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9 May 2023

When Eurovision came to Liverpool

In a festival of geopolitics, money, culture and high camp, the proud outsider city spies a chance for renewal

By Kate Mossman

On 30 April in the lobby of a budget hotel in Liverpool, for a good few hours I watched a group of young people in leathers sitting out on the smoking tables, talking earnestly, checking phones. The next day they were still there, waiting for something – but this time one of them, who has restricted growth, was carrying a wooden flute. Could this be a Eurovision band? It was Moldova’s entry: five girls and boys assembled round one of the country’s most famous singers, Pasha Parfeni – with a top knot and wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt – who also represented his country in 2012. Why are they already here, waiting around, a full week before the opening ceremony? They had their first rehearsal on 13 April, they tell me, as they work on adapting the visuals from their music video for the Liverpool Arena. “Soarele şi Luna” is a song “about yin and yang: life and death, day and night, men and women”, they explain. Each band member will wear one horn, and they will form the shape of the moon on the stage.

The flautist, Sergiu Bors, is a traditional folk musician and actor back home: their entry, a rousing, indigenous track with Lord of the Rings aesthetics, is one of those Eurovision songs you hear less often these days, as globalised song structures flatten the festival’s eclectic sound.

Deep messages underlie a band’s decision to resist Western pop-song sounds, though it makes them less likely to win. Parfeni talks intensely around a slightly nervous manager. The traditional elements in the music are vital to them because their country isn’t very famous, he explains: “We are cultural ambassadors.” Moldova borders Ukraine: its citizens received the first wave of refugees after the Russian invasion; they lost electricity, they got some rockets, but no injuries. “People are nervous. Obviously we were part of the Soviet Union for years, and we have a lot of people who, in some way, silently, support Russian aggression: our band want to promote peace and show that we are together with Ukraine, and from us they can expect only help.” Eurovision is political, for him. “You’re not giving douze points to the band.”

It shouldn’t, of course, be Liverpool hosting the 67th contest but Ukraine, whose Kalush Orchestra won in 2022: the UK came second with the falsetto spaceman Sam Ryder, whose cardboard cut-out can be seen in the windows of Victoria Street. Liverpool beat five other cities for the gig. The council made the case that they were good at big shows – in 2008 they were awarded the UK Capital of Culture; in 2012, the giant marionettes of the Sea Odyssey festival were watched by 600,000. As the council’s head of culture, Claire McColgan, tells me, “We’re also good at getting a central point and making it much bigger than it is, milking it for everything we’ve got.” The council has spent £2m on the contest, with the UK government supplying another £10m – an investment the council hopes will see a £250m return from an upturn in visitor numbers over the next three years.

[See also: Why Eurovision is beloved by the LGBTQ community]

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Everywhere I go, I hear the same phrase: “If anyone can do Eurovision right, Liverpool can.” The broad streets of the “grand old city” are already crammed with hen nights. As the fringe EuroFestival gets underway, the parties will be endless: there will be a huge underwater “sea disco” in conjunction with Ukrainian designers, the Blue and Yellow Submarine Parade; the English National Opera will perform the hits of Eurovision in possibly its campest concert ever.

Getting Eurovision was a big deal for a city recovering from the shame of losing its Unesco World Heritage designation in 2021 – only one of three places ever to do so – for building the new Everton stadium, and various other multimillion-pound modern developments, on the Victorian Bramley-Moore Dock (the honour was originally awarded for the waterfront’s links to Liverpool’s seafaring past). Around the same time, various members of the council were arrested on corruption charges, including the head of regeneration, Nick Kavanagh, and the mayor, Joe Anderson (both deny the allegations and neither have since been charged). Anderson once claimed the Unesco honour was just “a certificate on a wall”.

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There are dozens of abandoned building sites in the city as a result of investments gone bad, like the North Point development up towards Bramley-Moore, where old billboards promise “restaurant, spa and gym as standard with every flat”. Today, people talk affectionately of the modern glass boxes – known as the “three disgraces” – which now partially mask the Edwardian Three Graces on the Pier Head: the Port of Liverpool Building, the Royal Liver Building and the Cunard Building.

