Allen, promoter, music fan extraordinaire and Liverpool legend, recently celebrated her 70th birthday, and we look back at a life less ordinary.
The word legend is bandied about far too often, but now and then we come across someone who truly deserves the title.
Doreen Allen is one such person.
Either by luck or judgement, Doreen has found herself in the right place at the right time throughout the history of modern music in Liverpool. Stick a pin in a list of Liverpool bands and you are guaranteed to land on someone with a tale to tell about her.
An unsung hero with stories galore, her enthusiasm and commitment to Liverpool’s music scene is beyond measure. Having recently turned 70, Doreen still has her finger on the pulse of the city’s musical heartbeat, championing Queen Zee since she went to their early gigs because she ‘liked their name’.
The good folk of Liverpool recently threw a surprise 70th birthday party for Doreen, with Queen Zee kindly agreeing to play.
In an emotional night, District was packed out, with demand for tickets far exceeding supply. Doreen ended up on stage with Queen Zee and was greeted with huge cheers and applause. Those whose lives have been touched and changed by her efforts with the Liverpool music scene were all eager to have a chance to show their appreciation.
Doreen has blazed a trail, booking bands, managing clubs and running record labels. We were lucky enough to catch up with Doreen over a cappuccino at Liverpool’s Pen Factory for one last interview before she starts work on her eagerly awaited autobiography.
I thought we’d start with a few quickfire questions. What’s the best gig you’ve ever been to?
‘The Cramps, it’s got to be The Cramps at Eric’s.’
Worst gig you’ve ever been to?
‘Well probably the worst gig I was ever involved with was Johnny Thunders at Planet X. It was such a shame and it was probably my fault, because I gave him his rider when he came to do the soundcheck, and it was a bottle of brandy and a bottle of Baileys. He asked for a pint glass and poured it all in, and then he did his soundcheck and went back to the hotel.
He was supposed to be back in Planet X for half past seven but he didn’t make it until half past ten and he was completely drunk. It was a nightmare, even though I really wanted to love him. He wouldn’t go off stage, and I had all the night time crowd wanting to come downstairs and dance, and there was Johnny Thunders on stage comatose!’
What’s the last gig you went to?
‘Queen Zee at Liverpool Pride. They were fantastic, they’re my favourite band at the moment.’
And what was your first gig?:
‘Well this is going to be embarrassing now, but it was Cliff Richard, when I was 13. My parents bought me tickets for my birthday. It was at the Empire, when he was with The Shadows. They were very good at the time, The Shadows were brilliant. But I did progress a bit and I think the next gig I went to at the Empire was Billy Fury.’
And you saw The Beatles at The Empire?
‘I saw them twice at The Empire. I saw them supporting Roy Orbison and then I saw them headlining. I was also sat behind John and Paul at the Billy Fury concert.’
What was it like seeing The Beatles back then?
‘It was just exciting. They weren’t really well known outside Liverpool still at that point, I wish I had seen them at The Cavern, but I was just a bit too young. I should have gone to see them at New Brighton Tower, but my friend had to get the last bus home so we missed them. And that was it really, when they became really famous I went off them, I went on to The Pretty Things and The Stones really.
Pretty Things were brilliant. I actually got offered them for Planet X in the 90s, and I had to pass because nobody would have heard of them.’
So how did you go from being a fan going to gigs, to putting them on yourself?
‘The first event I actually put on was with two friends in 1964. It was in West Kirby Parish Hall with The Caverners and The Prowlers. But I used to go and see bands at The Empire and The Mardi, and then I got into the Liverpool scene at the time, like the poets and that little scene. I used to go to O’Connor’s Tavern, and somebody used to put the bands on upstairs there and he got fed up with it, so I just took over putting bands on upstairs.
At O’Connor’s I started putting on metal bands, I put on Judas Priest and UFO – they stayed at my Mum’s house afterwards. So that was 1969/70, and then one time this guy came over, called Roger Eagle. And he said he was starting to put bands on at The Stadium and asked me to work there. So it was very much a chance meeting, and then I started working at The Stadium. And then when Roger finished working at The Stadium, he opened Eric’s and asked me to work with him there. So really, that meeting with Roger in O’Connor’s changed my life.’
