In July of this year as a tribute to the 25th anniversary of the release of Flowered Up’s first single, we put a still from the original video for It’s On as the header for the website. It was a small, unobtrusive gesture, our own little way of recognising the cultural impact of the song, along with the band, and the affect it had on us at the time and the fact it still radiates class.
So this could just be another look behind over the shoulder nostalgia article about how great it was back in the day reliving an eventful soundtrack of our distended youth. It could be a grateful, graceful pilgrimage through our dusty record collections edited down and mixed in over a time when things were remembered differently, and never as they seemed. Moments captured and petrified into memory but made more human as time moved on moulding them into something palatable and complete.
Except it’s not going to be that.
This is about how the working class die, what kills us. More specifically it’s about the deaths of two ordinary working class lads, brothers, band mates, who just happened to make some great music, caught up in the mood of the time, whose lives connected with so many others, yet lives that were cut short and how we don’t consider, much less demand, how they got to that point. It is an open letter to two ordinary blokes who will never get to read it.
Liam and Joe Maher were born and brought up in Camden, north London on the Regents Park estate, a patchwork of dislocated social housing threw up during the post-war years wedged between the spewing Euston railway station and its train lines and the grand Georgian terraces encrusted around Regents Park. (It wasn’t by accident that the video for It’s On was filmed on the estate with the band in full baggy mode surrounded by priceless hordes of local grinning kids). Growing up in the 1980s was never kind to the working class where ever they were from. We were the battered remnants of an ideological war waged by the rich in power. What little comfort was afforded us by the welfare state, the promise of a secure job and a decent home, was being systematically taken away by a government doctrine that was callous in its expression, ruthless in its execution. The 80s kids, despite the gloss of media propaganda telling us otherwise, were in for a rough ride.
And it was perhaps because of this rough ride and the timely, and frankly inspired, introduction of a synthesised chemical chain into the nation’s consciousness that gave rise to the acid house/rave scene. A youth subculture that caught the collective imagination and for a short time at least tore the fuck out of the grim bygone years.
What the rave scene did more than anything was allow the working class in. Or rather it allowed some in – the inventive, the curious, useful and compliant. It gave us visibility, access to a world that viewed our class with disdain, as a demeaning factor in an industry that had its own private way of doing things. Yes Weller to some extent battled his way through just a generation before but he was very much a lone voice and despite the success paid the price. Music was always about controlling the product and those with the money were always in control.
The guitar-based music that emerged in tandem with the rave scene (arguably its precursor) got christened ‘baggy’ by the music press and it was this that resonated most with the neutral onlookers. It was an extension of the Madchester scene which itself was just a collection of local bands who were given space to experiment by the cultural presence of the Hacienda and the long shadow cast by Factory records. It was a perfect collision of drugs, northern bravado and astute straightman entrepreneurship that suddenly exploded across the mainstream in a wave of new ideas, new ways of doing things; of listening and looking and knowing.
Flowered Up entered the arena on the crest of this wave and their rise was well documented by a London music press, so used to devouring itself, who wanted their own local band to eulogise.
Liam and Joe. Brothers. Band mates. Singer. Guitarist. Flowered Up. These were two boys like millions of other working class kids lost in amongst their own shadows attempting to reach out beyond the limits of their upbringing. Just kids really. Invincible, indestructible, with no safety net.
And with Flowered Up’s rise, came the fall. It’s On caused havoc. Phobia by contrast gave us the dark side of someone struggling with inner demons, lyrically fearless, but backed by a wonderfully blissful piano beat. Two opposite sides of the same coin. Weekender was, and is, a magnificent piece of music. Ambitious and beautifully realised, a band proving themselves. It went way beyond the day-glo bounce of most rave related music. It exposed a nerve. It also exposed something within Liam Maher’s psyche that said he wasn’t at home with his place in the world. He wasn’t the cheeky chap barrow boy, he was a troubled soul. And the problem with troubled souls is they often find refuge in escape. And the problem with troubled working class souls is they often find heroin.
Of all the drugs heroin is the one that keeps you safe, protects you from harm. It wraps you up in warmth and doesn’t let the outside world in. It’s not a self-preservation drug, it’s a guardian angel drug. Which is what makes is so potent and so dangerous. If Ecstasy was the revelation of instant social connection, heroin was the afterglow of emotional retreat, a temporary exclusion from all those reflections of damaged life.
Why so many ordinary working class people get into heroin is less to do with personal failings than to do with the stark self-realisation they are unable to live happily amongst the debris of 21st century capitalism. The point is the working class have to negotiate their way through a world that isn’t designed for their best interests. We start off defeated. Everything is a barrier, a challenge, a test. The barriers remain unending, and we learn to damage ourselves trying to overcome them, living becomes an act of repairing yourself daily. But it’s an act we do silently, on our own.
It’s interesting that the story of Flowered Up mirrors that of the Pale Fountains. Here was a band featuring two brothers from working class backgrounds who were promised the world by a music business eager to exploit them, received a mass of attention but failed to recoup. Michael Head wrote beautifully poised and instantly recognisable songs (and still does!) along with his brother John first in the Pale Fountains then Shack. He got into heroin and despite a sublime and sanguine musical output still struggles with being an ordinary working class creative genius. The world has no place for the working class outside of work.
I don’t have any personal anecdotes about Flowered Up, nothing to illustrate the point, i never met them, never spent any time in their company, i can’t give an account of them as people or their antics, no stories, no gossip, no pub chat about what and who and why and how. The only two things that relate me to Flowered Up is i was born exactly 13 days before Liam and i worked as a painter and decorator like Joe. I can, at best, see myself in them.
Liam died in October 2009 according to the coroner’s report from an overdose of particularly pure heroin. He never meant to kill himself. There’s very little in the public domain about Joe’s death, and i’m not going to speculate, other than he died in November 2012. The fact that neither should have died is self-evident. The fact that they were loved, even more so. When Auden wrote Spain 1937 i’m sure he must have had the Flowered Up lads in mind:
“The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.”
In the end they weren’t Flowered Up. They were Liam and Joe. Brothers. Dads. Uncles. Sons. They had family and friends and loved ones. They died in the same place they were born – miles from no-where. They were ordinary working class lads who we remember because they just happened to have entertained us. This is their story. And the fact that we can add such significance to it means it’s one worth re-telling.
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