Nightclubbing: Planet X and Liverpool’s Post-Punk Era

How Doreen Allen transformed a birthday party into a haven for the port city’s goth scene

March 11, 2019

Doreen Allen has lived in the same flat for nearly four decades. It’s a place where Morrissey once stopped for tea, and where Andrew Eldritch called to offer Wayne Hussey an audition to join the Sisters of Mercy. For most people, her hometown of Liverpool, a northern English port city beside the River Mersey, will always be associated with the globe-conquering rock & roll of the Beatles. Allen, however, nurtured an altogether different movement there – one characterized by elaborate backcombed hair, ripped fishnet and the do-it-yourself mentality of the post-punk era.

It has been 35 years since Allen, now 70 years old, opened Planet X with her then-boyfriend and business partner Kenny Dawick. One of Britain’s most important goth clubs, it ran for ten years before finally closing its doors in 1993. The club lived through several waves of the goth movement and was, from its inception, a place that Liverpool’s outsider crowd could truly make their own. It seemed perfectly normal to Allen that a live performance by Into a Circle – featuring guest vocalist Rose McDowall – would sell out, and equally expected that Gene Loves Jezebel would still manage to squeeze themselves into the room for a few rounds of drinks that same night.

Planet X wasn’t the only thing Allen did, either. She tells me how she ran the Frankie Goes To Hollywood fan club from her home at the height of the band’s notoriety, managed Dead or Alive and worked for a time at the local label Inevitable Records. She also shows me photographs – in many of them, she wears a faux leopard skin coat that she bought secondhand in the 1980s and still wears now – flyers, posters and tour riders. These treasures, now tucked away in boxes in her guest bedroom and stacked in hallway closets, document a fascinating period of British musical history, with Allen right at its center.

“It’s a remarkable legacy,” the former frontwoman of the experimental punk band Big in Japan, Jayne Casey, says. “But what would you expect? Doreen Allen… she’s lived a thousand lives and is one remarkable woman.”

On October 3rd, 1982, 500 people showed up to Allen’s 34th birthday party. She knew every last one of them. The Warehouse – a club on Fleet Street in the center of Liverpool, where she worked the door – had offered to throw a bash in her honor. She reluctantly agreed, but only if the invitations were printed in pink and black. Both she and the club’s owners were unprepared for the show of support that night. In addition to the sheer number of people who passed through the doors, friends such as Dead or Alive and Frankie Goes To Hollywood took to the stage for live performances.

“It went on until seven in the morning,” Allen recalls. “The next day – a Monday – Liverpool was in meltdown. Pete Burns [from Dead or Alive] was seen without his makeup on, because he was so hungover. [The local independent music store] Probe Records didn’t open until late in the afternoon, because all their staff had gone to the party. Liverpool was one big hangover.”

Before she took her position at the Warehouse, Allen had worked at Eric’s, a hub of the local punk scene in the late 1970s. Located on Mathew Street, just across from the Cavern Club, it was a place where a number of successful post-punk bands found their feet, including the Teardrop Explodes, Echo & the Bunnymen and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

There, she met Paul Rutherford, who before joining Frankie Goes To Hollywood worked for Jayne Casey in her clothing stall at the nearby Aunt Twacky’s Bazaar. “The punk scene had started, so every night we went out on the lash, and to see all the new bands play,” he says. “We never bought a ticket, because Doreen always let us in for free. We became fast friends.”

After working during the day as the office manager at Eric’s, Allen returned most nights to work the door. Every Friday at five, before the club opened for the night, she could be found rushing down the street to get her hair crimped at Sukies, a hair salon on Whitechapel, run by Mike Score. Allen got Score’s band their very first gig at Eric’s. They were called A Flock of Seagulls.

People thought I was their age, even though I was about ten years older, so they just gravitated to me.

Doreen Allen

Allen cultivated close friendships with the likes of a pre-Bunnymen Ian McCulloch and Pete Wylie of Wah! Heat, both of whom skipped classes at Alsop Grammar School to hang around with her in the afternoon. Meanwhile, a young Wayne Hussey – later of Dead or Alive, the Sisters of Mercy and the Mission – met Allen in January of 1978, when he moved to Liverpool to be with his then-girlfriend.

“One of the first things I did after my arrival was go to Eric’s,” he says. “It would’ve been a Thursday evening, local bands night, and Doreen was on the door. To gain entry, I had to become a member, so she took my £1.50, I think it was, and issued me with a card. She was very friendly and welcoming, and was on the door at Eric’s pretty much every time I went after that. If [the owners] weren’t around, she very often let me, and others like me, into the club for free.”

At this point, Allen was on the cusp of her 30s, but younger musicians and figures on the scene were still drawn to her. “People thought I was their age, even though I was about ten years older, so they just gravitated to me,” she remembers.

After her successful birthday party at the Warehouse, the owners of the club saw the potential in Allen. “I did know a lot of people. I’ve always been a face in town,” she says. They had another club around the corner of the Warehouse that wasn’t doing much business on Fridays, and proposed that Allen do a night there. Together, she and Dawick decided to give it a try. All they needed was a name.

