Working at the British Music Experience (museum of popular music) on the Reminiscence sessions is akin to being an explorer; you are trawling through research and listening to conversations for the stories that can give extra meaning and context to an artefact. It is when I have listened to short tales recounted about what a certain song meant to a family or how a father had worked with a rock star on various building sites before their ascent to fame, that I have really felt how the personal experience imbues the artefacts and environment of the museum with love and humour.
Popular music is the prism through which many of us define parts of our lives. Our memories of parties, celebrations and occasions usually come with a description of what music was playing. The live gig experiences give to us the fun fodder that can bring levity to nostalgic conversations with friends. Memories can also be unlocked, triggered by hearing songs; we are transported back to the place and time when we first heard them. My own experience of being alongside the elderly during my vocational life has shown me how music can help bring focus to a wandering mind and bring the sensation and act of listening right into the present moment causing tears of joy and pain to fall.
Reminiscence: “a story told about a past event remembered by the narrator” and a “characteristic of one thing that is suggestive of another.”
When I started at the British Music Experience, I wanted to help create a reminiscence program that would be beneficial to the wellbeing of those taking part and would bring to light stories and memories that are given the space to be heard, with permission to be retold and then documented. Creating a forum focussed on giving people the freedom to share memories and hoping that the memory can be suggestive and relatable to another person and their life is how we build a shared experience.
I was teamed up with my colleague Paul and on Thursday mornings we drove into Seaforth to two sheltered homes, in the car we listened to Ken Bruce and Pop Master – Paul, a music enthusiast, always got every question right interjecting out loud with the answers as we drove and chatted. For each session we chose a title and a theme, structured a set of questions and contexts, compiled a playlist and brought artefacts from the museum. One of the Sessions Movers, Shakers and Music Scene Makers focussed on the Beat Boom of the early to mid-1960s; when in Merseyside a flourishing culture of around 300 groups played blues-infused rock and roll live sets across 300 venues, ranging from basement clubs to majestic tower ballrooms.
On arriving in Seaforth we were greeted by our reminiscers, some baby boomers some post baby boomers, the two Marys, Pat, Kath, Jim and Ian - all of whom were waiting in the lounge ready to take part. For the resources we’d brought print-outs of front covers such as Bill Harry’s Mersey Beat magazine, asking questions about whether they had been one of its readers in its 5-year circulation (it is a personal history-explorer mission of mine to actually read a copy one day). There was a selection of photographs of the Beat Groups: The Searchers, The Big Three, Gerry and the Pacemakers and a photograph that’d I’d found of four women posing with their instruments sitting on a bench on the Mersey ferry. These were the Liver Birds – I’d never heard of them before and decided to do some research. I found a song I loved called Peanut Butter and listened to it on repeat.
I have often pondered over the lack of British all-girl groups, there weren’t many, if any, that attained the fame afforded to British artists in the 1960s. One theory is that maybe they were overshadowed by the popularity of the 60s pop queens Dusty, Lulu, Sandy and Cilla. Where were the women groups bridging the gap between the 50s and 60s representing the teenage Beatnik girls of the time? When I looked at more images of the Liver birds performing with their instruments dressed in turtle necks singing such songs as "Why do You Hang Around Me?" it felt like I’d made a small treasured discovery for my own musical musings.
Back to our reminiscence forum, upon passing round the pictures Ian spoke up. “Ah, Valerie Gell, my first friend who was a girl, when we were about 9”. Ian examines the photograph, “I’m not too sure which one she is, as I only knew her when we were children, I was shocked when I found out about her being in the group performing, I didn’t know she could play guitar.”
He points Valerie out “Ah there, yes that’s Valerie, her auntie Minnie Gel lived at 34 Arthur Street and that was the street we all used to play on as kids, Valerie would knock for me, we had a piano you see in the front room at our house, lots of people did.”
Ian is remembering his front parlour as he speaks, I’m imagining two children pressing down the keys before going back outside to play hopscotch and whip and top in an early 1950s street scene. I was transported when hearing this and asked for permission for it to be re-told which Ian agreed to. Upon recounting Ian’s reminiscing back in the British Music Experience, another colleague of mine told me he too had met one of the Liver Birds whilst filming in Germany. She had married the song writer who wrote Bacara’s Yes sir I can Boogie. This was story telling through sharing personal memories, not the usual research avenues.
Ian with Crew member Paul.
It is these anecdotes which add personal details to the tours we deliver at the British Music Experience, it brings a collection to life. These stories are retold to our students who come in and helps to paint a picture of time and place and connect the younger to the older generation. This is the beauty of museums - they do not just house objects, they tell stories of the people who were there.
After these experiences I did further research into the Liver Birds – they were one of the Beat Groups who stayed in Germany after being taken to Hamburg and enjoyed success in Deutschland. Ray Davies called lead guitarist Valerie a “fantastic musician”. You can see footage of them playing Diddly Daddly on German TV in 1965, the young audience absolutely loving the music dancing with the new freedom of the post-world war two world.
If you choose to explore and look into the lives of the Liver Birds further you may find stories that are relatable to your own life as well as some great beat music. So sometimes now I really do go out by myself and look across the water and think about Valerie.