Pete Bentham is a legendary figure of the Liverpool music scene and Getintothis’ Rick Leach caught up with him to talk about the enduring legacy of punk, touring in Europe, new music and more.
Some people just ooze music.
You know how it is. There’s a passion and a love for it, in all its shapes and forms, a passion that never dies.
Pete Bentham is no exception. In fact, after speaking with him, it’s difficult to think of anyone who could be any more passionate about music, its place in society and its place in Liverpool, both past and present.
After a childhood in Widnes as the youngest of a family of seven brothers and sisters, music has always seemed to play a part in his life. His older brothers and sisters were fans of rock and progressive music, soul and disco and he was deeply steeped in that.
Until 1977, punk and Eric’s, when Peter found a music that he could call his own.
Since then he’s promoted gigs, played in bands, toured the UK and the US, nurtured new talent and throughout it all maintained that love and passion for music.
His current band, Pete Bentham and the Dinner Ladies plays constantly across Europe and yet he still finds time to put on his Free Rock and Roll gigs with a multitude of artists as well as hosting a fortnightly Free Rock and Roll Radio show.
As we chatted, he was keen to stress that he ‘wasn’t arsed about nostalgia and wanted to look forward rather than back’ but with such a legacy it would have been remiss of us not to, even just a little bit.
Forthright and opinionated, Pete Bentham has a lot to say about what’s happening in Liverpool at the moment, yet throughout our chat what came across more than anything was that he is someone who cares deeply about the way the music scene is moving forward and much things have changed and what can be done to keep things vital.
So we started with a simple question…
Getintothis: It could be said that the arts and music scene in Liverpool are increasingly catering for the middle classes. Are the poorer, working classes being sidelined?
Pete Bentham:“I think probably because of consumerism and aspiration, a lot of ordinary working class people consider themselves to be middle class now. But in reality they’re still struggling as much as the working classes ever have.”
“They’re being sold an idea of a lifestyle and they are buying it. I recently read that more people watched the final of the Great British Bake Off than watched the FA Cup Final. That has to be the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard, never mind Brexit! People ask why we don’t have subcultures any more like mods, rockers, punks etc. But to have subcultures, you have to have culture. Now we have ‘lifestyle’, a marketing mans idea of culture.”
“If you look at music generally, what used to happen was that the record company people used to have to go to the estates and basement clubs like The Cavern, CBGBs, Eric’s or wherever and find out what the kids were up to.”
“Now, in this age where you can buy anything, they set up a fame school and the kids go to them. The problem with that is that you only get the kids who want to be Adele or Bruno Mars. The kid who wants to be Syd Barrett or Joe Strummer wouldn’t be seen dead in a fame school.”
“You could point out that The Rolling Stones and The Clash went to art school, but that was a different scenario. Then, you could get a grant to go to art school, avoid going to work for a few years and be a malingerer who did art or music full time.”
“With regards to Liverpool, I think we are lucky because we have a massive musical heritage and music and musical influences are passed down from generations, be it soul music, Irish music, folk music, Sixties music or whatever. I can’t imagine that happens so much in Milton Keynes!”
“So in answer to your question, no I don’t think the working classes are being sidelined. I also actually think the kids who come here to study from other places learn the most from getting involved in the local grass-roots music scene and many contribute a lot to it. I’m sure that’s the case, just look at how many stick around and make up so many local bands.”
“The threat here isn’t a class thing, it’s a corporate thing. The authorities here pay lip service to promoting the art/music scene. They think because they put Echo & the Bunnymen on in the park, in the summer, it’s OK to allow Mello Mello to be closed and the Kazimier to be swallowed by a massive development. They are always banging on about The Beatles, but The Beatles didn’t fall from the sky, they came from the grass-roots. Culture doesn’t come from the top, it comes from the bottom.”
Getintothis: Is punk re-emerging?
Pete Bentham: “Punk Rock doesn’t have to re-emerge, because it never went away. But I think from time to time, musical movements are re-evaluated and I think that’s happening with punk at the moment.”
“Partly because it’s the 40th anniversary of the start, but I think mainly because the music industry as it was, has been largely destroyed by the internet and the record deals have dried up. Bands are forced to be more self-sufficient and adopt the DIY ethic.”
“In that sense, the punks always had it right and punk rock is seen as the real deal. Like the great maverick Bill Drummond said, while the emergence of The Sex Pistols, The Clash and all that was exhilarating, it was the Buzzcocks releasing their own record, the Spiral Scratch EP in early 1977 that was the defining moment.”
Getintothis: Can you remember the first punk song you ever heard?
Pete Bentham: “The Saints. It was probably I’m Stranded. They were doing the garage rock and roll, Stooges thing. Late ‘76 or early ‘77-before the first ‘punk’ single, before The Damned’s New Rose and everything in ’77.”
“You listened to John Peel and you got this slight whiff that something was happening. Before it was called punk rock. I was into Dr Feelgood before that.”
