A Ten-Year Stomp
Take one melting pot, greased liberally with sleazy rhythm ‘n’ blues; add healthy dollops of 60s garage, surf, stompin’ soul and psychobilly; stir in some raucous freaks, a pinch of mayhem and as many exclamation marks as you can find; illuminate with retro B-movies, sci-fi monster films and Mexican wrestling clips, and brew for a decade in some back-alley rave pits. The resulting gloop is the groovy DNA of Liverpool’s hip-shaking club night THE GO-GO CAGE!, which celebrates its first decade in suitably honking style in February with a 10th birthday ‘Trash Spectacular’.
As well as providing a time-proof hangout for the region’s underground garage punk movers and shakers, The Go-Go Cage! has been a haven for bands and DJs with a penchant for rowdy excesses. The Shook-Ups!, Zombina & The Skeletones and El Toro! have all shook the boards at the club over the years, whether at its original (and now current) home of The Magnet, or in The Cabin’s dingy hideout. We sent Joshua Potts along to speak to Carl Combover – one of the brains and resident DJs behind The Go-Go Cage! – to find out a bit more about the one club night in Liverpool that is guaranteed to get you dancing.
“Anyone can play a guitar. But can you play it while cracking your head off a cymbal as a gorilla jumps on you? I don’t think so.”
Such are the sage words of Carl Pollard, or Carl Combover to his peers on the throwback-rock circuit. Behind him runs a scratchy print of Labyrinth, the David Bowie film, silently projecting a collection of bizarre creatures with the whiff of low-rent hairspray. I ask him whether Labyrinth could play on the walls of The Go-Go Cage! and he frowns, says no. “We’d have The Muppets, but not that.” He’s engrossed in the fantasy he facilitates. It’s kept him young. His eyes are twinkling above a badger-fluff beard, and his shirt is classic Fred Perry: sharp at the collar, giving him a look of trim dedication to sounds that have stayed fresh through abstracting decades. The Go-Go Cage! is his playground – a bi-monthly spectacle of lost inhibitions and clothing items, dressed in the primary colours of 60s nightlife, wavering between the scandal of the new and the assured joy of what we’ve learned to be brilliant. It’s a place where gorillas are welcomed, even encouraged. I’m thinking most clubs nights would benefit from Carl’s approach.
“We had a backstory for him,” he says when pressed about the club’s unofficial mascot. “Locked up in a cage, let out every now and then for parties. He’d go rampaging around, and you’d have your photograph taken with him by a fake press photographer. But it was an actual song we used to play, Go-Go Gorilla. We didn’t put two and two together. We just wanted a guy running around – ply him with beer and let him get on with it.”
He smirks. I asked him to bring some memorabilia to the interview, and he’s obliged with a photo album that covers some assorted memories from The Go-Go Cage!’s first 10 years. We’re looking over it – the winking faces, the people lost in the moment – when Carl sees a favourite he lingers on it, just as the pictures themselves seem to exist in the hermetic squares of a carnival, erasing normal life. The people in them are distinctive. All of them look fearless. I can rightly believe this has lasted 10 years – the DIY ethos has defined Carl and his desires, and the audience is responding to it regardless of whether the upcoming Go-Go Cage! event is the first or last of its kind. But it’s an anniversary that rails against the gentrified club environment, hobbled by good taste and knockoff Jägermeister. The Magnet and The Cabin (now closed) have been Go-Go mainstays, a testament to their individualism, since the night made its first appearance in 2006. Carl was a casual musician back then, working, as he still does, for a TV camera crew.
“I grew up watching Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as a kid – it was always my fantasy to have a club with big-haired, short-skirted girls dancing and a band with sharp suits and ties, with bowler haircuts, looking mean,” he says. “Me and Andy [Hoodoo, co-organiser] were in a band called Doctor Combover, which is where I get my name from. It’s sort of a Liverpool tradition for people to replace your surname with your band name, y’know, like DD Ramone. So people called me Carl Combover.” He laughs, aware that, follically, he has nothing to worry about. “I’ve got a good head of hair, and I’m proud of that. But when The Magnet opened up in ’98 we were like, ‘Fucking hell, this club looks how we sound.’ The red velvet fitted with the vibe of our group. We were a Las Vegas peep-show band: we played stripper music.”