What was your official job title at Eric’s?
‘Well before they actually owned the lease for Eric’s, I used to run the cloakroom. In those days we had an office at the back of Probe, in Button Street. So I used to be in there in the daytime, selling tickets and doing some memberships, and at night I used to work in the cloakroom. And then, when they got the lease for the building, I worked full time at Eric’s.’
Did you notice a difference going from The Stadium to Eric’s?
‘Yes, it was a complete change really. It was a full time thing. At The Stadium there weren’t concerts on every week. When I was working at The Stadium, I also worked at a travel agents in St Johns Precinct, and later we actually sold tickets for Eric’s from that travel agents. So it was all interconnected really.
‘I actually got the job as Deaf School’s fan club secretary. Something had happened, and I can’t remember what, Roger and I must have had a slight disagreement. I had the Deaf School interview in the Eric’s office. But then Deaf School split up and I never actually did the fan club, so I decided to work full time in Eric’s. I used to go in there for ten o’clock in the morning and open things up, with Pete Fulwell.
I used to staff the kitchen, and that’s how I got to know Hilary [Steele – face about town and photographer of the early Eric’s scene]. Between 12.00 and 2.00 at Eric’s we used to open up to do memberships and sell posters’
Well my first job after leaving school was on King Edward docks, so I used to call in to Eric’s on my lunch hour, just to see if anything was going on. I remember Ian Broudie was there a lot.
‘Oh yes, he was always there. They all used to hang around there, they had nothing better to do. We used to have a little gang in, Pete Wylie and Ian McCulloch used to be with me. One of my jobs was to go down to the Liverpool Echo office, to put the advert in for Eric’s, and I used to bribe McCulloch to come with me.
He used to hate the walk, and it was in a boring part of town where you never used to see any of your mates, so I used to say ‘I’ll give you a chocolate biscuit if you come with me’ and he always used to whinge, but he always came.
And that’s how they formed the bands, just from hanging around. And then you’d go over to the Armadillo [tea rooms]. I used to go there for my lunch and I always used to have McCulloch with me, and I always had to buy him a cup of tea. And then I’d go back and do the wages or whatever and then lock up at 5.00. If there was a band on I’d go back down again for the evening, so my life was Eric’s really.
I remember I put Echo and the Bunnymen‘s first gig on at Eric’s. Roger wouldn’t pay them so they all came running to me, saying they needed money to pay for the van. So I took them to the office and gave them twenty quid.’
How did you feel when Eric’s closed down?
‘Oh, destroyed. Many people moved away when it closed down. Hilary moved to London and she was very important to the Eric’s story. It was her that first brought Julian Cope down, so without her there probably wouldn’t be any Teardrop Explodes. But the whole scene just splintered, socially our lives just went kaput. I was still quite lucky, because I carried on working for Eric’s records and Inevitable records, from ’79 to ’82 I was the label manager for those two labels.
At first we worked from Pete Fullwell’s house and then we got an office above Café Tabac in Bold Street. And Wylie was in there, he had his Eternal label there, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark had their office in there, so there was a lot of fun and games in there. And then I managed Dead or Alive and the Ponderosa Glee Boys from that office, as well as running the Frankie Goes to Hollywood fan club.’
And then the next thing was Liverpool Warehouse wasn’t it?
‘Yes, well I was running the record labels while I was working at The Warehouse. [Warehouse owner] Dave C asked me if I would run the door at The Warehouse, I suppose to give it a bit of an Eric’s feel, so I was there for about a year. I was also running the door at another club, Macmillan’s, they had a gay night on a Sunday, so I worked there. So that’s how I got involved with the gay scene really.’
I used to love The Warehouse.
‘Did you? I never really…probably after Eric’s I never…I suppose because it never used to open in the daytime it never had a scene. I always used to think The Warehouse was just a venue. When you look at the listings and see what bands played it looks fantastic. And almost every day of the week. I think after being involved with Eric’s, The Warehouse was a bit… [sighs].’
