BEAT ONE, BEAT TWO, 3BEAT
Like all the great ports of the world, Liverpool’s love of a great night out has led to a defining club culture. One that, at one point in the mid-90s, was responsible for coachloads of punters heading for the city in search of the hedonism it has been famous for since thousands of 19th-century sailors spilled out from the docks looking for kicks.
This history ensured that when acid house spread its charms across the UK during the second summer of love it was welcomed with open arms by a Liverpool primed for action by club nights and venues such as The State, the Underground and the World Downstairs at the Royal Court.
“I don’t think anyone thought it would last three years let alone 30 years,” says Pezz, of Liverpool-based record label 3BEAT who will celebrate their three decades at the forefront of the UK’s dance scene this summer with a headline set showcasing its catalogue at Liverpool International Music Festival, featuring the likes of Sigma, M-22, Anton Powers, Geko, Pezz, Nikki Belle and Rebecca Garton.
Founded in 1989 by Jon Barlow and beginning life as a second-hand record stall in Liverpool’s Quiggins market, 3Beat has gone on to weave its way through the fabric of modern day pop with an eclectic cast list that’s included everyone from Pete Waterman to Kanye West via Paloma Faith and Cheryl. Label manager Pezz, who describes himself as Barlow’s “right-hand man”, began visiting Liverpool while a student in Nottingham and was quickly experiencing the city’s love affair for dance music at the Quad in Bootle where he first met the friends who would first found the label.
Turning down a job at Manchester Airport after moving to Liverpool, Pezz started working at 3Beat in 1992, by which time Barlow, alongside Dave Nicholl and Phil Southall, had moved into a permanent location at the Palace complex on Wood Street. “They were all into music across the board but especially dance music and there was definitely a gap for a record shop,” he says. “They would have to jump on a train to buy house records and go to Manchester to Piccadilly or Eastern Bloc and bring their records back. All the DJs were having to do the same thing.
“The move to the Palace was when it all went off and things started to move culturally. You also had guys who’d gone to a rave and suddenly thought, ‘I don’t want my guitar anymore’, and they were buying keyboards and drum machines. They were then bringing in tapes they’d made and were playing their tunes to the staff behind the counter – they might listen to it and think, ‘Wow, that was really good’, and suddenly you’d have a car boot full of white labels and before you know it you’re running a record label.”
One of the label’s first releases was Oceanic’s Insanity, before it was picked up by Dead Dead Good and sent into the top three. Other notable early volleys included 1st Team’s Feel It, Zenana’s Just Dance, Dub Federation’s Keep On Giving, The World Upstairs’ The Deep and Southport’s New Atlantic who gave their label their first top 20 hit in March 1992 after Pete Waterman’s PWL snapped up I Know, turning it into a huge hit.
“The funny thing with Pete was that he was very good about having his finger on the pulse,” laughs Pezz. “He could see what was going on in clubs because of The Hit Man And Her show. Go back and watch that and you’ll hear proper underground American house music getting played. It was such an exciting time because no one knew what was going to happen – all of a sudden you had people like Gatecrasher, Ministry Of Sound and Cream getting in on the act.”
Mention of the ‘C word’ is unavoidable of course when talking about Liverpool during this period, with Cream beginning life as a weekly house music night at Nation in October 1992 and soon attracting over 3,000 people every week from around the UK. Pezz and 3Beat were in the ideal spot to see the phenomenon explode. “What Cream did for the city was extraordinary,” he says. “The universities were full because of Cream. I remember there were three lads who worked for us and they came to Liverpool because of Cream. There was a vibe oozing from the place.
“At first our shop was the place to buy their tickets and it was massively beneficial for us, but by about 1996 the resident DJs had taken over and the punters were more bothered about their Patrick Cox loafers and their Gucci shirts than buying records. By that point what we were selling most of was what became known as Scouse house.”
Melodic, anthemic and piano-driven with big vocals, Scouse house became a genre in itself thanks to 3Beat’s marketing team. Well, sort of. “The guy who came up with that term as a joke was Andy Nicholson,” laughs Pezz. “You’d have big cheesy records from Holland and piano house from Italy which were massive in the 051 with no real genre to file them in the shop and Andy said, ‘Why don’t we call it Scouse house?’ We all thought it was hilarious but then we stopped laughing and realised that’s what we needed to call it.
“We could be buying 300 copies of a record and we’d be the only shop in the country stocking them and it made sense to call it that. We even thought about copyrighting the name in case HMV started using it!”
Further success came when the label inked a deal with London Records subsidiary FFRR – a partnership with Pete Tong which spawned three Top 10 records, including Lisa Marie Experience’s Keep On Jumpin’ and Berri’s The Sunshine After The Rain. Another landmark came in 1997, when a friend of Barlow’s came into the shop with a demo of Dario G’s Sunchyme (“It was at number two while Elton John’s Candle In The Wind was at number one,” remembers Pezz), prompting the label to be put on hiatus and 3Beat Management to start up in 2000 offering distribution services to numerous other independents. While Barlow was managing Dario G, the label released more underground records – like Tekara’s Breathe In You and Dea-Li’s Calling The Angels – that reflected the more progressive house nature of the 3Beat online store and world famous mail order business.
In 2003, Barlow and Pezz – along with A&R executive Anton Powers and label manager Tim Condran – set up Boss Records, with distribution from Ministry Of Sound. Over the next four years the label released numerous singles with hit records by artists such as Angel City, Aaron Smith, Mason versus Princess Superstar and Studio B. In 2007, after Boss Records’ contract had expired with Ministry Of Sound, Barlow and Pezz founded 3Beat Productions with distribution from Universal. The new label was made up of two sub-labels, 3Beat Blue and 3Beat Red, and has released records by artists such as Agnes, Cahill, Ian Carey, Duck Sauce and Skepta and secured its first UK number one in 2011 with Loca People by Sak Noel. In 2018 they even signed The X Factor songstress Cheryl.
“It’s taken us 30 odd years, but I think we’ve finally got this thing sussed,” says Pezz. “There’s never been a contract with Skepta – it was just shaking hands and looking someone in the eye and saying, ‘You’re not going to be a twat with us and we won’t be a twat with you!’”
Despite Pezz admitting the closure of the original 3Beat record shop (it has since reopened as 3b, staffed by three former members of staff) in 2009 hit him hard, the memories and experiences of 3Beat remain as positive as the bounciest slice of Europop. “When the shutter came down I was the last to leave and went to my car and just burst into tears,” he adds. “It was 18 years of my life gone – but three weeks later we’d moved the label and we’d signed another record and we had some remixes coming in and suddenly I released it was just the end of that period.
“I’m 51 this year, but it keeps you young and it’s ever-evolving and keeps you on your toes. But, looking back, 3Beat has been a hell of an achievement.”
A headline 3Beat @ 30 showcase takes place at LIMF on 20th July in Sefton Park, featuring SIGMA, M-22 and Anton Powers. Tickets for LIMF are available now via TicketQuarter.