Now in his mid-40s, Carl grew up on acid house, grunge and the contemporary punk scene, often frequenting Liverpool’s weirdo Planet X club as a teenager. He remembers watching rave culture explode on TV and feeling the excitement of a movement that resisted black lines of police officers. He enjoyed all of it, plus bands like Slayer and the Sub Pop roster, the confrontational hip hop of Public Enemy. But it was all a prelude to his discovery of vintage underground pop acts that had proliferated the city’s club circuit at the darker end of the hippie era. He describes the conversion to garage music as giving his ears “what they’d been waiting for”, launching him on a quest to manipulate and adapt the Friday-night punchiness of his records for an evening of obscurity that others could enjoy, congregate around, like fellow adventurers meeting at the poles.
After eight years as a regular band member, Carl was granted the opportunity to make The Magnet his. “They said, ‘Do you want a Saturday night, and do you want to start getting other people involved?’ And I was like, ‘Yeh great, but we don’t know anyone!’ We didn’t know any bands or entertainers from Liverpool, let alone the rest of the country. After the first night, though, it snowballed.” One of the acts that headlined the inaugural Go-Go Cage! was Terry Titter, a local comedian who’d been on Play Your Cards Right not long prior. The game was recreated for him, but Titter could barely stand, and it was a total disaster. Still, it paved the way for what was to come – raucous, skin-of-yer-teeth oddness set against a thumping score of proto-punk shindiggery.
Part of the blueprint for the event can be found in Nuggets, the legendary series of albums compiled from submerged offshoots of the original psych rock explosion by Patti Smith’s guitarist, Lenny Kaye. The first collection was released in 1972, showcasing bands that hadn’t survived the previous four or five years. As such, they were considered ancient even back then, when 90% of groups came and went with their debut single. Kaye added notes to each track from snippets of information he somehow managed to dredge up from the overstuffed graveyard of good pop music; today, one of the many ways his fascination survives is in nights like Carl’s, which hark back to an age that saw everybody “trying to play You Really Got Me a little bit different.” The main appeal, however, is an attempt to draw punters back from the altar of the DJ, refitting their evening around the lunacy that only comes from friends linked in non-partisan love for one another and everyone around them.
Listening to Carl talk envelops you in the atmosphere of his brain, a place that’s open to any madness that knocks on its door. Take a typical burlesque show: once upon a time the Go-Go stage welcomed “Fran”, leader of Lady Luck’s Burlesque Beauties (Carl shows me her picture, smiling like a grandfather). This “very intense” young woman performed her routine wrapped entirely in bandages before revealing a bunch of horrific latex scars on her body. She then picked up a silver bowl from in front of her – unbeknownst to Carl, it was smuggled out of her dressing room – and poured several pounds of sheep guts over herself. The crowd were already eight steps back before that happened.
And, when you chip at Carl’s memories, there seems to be a reservoir of wild messes turned right by the insouciance of their audience. Frank Sidebottom, he of the papier-mâché head, was a golden booking (with his Oh Blimey Big Band). I’ll let Carl tell it:
“So there’s a documentary coming out that will be the true story of Frank; I’m on the Kickstarter list for that. Anyway, on this day he decided to do Frank Sidebottom’s Magical Mystery Tour. He went to the Beatles museum dressed as Paul McCartney from Sgt. Pepper’s, cos he’s a massive Beatles fan. They had John Lennon’s piano – his actual piano – there, and Frank grabbed a load of Japanese tourists and started lying all over it playing Imagine, and changing the words to stuff about Linda McCartney. These tourists didn’t know what the hell was going on and started taking photos. When Frank came on to our stage hours later, drunk as anything, he tried to take his trousers off to reveal his big football shorts underneath. There’s little Frank, with his keyboard, and he started singing, ‘Who’s been on Match of the Day? I have!’ And he flung his shorts off. Then he did two songs lying on his back. He made the whole audience join in on There Is A Light That Never Goes Out but made everyone progressively quieter, so that they were almost whispering the lyrics.”
God bless the true exhibitionists.