The Dead 60s: Conquering the US

The latest hot band to come out of Liverpool have eschewed the city's traditional rock sound. Charlotte Cripps talks to The Dead 60s
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The Independent Culture

While others dream of being rock stars, The Dead 60s, a band from Liverpool, got dead bored with everyone else playing rock. It was about two and a half years ago, when the charts were full of rock bands such as The Libertines, The Strokes and Razorlight, that the four band members, all in their early twenties, put on Fred Perry polo shirts and Sta-Prest jeans and embraced ska-punk. "There must be more to music than rock" was their philosophy.

The band is now sitting in a pub in Notting Hill Gate in London before the night's show at the Hammersmith Apollo. They are supporting Stereophonics, who presented their support band with champagne and leprechaun-shaped chocolates at the beginning of the national tour, but it seems The Dead 60s - who sound like The Clash and The Specials and Talking Heads rolled into one - are always taking the back seat.

Since their Top 20 single "Riot Radio" placed them in the spotlight last October, they have been more or less quiet in Britain because they have been busy conquering the US, where there is a real hunger for this brand of gritty northern ska, and where they performed in some strange places, such as in Nashville to cowboys in a bar.

This has paid off. For one week earlier this summer, the catchy singalong ska of "Riot Radio" became the third most played song on alternative radio in the US, behind the White Stripes and Coldplay, and the band performed at Lollapalooza. Other than that the only change reported by the band on their lifestyle during a whole year of hard work is "eating more junk food and getting fatter".

Life is far from glamorous for the band - all with proper Liverpool accents - who travelled from Los Angeles to Georgia through the Mexican desert, sleeping in a clapped out Winnebago - described by the band as "my first tour bus" - especially when, in Arizona, the air conditioning cruelly broke down leaving them sweltering in the heat. But having been snapped up by Q Prime - the hefty US management team who also manage Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica - The Dead 60s are going up and down America like most of us do the local high street.

Fortunately, they do not seem to mind and treat the whole ordeal with great humility as though they are doing a permanent stint of work experience. Having supported Morrissey before they left for the US, an event they claim was so impersonal that they never saw or spoke to him "although he did peek around the stage curtain at them a few times" - they have since supported the US rock band, Garbage (whose drummer Butch Vig is the cool producer of Nirvana) and The Bravery - a US rock band who sound like Duran Duran.

So, it is with great relief that the band have finally found time to pop back home - not to visit old friends and family or go shopping for more Fred Perry tops in Carnaby Street, but to craft 13 songs and release their debut album - The Dead 60s - on Monday, with limited-edition versions of the album featuring a bonus dub album, Space Invaders Dub.

The new album is all about city life and growing up in Liverpool, with plenty of police sirens and rainfall to give it that British edge, and it has already been released in the US.

For the four band members - the singer and guitarist Matt McManamon, the bass player Charlie Turner, the drummer Bryan Johnson and the guitarist/organist Ben Gordon - work never ends. The album was recorded quickly, in six weeks, as they endured claustrophobic conditions in The Ranch - a recording studio in the rough end of Liverpool that is "like recording in a garden shed," says Turner. The band finds it acceptable because they are climbing the music industry ladder with the hope of arriving at a plush destination.

They only had one real spell of bad luck during the summer. The Reading and Leeds festivals went fine - but, during their recent sell out UK tour - Turner, the bassist and singer, lost his voice. The band were forced to cancel shows in Brighton and Exeter, but were lucky enough to get to Glastonbury Festival with the voice fully recovered. "But, by the time we got to the Other Stage, it was hit by lightning and the roof hung with water during the flash floods and our slot was cancelled," recalls Turner. Instead the band had to contend with "getting wrecked backstage with fellow touring companions, Kasabian and Deltasonic label mates, The Zutons", says Johnson.

The Dead 60s met at school in Liverpool when they were about 11 years old, having played in two rival school bands. Years later they formed The Dead 60s. "It makes sense for us to sing about things people can relate to in their own lives, like buildings getting knocked down to be replaced by car parks and the effect it has. Or how bad new towns are, and how difficult it is to get out of them and create your own life," says Turner. McManamon mainly writes the lyrics, while Turner is the musical brain, but they put creativity down to an inexplicable chemistry. They pride themselves on going back to proper ska - Desmond Dekker and The Skatalites and early dub like Lee Perry and King Tubby. Their debut album contains a mix of songs, from "Ghostfaced Killer" - "We had been listening to some Joe Meek stuff and Jackie Mittoo. It sounds a bit like horror-core ska" - to tracks such as "The Last Resort" - "heavily influenced by PiL".

"We don't see ourselves as a ska bandsays McManamon. "We started the band by listening to dub music and added punk and post-punk sounds."

But what remains a mystery is exactly what The Dead 60s want. "We want our song titles sprayed on walls in every city centre in England," Turner said ambitiously last year. But last Sunday, when they played live on Top of the Pops with a dressing room opposite Status Quo and with Mariah Carey only down the corridor, flanked by bodyguards, it seemed they found themselves feeling like new kids on the block. "Surrounded by proper pop stars, and pretending to be one of them for 30 minutes is weird," says Gordon. "Mariah Carey threw a wobbly," says Johnson. "The stage set was an inch off centre, so it was completely reassembled, while Sean Paul walked around the place wearing a bandanna and a baseball cap - as though he owned the place - throwing knickers at the audience at the end of the performance."

Whether The Dead 60s will ever stop feeling like newcomers is uncertain. As they head off to Europe before touring the US - supporting the old-school American punk band Social Distortion - "who we have never heard of" - they must surely share the sheer relief at having escaped a life trapped in the backstreets and shady doorways of Liverpool that they now sing about. "We have seen some strange things," says Johnson. They will stop touring, around Christmastime, to start work on a second album. But it's not all about playing second fiddle. "By supporting bands you are stealing people's fans," says Turner. "You have 30 minutes to do it."

'The Dead 60s' is out on Monday