“But I had older brothers who were into all Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull and all that. And I loved soul music! My older sister who was 17 when I was about 11 or 12 took me to my very first gig, The Supremes at The Empire when she went with her boyfriend. And I was a proper soul boy at 11 years old!”
“So music was all around. And then there were school discos you know with Slade and T Rex and the rest but I thought the bands all looked…crap! ‘Cos I’d been brought up with The Stones and The Kinks and The Beatles who looked good so when Dr Feelgood came around with the sharp suits: I was ready for it. And then punk! That was my music.”
“Punk was a sea change. How could you not be into it?”
“It was quite funny. At school initially there’d be two or three kids into punk one week. Just a few oddballs at the school disco or at the youth club. Everyone else was into Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath or Bowie or whatever and then suddenly a few month later there’d be 30 kids at the disco who were into punk!”
Getintothis: What’s the legacy of punk? Is it the music or something more; an ethos and an attitude? The Mark Perry, here’s a chord and here’s another one, now go out and do it yourself thing?
Pete Bentham: “Absolutely. It’s not that tabloid Sid Vicious thing. It’s the whole DIY thing that we do and the DIY scene. It literally is Do It Yourself. We (the Dinner Ladies) play gigs in Europe, in Germany for example and we play squats. You don’t need some bloke in London wearing a suit telling you where and what you can play. You can be in any band you want and you can apply that principle to anything; art, music, poetry or whatever. You can just go out and do it. You don’t need anyone telling you what you can or can’t do.”
“I think why punk has survived is because it’s a very wide concept. It can be whatever you want it to be. It’s be yourself and do what you want and do it yourself.”
Getintothis: How does noise fit into this? Is there a reaction with noise?
Pete Bentham: “With the noise thing, I don’t know.”
“They reckon that harsh times, produce hard music and all that but I always thought the noise thing was pretty middle class. Geeky kids with the time to noodle around, whereas working class movements like Northern Soul, Punk and 2-Tone were more about songs. Even Sham 69 and Minor Threat were about tunes.”
Getintothis: So, to over-use a cliché, punk’s not dead. Why exactly?
Pete Bentham: “The success of Rebellion Festival has been a factor. Whatever you think of it, it has raised the bar in terms of punk gigs and the profile of punk rock. It’s also developed to embrace all genres, related art forms and a younger crowd so it’s not just the old school stuff now.”
“When it started it was mostly old school stuff but now, with the younger crowd it’s more of the anarcho-punk stuff and it’s fresher and there’s a new life in it. It’s survived in that sense because it has a wider political agenda. It’s like the Premier League, even if you’re not into it, you can’t deny it’s influence. It’s now incorporated new stuff like Hip Hop and poetry as well.”
“People come over from all over the world for it, Japan and America. It’s kind of the focal point.”
“Probably more bollocks has been talked about punk than any other movement, but if you keep in mind that it gave us the DIY ethic, behind practically every little independent gig, label, record shop you see now, then you can realise its massive influence on popular culture. Also, if you look at things like Big Brother and reality TV, you can see the DIY element there too. So it’s still influencing us, even when we aren’t realising it. Perhaps the Sex Pistols/ Bill Grundy interview was the first reality TV show?”
Getintothis: I always thought it was quite odd that there weren’t any 100% “punk” bands back then that came from Liverpool as opposed to Manchester, for example. I can’t think of any!
Pete Bentham: “That’s right”! There weren’t any! I think it’s because Liverpool bands always do their thing in their own way. Totally unique. Liverpool has its own rules about everything and is completely, completely different, not just in music but in art and fashion as well. There was a big punk scene in Manchester…”
Getintothis: Like Slaughter and the Dogs and all that crude stuff…
Pete Bentham: “Yes, exactly. But I think that The Fall should have been a Liverpool band! They had more in common with Liverpool than Manchester. They played Eric’s more than anyone else and they were always a bridge between Manchester and Liverpool.”
Getintothis: Was Liverpool too fashionable to get too much into punk? There was still that Bowie/Roxy legacy…
Pete Bentham: “I think Liverpool is too careful and mindful to be like anywhere else. Consciously or not, Liverpool will always be rightfully suspicious and will twist and skew things their way and make it their own. And make their own stuff of course, whether in music or anything else.”
Getintothis: So enough of this looking back, cos I know you’re much more interested in what’s happening now! What music can you recommend in Liverpool and the North West? What excites you? What’s going on?
Pete Bentham: “Well, I can say from the stuff I’m involved, that the local music scene is in rude health, but I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t. Obviously there are people who promote indie nights, metal nights or stuff that I ‘m not really involved in, but on the DIY underground scene, there’s loads of good bands and people doing stuff.”
“I think the term DIY scene is probably more accurate than punk scene now as the bands are so diverse, which is actually what the original punk scene was like.”
“I was just about old enough to go to Eric’s and I talk to people who think it was all people with mohawks and bondage kecks and all that, but it was nothing like that. It was a totally free environment where creative people like Julian Cope, Pete Burns and Bill Drummond could thrive and do anything they wanted.”
