Liverpool is a British city that lives and breathes its musical (and sporting) legacy. The Beatles’ stronghold is unmissable, across numerous tours and landmarks, including a dockside sculpture, where you can snap a selfie with the Fab Four before catching a ferry across the Mersey. Various statues around the city highlight its other music stars, including rock’n’roller Billy Fury and ’60s singer Cilla Black.
What’s strangely less documented is that one of Britain’s most successful black groups also hailed from Liverpool: The Real Thing, a quartet whose sleek pop-soul smashes included You To Me Are Everything (1976), Can’t Get By Without You (1976) and Can You Feel The Force? (1979). These storming showmen also wrote powerful social commentary, notably on the track Children Of The Ghetto (from their 1977 album 4 From 8): a classic covered by the likes of Mary J Blige, Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey, and jazz saxophonist star Courtney Pine. The Real Thing were arguably the alternative (and overlooked) Fab Four.
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In 2020, The Real Thing are the subject of a vivacious new feature documentary, Everything – The Real Thing Story (directed by the British filmmaker Simon Sheridan), and have just released a Best of compilation, while their tour dates stretch across the year ahead. They’re now down to a duo, Chris Amoo and childhood friend Dave Smith (Chris’s older brother Eddie died in 2018; fellow bandmate Ray Lake died in 2000), but The Real Thing’s beat hasn’t stopped for half a century. When I catch them playing at London’s Jazz Café on a rainy midweek night, the force is thrillingly present in Amoo and Smith’s charismatic, fiery vocals and rich catalogue, and the multi-generational crowd is clearly rapt.
“When we first started this band, we just wanted to sing on stage; we had no thoughts of records,” explains the genial Amoo, shortly after the London show. “If we were going to do anything, we’d do it together.”
Sheridan was certain that The Real Thing’s story needed to be told. “What gets me riled up is that a band like the Sex Pistols are endlessly eulogised for making British protest songs, and Fleetwood Mac or The Rolling Stones are covered for their history – while The Real Thing are still together and performing after 50 years, and Children Of The Ghetto is the ultimate politically motivated song from the black British community,” he tells BBC Culture.
Although Eddie Amoo sadly passed away before the documentary was completed, his interviews – and his extensive personal archive of photographs – are at the heart of Everything. As the film depicts, The Real Thing did have a Beatles connection. Eddie had co-founded a 1960s vocal band called The Chants, who wowed The Beatles with an audition at the legendary Cavern Club. The Chants were invited to sing on-stage with The Beatles that night; they signed a record deal, and were briefly managed by Brian Epstein, although their rave reviews didn’t translate into commercial fame – despite the fact that white-fronted mainstream music borrowed heavily (as it still obviously does) from black cultural influences.
Meanwhile, as Chris Amoo explains, The Real Thing’s formative sound stemmed from a different side of the inner-city: Toxteth (aka Liverpool 8), a largely black working-class neighbourhood which has been likened to Harlem. “When we were growing up in Liverpool, there was an invisible border around Toxteth,” says Amoo. “We didn’t venture beyond it; we had our own clubs and restaurants, and a fantastic community. If we stepped into the city centre, we weren’t necessarily welcomed, especially if we were with our friends. We’ve always seen Toxteth as positive; it gave us grounding, and it was one of the safest places, because there was always somebody around.”
They showed you can make timeless pop, and still address the realities of urban life – Paul Du Noyer
The proximity to the US Air Force base Burtonwood was also significant; Amoo recalls that black US servicemen would socialise in Toxteth in the ‘60s and early ‘70s – and they’d regularly bring records with them. As kids, Amoo, his siblings and friends would develop a love for funky, politically sharp trailblazers, such as Curtis Mayfield (in particular, his 1967 black pride anthem We’re A Winner), Marvin Gaye, The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. This inspiration would pulse throughout The Real Thing’s own compositions. “You didn’t hear The Beatles in our part of Liverpool,” says Amoo. “It was always soul, high life [the Amoo family heritage included Ghanaian roots], reggae…”
Music writer Paul Du Noyer, whose works have included an excellent book dedicated to his native Liverpool, admits that “I always get a kick out of telling people The Real Thing are a Liverpool band, when some people don’t even realise they were British,” and praises the group’s “extraordinary” range. “They showed you can make timeless pop, and still address the realities of urban life. The Real Thing represented a huge breakthrough in black British music. I think we’re hearing the legacy of that breakthrough in many acts today.”
“The Real Thing stood out because they were this amazing R&B band that made pioneering music that was the equal of, if not better then, their American contemporaries,” agrees writer/DJ Bill Brewster, co-author of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. “They brought the Toxteth experience to the music that they were playing; they did it in a social way rather than politically. They’re amazingly under-rated; they also released lots of really good records later on, including street soul on small labels.”
Originally named The Sophisticated Soul Brothers, Chris Amoo’s band took on a savvy manager, Tony Hall (a multi-faceted journalist, promoter and jazz producer), and a snappy new name (The Real Thing was inspired by a famous soft drink advert). Both of these pivotal changes happened while the young group were competing on prime-time TV talent show Opportunity Knocks (The X Factor of its era) in 1972, and provoked the ire of irascible host Hughie Green (“We were beaten the next week by a yodeller, so that shows yer,” deadpans Amoo).
