40 Years Of The Curly Music Community
Just over 20 years ago at the top of Whitechapel, where the Met Quarter now stands, three major music retailers sat within a stone’s throw of each other. Self-described as the “best music house in Europe”, Rushworth’s (d. 2002) boasted five floors of instruments, sheet music, amplifiers and blow-up photos of customers The Beatles. Opposite Rushworth’s, on Stanley Street – and similarly frequented by Cavern regulars – was Hessy’s, which, after being acquired for an extension by fondly remembered retailer Wade Smith, closed in 1995. Next door to that and founded in 1977 was CURLY MUSIC, the youngest of the troika and who, one year shy of their 40th anniversary, have just moved into new premises. After almost 20 years in their second home at the top end of Ranelagh Street, Curly’s (as it’s affectionately known) has relocated around the corner to an impressive new pad on Renshaw Street, opposite Grand Central.
Fortuitously established just as punk’s winds of change were inspiring countless new bands, Curly’s has been a Mecca for the Eric’s crowd and waves of Liverpool musicians ever since, running the gamut from Echo & The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Farm, The La’s, The Zutons… up to doubtless several acts in these very pages and many more editions to follow. Simply put, Curly’s have become a Liverpool institution. Wirral synth pop progenitors OMD recorded their classic 1982 single Maid Of Orleans (The Waltz Joan Of Arc) in a studio above the shop, which earned keys player and co-writer Paul Humphreys a volley of snowballs as a welcome committee upon returning to the premises when the track had topped several charts in Europe. Thankfully, he took it in good humour.
Curly’s move to Ranelagh Street in 1997 was their first expansion, the extra space gained meaning they could include a new woodwind and brass section (Curly Woodwind, run by Bob Whittaker of Blind Monk Trio and Nick Grantham) on the first floor. In their shiny new and spacious Renshaw Street premises, Curly Woodwind is now housed on the same level as the rest of the shop, with the new first-floor addition this time coming in the form of coffee shop Haze & Graze. Positioning themselves as purveyors of E-cig liquids (the haze) and French-pressed coffee and food (the graze), the café underlines Curly’s reputation as a hang-out as much as a music shop.
An obvious first question then: why the move? “Down that end of town [Ranelagh Street] now is more restaurants and bars, we found that it didn’t really suit what we wanted to do,” owner and manager Stuart Ellis explains, sat in an upstairs room overlooking Grand Central with café managers Pete Kelly and Ryan Kevan. “With Renshaw Street getting developed nicely, we wanted to get in and get re-established. With parents bringing kids in after music lessons they’d say, ‘Is there anywhere I can go and have a coffee?’ and we’d end up sending them to boring old Costa, so we always fancied doing it ourselves. I don’t know anything about it but these two lads do, so it just tied in.” “We were already looking,” Pete explains of the café’s opening. “We’d had the idea for a premises and Ryan mentioned it to [Curly co-owner] Pete Ellis.”
With several music retailers pulling down the shutters over the decades, we wonder why the owners think Curly’s has prospered while others have fallen away. “The sign outside says it all,” Ryan suggests, referring to Curly’s longstanding tagline ‘Run by musicians for musicians’. “We’ve all been in bands for years, so we can relate to it,” Stu nods in assent. “I know [buying habits are] internet-based now, but what’s happened over the years since the internet has come along is that it’s become very impersonal.”
“Music is a community,” Stu continues. “People come in to get strings, set-ups, advice: ‘Do you know anything about this new product that’s out?’. And, to me, that’s how it should be. We can combine that with modern-day internet buying that gives everyone the choice. You don’t have to be that impersonal internet thing, because I think some industries like ours require that personal touch. Our prices are about the same as what they are online; people are gonna come in and check something out, then they’ll check on their phone.”
Compared to some competitors’ attitudes towards ensuring that anyone trying out an instrument ends up purchasing it, the present establishment take a relaxed view. “As long as I’m in charge of this place we’re never gonna do that,” Stu emphasises. “They could be selling knives and forks, it doesn’t matter that they’re selling instruments – and therein lies the difference,” he adds. “You can go online and buy knives and forks and you need minimum knowledge. With instruments, you need advice and you need to come in. Fine, you could buy it from us, but you’ve also got the choice to go online. You can go and buy a TV and number one is the same as 1,000; but, you can have six Fender Strats, all the same colour, made in the same year, and I guarantee you’ll pick one up and say, ‘This one plays the best out of them all’.”
The option to get personal one-on-one advice is in marked contrast to internet forums. Pete Ellis is responsible for guitar maintenance, developing a reputation as a go-to guy. “He’s known for it,” Stu states. “He set up Noel Gallagher’s guitars a while back; his roadie brought them in. Customers know he’ll get it right.”
Having endured every single music fashion since punk, and aside from the huge shifts in technology, dominant music genres of the period have seen Curly’s stock take different directions over the years. Sales of electric guitars, which were sky high in the 1990s, have tailed off considerably in the years since. “It’s at a low now. We’ve started selling more acoustics, which have always been fairly steady,” Stu notes. “Electric guitars took an upwards turn with Oasis and Britpop; you’d get a Man City blue Epiphone [Noel Gallagher’s axe of choice] that was like gold dust. When that stopped, there’s the [ludicrously technical axe slinger] Steve Vai widdly-widdly kinda thing, when everyone had to be a virtuoso player – and that, too, died a death, really. Eleccy guitars have died away, too. We sell high-end used stuff like Strats and Les Pauls, but we’re not selling any electric guitars to kids. Things like games systems have put paid to it.”
Similar to record shops, some Curly’s regulars have formed long relationships with the business. “You see kids coming in when they’re young, they get involved, and then you see them as adults and they’re still playing,” Stu explains. “People you haven’t seen in a while will call in and buy a lead or a set of strings. It’s like a coffee-shop atmosphere, you want that vibe. We thought the move up the road would suit that better. If you come into Curly you’re gonna see the same faces and you can chat to them. A shop should be about people wanting to go in, have a chat, get to know the names, then you’re gonna succeed.”
Weathering shifts in music fashions, technology, buying habits and a myriad of other developments spanning five different decades, Curly Music are surely set to remain a fixture of the city’s music scene for the next five and beyond.
You can find Curly Music at their new home on 38 Renshaw Street, along with their new coffee shop Haze & Graze on the first floor.