Tony Butler of The Zanzibar Club died last week and Liverpool’s music scene went into mourning. Not since David Bowie and Prince have my social media timelines been as monopolised by one person. A man who gave so much to so many – including advice and bollockings in equal measure – has gone and something big has gone with him. By Alan O’Hare.
Independent… adjective: free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority.
Lots of people claim it, only a few live it. Especially in this city and certainly in the music/venue business. I don’t care who you are, you’ve attached yourself to something or someone and gotten into bed with an organisation who you felt no affinity with at the start of your artistic endeavours… whatever they may be. Nothing wrong with it, either. Not really. But there’s only one person I’ve known, in over two decades of traipsing down Seel, Bold and Hope Streets, who can claim to be a truly independent thinker in Liverpool: Tony Butler.
He’d laugh at that. And tell me to “fuck off, Al'” and all… I can hear him saying it now with that trademark way of speaking, too. But it’s true: Tony Butler drew straight lines. Nobody in my phone book has escaped from that little office in the best-sounding club in town without a bollocking. It could be over money, ticket sales or songs (probably stage times!), but you came out knowing more than when you went in. It’s the measure of the man, that: he was all about giving. You could be a metal band looking for a gig in a city often hostile to fast guitars; a sensitive strummer searching for a good sounding stage; a kid peering around the corner for an under-age night; or just a bit of a dick’ead with an ear for a tune and a raging thirst… Tony would give you a chance.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve read “my first gig” on social media this last week, and doesn’t that say it all, but here’s another one: he gave me my first gig nearly twenty years ago and took the piss out of me immediately after it. I’d asked a mate to help me change guitars and tune ’em up and this tickled our hero no end: “who’d ye think ye are?” he laughed as we were loading out and our relationship started when I answered him back. From then on, we had a ball whenever we met: gossiping about bands and other local journalists, drinking tea and talking about Everton. He introduced me to Pete Wylie and gave my band loads of support slots at The Mighty Wah!’s legendary ‘Classic’ nights back in 2007. Tony and I became mates and it was to him I turned years later when my band split up and I had to launch my first solo album… at The Zanzi’, obviously. “Well done Al'” he said as we said goodnight after my first headline gig there. He shook my hand and I walked out with a guitar case in my hand and a lump in my throat; it felt like fatherly approval, I suppose.
The Zanzibar Club is a home-away-from-home for dozens of Liverpool musicians and is so much more than bricks and mortar. We mourn venues too much in this city – it’s people that count. And people will always find a way. When he left Heebies and The Zanzibar started to make a bit of noise, Tony dug in and grafted to make the place stand in his own image. You’ll always get a welcome, but you better be prepared for tough times. You’ll always get a first chance, but you better play the game to go back again. You’ll always be let in, but beware if you get thrown out. Tony Butler was a tough nut to crack and the club is similarly intimidating to some – but that’s life and that’s music. It’s not easy, nor should it be, and that’s what Tony wanted you to realise – you’ve got to respect the game to start getting some admiration back.
The Tony I knew loved CSNY, Everton and cooking healthy food. But he loved The Zanzibar more, it was his club and as I took a walk down Seel Street yesterday – to feel something I needed to feel – I realised that something big had gone. How big was Tony Butler? Too big to be replaced in the construct we all know as the Liverpool music scene. Sure, everything will get back to normal eventually, and I’m sure The Zanzibar Club will carry on, but its unique qualities and oneness have gone forever. They say you can’t take it with you when you go, but I have a feeling Tony has taken that independent spirit with him forever. We’ll never see his likes again. Goodnight and God bless, mate, and may your family find the strength they need to mourn and eventually celebrate you in the coming months.
A working class hero? It’s something to be.
Tony Butler (1966 – 2018)
Pic by John Johnson