A Short History of Liverpool Stadium
Liverpool Stadium staged many of the city’s best gigs during the 1970s, running the gamut from avant garde, prog, hard rock and the beginnings of punk. Despite this, its pivotal role in Liverpool’s music past is overlooked. Richard Lewis celebrates the venue’s place in the city’s musical history.
While Mathew Street is understandably venerated, drawing thousands of visitors each year to The Cavern to soak up The Beatles’ history, and Eric’s on the same street has achieved legendary status, a huge part of Liverpool’s musical past formerly situated a quarter of a mile away is seriously neglected.
The Liverpool Boxing Stadium (to give it its full title) was the premier live music venue in the city for almost all of the 1970s. Considering the illustrious roll-call of bands who played there, its dedicated fansite liverpoolstadium-rockyears.com describes the place as "One of the forgotten rock venues".
Demolished in the mid 1980s, The Stadium has a permanent exhibit in The Liverpool Life Museum, dedicated to its sporting heritage, with scores of handbills, photographs and newspaper cuttings of legendary pugilists including Liverpool’s very own light heavyweight world champion John Conteh in action.
Despite the wealth of material that could fill a similar space for the venue’s musical history, this part of the Stadium’s past is woefully under-represented. The venue is passed over in several histories of Liverpool music, possibly due to a lack of local bands who formed and played at the venue, unlike The Cavern and Eric’s.
Like The Cavern that preceded it, Eric’s that followed and on to The Zanzibar a decade ago and The Kazimier in the present day, people who attended The Stadium had an emotional attachment to the place that went beyond going to ‘just another venue.’
Aside from superb fansites liverpoolstadium-rockyears.com and Facebook group Stadium Daze, there is scarcely any account of the venue’s musical history, even though concerts being held at a rate of one a week for much of the 1970s.
Where the Stadium stood, alongside the far end of Exchange Station in a district of the city once covered with warehouses, the space is now entirely occupied by a vast steel and glass construction that houses dozens of offices. Built on the site of the huge ornate St. Paul’s Church, between Pall Mall and Old Hall St, The Stadium was the world’s first (and to date only) purpose-built Boxing Stadium. Designed by architect Kenmure Kinna, the building cost £30,000 (way over a million in today’s money) and was opened on 20th October 1932.
Boxing was a hugely popular sport in Liverpool, with many of the most revered fighters drawn from immigrant backgrounds, especially the city’s Italian community based in ‘Little Italy’, where John Moores’ Byrom Street campus now stands.
While the new stadium catered for boxing and later wrestling, political rallies were also held there. Winston Churchill chose the venue as the first stop on the Conservatives’ election campaign in 1951 and the all-seated hall was used for scores of political hustings and union meetings well into the 1980s. Both privately-owned companies such as the vast Ford Motor Works in Garston regularly held union meetings at the venue along with public sector workers in the Civil Service.
The Stadium was owned and operated by Best Enterprises, headed by Johnny Best, the British Army’s former middleweight boxing champion, who came from a family of boxing promoters from West Derby. The Best family was later associated with the city’s music scene via Best’s eldest son Pete, who became The Beatles’ drummer (who was infamously sacked before the group released their first single). This family connection led to The Beatles’ appearance at the Stadium’s second ever gig.
Four years after a performance by jazz great Louis Armstrong in 1956, the first show to feature rock n’ roll bands was held in May 1960. The biggest acts in the fledgling Merseybeat movement - The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Howie Casey and the Seniors and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes - made the short journey from The Cavern to St. Paul’s Square to support legendary US rocker Gene Vincent.
Following this, aside from a one-off all-day show The Kaleidoscope Festival in December 1968, headlined by Pink Floyd, with support from The Move and local act The Klubs, no further gigs were held at the Stadium until 1970.
May of that year saw a strong line-up of Soft Machine alumnus Kevin Ayers and the Third Ear Band supporting psych/hard rock group The Edgar Broughton Band, in a show that emphatically put the Stadium on the map as a live music destination. The venue’s emergence on the live circuit in 1970 was especially fortuitous as it coincided with an era when the majority of the world’s biggest bands were British.
