All we are hearing now are echoes from the musical explosions of the 20th century.
Roger Eagle, 1994
Sit Down! Listen To This! is a book about the influential maverick ‘scenester’, DJ and musical taste-shaper, Roger Eagle.
In the 1960s, he was pivotal to the birth of Northern Soul at The Twisted Wheel; he then became a lodestone for Manchester’s young avant-garde creatives at his experimental club The Magic Village.
During the 1970s, he ran Liverpool’s main rock concert venue The Stadium before co-founding the famous punk/new-wave club Eric’s, through which he influenced the careers of Mick Hucknall, Holly Johnson, Pete Wylie, Ian Broudie, Julian Cope, Ian McCulloch, Pete Burns and many more.
The 1980s found Roger Eagle back in Manchester, booking and promoting at The International on Anson Road, which was the best live music venue in Manchester during my grown-up lifetime.
Author, Bill Sykes, knew Roger personally and interviewed him during the 1990s. Following Roger’s death in 1999, Bill tracked down and interviewed Roger’s family, friends and business associates; his book is created from a collage of interview transcripts, arranged chronologically according to subject matter, reflecting the distinct phases which were Roger’s various musical projects, chapter by chapter.
Only one interviewee mentions the aspect of Roger which struck me most in the mid-80s, namely his resemblance to a down-at-heel version of Magnum P.I. (Tom Selleck) – he even wore Hawaian shirts and baseball caps, which can’t have been a co-incidence.
Oddly enough there are several significant parallels between the lives of Roger Eagle and the fictional Thomas Magnum: both were born in the 1940s to military aviator fathers; both shunned conventional career paths, ploughed their own furrows and were independent-minded; both devised self-consciously ‘carefree’ lifestyles for themselves, which involved some degree of vicarious ‘glamour’ by association, although clearly Hawaii trounces the north of England in this respect. And both were 6 foot 4 inches tall.
Born and raised in Oxford, Roger received a private education, but didn’t go on to university. Instead, around the time of his parents’ divorce in 1959, he bought a motorbike and travelled to London.
Roger Eagle: “…what actually set it all off… was the fifties. Because it was about freedom and independence… it was rock’n’roll you see, that was the thing…
I was just a rock’n’roll fan until I heard Little Richard… Little Richard was the cornerstone for the whole thing, this was 1955/56… Rock’n’roll died in 1958. Ray Charles was the first to see the possibilities of mixing different types of music. He mixed rock’n’roll, R&B, jazz and even country.”
In London, Roger frequented Guy Stevens’ The Scene Club in Soho:
Roger Eagle: “It was the first sort of R&B club to take it away from live gigs… He was the first guy to turn it into a record thing really.”
When he gave a friend a lift up to Manchester in 1962, he decided to stay on, taking casual jobs and hanging out in the city-centre record shops, coffee bars and clubs.
Roger Eagle: “I got to see the Kinks, the Beatles, Bo Diddley, whoever was around really. I’d go to the Oasis off Albert Square, the Jungfrau… near Fennel Street… and the Three Coins… on Fountain Street…”
In 1963, the Abadi brothers opened The Twisted Wheel coffee bar on Brazenose Street, round the corner from The Oasis, hoping to replicate its success. Roger was offered a DJing job because he happened to wander in with a bag of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley records.
Roger Eagle: “The first night I did was an all-nighter… Ninety nine point nine nine per cent of it was black music and that was the difference. The other clubs were very pop orientated, stuff that was in the charts.”
Roger played Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Smith, Mose Allison, Percy Mayfield, Howlin Wolf; when Sonny Boy first played the Wheel in 1964, he stayed at Rogerâ€™s flat at 540 Wilbraham Road in Chorlton.
Ivor Abadi: “We.. got a lot of records from the US Air Force bases in England… Manchester also had Jamaican music shops. So we had this mix of Jamaican-style music, soul, and blues to produce a new overall sound.”
Brian Rae: “…the Blue Beat stuff he used to play was from Moss Side and so on. Most people wouldn’t go down there at that time because there was a stigma attached to Moss Side.”
In 1964, Roger talked the Abadi brothers into backing a magazine R’n’B Scene:
Photographer Brian Smith: “It was the very first glossy illustrated blues magazine… It lost several hundred pounds on that one issue,… The Abadis panicked and he bought it off them, or rather his Mum did. I think he took it on to about 7 issues, and then his Mum paid off the £1000 accumulated debts, mostly print bills.”
In I965, Roger and his friends managed to track down Screaming Jay Hawkins in Hawaii and bring him to England to perform. By this time, The Twisted Wheel was the north’s number one R&B club, considered a major venue by touring black American artists, and rivalled only by The Scene in London. But it was also around this time that the Motown sound became popular to the exclusion of other black music:
Roger: “Over here, as in the States, they kicked the bluesmen out, and the slicker suited guys came in, you know, the guys who sang harmony and had the urban beat, the Motown beat.”