By the mid-70s, The Real Thing had earned a record deal, made their debut on BBC’s Top Of The Pops, and honed their trademark harmonies with lush instrumentation; they worked regularly with British pop rocker David Essex, supporting him on a US tour – and also finding themselves playing alongside Miles Davis’s musicians at hip Greenwich Village venue The Bottom Line. (“People like Rod Stewart were in the audience,” recalls Amoo. “We got a standing ovation.”) Eddie officially joined The Real Thing, replacing original member Kenny Davis. The band’s commercial breakthrough, though, came in their international, enduringly joyous hit collaborations with songwriter-producers Ken Gold and Michael Denne: You To Me Are Everything and Can’t Get By Without You.
The opening notes of these tracks are unmistakeably spirit-soaring, but The Real Thing documentary begins with a much harsher tone: an unsettling ‘70s archive montage including a street march by the racist National Front; eerie anti-immigration campaigners; a bigot on an estate, ranting poisonously as his black female neighbours are forced to walk around him. These bleak retro images feel disturbingly resonant in the present day.
“The racial aspect is a landscape through the whole film; here’s the era that we grew up in,” says Amoo. The landscape extends into a contemporary reality; in the film, Eddie Amoo also relates a recent incident of being stopped and searched, as a 70-something black man, driving the smart car that he owned. The band remained close to Toxteth, even as they dealt with the highs and lows of the music industry; when anti-police riots erupted in this economically deprived neighbourhood in 1981 (the same year as in Brixton, south London, and other cities in the UK), the media coverage was frequently racist, and Toxteth became tainted by reputation.
“The area was completely impoverished; there was no regeneration, everything was left to rot,” says Amoo. “Stanley House [a once-thriving youth community centre], where we’d started making music, was gone, and the police were very heavy-handed. You didn’t feel safe when you saw a police car appear.”
Artistically, The Real Thing were a quadruple threat: a smart, strong, eloquent and ruggedly handsome quartet
Mainstream success certainly didn’t provide a safety net. Amoo’s late bandmate Ray Lake is a haunting presence throughout Everything; we learn of his troubled (and, it is implied, abusive) upbringing in children’s care, and we hear his prodigious music talent (he earned the studio nickname “One Take Lake”). Even now, the recording of Lake’s plaintive, poetic, falsetto vocals on Children Of The Ghetto can tear your heart out (“Toughness is their motto/ And bitter are their blues”). Lake struggled with mental health issues and drug use, leading to his eventual departure from the band, and he was just 48 when he tragically died in 2000.
“We knew that Ray had problems, but we didn’t see them quickly enough,” admits Amoo. “When I watched some of the clips back in Everything, that absolutely chilled me; that’s when I realised that Ray didn’t have a chance.”
“Somebody should have made the film I made, 20 years ago,” says Sheridan.
Artistically, The Real Thing were a quadruple threat: a smart, strong, eloquent and ruggedly handsome quartet. They projected a positive portrait of young black masculinity into a reactionary mainstream culture. Their creative range inevitably made them harder to categorise for pop markets; after their floor-filling romantic tunes, their brilliantly gritty 1977 album 4 From 8 was initially regarded as a misfire.
Out of time
“We were writing pieces like the Liverpool Medley (an 11-minute album highlight, comprising Liverpool Eight/ Children Of The Ghetto/ Stanhope Street) because they were close to our hearts,” says Amoo. “That’s where we wanted to go, musically. But I think it was possibly the wrong time for audiences to accept it, and radio stations weren’t interested in playing anything that wasn’t commercially viable. We were caught in a bit of a vacuum.”
Most of The Real Thing’s repertoire has impressively stood the test of time – but one band decision immediately seemed ill-judged. In 1983, they agreed to support David Essex at apartheid-era South African resort Sun City. The Real Thing certainly weren’t the only international stars to play Sun City (Liza Minnelli, Elton John, Queen, Stevie Wonder and Tina Turner were among many names who performed there), but Amoo admits that they approached it naively. “We were duped about Sun City being ‘separate’, in that it was run by black people,” he sighs. “But the first thing that we noticed at the airport was the signs for whites-only/blacks-only toilets. At Sun City, we sang Children Of The Ghetto; we were then called in, and asked not to do it again. We thought we’d be playing to mixed audiences. We realised that we’d made a terrible error.”
I’m struck by Amoo’s sanguine attitude. It’s arguably echoed by many black stars of his generation, yet I wonder how he could keep his cool, in the midst of such mainstream bigotry: in ‘70s and ‘80s Britain, even light entertainment was often ‘cheerfully’ racist. “This was the era that we grew up in; it was almost acceptable, as a ‘joke’, you were so used to it,” he replies, earnestly. “I’m not the kind of person to turn away, but I’d also think of my mother and father; if it was heavy when we were growing up, they had no chance of saying anything.”
Some of The Real Thing’s intriguing expressions were frustratingly lost along the way – including their original vocals for Jeff Wayne’s ‘70s sci-fi musical epic (based on HG Wells’s novel), The War Of The Worlds. Much of their archive footage has been wiped, including that Opportunity Knocks debut (the first time that an all-black group appeared on a UK TV talent show). But the legacy that remains still sounds pioneering – and Amoo is still tickled by the ‘Fab Four’ comparison; he mentions that Ringo Starr was in the audience when The Real Thing played LA’s Roxy venue in 1974.
“Ringo asked our manager: ‘Are those guys related to The Chants?’” laughs Amoo. “Years later, we covered The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby for a compilation album – and Paul McCartney sent us a note, saying he loved what we’d done to his ‘little ditty’.”
He reflects: “We couldn’t have done anything else but music; all we had was our talent.” That talent was raw, rousing and true – The Real Thing. And credit is definitely due.
The Real Thing tour the UK throughout 2020. The Best of The Real Thing compilation is out on BMG. Everything – The Real Thing Story is in UK cinemas now.
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[LB1]In the UK or worldwide?