“We were sitting here in my flat, Frankie [Goes To Hollywood] were all around, and we were thinking of a name,” says Allen. “Suddenly Paul came up with the idea of Planet X, because we had been out to see the B-52s when they played Eric’s. They were one of our favorites.”

Taking its name from a song on the B-52’s 1983 album Whammy!, Planet X would be an otherworldly space, fueled by science fiction and fantasy. However, while Allen was inspired by this quirky rock & roll band from Athens, Georgia, a wave of new British bands, including Specimen and Alien Sex Fiend, were busy developing a much darker aesthetic.

The more crepuscular reaches of the post-punk movement earned many names, including darkers, positive punks and Batcavers, a nod to the famous club in Soho, London. The music embraced the shadowy corners of the night and romanticized death, and was made by bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sex Gang Children and Southern Death Cult. The fashion, meanwhile, was a flamboyant bricolage of funeral attire and thrift-store finds.

“You didn’t go upstairs to Planet X, you went downstairs,” Allen adds. From the start, she was always clear that the night, which was held in five different venues throughout its lifespan, had to be a truly underground spectacle.

“[It was all about] dark, electronic, cold music,” says DJ and club promoter Marc Jones, who first discovered Planet X as an 18 year old from the nearby Wirral area. “That time, the early ’80s, had the hard edge and attitude of punk, but the new sounds that came in just sounded so exciting. You could throw in electronica, tribal drum beats, early synthesisers.”

This fusion of cheap electronics and the DIY ideology of punk created the foundations of post-punk and, later on, goth. Joy Division used synths to create layered atmospheres of emptiness and melancholy, while the Cure deployed both synths and drum machines to create some of the bleakest music of the early 1980s. Then there were the Sisters of Mercy, who – with their drum machine Doktor Avalanche – combined new technology with traditional guitars in dancefloor staples such as “Alice” and “Temple of Love.”

“In the Eric’s days we all went to the gay clubs [to dance], because we couldn’t get in elsewhere,” says Allen. Her vision was to combine the live-band aspect of Eric’s with a clubbing atmosphere. Modeled after the Batcave, which Allen had visited and was inspired by, Planet X opened on June 3rd, 1983.

“Clubs were boring in those days,” says Allen, who spent a great deal of time creating the perfect scene for her attendees. MacMillan’s on Concert Square, a club that catered to the gay and alternative crowd, was Planet X’s first home. Every Friday, its decor was littered with mannequins dripping in blood and a cobwebbed effect made from tightly stretched out muslin bags that were slashed with a blade. On the opening night, Allen smeared the walls in slime – unfortunately, this store-bought concoction slid off the bricks and onto the floor, where it stayed for months, coagulating in the summer heat. Occasional mishaps aside, the props were so convincing that the Haçienda in Manchester invited Planet X to decorate its interior for Halloween one year.

Dawick would often occupy the DJ booth, along with Mick Bawden and Barry Shailes, providing a soundtrack of the latest alternative hits. Planet X also made a point of projecting movies on the wall for an additional sense of drama – anything from Tod Browning’s 1932 horror spectacle Freaks to David Lynch’s Eraserhead and pornography loaned from Pete Burns’ personal collection.

“There were other clubs around town… but Planet X was the first club in Liverpool to cater specifically to those with darker tendencies,” says Hussey, who made a 75-mile journey to Liverpool for the club’s opening night, having earlier moved to Leeds to join the Sisters of Mercy. “Doreen and Kenny were brilliant hosts and really cared about their nights and their patrons. A lot of attention was lavished on the decor, the music played, and the bands they booked.”

Despite its morbid fixations and extreme fashions, Planet X was an overwhelmingly positive community for Liverpool’s underground youth. “It was a safe haven for anyone who didn’t fit in,” recalls Jones. The door policy was simple: no one with suits or football scarves. “We couldn’t get in their clubs, so why should they get in mine?” Allen says. It was deliberately cheap, too. Membership cost £1 and the most Allen ever charged on the door was £1.50. “I didn’t want to make loads,” she says. “It wasn’t my intention to become rich off it.”

Planet X was a dark gathering from its very beginning, but the young Marc Jones found a special kind of refuge there. After attending the club’s third night, he never quite left.

“There was no greater time in popular culture,” he says. “In 1983, Planet X was full of not just positive punks or post-punks, there were goths, but also psychobillies, rockabillies, teddy boys, teddy girls – they all looked fantastic, with their magnificent quiffs. Every subgroup you’ve ever imagined… There was a whole punk scene, there were [even] skins, who we never really liked, there would be the oddballs, Stooges fans, there would be Bowie people, there were people left over from the New Romantics. We were very much in the post-punk group, with the motorbike boots and the ripped-up jeans, ripped t-shirts and spiked hair… You came in and you thought: ‘Oh my God, I’m home.’”

In 1986, Allen fulfilled a long-held dream. She found a four-and-a-half year lease available for a venue on Temple Street, just around the corner from the Pink Palace, the gay club where she had been holding her night since 1984. Formerly an all-day drinking club called the Yankee Clipper, it changed its name to Planet X when Allen signed the deal.