You had your legendary birthday party in The Warehouse.
Yes, I had my 34th birthday at The Warehouse. I was sitting there doing the door one night and I said to Dave “Oh bloody hell, I’m 34 in a month’s time” and he said “Why don’t you have your birthday party here?” And we did and 500 people turned up.
It went on until seven in the morning and the following day, which was a Monday, Probe didn’t open until two in the afternoon, Pete Burns was seen in town without his makeup on, the Armadillo tea rooms didn’t open until late and Janice Long was doing her radio show for Radio Merseyside in the morning and she was making a real balls up of it because she’d been partying away. It seemed like the whole of Liverpool were totally wrecked that Monday [laughs]. But it was a brilliant party.’
And that’s what led to you starting your own club?
‘Well yes. I think the owners saw that I could get people into a club, and they still had Macmillan’s round the corner, which was only busy on a Sunday night, on gay night, and they said I should do a Friday night there. So I thought about it, and I had already met Kenny [Planet X co-owner] a few weeks beforehand and we went back and said “Yep, let’s do it”. So June 3rd 1983 was the first night of Planet X.
We got somebody in The Everyman [Theatre] to do the shop dummies. And they were brilliant. We had to dress down the premises, because it was a bit posh for us. And we ruined the carpet – we smeared all this jelly-like stuff on the walls and it ran down the walls. One of the owners whinged so much I had to go in the next day and scrub the carpet.
But Planet X was an instant success. And it was all word of mouth, although I do remember handing out flyers at The State, because I always went there on a Thursday night and we knew we wanted that crowd in really.’
Planet X was your main thing really wasn’t it?
Yes. And we still do Planet X nights these days. We only lasted 8 months at MacMillans, and then we moved to what was Brady’s. We put a few bands on there. And then Tommy from Jody’s asked us to go there on a Friday night, which we did and called it the Pink Palace. So for a while we were doing both nights. And also at the time we were doing a night in Chester.
So we used to transport our mannequins over to Chester on a Tuesday night. But we only did that for six to eight weeks, because the bouncers were letting in people we didn’t want there. In fact we had more trouble in those six to eight weeks in Chester than everywhere else put together. We never used to get any trouble in Liverpool, because we had total control of the door.
So we were a bit of a travelling concern really. And then we did The Hacienda, we decorated that up on Halloween. We took our mannequins there and we took over the cocktail bar. And then we finished at Brady’s and Tommy wanted to turn Jody’s into one single club, so we couldn’t have the basement anymore. And then Tommy told me there was a short lease going on a club round the corner in Temple Street, why don’t you go for it? He said that ‘You’ve been making money for people on the bar and just taking a percentage of the take on the door, why don’t you start your own club?’. So we had a look and we took it.
I think the lease was only around seven and a half grand, which was a lot of money at the time. I had some savings, but I needed another two grand. So I went to the bank manager we used at Eric’s, and he was a lovely guy, he gave loads of the bands loans, without him there wouldn’t have been a lot of the bands that there were, he kept them going. I hadn’t seen him since the Eric’s days, so I rang him up and I said ‘It’s Doreen here, who used to work at Eric’s’ and he said ‘How much do you want?’.
So I told him and the next day he rang me up to say I could have it. So we got the lease in Temple Street and that was our own club then.’
Well that’s a good progression, having your own place.
‘Yes, but we were still a bit naïve about the logistics. I knew about booking bands, but we had to learn from our mistakes when it came to running a club. But it was great from the first night really. The only thing was that we always used to get a big crowd in on Saturdays, but it was the Thursdays and Fridays that we struggled. A lot of students wouldn’t come to that part of town. But we broke even, we paid the bills and we all had a good time.
And then, when we only had six months left on the lease and we knew we were going to have to get out of there, Kenny and I were going into the club and this car drew up with these gangster-y looking men and I thought ‘Oh my god, it’s protection time!’. And one of the men wound the window down and said ‘Is this your premises?’ and we looked at each other and said ‘Yes.’ And then he said ‘Well we’re property developers, how much longer do you have on the lease?’