Many point out that Bramley-Moore wasn’t really a place people went for its own sake, and that football is culture. But Liverpool has a difficult relationship with its heritage. It still has its Unesco City of Music status, awarded in 2015. Eurovision is thought to be bringing 100,000 visitors (plus 160 million global viewers) and £42m in extra spending this year. But the Beatles bring in £82m a year on their own.

Brian “Nasher” Nash, the guitarist from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, now works as a funeral celebrant. On 20 May 2020 – the date of one of the Downing Street drinks events attended by Boris Johnson during lockdown – Nash performed three Covid funerals “while Johnson popped the corks 200 miles away”, he says, over a flat white in one of the city’s many music museums. Frankie, who broke up in the late Eighties, were Liverpool’s second biggest band, and Nasher is suddenly extra busy, as the group have agreed to reform for the Eurovision opening ceremony on 7 May. The performance of “Welcome to the Pleasuredome”, their first appearance together for 20 years, will last just four minutes.

“I wish I wasn’t doing it,” Nasher says flatly. At the thought of reforming for anything more than four minutes – the band’s interpersonal relationships are not the greatest – he envisions his own tombstone, inscribed: “Here lies Nasher, crushed by the excruciating minutiae of utter bullshit.” He is not doing it for Eurovision, he says – he won’t watch it – or for Ukraine, but for Liverpool.

[See also: Mae Muller’s Eurovision entry is a TikTok-friendly bob with a feminist gloss]

A few times a year, Nasher heads up walking tours of the city, offering an alternative to the Beatles narrative and recreating the fizzing, wildly exciting days of Eric’s Club in the late Seventies, where you could watch Deaf School or Echo & the Bunnymen for 50p. He shows me an aerial photo, on his phone, of the protest that gathered at Royal Court and marched to Eric’s when they closed it down in 1981 for “spurious drugs reasons”. He can’t see himself in the picture but he knows he was there, aged 18.

“The council’s done more damage to this town than the Luftwaffe” he says. “They filled in the Cavern Club and put a shopping mall on it. But there were difficult choices to be made, because no one was giving us any money. Tory governments were giving us jack shit. So do we fix the roof on the Sailors’ Home [they knocked it down] or do we keep the parks open? As soon as Militant [the extreme-left Labour group which presided over Liverpool City Council from 1984 to 1987] were in, that was it. We were cut adrift politically – but metaphorically, I think this city has been cut adrift forever.”

The Royal Albert Dock, which we can see from our window, was silt and wasteland when Frankie were going. It was developed by Michael Heseltine in the Eighties, and is now full of restaurants and Beatles-themed gift shops: one window features the band fashioned entirely from jellybeans on a grand scale.

Though Margaret Thatcher oversaw a period of “managed decline” in Liverpool – when, as one cabbie told me, “we were like refugees” – the city’s relationship with Labour is shaky in the wake of the Labour council’s scandals. “If someone had said ten years ago that they were going to send Tory administrators in to the council there would have been riots in the streets,” Nasher says. “The fact that there wasn’t just proves that the people here know there was a lot of dodgy shit going on.”

Down in the Cavern Quarter, at 2pm, more music rings out than anywhere I’ve been outside of New Orleans – albeit hit and miss, and mostly covers. It is so unusual to find live music in the daytime in England. You pay £5 on the door of the Cavern – not the original Cavern, but a replica that was built from original bricks in 1984 – and you can watch bands from 11am to midnight.

On a Monday afternoon every week, local singer Sarah Deboe plays an intricate bluegrass take on the music of the Beatles and the stuff that inspired them – the kind of records brought over from New York by sailors on the Cunard. She segues her songs in an endless medley because she’s not keen on the sound of 20 tourists clapping, but it feels a bit magical down there in the grimy arches. Yes, it’s not the original club, and there are empty shops around the Cilla Black statue, and it’s all a bit strange, but at least it’s still happening.

The historian Joe Moran of John Moores University says there’s a higher level of casual musicality in the city because of its Irish and American DNA. “It’s always been a place on the edge, a little bit separate,” he says. “You don’t go ‘through’ it, unlike, say, Birmingham or Manchester.” The football brought the city European funding “when little was coming from central government”, and the Capital of Culture tag in 2008 brought in even more. As far as the rest of the world are concerned, says Moran, Liverpool is probably the UK’s second city.