Meanwhile, the police were cracking down on the thriving city centre club culture; the 1965 Manchester Corporation Act allowed Police and Magistrates to close premises at will. The Twisted Wheel moved across town to 6 Whitworth Street, re-opening in September 1965; Roger left the following year:
“The first two years were fun but into the third it became boring quite frankly because the music became too similar all the time, it was just a fast dance beat to keep people dancing all night. They were blocked out their heads on ‘Blues’ or whatever they were taking… all they were interested in was dancing… it’s just boring you know.”
Roger moved to The Blue Note club on Gore Street before opening Staxx, at the old Three Coins premises on Fountain Street, which didn’t particularly take off:
“I was trying to play funk, early funk.”
He would have been playing the same music as Persian at The Reno in Moss Side. But at the same time, Roger was becoming more interested in the emerging rock scene (Captain Beefheart and Pink Floyd) and LSD, and this was reflected in his next project, The Magic VIllage, which opened in March 1968 at 11 Cromford Court:
CP Lee: “…he wanted to show films there, have poets on, have Alan Prater, this old bloke who did dance and movement, the whole idea of it was that it would be an Arts centre, and then Roger realised you might as well just put bands on. …let’s call it a psychedelic youth club and we were all devotees of Roger definitely.”
The Magic Village closed in January I970 but its regulars and hangers-on went on to form the core of Manchester’s music and arts community, for instance Elliot Rashman (Simply Red, Blood & Fire), Bruce Mitchell (Durutti Column), C.P. Lee (Albertos Y Lost Trios Paranoias), Mike Don (Grass Roots Bookshop), Penny Henry (Eighth Day Cafe, Hacienda), Tosh Ryan (Rabid Records) and Martin Hannett (Martin Zero, Joy Division).
Roger left The Magic Village in a state of anxiety about money owed to the gangsters who controlled the premises. He took a job in Liverpool, booking bands for The Stadium, which was a boxing arena, but he commuted from Manchester; this was a crazy arrangement as his rented accomodation in Chorlton was, at one point, a converted coal-hole.
These patterns recurred throughout Roger Eagle’s life: poorly managed finances, hasty departures, unpaid debts, sub-standard living accomodation. But wherever he pitched up, a music scene grew around him organically, nourished by his evangelical zeal and his commitment to make things happen.
When Roger co-founded Eric’s in Liverpool in 1976 with Pete Fulwell and Ken Testi, they didn’t intend to create a punk club: the jukebox was stocked with an eclectic mix of records; Roger DJ’d with his vast record collection and he booked a wide range of acts, including jazz, folk and reggae artists. Eric’s experimental, avant-garde, safe-haven vibe was reminiscent of The Magic Village, and the club performed a similar function, providing a gig venue, a social space and an environment in which Roger could evangelise about music.
Pete Wylie: “At Eric’s, year zero was May 5th 1977, The Clash. Everyone who made a great record in the next ten years from Liverpool was there that night. Bill Drummond, The Bunnymen, Budgie from Siouxsie & the Banshees, Ian Broudie from The Lightning Seeds, obviously Holly and Paul and Pete Burns and Jayne Casey, we were all there.”
Pete Fulwell: “Roger would educate some of the up and coming bands… Roger had a curriculum and if that didn’t fit what you needed, tough shit! He’d try to persuade you that it did.”
On the first page of Chapter 1, Roger’s brother Martin says that their father probably had Asperger’s Syndrome. Roger despised his father but it seems probable to me that he shared his father’s Aspergic condition: his total commitment to music; his intense desire to share it with others regardless of their degree of interest; his inability to connect with others unless music was central; his tendency to ride rough-shod over his friends in matters of finance and favours, even though he never set out to exploit anyone, and never made money for himself.
Bill Drummond: “Roger managed Mick Hucknall early on, Mick was living with him in Liverpool. Mick Hucknall then, seventeen, completely and utterly stunning.”
Mick Hucknall: “The jukebox in Eric’s just summed Roger up – you’d have Anarchy in UK next to A Night in Tunisia by Charlie Parker. That eclectic thing had a huge effect on my attitude toward the music I make… Roger was probably my biggest musical mentor and I discovered a lot of music through Roger.”
Tony Wilson admired the scene at Eric’s and often featured the club on Granada Reports.
