Revolutionary Spirit: Paul Simpson's Post-Punk Exorcism

Revolutionary Spirit: Paul Simpson's Post-Punk Exorcism

Towards the end of 2023 local Liverpool legend, Paul Simpson, published Revolutionary Spirit to critical acclaim. Liam Nolan, writes about what it is that makes Revolutionary Spirit such a great book, and why it should be widely read by anyone with a creative bent. 

Revolutionary Spirit (Jawbone) is billed as part memoir, part social history. Subtitled ‘a post-punk exorcism’, the book details Paul Simpson’s childhood, youth, and the significant role he played as a young man in Liverpool's post-punk scene of the late-70s/early-80s. It was a scene centered around legendary punk club Eric’s, funded by dole cheques, and full of interconnected bands. Importantly it was a scene that went on to refresh Liverpool’s place on the musical map and highlighted that there was more to the city’s sonic exports than just the ‘Fab Four’. 

As a founding member of The Teardrop Explodes (the band that set Julian Cope on the road to cult status) and a close friend and associate of Echo and the Bunnymen, Paul went on to form The Wild Swans; a band that seemed cursed to never reach its potential. A stint as part of indie duo Care with Ian Broudie followed, but while Broudie’s reputation and fame continued its ascent, Simpson’s, well, didn’t. Revolutionary Spirit plays host to walk-on parts by Courtney Love, Bill Drummond, Mark E Smith, Pete Burns and many more names that might be more widely and easily recognised than Simpson’s. 

Just the other end of the M62 Morrissey once sang “We hate it when our friends become successful. And if they’re northern it makes it even worse.” You could be forgiven for assuming that Simpson, another 80s coiffured indie icon, might share this sense of bitterness, but no. While a recurring theme does seem to be Simpson’s proximity to those who go on to find greater success and acclaim, bitterness doesn’t feature. 

Simpson’s take on his life is refreshing, informed by hindsight, and written interestingly in the historical present tense. His story is full of nuance and despite many of the classic ‘rock memoir’ tropes being present, he avoids cliche throughout. Simpson was there at the heart of an important moment in musical history, but this never feels like one of those overplayed “I was fucking there, man!” memoirs. Similarly, Simpson is acutely aware of his image and the fashions he embraces, but his self-awareness punctures any accusations of style over substance. He writes “I kidded myself that skipping lunch and dressing in dead men’s suits from charity shops was romantic and character-building, but, in reality, all it built was good cheekbones and resentment”. He is self-aware, without being self-deprecating, and seems to be comfortable writing from the vantage point of the periphery. 

What makes this such a fascinating read is ultimately the focus on creativity without the distractions of fame and acclaim. Simpson continues with The Wild Swans, and while there is a Sugar Man-esque detour to satisfy a surprise fanbase in the Philippines, any fame and recognition that comes his way feels incidental to the music. The act of writing the songs and performing becomes the focus. This is a book about creation.

And it’s not just music. Simpson is a musician but he embraces art in all its forms; the visual arts, fashion, music, and writing. When he describes discovering Salvador Dali as a child through his autobiography in his local library, it’s with a passion and enthusiasm that is far greater than when he describes seeing The Fall or Iggy Pop for the first time. 

Creativity is an outlet for Simpson in whatever form it takes. For example, one chapter published here was used almost verbatim as the spoken-word lyrics to ‘The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years’, the song that gave its title to The Wild Swan’s most recent (dare I say final?) album. The words are the star, and you can see why he went on to write this book as well as scripts and music. Elsewhere, Simpson describes a near-death experience. “I must try to capture and record this” he writes. “I can’t do it in music, I know that... I’m going to paint this experience, or at least attempt to. I’ve never worked in oil paint before, but that’s the medium I’ll choose.” Simpson describes a creative freedom that few achieve.

Revolutionary Spirit will no doubt become a much-referenced document of a time and a place in Liverpool’s musical and social history. As books go, it will sit neatly on shelves alongside Ian Broudie’s recent Tomorrow’s Here Today (Nine Eight Books), Will Sergeant’s Bunnyman (Constable) and Dave Haslam’s Searching for Love: Courtney Love in Liverpool, 1982 (Confingo). Where Revolutionary Spirit differs, however, is that it’s about much more than music, place and time. It’s about the arts in general and explores the role creativity plays in our lives. 

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