Music journalists have a craving for drawing comparisons between the most different and distant artists, but there are those exceptions where two bands seem to share a common fate. The Wicked Whispers and The Stairs prove how much music can reveal to be bittersweet and mirror life.
I meet members of both bands in the backstage of the Concorde 2, a low-ceiling room that recreates the microclimate of Saigon, a non-negligible recall to the 60s, the decade that lies at the roots of the two Liverpool acts’ sound. The early June warmth even forces Wicked Whispers’ frontman Michael Murphy to abandon his usual flawless mid-60s attire in favour of what he defines, jokingly, as “a scallywag look” made of Adidas, chinos and a monochrome black t-shirt. This modern approach to the Sixties is probably the reason for The Wicked Whispers’ distinctiveness. In fact, as Michael explains, the band has always tried to create an own scene, even if coming from a city where the references to the 60s sounds seem to follow you everywhere (Merseybeat, The Stairs, The Coral, Liverpool’s International Festival of Psychedelia, the Go-Go Cage club). The Byrds-looking mop topped singer and guitarist says: “Personally, I do not want to re-create exactly the sound and the outfit of the 60s. I am keen on clothes but I don’t want to be too overboard. I have attended the Go Go Cage for a while, but I don’t feel to be part of a particular scene. We’ve set up [together with label Electone] the annual The Butterfly’s Ball and The Grasshopper’s Feast in Liverpool.”
Talking about the experience of supporting a Liverpool music establishment as The Stairs on a UK tour, Michael describes it as “fun times”. The two bands, in fact, have been knowing each others for some years now and are The Wicked Whispers who persuaded their fellow citizens to a triumphant 2015 stage comeback at Liverpool’s Kazimier as part of The Butterfly’s Ball and The Grasshopper’s Feast. The pairing makes a lot of sense as both the bands have been, at the time of their recording debut, unheard prophets of psychedelic music. When in 1992 The Stairs published their debut LP Mexican R’nB (Go! Discs), England was still immersed in the trippy scent of acid house and not ready, even in the underground, to the 60s sound renaissance of Britpop and indie that would have changes the island’s music in the following years. As guitarist Ged Lynn says with a bittersweet expression halfway between the lost chance and the gladness for a posthumous recognition: “A lot of people say we should have come out in 2002.” Nearly 20 years later, in 2011, and in the same city The Wicked Whispers released their debut EP The Dark Delights Of The Wicked Whispers, a four-track gem of West Coast-meets-London late 60s psych. The five piece band anticipated in the UK, even before Temples’ first release, the psychedelic revival bloomed in the recent years. The Wicked Whispers, as their fellow citizens, probably came out too early and as Michael suspects they did not have, differently from Temples, the support of an influent independent label as Heavenly Recordings. So when it came time for a debut album, 2014 Maps Of The Mystic (Electone), it received the deserved appreciation from specialised press but lacked of an impact on a broad audience.
Talking about future plans Michael announces a forthcoming double A side collectors’ single whom two tracks come from the urge of changing. “We wanted to sound a little bit more modern, not that we’ve moved away from the 60s, but that’s what we do,” says Michael, underlining how the new single captures the ‘hinc et nunc’ tastes and ideas of all band members. The new songs find their space in the 25 minutes live set alongside highlights from the album such as the Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles-meet-The Coral Chronological Astronaut and Amanda Lavender with its Odessey and Oracle’s Zombies-influenced organ riffs. West Coast psych sounds in the style of Strawberry Alarm Clock, Byrds, Love and Jimmy Campbell blend with late 60s London baroque-pop melodies in the hooking voice of Michael Murphy and in the extended organ-filled instrumental jams. Matching the music, the lyrics have a dreamy and psychedelic aftertaste and are defined by its writer as “thought provoking.” The words for Amanda Lavender, for example, are inspired by 1966 film Valley Of The Dolls and are aimed at creating, with success, a dreamlike atmosphere. Before leaving the stage The Wicked Whispers offer the audience a trip to the Sunset Strip with an energetic cover of ‘66 freakbeat nugget The People In Me by The Music Machine.
Backstage before the show, Ged Lynn tells me how the psychedelic revival of the last years influenced on their comeback as it has been “a Wicked Whispers idea and less of a vanity thing.” As he explains: “The interest [for The Stairs] grew on the internet and there are those who now consider our album as a lost treasure.” The world wide web is undoubtedly giving justice to The Stairs as the presence at gigs of “kids of 20-22, the sons of our original fans” is proving. Ged is joined by drummer Paul Maguire and the duo cracks a gag on old tours’ memories. “We had a manager who smoked weed on planes,” recalls Ged with Paul reminding him of when he was smoking on-board wearing a balaclava and a monkey mask.
Smoking on transport has been a key part of The Stairs’ story as their most successful hit Weed Bus proves when the band comes back on stage for an encore of their Who-inspired ‘91 debut single. Another highlight is Right In The Back Of Your Mind, song that gives the title to their 2007 compilation from which is also taken the bluesy harmonica-filled Shadows of Knight-style You Don’t Love Me (You Don’t Care), but it’s a cover of garage-blues classic Gloria that really sets the crowd on fire. The gig is a raucous and riotous blast of 60s-influenced proto-punk, garage and early psych in a 90s sauce that makes me realise for the first time how much The Stairs have been prophetical in influencing both late 90s guitar-led Britrock and the early 00s indie Byrds-ian sound of The Coral. Lead singer and bassist Edgar Jones has got the perfect raucous voice that fits the Rubble/ Pebbles/ Nuggets kind of teenage anger. The four band members are close on stage with that confidence only time can give. As Ged explains: “There’s a more professional approach now. Then I used to forget I had a job to do.” Though, they look relaxed and seem enjoying their time, as the frequent jokes between one song and the other witness.
The Stairs have had a rollercoaster past and their story retraces that of many 60s teenage punk bands- those they have been inspired by- that despite interesting material fell into oblivion for years but remained cherished in a niche of music connoisseurs. The audience is not massive, but you can tell it loves this band. In the air there is a zeal that I haven’t seen for sold out gigs of fashionable teen-friendly indie acts. Ged is enthusiastic when says: “It’s been a pleasant surprise for us to come back. I am so pleased of having people coming to thank you after a gig.”
They have got the faces of rockstars who survived the 90s without hitting the pages of glossy magazines. They had to work in these years to stay afloat, but now life, even if a bit late, is paying back these Liverpool guys who still haven’t lost the spirit of 1992. Life is a cyclical process so, who knows, in 20 years time we could be again in Brighton attending a triumphant comeback of The Wicked Whispers supported by a new stronghold of psychedelia.
By Lorenzo Ottone