”That’s why I called my night Free Rock & Roll. I didn’t want punk in the name, as a certain amount of the punk scene is about wearing a uniform and ticking all the boxes. But you can’t help that once a movement enters the mainstream. Look at how vital early hip-hop was with NWA, Public Enemy and the rest and now it’s all guns, bitches and bling and all that nonsense.”
“But a few of us were talking the other day and agreed that there seems to be a lot of bands now that are really trying to take the punk thing and do something different with it, like Wonk Unit, Evil Blizzard, Super Fast Girlie Show. All worth checking out. It’s definitely what The Dinner Ladies are about. We’ve no interest in nostalgia. We’re definitely against nostalgia.”
Getintothis: Can you tell us more about your Free Rock & Roll? What’s it all about?
Pete Bentham: “Well, my Free Rock & Roll nights are still going well with a really nice mixed crowd of people at Sound. It’s been over nine years now and it’s not punk. It’s more indie in the sense of being independent and presenting an alternative in Liverpool.”
“I think people like the unpretentiousness of Free Rock & Roll, which was the original idea. There’s still loads of DIY shows at McGuire’s Pizza place by the Bolshy crowd, Antipop and a few other promoters. Drop The Dumbells is properly established as a multi-purpose venue, with the rehearsal place and Studio as well as the shows. I just hope it survives any gentrification of that end of town.”
Getintothis: The threat of losing venues seems ever-present, doesn’t it?
Pete Bentham: “It’s a worry. The importance and impact of the Mello Mello and the Kazimier crowd was massive. Easily as important as the Eric’s scene. The next fight is to try and save 24 Kitchen Street of course.”
“There’s good news with new basement venue at Sound. You will be able to do pay-in shows then, which you can’t do at the moment at Sound, it being a bar. I do think since we lost Mello Mello, we miss somewhere in town that is a slightly bigger capacity, still cheap to use, but a bit more of proper set up with a decent stage, PA, lights than the basic DIY thing. Hopefully Sound basement will give us that.”
Getintothis: And who do you recommend us to see?
Pete Bentham: “My favourite new band is probably The Unstoppable Sweeties Show that played at Free Rock & Roll. They’ve got some former members of Apaat, Elmo & the Styx and White Blackula. Mad sort of punk jazz, like The Blockheads or The Cardiacs!”
“Unfortunately they haven’t got anything recorded yet, but I’ve put a playlist together of Liverpool bands that have played Free Rock & Roll this year. It’s suitably varied with some great rock and roll bands like Sheepy, and different stuff like Rat Bit Kit and special mention must also go to Queen Zee & the Sasstones; arsey, confrontational, queer punk rock and who I absolutely love. They’re what’s it all about and what it should be about. If anybody embodies the spirit of punk, it’s them.”
Getintothis; Finally, we can’t end without asking about The Dinner Ladies! How did that start?
Pete Bentham: “I played on an album released on Probe Plus Records by a band called Halfway To Eddies in 1989 and in the 90s had a band called OUT which were kind of forerunners of the garagey Hives, Strokes sound to come out a bit later on.”
“We did OK, lots of UK shows and a couple of trips to the US. Then about 15 years ago I got more into putting on gigs and used to run quite a successful night called Inner City Sumo at the Masque -which is now the Arts Club– which featured bands like Zombina & the Skeletones, Voo, Flamingo 50, Hot Club De Paris.”
“However, I got ill in 2006 and was in hospital in a pretty bad way. But when I recovered, it made me want to get into playing again. So I started a band called The Dinner Ladies after my mum -an ex-Dinner Lady- who visited me in hospital every day. But it’s really my first band as it’s the first one where I’ve written all the stuff and generally my concept, which is to make it a rock and roll band in the old sense, but with modern lyrics and be as entertaining as possible.”
Getintothis: You play live a lot? Is it getting harder, touring?
Pete Bentham: “Yeah. Considering I started it for a laugh! Maybe that’s the secret!”
“We do try and play outside of Liverpool as much as we can. We do all over the UK and as I said, regularly go to Germany, Italy and a bit to Ireland, France and Czech Republic.”
“It’s probably never been easy for bands to tour in the UK, since the Sixties, when bands could get proper money, before venues could pay a DJ a fraction of the cost to fill the place. So it’s all about trying to cover your costs and as costs are always going up, then yes, I suppose it is getting harder.”
“But on the DIY scene, generally nobody’s in it for the money and bands are not driven by ambition other than to do more gigs, better gigs and to have a better laugh. But It must be hard being in a serious young indie band, trying to get some kind of commercial success, now that the internet has moved the goalposts. What I would say, is that it is possible to tour if you’ve got the energy and the enthusiasm to find the gigs and organise it. But that all depends what your priorities are.”
- Free Rock and Roll is fortnightly at Sound, Duke Street, Liverpool and is free.
- The Free Rock and Roll Radio Show by Pete Bentham can be heard on the alternate Thursdays at www.iwfmradio.com