Prior to the advent of huge sports arenas being pressed into service as live music venues from the 1980s onwards, the Stadium’s theatre-sized capacity meant the venue could cater for some of the world’s biggest bands as well as those with a smaller but loyal following.
In an era when groups could ensure shots that weren’t taken by official press photographers didn’t see the light of day and cameras were largely banned in venues, frustratingly few live bands shots from the Stadium exist. In the present day when gigs are filmed en masse by attendees then uploaded onto YouTube, the lack of images and footage from the Stadium has served to increase its mystique.
The atmosphere of the Stadium is one of the principle reasons the venue is so fondly remembered in the present day, with many stating whether you particularly liked a band or not was sometimes irrelevant, as going to a gig to soak up the ambience was enough. The Stadium differed hugely from other venues in Liverpool at the time as gig goers would hang around outside the building for hours prior to the doors opening.
As the venue had no age restrictions on under 18s being admitted, under-age drinkers who couldn't chance their arm at the bar had to stock up on booze (sherry appeared to be a popular tipple) from the off-license on St. Paul’s Square.
Due to major redevelopments in the area, only The Cross Keys, a favourite haunt of journalists from the Liverpool Echo and Daily Post remains from the handful of pubs. The long-demolished St. Paul’s, a reference to the church the Stadium was built on and the similarly departed Matchbox and The Grapes also catered for gig-bound drinkers.
A 1974 article from Sounds mentions the Stadiums attendees practice of showing up early doors. ‘There were kids queuing up outside here by 2.00’. Four hours later when the bands took to the stage, the writer recounts, ‘By six o’clock there are 1,400 sitting docile in the ringside seats, or circling in the massive gloom. By the end of the night there were probably 2,000.’
Nerve Arts Editor Colin Serjent remembers The Stadium, "It was just an incredible atmosphere, I never sat down for a gig, everyone stood up. ‘Cos it was a Boxing Stadium you’d always get a good view of the band. The guy we can all thank is the promoter Roger Eagle. How he managed to get all these tremendous contacts is just unbelievable."
As part of Mott the Hoople’s Rock n’ Roll Circus tour in April 1972 (admission was a scarcely believable 70p) music hall comedian Max Wall did the band’s warm-up slot. "Max Wall came on doing his vaudeville act and he was pelted with loads of beer cans", Colin recalls. "Ian Hunter [Mott’s lead singer] came on afterwards and really lambasted the crowd. Rory Gallagher [Irish blues guitar virtuoso] was one of the top acts at The Stadium, he was extremely popular. He used to play for over two and half hours. You’d go every Thursday and Saturday to The Stadium, I went almost literally every week."
The highly fertile ‘underground’ music scene in the city was especially strong at the time with Probe Records selling many of the alternative music papers. Captain Beefheart first appeared at The Stadium in April 1972 - a performance that coincided with an exhibition of his art at Bluecoat Chambers.
Beefheart’s presence (whose huge following on Merseyside continues to this day) alongside space rockers Hawkwind the week before and Chuck Berry the previous month speaks volumes about the Stadium’s eclectic booking policy. In the period of a fortnight between late October and early November 1974, groundbreaking German prog band Faust performed, succeeded by ambient pioneers Tangerine Dream, who in a complete change of pace were followed by gritty rock n’ rollers Thin Lizzy. Sowing the seeds of another lasting cult in the city were Love, with the San Francisco psych/pop group playing in May 1975.
A hallmark of bands who appeared at The Stadium was the frequency they made return visits. Mott the Hoople had a close association with the venue, making five appearances between March 1971 and September 1972. Space rockers Hawkwind meanwhile notched up no less than nine appearances in four years - their December 1972 show recorded for part of their classic live double LP Space Ritual (tickets cost 80p.)
