One year old in March, the British Music Experience still has the feel of a hidden gem in the heart of the Pier Head. The Cunard Building is a special place with an important story to tell – but the BME is rapidly becoming a bigger part of said story. By Alan O’Hare.
I found myself alone in the British Music Experience last week. Well, not the whole place; the beautiful Cunard Building was heated by other heart beats going about their day. But the BME’s exhibition space was all mine… and it took my breath away. All around me were guitars, clothes and paraphernalia either belonging or related to the cream of the crop: Billy Fury, Dusty Springfield, Lonnie Donegan… and the door from The Beatles’ former HQ on Savile Row (see pic).
It was the latter, in particular, that captured my imagination. In reality, it’s a graffiti-strewn wooden frame behind a glass case – but it’s once-ephemeral presence has been preserved to offer a glimpse into another time and place. A time and place when music and the movement it offered really was magical. There’s so many names, song titles and messages scribbled onto the door that it’s an honest-to-goodness time capsule. But it’s something else, too: proof that music is mainstream and that when alternative culture once willed a world, it always appeared.
It’s easy to sneer at these kind of places, to snigger at The X Factor dresses and bemoan the lack of representation for our own favourites. But the BME has got it just about spot-on – right down to the Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Holly exhibits (and guitars) demonstrating the influence the two invaders had on British music culture. And just wait until you see and hear the holographic illusion of the brilliant Boy George! The space itself is utilised well and opens up to the world a massive part of Liverpool’s history. Of course, back in the day, every immigrant looking for shelter, work and nourishment would have trod the boards here, but now we get to glimpse behind the curtain and see it filled with another strand of cultural identity.
“I don’t think you’ll find many people arguing with the view that Liverpool is the perfect home for the British Music Experience,” says curator and ex-music journalist (NME etc.) Kevin McManus. “Everyone who visits is amazed by how great the space in the Cunard Building looks and as well as programming events to tie in with key music anniversaries, we’re always looking to see how we can work with the music community in Liverpool.” McManus’ words are backed up by the some of the events the BME has coming up, but its daily bread is off to a great start twelve months in: “We’re a museum that showcases and celebrates the best of British music from nineteen forty five through to the present day – but if the word ‘museum’ puts you off, please think again: BME is a vibrant and interactive space filled with music and great visuals throughout,” he declares.
It’s true, with The Beatles Story on our doorstep, Liverpool-dwellers can get (well, let’s be honest: we are) blasé about this kind of thing, but the BME is different. You can play music there, for a start. With guitars, keyboards, a vocal booth and electronic drums all available for visitors to get stuck in to, the place has opened up the possibilities of interactivity in a museum, too. Wander in at any time of day and there’s bound to be someone – often one of the team – strumming a tune, hitting a pad or singing their head off (behind sound-proof doors, of course!). “The infectious enthusiasm of our front of house team adds hugely to the visitor experience,” says Kevin. It did when I was there. My colleagues and I enjoyed a cracking musical session at the end of our tour and were delighted to be left to our own devices with the instruments.
But, then, there was just me and I took a last walk… what stayed with me was the prototype Fender Strat’ George Harrison had tested; an acoustic guitar donated by Van Morrison (see, he’s not always a nark) that once belonged to Lonnie Donegan; a dress of Dusty Springfield that looked as fine and as fragile as her best music sounds and that door. I couldn’t get the door from Apple Corps out of my head. Sure, it had come from Savile Row… but it’s in Liverpool now and that feels right.
A bit like the British Music Experience.
British Music Experience
Cunard Building, Pier Head, Liverpool
Swarb! It Suits Him Well
Sunday January 28th, 7.30pm
Thursday February 22nd, 7.30pm
In conversation: Pete Wylie
Saturday February 24th, 7.30pm
Here to be heard: The Story of The Slits
Saturday March 31st, 7.30pm
Pic courtesy BME