Three years ago when Caught by the River celebrated the life and death of Northern music colossus Roger Eagle, two things immediately sprung to mind. Firstly, it was a real treat to see such an exalted figure receiving so much high praise (albeit posthumously). Second thing was how amazing it was that Caught by the River had actually done it all.
Roger Eagle really was a colossus in every sense of the word, a giant physical presence that strode the Northern music scene for nearly thirty years. He was responsible for turning myself – and thousands of pop-eyed, salivating youngsters – onto types of music and areas of culture that they’d never have been aware of in a trillion years. Roger was a promoter, a fan and an educator. In the Tony Wilson/Factory story, the expansion of rhythm and blues and the Liverpool punk thing, Roger was the catalyst, the one that made it work. The oil that greased the machine, if you will. Yet outside a group of those ‘in the know’, he is a peripheral figure. The legend of his tireless work for the betterment of music was in serious danger of being forgotten. To be honest, the Caught by the River feature was probably the first time any people had collectively come together to praise the man and his incredible work.
Last week, the great and the good – all former cellar dwellers – turned out for the Liverpool launch of Bill Sykes’ excellent book about the man, Sit Down! Listen To This! It’s not a biog in the accepted form, more a series of personal testimonials from friends, associates and one-time business colleagues. Their recollections help paint a picture of the man as a muddle of contradictions on a tireless personal mission to find that elusive lost chord. Some of the most important figures in Liverpool music took the stand to give praise to a man who changed the way we thought about music and what we could do with it. Geoff Davies, the founder of Probe Records and the second most important person in the history of the city’s music thang, spoke in his own wonderfully, comical way about the early ’70s, the Liverpool Stadium, Captain Beefheart and the emergence of the new music later that decade. ‘With the benefit of hindsight’, he said, ‘It all seems like it just fell into place.’ But really? He and Roger saw a hole in the market and they capitalised on it. In doing so, they created the Liverpool music scene that still flourishes to this day. And so it goes…
Roger’s partner in Eric’s, Pete Fulwell, spoke candidly about the challenges of keeping the place afloat with Roger at the helm. Commercial success being anathema to Roger, it was Pete’s job to literally keep the ship in the water. Carlton & The Shoes were always going to be more important than paying bills. And the police. In between the talks, Bill gave his personal experiences of Roger while others stood up and added their tuppence worth. Eliot Rashman, former manager of Simply Red, first met Roger in Manchester’s Magic Village in the late 60’s. He talked of how Roger strode the Liverpool/Manchester divide like no other, bringing down the imaginary barriers that some folks in these parts found it difficult to live without. He created the elusive dream of no Liverpool or Manchester, just the North West as capital of all that is weird and wonderful. And on it continued. Jayne Casey, Liverpool legend and former Big In Japan chanteuse, spoke lovingly and caringly about ‘Roger the educator’. He had been her conduit into a caring, loving society, having grown up in a children’s home. She reminisced about how he had advised her on life issues she was unaware of. And, given the sage advice to never listen to the fucking Beatles. Which she never has. Jayne is living proof of the need for a good education – she’s a beautiful woman and she truly got the best.
We were left with the overbearing image of this cantankerous curmudgeon who had little time for fools but huge amounts of warmth and space available for those who wanted to ride his bus. The Roger Eagle I remember was just that: terrifying, colossal, abrupt and difficult to deal with at times. He introduced me to Captain Beefheart, prompting me to buy the first of many records by that artist I ever owned. He gave me and my teenage mates a shelter and a platform to air our half-arsed grievances in the form of music. Whether we used them or not was down to us, but the offer was there.
Liverpool could easily have died a horrid, slow, painful death after the Beatles but for Roger Eagle and Geoff Davies. They saw a chink of light in the medieval dark that had descended the city. And from that chink of light, they picked away at the hole until – eventually – somebody opened the curtains and let the sun shine in.
Liverpool wallows in its musical heritage, based on a fairytale that may or may not have happened. People like Roger and Geoff really are Liverpool’s musical heritage, whether we like it or not. John Lennon left Liverpool in 1962, aged 22, there are pictures and tributes to him everywhere. Roger Eagle put as much into the Liverpool music scene in an afternoon as those before did in a lifetime. Where are the pictures, where is the tribute? It shouldn’t be left to the likes of us to carry the flame. There really is an element of civic duty here and I believe that just outside the box there is a place for Roger Eagle in the nation’s psyche.
But it’s just outside the box.
Bernie Connor presents a great weekly podcast, The Sound of Music. Listen here