The Stadium made a lasting impression good or otherwise on anyone who attended shows there, as a review of a Virgin Records package tour in May 1974 by Sounds music journalist Bob Edmonds demonstrates. "The Stadium looks dog-eared, decaying and ratty… A lady from Virgin Records mutters ‘This is quite the nastiest place I’ve been to.'"
The gig review of a show headlined by prog rockers Gong gives an insight into Roger Eagle’s ticketing system, renowned for extremely reasonable prices for shows. "The kids pay 44 pence each, a ridiculous price for six hours entertainment. Eagle’s take is £200, which covers the hire of the hall, advertising etc. The bands take the next £200, plus 75 per cent of the rest. It sounds a fair deal for all concerned."
Whilst undoubtedly catering for the underground and avant garde acts of the day, in the period of six months between November 1971 and June 1972, an astonishing gamut of huge bands including Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, David Bowie and Roxy Music all played at the venue. The Faces - who sufficiently moved John Peel to get up onstage in London and dance along ("And I never dance") - were at the height of their lairy lad-rock glory in December 1971 when they played a headline set.
Towards the end of The Stadium’s time as a music venue, one of the city’s most fondly remembered music publications, The Last Trumpet ran for almost two years from 1975. A free magazine (unusual in the 1970s), the publication featured gig and record reviews and existed partially to advertise forthcoming shows at the venue.
Writing a tribute to Roger Eagle in 1999, future founder of The KLF and Echo & the Bunnymen producer Bill Drummond described his first encounter with the promoter at a Stadium show. After seeing a gig preview for seminal pub-rock/proto-punk band Dr. Feelgood in The Last Trumpet, Drummond set off to his first gig there.
"The queue to get in was five deep and at least a couple of hundred yards long…" Drummond wrote. "Punch ups kept erupting in the queue as youths tried to push in or shove those in front. A large man with a bright red shirt and black trousers appeared on the steps that led up to the doors of The Stadium. He was a figure of natural authority. His mere appearance quelled whatever punch ups were happening."
Drummond described the scene as he entered the building, "Drab paintwork, little house-lighting. The PA and band gear were set up on the boxing ring riser, the back half of the hall was partitioned off. There was a woman selling hot dogs and hamburgers from a kiosk, everyone seemed to know she was called Doreen. The walls were covered in faded and torn bills advertising past and future fights."
The penultimate gig on the venue listings clearly showed how much the musical landscape had changed in Britain between 1970 and 1976. A startling line-up of punk icons The Damned, The Clash and The Sex Pistols, scheduled for 11th December 1976, was cancelled nationwide due to local councils concerned about the effects of punk rock on the nation’s populace.
As The Stadium was ideally suited to the avant-garde and progressive acts of the early to mid 1970s, along with a number of commercial big-hitters, Eric’s was ideally suited to punk. Founded by Roger Eagle and Pete Fulwell in early 1977 Eric’s, reminiscent of New York’s CBGBs and London’s 100 Club and The Marquee was more compact, its low-level stage ideal for the bands to play eyeball to eyeball to the front rows.
As Roger Eagle moved to Eric’s, taking his booking contacts with him, The Stadium never staged another gig. The venue continued to host boxing matches and wrestling, the latter at the height of its popularity due to a high profile slot on Saturday evening ITV.
As British Wrestling’s popularity waned however and the building began to look forlorn after fifty years of extremely heavy usage, the final boxing match was staged at The Stadium in 1985. Following this the building closed for good and was eventually demolished two years later.
Around where there had once been huge warehouses and railway sidings there were now office buildings, such as the vast Littlewoods Building to the rear of The Stadium, which now houses dozens of offices as The Plaza.
The Stadium’s fate was to be the same after being used as a car park for quarter of a century, with a huge steel and glass construction now in its place. No trace of the building itself remains, no plaque, no roads renamed in tribute, only the street name of St. Paul’s Square dedicated to the church that preceded the venue survives as a reminder of the site’s remarkable past.
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