So we told him and he said that if we could move out sooner he would give us quite a lot of money. And I think they offered us eighteen grand, which was a hell of a lot of money.
I’d been scouring the Echo looking for premises, and I saw an advert for an eighteen year lease on a club in Liverpool city centre, for twelve and a half grand, plus the rent which was something like £200 a week. And it was in Hanover Street, and I thought that the students would go there, and we needed more than one good night a week, we needed three good nights to survive, so we took it.
People moaned when we moved to Hanover Street, but we had to. And it did give us a new lease of life when we moved there, because the students did come. Our Thursday nights were brilliant, and that was the old Liverpool Poly lot.
But I always knew from working at Eric’s and The Warehouse, that we had to have two crowds in per night, one for the bands and one for the indie disco side of things. I learned a lot from Eric’s, I saw where it went wrong. Eric’s put the bands on early so people could catch the last bus home, so after the bands had finished it was empty. A few people stayed until two, but not a lot.
I think Planet X had had its day by around ’93, I think we’d run out of steam by then. Kenny had left by then and I had an awful time fighting for the club. It wasn’t a personal thing, it was a business thing and I think any profits from the club then went to the solicitors. With Hanover Street being such a big building, there was always things to maintain, but all the money had gone paying Kenny out. And I had had enough by then, after nine years, so I went to live in Wales for eight years.’
Looking back at all this, and it’s a fantastic story so far, is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
‘There are always things I wish I’d done differently! [Laughs] Well I missed the New York Dolls. They were supposed to play the Stadium and they did actually get there, but they were supporting Lou Reed and he wouldn’t play with them. I got to the Stadium and they held the door open for me when they were on their way out. And they were dead sweet, they held the door open and said goodbye. And I went in and said to Roger ‘Where are they going?’ and he told me that Lou Reed had refused to play with them.
I saw David Johansen at Eric’s and I put Johnny Thunders on. In fact that’s what I wish I’d done differently, I wouldn’t have give him his bloody brandy and Baileys until after the gig. Why didn’t I just tell him he could have it after he’d played! [Laughs]’
You must think that it’s all just been brilliant!
‘Yes I do, I do. I dream about it a lot, about the club running out of beer or the bands not turning up. I wake up in the morning and think ‘Oh God, I’ve been working again!’ But it’s been fun, I’ve had a great life.’
As we wrap up our interview, I thank Doreen for her time over the last 40 minutes. She replies, ’was that 40 minutes? I’m knackered now, I’m going to go home and have a lie down. But I’m going out tonight to see Norman [Eric’s DJ] playing at Smithdown Road.’
50 years on from her first Cliff Richard concert. Doreen shows no sign of falling out of love with music or with clubs. We should not be surprised.
With our interview formally finished, Doreen and I sat around for a while longer, chatting, talking about gigs and records, just generally shooting the breeze. She told me that she was not going to go to see the Bunnymen at the Liverpool Philharmonic, but had opted to go to Warrington instead. When I asked why, she told me that it was because she felt ‘too protective’ about them when they played Liverpool and always had to resist the urge to look at the audience and ask them why they there weren’t all there supporting the band in their early days, when they were struggling to find an audience and playing for twenty quid to pay for the van.
This perfectly illustrates two things for me. Firstly, Doreen still strongly feels the same love and commitment to the bands she has helped nurture that goes beyond just liking a band and even beyond friendship. And secondly, she has a unique perspective on a huge part of Liverpool’s musical history, a view that nobody else has, because she was there at a huge number of pivotal moments in the city’s culturally formative years and, perhaps more importantly, she has stuck with it through the decades.
Thank god that she is finally writing her memoirs, because the insight she has, the things she has seen and the tales she can tell need to be out there in the public domain. From Liverpool music’s first stirrings to the present day, Doreen has been a constant and important figure, there to help, protect and adore Liverpool’s bands and its audiences.