Not far from Moran’s offices is a new concert hall, funded by Yoko Ono and her family, and the LIPA performing arts schools, co-founded by Paul McCartney. On the streets of the city centre, several Beatles tour companies function in reasonably friendly competition – like the Magical Mystery Tour bus, one of whose drivers is Jay Johnson, the brother of Holly from Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Ian Doyle, with his electric cab painted like the Yellow Submarine, is the favourite on TripAdvisor for his personal tours, named “Mad Day Out” after an obscure McCartney quote. A music obsessive with 35 guitars, he explores Beatles sites, their respectful preservation and clunky misuse. When Paul McCartney came back to the city to do James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” in 2018, he signed the street sign at Penny Lane: within hours fans had rubbed half his signature off with their thumbs in an attempt to “get a little bit of Paul on them”, Doyle says.

There is anxiety over sites so fragile, and questions about how they should be preserved. The Penny Lane bus station, where John, Paul and George would connect on the same bus as teenagers, is closed: the building itself was bought by a businessman who hasn’t done anything with it in years, despite the fact that 100 tourists pass it every day. There is a strange glass dome on top saying “Sgt Pepper”, but otherwise, drivers just park up there to have a fag.

Other Beatles’ shrines, however, are well preserved. McCartney’s childhood council house, where many of the Beatles’ first songs were written, is owned by the National Trust, and the heritage body has just bought the one next to it so that the guides can make a cup of tea in a normal kitchen instead of a Fifties-replica one.

Ono acquired Aunt Mimi’s impressive Thirties semi-detached in Woolton with its stained-glass windows, where John Lennon was raised, and gave it to the trust too. But George Harrison and Ringo Starr’s childhood homes have been given over to the Airbnb industry. Doyle is amused by the fact that the American businessmen who bought Harrison’s one-time home in Speke, near the airport, did so without knowing how far out of the city it was: “No one wants to go out there.”

Starr, always the “poor” Beatle, grew up in Dingle, near Toxteth, once one of the city’s most impoverished areas and known for the race riots of 1981. But his old “slum” is getting a makeover. The red terraced houses have been renovated as part of a housing scheme that allows young couples to buy them for £70,000 providing they’re local and stay there for five years (if they try and sell any sooner, they don’t get to keep the profits).

Parts of Peaky Blinders were filmed on one street. Ringo’s huge face grins down from a rainbow mural on the side of the pub where his mum worked as a barmaid. The soon-to-be Airbnb across the street where he grew up wasn’t quite finished in time for Eurovision, but it’ll be open soon. The tourists keep coming for Ringo even though, in 2008, he said there was nothing about Liverpool that he missed.

The Beatles are still Liverpool’s industry, though Claire McColgan at the council proudly tells me that no one’s asked her this year whether McCartney will be performing at the ceremony: they’re asking whether Sonia is coming instead. In the UK, Eurovision’s gradual shift away from irony and cultural mockery to full-scale mainstream celebration is mysterious, and everyone has their own idea of why it has happened: the power of TikTok for overseas bands, revolutions in LGBTQ+ rights, and the war in Ukraine. Nineteen of the council’s 24 fringe arts events are done in conjunction with Ukrainian artists, many of whom are still working from bunkers.

Out near Bramley-Moore Dock, in a huge Victorian warehouse called the Invisible Wind Factory, there are sold-out performances of Chornobyldorf, a modern opera conceived by Opera Aperta in Kyiv. It features Renaissance costumes, six instances of full-frontal nudity and a mutant brass instrument made from four or five trombones welded together; there’s orthodox church singing, shades of Purcel, and a rave scene not unlike the kind Liverpool was known for, before Cream became an international brand (the old nightclub is now flats).

As the countdown to the final begins, serious Ukrainian art will doubtless be subsumed by euphoria, lip-syncing and underwater street parties. No one is complaining that it’s coming. “Better us than anyone else,” says Nasher, facing his four minutes of fame. “But I do think there’s such a thing as Scouse exceptionalism. I mean, we’re just not that impressed, are we?”

[See also: The glorious return of the Eurovision song contest]

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?