Now that Planet X had graduated from being a once-a-week party to having a venue all its own, Allen and Dawick were in complete control of the club and made their money from the bar. In its new home, Planet X ran three days a week. With live bands usually playing on Thursdays and Fridays, Saturday was the goth club night, during which DJ Paul Cassidy played to an enthusiastic, black-clad, chicken-dancing crowd. Cassidy was later replaced by Marc Jones, who was often joined by his brother Jason. Between 1986 and 1988, Jones filled the dancefloor with guitar-heavy post-punk tracks and moody electronic beats – two seemingly disparate sounds that meshed together perfectly in the smoky basement.

“Killing Joke, Death Cult, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sisters of Mercy, Play Dead, Bauhaus, the Cure,” says Jones. “It was goth heaven, really…all spiked hair, snakebites and speed.”

As a venue, Planet X hosted some of the alternative scene’s biggest bands over the years – Specimen, Flesh for Lulu, Primal Scream, and even a poorly attended gig by a pre-fame Stone Roses. However, one of the most talked-about events was Wayne Hussey’s return to Liverpool with the Mission, which caused fans to squeeze into every last crevice of the club.

“[We] played a secret fan-club gig there, at the height of our popularity,” says Hussey. “It was a bit bonkers, in a good way… A lot of love was in that club, and that was years before ecstasy came along.”

In 1989, Planet X moved to Hanover Street, after property developers offered Allen and Dawick a larger premises in a more central part of town. The club’s new home was a five-story building occupied by Planet X and a small art gallery. Though the first couple of years at Hanover Street were successful, the goth scene was changing, with many bands turning away from its abrasive, experimental qualities and reaching for a flowery, guitar-driven aesthetic. This shift can be attributed to records such as the Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of the Band’s “This Wheel’s on Fire.”

At the turn of the decade, goth was at odds with the alternative rock scene, which was dominated by US bands such as the Pixies, Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. It also stood apart from the indie movement, typified by groups such as Slowdive and the Wedding Present. Thursday nights at Hanover Street were strictly indie and Fridays offered a mixed alternative night DJed by Gareth “Taff” Taylor and Damon Scott, while Saturdays marked the club’s traditional goth gathering, helmed by Jones and Scott, and focusing on bands such as Fields of the Nephilim and New Model Army.

Allen was under increasing pressure at this time. Dawick had left the partnership in 1990, and she had bought him out. Despite having full ownership of the club, she was spending more time at the solicitor’s office arguing over legal matters than she was running Planet X. In addition to that, the Hanover Street building was crumbling, and its roof had collapsed.

Most of all, though, the growing stigma attached to the goth subculture was taking its toll on Planet X. Jones, who found the new wave of goth lacked the grittiness he so adored, left in 1991 to take a job at a rival alternative club the Krazyhouse. Meanwhile, a schism had developed between the club’s attendees – those who remained true goths and those who had embraced the wider indie or acid house scenes.

The final Planet X night was on New Year’s Eve in 1993, ten years after Allen put on her first party. Tellingly, the last band to play the venue were shoegazing indie boys the Boo Radleys, from nearby Wallasey. “I’d had enough, to be perfectly honest,” says Allen. “I didn’t tell anyone it was the last night – I was too upset. I didn’t enjoy doing it any more. Music had changed then… everyone had moved on.”

“Like all things, clubs are only moments in time,” explains Jones. “In many ways, to get ten years out of a club was amazing. We’d gone from almost the tail end of punk and New Romantic through to grunge. Sometimes things just go out of steam, you know? You come to the end of a cycle and there’s not much you can do.”

Despite it being a full quarter of a century since Planet X’s closure, it lives on in the memories of her clubbers. “The scene in Liverpool did exist – of a fashion – before, but Planet X really became its social center,” recalls Hussey. “Without Doreen, there would’ve been no Planet X and no social hub.”

One evening in Liverpool, Allen and I watch a 1984 recording of The Cramps: Live at the Haçienda on DVD. They were her favorite band, she says, and then tells me how she organized a special bus to Manchester so all her regulars could attend this very show. She proudly points out some of her patrons in the crowd.

“One of the greatest lessons Doreen ever taught me was that it doesn’t matter what size your club is – it’s that you make every person feel you are a part of the family,” says Jones. “I think that idea [is behind all the] greatest clubs.”

When Planet X shut its doors, Allen had little idea how important it had been to Liverpool, let alone the goth subculture at large. Fame and recognition were never things she cared about. “I don’t think anyone could realize at the time the impact it had,” she says. “But it was my baby and it was my life.”

As the two of us sit in her flat, a place still filled with memories and precious artifacts from a long-gone era of British music, I realize something. All the autographs and photographs that I find so special are simply fragments of Allen’s life – mementos of her many friends, tiny reminders of a job and a community she knew so well. As the Cramps concert progresses, Lux Interior peels off layers of leather clothing. He howls into the microphone, and we both gush like teenagers. It is easy to imagine Allen reacting similarly decades ago, standing on the balcony of the Haçienda, that faux leopard skin coat draped over her shoulders and her family of Planet Xers dancing beneath her.

On a different note