Ken Testi: “He saw what we were doing and he wanted to repeat it in Manchester. So we booked the bands for him and that worked very well for us because we were getting an act for two nights there was a marginal saving…”
In 1978, Roger asked Tony Wilson to do A&R for Eric’s record label and this led to the idea of putting out an Eric’s Factory EP featuring OMD, Joy Division and Durutti Column; but they couldn’t agree on a format… Tony wanted 7″ and Roger wanted 12″. So Tony went ahead and organised it all from Manchester, without referring back to Roger and the Eric’s team.
Tony Wilson: “The origin of Factory Records is a falling out over the format of this Manchester/Liverpool collaboration. Who knows, if Roger Eagle hadn’t rung me at home saying will you do it I might have been just a TV presenter. I think Roger represents something very odd which is a connection between the two cities…”
When Eric’s club finished in 1980, it was because of financial problems, although a police crack-down hastened the process. Roger then embarked upon the Cracking Up project, which was an attempt to create an arts centre in a disused warehouse; it was doomed from the start due to lack of finance.
Bruce Mitchell: “After Eric’s closed Roger was skint to an astonishing degree… He moved in with The Yacht’s drummer Tim Whittaker into the roofspace of a warehouse quite near to Mathew Street. It was in the winter and they built two plaster-board sheds… Into this space Roger moved his sound system, his records and a mattress. I went to pick him up from there once and it was one of the most moving incidents of my life… there was just this one lightbulb for this one hundred yards of roofspace… he’s playing very heavy duty King Tubby, and he was very chirpy, he’s dancing about, y’know, “Hey! we’re going out!” – it was so eerie… I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
At this point, Roger was still managing Mick Hucknall as part of The Frantic Elevators but, astonishingly, he gave them away.
Elliot Rashman: “There was this woman who offered to bankroll him in Bristol, so he said “I’m going to Bristol to set up The Lord Buckley, I want you to look after The Frantic Elevators,” so I inherited them, that’s how I got them.”
The Lord Buckley was a restaurant named after an American cult comic/poet whom Roger Eagle admired. It was a short-lived enterprise.
The International in Manchester was a good break for Roger in the mid-80s. Although the book describes the club as catering to 30-year-olds, I went there as a teenager and found myself surrounded by other young people most nights… not that it mattered. We went because of who was playing… Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott Heron, The Woodentops, Prefab Sprout, The Daintees, The Communards… whoever was on, it was a great place to see them because the size of the place made the artists so accessible. Subsequently, The Stone Roses used the club as their launch pad.
Bill Sykes’ research is fantastic and exhaustive; he is an un-egotistical writer and in my opinion, he treats his interview transcripts with too much deference. At times, reading his book is a bit like reading through the raw research. I wish he would summarise more, and quote less, because the interviewees often repeat themselves, which becomes boring to read… and this material isn’t boring and needn’t come across as such.
Some of the anecdotes are priceless… like when the Rolling Stones came down to the Twisted Wheel and Roger played the originals of all their songs so as to show them up… or when he met Lee Scratch Perry, on Steve Barker’s Radio Lancashire show On The Wire, and showed him records which Lee had forgotten he’d ever made.
At times the narrative is obscured by the detail. But historians, film makers and writers will rely on Bill Sykes’ hard work for years to come. I hope they remember to credit him properly; his book is a testament to the perils of avoiding the limelight too successfully!
Roger Eagle identified with the blues men, so he didn’t balk at living in penury. I remember my dad being shocked that Matt Busby lived in poverty as a pensioner in Chorlton in spite of being such a local hero; it seems Roger Eagle had a similar experience, although he further isolated himself by leaving the city for the sake of his health:
Judy Williams: “I can remember Roger being really enthusiastic about helping Mick Hucknall… when Roger was really struggling in Whaley Bridge and was short of money, the help that he asked for was not given graciously.”
Roger Eagle: “I got burned and burnt myself out at the age of 47…”
Roger Eagle’s life story not only links up Manchester and Liverpool, it also threads together historically some very diverse musical scenes, not usually discussed in the same breath. I hope that Sit Down! Listen To This! by Bill Sykes will help to join up the disparate groups of music fans who consider themselves to be distinct from one another and become isolated as a result; Roger Eagle’s eclectic approach to music can inspire us all by demonstrating how much we all have in common!
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MDMARCHIVE & BILL SYKES present:
SIT DOWN! LISTEN TO THIS!
THE ROGER EAGLE STORY BOOK LAUNCH
Tuesday 17th July 7-11pm
The Twisted Wheel
6 Whitworth Street,
Bill Sykes launches his brand new book ‘Sit Down! Listen To This! The Roger Eagle Story’ at The Twisted Wheel.
Guest speakers: Bernie Connor, Roger Fairhurst, CP Lee, Elliot Rashman and Bill Sykes
Guest DJ: Les Hare
Come and help us celebrate the life of this fascinating character – a true cornerstone of both Manchester and Liverpool music.
Read more about Roger’s amazing life here: