Revolutionary Spirit - a review

Blake’s Heaven

Revolutionary Spirit: A Post-Punk Exorcism by Paul Simpson

I’ve said it before on this site, but there must be something in the air or in the water in both Glasgow and Liverpool that allows, encourages and propagates so many anti-macho, fey, flamboyant and fabulously floppy-fringed pop stars to flourish. Both cities have long been associated with reputations for toughness, violence and gritty urban survival, but look closely and you’ll see that nestled in amongst the scrubland there are always a few beautiful wild flowers reaching out for the sun.

Paul Simpson was at various times a founder member of the Teardrop Explodes and (along with Ian Broudie) mid-eighties pop hopefuls Care, but it is with cult Liverpool band The Wild Swans that Paul is probably best remembered. The Wild Swans' 1982 Zoo label twelve inch single Revolutionary Spirit supplies this brilliant memoir with its title.

If you don’t know of Paul, it might be that his repeated, career aspirational, self-harming weapon of choice was to decide to leave a number of bands just as they were about to break into the public consciousness - and it became a difficult habit to break in the eighties. Whereas even a contestant on The Chase or Celebrity Mastermind (OK, maybe not Celebrity Mastermind) really ought to know the names of Julian Cope and Ian Broudie, it might be the lyrical genius of this book which propels the name of Paul Simpson into something more than a Liverpool Post-Punk cult legend for an ageing cognoscenti’s consciousness.

Opening in 2011 with an account of a potentially financially disastrous tour of the Philippines – where The Wild Swans are big stars – the book reverts to Paul Simpson’s sixties childhood, as his family move from Huyton to the almost rural pleasures of Aughton, a village located a few miles north of Liverpool.

Paul’s working class childhood is beautifully rendered in the early section of the book. The dichotomy created by sharing a house with an often tyrannical father and a free-thinking, independent feminist, glam/proto-New Age mother has a profound effect on the boy’s budding psyche.

Mum Doris multi-tasks, combining the traditional post-war mother/housewife role with a flair for art, rifle shooting and impromptu clothes design. The semiotic, aesthetic and spiritual dimensions of choosing the right clothes/having the right look are massively important tropes/themes throughout Revolutionary Spirit, and any child with a soul could only have been mesmerised by the flamboyance of Doris’s rigouts:

By the late sixties, Mum is dressing like Ann-Margret, in purple flared trouser suits, white fun-fur jackets and red leather zip-up boots.

But at a very young age, the author is overwhelmed by what he calls “dark thoughts”, and is plagued throughout his life with existential dark nights – and days – of the soul. The inside jacket of the book suggests that if the Oscar Wilde of the eighties was Morrissey (“There is only one thing in the world worse than immigrants - and that is more immigrants,”), then Paul Simpson was its William Blake. There are lots of suggestions of  a Blakean apocalyptic cosmic world throughout the book, from Paul’s journeys to inner space during his recurring and  lonely truancy vigils beside the Liverpool-Leeds canal, to the explosive LSD/psilocybin trips (which are rendered in remarkable detail) of his young adulthood.

On encountering the nightmares of ‘big school’, Paul’s time is tempered by meeting Trog (“a tough blow-in from Yorkshire, who has just arrived in town with a shaggy bowl haircut and a massive chip on his shoulder”), along with the friendship of near neighbour and future Bunnyman Les Pattinson, and the discovery (via Ormskirk library) of The Secret Life of Salvador Dali – “the book that changes everything forever.”

Paul also meets Les’s “shy friend” Will Sergeant, and they bond over their shared love of the sort of albums I’d see the older boys in my school carrying beneath their RAF greatcoated outerwear. Paul is “pissed off” that Will has more Tull, Zeppelin and Groundhog albums than he.

After meeting the beautiful Karen at Hugh Baird College (Hi, Sally!) Paul’s musical and sartorial tastes start pushing him towards becoming “an introverted ex-Tamla Motown smoothie turned Bowie and Roxy Music obsessive with one foot still in progressive rock, sartorially speaking…”

Breaking out of the bluesy rock chrysalis and emerging as an all things not rock butterfly was a journey made by so many of Merseyside’s music/artistic community in the 1970s, and a journey that probably looked like this:


Rock and prog  > Roxy/Bowie > ‘Scene With No Name’/Punk > Forms own band.


People wonder why there was a dearth of Merseyside bands and artists breaking through in the early to mid-seventies; it might have been that in rejecting all things non-Beatles, most of the likely candidates tired their little selves out, or more likely, they were too busy nodding their heads to Genesis/Zep and Floyd – the cult of which has never truly died out in Liverpool’s ageing scally community.

Paul Simpson is a world away from scally conformity, however; and like that other great auto-didact David Bowie, it’s his willingness to seek out esoterica, to listen to everything he possibly can, and most of all to expand his mind through reading that help to give him his self-belief and his vision. I particularly loved Paul’s account of the power of film in opening up the doors of perception – and also its ability to genuinely frighten the life out of the more sensitive soul. Paul talks about the disastrous psychic repercussions of seeing The Exorcist alone at the giant Abbey Cinerama (being a gigantic girl’s blouse, I avoided seeing The Exorcist until my thirties), and best of all he describes the even greater disturbing effects of seeing the silent banshee in Darby O’Gill and the Little People. I would imagine that most people would not put DOGATLP in their Top 10 Horror Films list, but it’s long been my contention that the 'banshee scene' in this film is - pound for pound – the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in any film. (Especially when you’re three.)

The travails of young love, finding that first job, and a Liverpool music scene desperately waiting for a messiah are brilliantly fleshed out. At one stage NME refers to Paul as being “the best dressed man in Liverpool”, and his look is realised with visits to charity shops (to purchase “the suits of dead men”) along with some of Liverpool’s long-gone cult clothes haunts, and odd little sixties-remnants stores where he buys retro shirts and winklepickers to fashion his unique look.

His efforts are not always rewarded, and it’s true that a prophet is not listened to in his own land:

It's lunchtime in the Jutland, the revamped pub sandwiched between Bootle Strand shopping centre and my college. I’m in a terrible mood due to my sore feet and the reception my retro outfit is receiving. Bastards! I think. You’ll all be wearing winklepickers and drainees next year. Actually, thinking about it, this is Bootle. They’ll be sporting bevvying kecks and shit moustaches come the millennium – and that’s just the little girls.

(Obviously) Hand-in-hand with the correct trouser goes the impeccable – and wholly original – haircut. Paul complains on numerous occasions of how the whole of Liverpool seems to be waiting in line to steal his latest tonsorial look, and there’s no way I can do justice to the personal pleasure and laughter engendered by Paul’s descriptions of his Tommy Atkins look – being born into a military family meant that the TA was the haircut that my dad dreamed of for my seventies feathered and then floppy fringed (sometime) ginger barnet.

Various epiphanies propel the author towards a seat at the Post-Punk Pantheon Table: a poster of Patti Smith publicising Horses; the opening of the legendary and legendarily hygiene-free Erics; meeting up with McCulloch, Cope and Wiley; and having just enough money to procure the rudimentary keyboard employed on the Teardrop Explodes’ first Zoo single Sleeping Gas are all important steps. But it’s the move to Liverpool city centre’s beautiful Rodney Street that (perhaps) seals all of this. No longer is there the rush for the last bus or Merseyrail to the far reaches of North Liverpool, and the constant flow of late-night waifs and strays throwing stones against Paul’s window in an effort to find somewhere to crash or drink helps to further a network of creatives and wrong’uns who would play such a part in the author’s rise and fall.

And rise.

Even allowing for net-inflation and extrapolating backwards like a less-creepy Robert Peston to 1978, when I read that Paul was paying £8 a week for a Rodney Street flat, an audible fucking hell escaped my lips. It’s times like this I wish I had a dog, as talking out loud in an empty house is well, you know, just the start. Sal and I were paying £400 a month back in 1995 for a flat in over-the-road Mount Pleasant, and even allowing for net-inflation, extrapolating forwards like an even creepier Martin Lewis, I thought fucking hell.

Living ‘in town’ means the occasional visit from Her Majesty’s Finest, and at one stage, a nervous Paul Simpson tells his two hyper-unfashionable, moustachioed Tosh Lines-esque detectives:

“Drugs are unfashionable to my generation; you know, like tie-dye and flares.”

It's then that young Paul recognises his faux -pas:

“Oh shit. I’ve just noticed that the algae green and silage brown suits these detectives are wearing have flared trousers.”

Like I say, kecks are very imoortant in this book.

Anyway, Paul snatches defeat from the jaws of victory and leaves the Teardrop Explodes (a band he has named from an image in a Daredevil comic someone has left in his Rodney Street bedsit) just as they are about to release Sleeping Gas.

Unphased, and strangely happier, Paul goes to work in the legendary Armadillo tea rooms, continues to travel (as a mate/part of the scene) with both the Teardrops and the Bunnymen, and forms The Wild Swans with various musicians including old friends Ged and Justin (a man who looks “as if David Sylvian had fallen on hard times and moved to Birkenhead”). Phonogram make an offer. When A&R man Dave Bates compliments Paul on his ‘image’, Paul puts him right.

It's my favourite part of the book.

“This isn’t an image, Dave. I wear these clothes every day of the week. Some nights I have to literally fight my way home.”

Glasgow and Liverpool may have produced an abundance of ‘effeminate’, beautiful, foppish pop stars (and non-pop stars who looked and dressed accordingly), but there was/is always a price to pay. Verbal and physical violence were/are never far away.

Move away from the herd and the jackals start to smell blood.

The ultimate manifestation of this can be seen in the terrible, heartbreaking murders of both Sophie Lancaster and Brianna Ghey.

Paul tries to tell A&R man Dave that the curation of one’s appearance has to be an act of individualism: clothes, haircut, make-up even, are a representation of the oneness of self and ultimately a physical manifestation of the soul:

“Scallies and Neds are conformists, I continue. They like labels. You know: Slazenger, Lois, Diadora. They don’t understand wartime haircuts, prison shirts and demob suits. It’s a hangover from school – an ingrained fear of being laughed at by their mates.”

That final sentence is just … fantastic, isn’t it? The perspicacity and preternatural wisdom of youth, both nailing the worst elements of human nature, and railing against the herd instinct – and also subtly implying to its listener that not dressing and acting as the mob would have it can be a lonely and scary experience.

And you need to be brave.

There were many occasions during this time when I’d get the last 14c home (Liverpool Pier Head to Croxteth), probably not dressed as outlandishly as Paul, perhaps, but certainly with enough ‘flair’ to have my head kicked in, and – due to the Imp of the Perverse – I’d just have to go and sit on the top deck.

The author describes The Wild Swans’ brief sojourn with Phonogram, the genesis and birth of the Swans’ legendary twelve-inch single Revolutionary Spirit (released on the indie Zoo label), and his interaction with a plethora of his contemporaries in fabulous and entertaining detail. When OMD’s Andy McCluskey refuses a civilised request (see Collins, E., later) to use one of his amps, Mr Simpson’s outrage burns quietly, but incandescently below decks:

Hmmm. That’s hardly the spirit of punk, especially coming from a band who had the gall to finish their set with a version of Anarchy in the UK. I’ve been listening to Kraftwerk since 1974, so if they really are the massive influence this band claim to be, why is that they are still dressing like Leo Sayer and Rick Wakeman?

Paul has his band usurped, and rechristened as The Lotus Eaters – with Peter Coyle (who the author describes as “a man I once declared my only competition in Liverpool”) as its new lead singer.

Paul shares a flat with the much-missed Pete De Freitas and finds himself having to endure Courtney Love and chum (as unpaid, unwanted guests) who have made their way to Toxteth in search of their idol Julian Cope.

Revolutionary Spirit is almost a Post-Punk history in microcosm, and it was lovely to revel in its memories with such an affable guide, and one with a laser guided intuitive insight into the joys and follies of humankind – especially when the target is himself.

Paul talks of a Merseyside-legendary gig supporting Orange Juice at Plato’s Ballroom in 1981. Plato’s Ballroom was broken dentures-in-a basket nightclub (Mr) Pickwick’s, which was given a monthly, figurative lick of paint and an arty soubriquet to divert people’s go-to thought that this was not Pickwick’s, but Pick-a-Dick’s where an older, less morally robust clientele went to catch old-fashioned ‘V.D.’ whilst being entertained by Lovelace Watkins, Tony Monopoly and the frequently exuberantly décolletaged Northern Irish songbird Rose Marie.

After an encounter with a frankly rude Edwyn Collins (“Not quite the playful kitten portrayed on the record labels, then,”) Paul finds himself a guitarist short for the most important gig of his life.

Panicking, I run to the nearest phone box and dial his parents’ number. Exasperated to hear him pick up, I jam in a handful of coins.
“Jerry! Why aren’t you here?”
Through mouthfuls of his mother’s home cooking, he dumbfounds me with, ‘But I haven’t had my pudding yet.’”
For fuck’s sake! How old is he, six?

The Teardrop Explodes disappear from view, The Wild Swans fly south and (again) on the brink of potential stardom, Care - Paul’s duo with future Lightning Seeds’ frontman Ian Broudie – dies of neglect when Paul bails on his partner during the recording of their debut album.

Poverty, depression and sadness follow, and the eighties effectively come to an end when the beloved Pete De Freitas is killed in a motorcycle accident.

In the final sections of the book, Paul writes entertainingly about the subsequent decades of his several rises and falls, his travels, his embracing of new music at various stages and his brushes with horrid tropical diseases. There’s a lovely interlude where the author and his friend, the Costa-nominated author Jeff Young are commissioned to write something celebrating the people and environs of Cushendall, County Antrim. Jeff and Paul decide to drink the county dry, and in trying to find the means by which their thirsts can be slaked in rural Ireland, their Withnail double act is regarded with Wicker Man suspicions by the local populace:

When the effects of last night’s drinking have finally worn off, we both go into another bar and are immediately collared by a feisty local who demands to know why, if we claim to be from Liverpool, we don’t have Liverpool accents. We do, we tell him, just not strong ones. “You sound educated,” the man says accusingly. We apologise for this, and while waiting the agonising ten minutes for our Guinness to settle, we have to fend off a bewildering barrage of invasive questions about what schools we went to, what football teams we support. Clearly, we are regarded as contaminants here.

Spookily, it was whilst I was writing my We Are Cult review of Cherry Red’s 2018 Liverpool Post Punk Compilation box set (the snappily-titled Revolutionary Spirit) that I first mentioned the similarities between the hard-knock reputations of both Glasgow and Liverpool, and both cities’ uncanny talent for producing somewhat less-threatening bands and pop stars. The final pages of the book tell us that in 2023 - for all sorts of altruistic reasons - Paul finally decided to leave his home city.

And moved to Glasgow.

Revolutionary Spirit is such a fantastic book. Time just seemed to disappear as I read it, and like all the great books of one’s life, towards the end I had to ration it to fend off that post-great-book void that engulfs my soul from time to time. Paul’s ‘reading list’ is superb as well, and I’ve been so tempted by many of the (particularly) European titles which have shot under or above my radar (or have been ignored for other fare) over the years, but I’m particularly tempted by Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, for as the author puts it:

Anything with haunted, horny, hallucinating, or hungry men trying to stay warm in winter helps me to feel like I am not entirely wasting my life.

More than anything, the book is the story of a Revolutionary Spirit, a unique and beautiful soul writ large - and if I had to make a choice between a tale of vaulting ambition (and I’ve read far too many of these) and an account of the true cost of leaving an Arne Saknussem artistic signature that only a few may ever discover, I’ll take Paul Simpson’s Tales of Ordinary Madness any day.

Highly recommended.

SP December 2023