if you look at what punk meant when it started in 76′ then we are a true punk band. In the beginning the message was ‘There’s no rules anymore… go and make your own rules’. If you look at the first wave of bands; Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Clash, Pistols, Jam, they all looked and sounded really different. It’s only later that it became a uniform. Don’t get me wrong, I like all kinds of punk bands including good old fashioned three chord mohawk bands and it gives me a warm feeling when I go to Rebellion and see all the punks together. But it’s also good to have bands like us that take the punk ethic and try and do something different with it. It’s also good that Rebellion now embraces all kinds of bands.
As for challenging people’s conceptions. I like the fact that you wouldn’t normally get different people like us in a band together. We are all different ages, sexes, races, types. In that way, we are a kind of ‘people’s band’. I think that also comes from being from Liverpool where the music scene is a real melting pot of different types of bands that play together and support each other’s gigs. You don’t really get that in other cities, so you wouldn’t get a couple of old fellas and a couple of young girls in a band together. At the end of the day, whatever people say about us, we always put on a show and we sing about things we believe in. And there’s a lot that can’t say that.
Pete Bentham &The Dinner Ladies release their forthcoming ‘Spacepunx’ EP on 12 April. The launch gig is on 12 April at Drop The Dumbells, Slater Street, Liverpool.
Their third album will be out in autumn 2013, prior to this they have a couple of gigs booked;
Friday 1 March UK, Lancaster, Yorkshire House
Sat 9 March UK, Liverpool, Threshold Festival, The Picket (Mello Mello Stage)
Friday 12 April UK, Liverpool, Drop The Dumbells (EP Launch)
Sat 25 May UK Stoke-on-Trent, Green Star
Thurs 8 – Sun 11 August UK, Blackpool – Rebellion Festival
Free Rock & Roll is held on alternate Thursday’s at Mello Mello, Slater St, Liverpool.