The British music scene is in a pretty happy place right now. New artists like Hozier, Catfish & The Bottlemen and Lucy Rose are achieving massive international acclaim, and rightly so. Blur returned with a triumphant new album, less than a year after Damon Albarn released his incredible debut solo LP, ‘Everyday Robots‘, both including some of the finest works of his career. Well founded artists like Elbow, Noel Gallagher and Muse regularly sell out huge shows internationally; anything they touch turns to gold. In the music press each week there is a new success story to be told, or of veteran artists returning the best sales of their career. The British Empire reigns once more, and music is its monarch; the very centre of the international scene.
In 2012, there were approximately 9.5 million attendances at live music events in the UK. In 2014, 9.5 million ‘musical tourists‘ visited the UK specifically to visit concerts, events and festivals. The economic contribution to the British economy generated by live music alone in 2013 was £789 million, outperforming the growth of UK economy by 7.3%. The statistics are astounding, and are growing each year. There are now more than 700 festivals each year in the UK, many of which sell out way in advance; likewise live music events, which sell out in minutes. It’s impressive, and seemingly one the most secure of British industries. But it’s not what I want to talk about here.
In almost any town that you travel through, you will see an ‘A board’ outside pubs advertising weekly open mic nights. Driving through just two towns the other day I noticed five such signs – and probably there were more hidden away down side streets and out in the countryside. Unpaid, unsolicited, people are turning up to these nights with their guitars and banjos, saxophones and violins. They’re not only playing covers of Wonderwall and Skinny Love; everyday folk, from labourers to solicitors, are using these forums to showcase their own material. And good on them. For every one who steps through those pub doors brandishing their chosen instrument there are probably ten more back at home, practicing Dylan, annoying the neighbours as they play along to ‘So What‘ on their trumpet, or working through lyrics of their own to put to their newfound melody. And good on them, too. From the porches of Appalachia to the townships of Africa, this is the true roots of music across the world.
The Rolling Stones started out by rehearsing in the back room of a pub. It’s been well documented how Ed Sheeran found fame and fortune by playing endless gigs in pubs and small venues across county borders (and I do believe that he’s done alright). In fact, few bands would have ever started by climbing onto a medium-sized stage in a well-established venue. One of this year’s British success stories is Slaves, a punk band from a medium-sized commuter town in Kent. They played dozens of gigs in Tunbridge Wells pubs, and then the famed local venue of The Forum. This year, just three years after first forming, they are playing more than fifty gigs around the world. And they are just one success story of a thriving local scene in that very town.
The first week in August 2015 marked the 10th Anniversary of a much-loved Tunbridge Wells venue, The Grey Lady Music Lounge, located on the southern end of the historic Pantiles. With at least two nights of live music a week, – where you can see blues, jazz, folk, soul . . . pretty much anything you wish for – and with more than three hundred acts on the roster, the Grey Lady showcases local, unsigned musicians, mostly playing original songs. I was only able to visit one night of that particular week of shows, but what a night it was. There was a special atmosphere about the room that evening, which just grew as each band squeezed onto the tiny performance area.
Brother and sister fronted The Breretons really got the proceedings swinging with their heartfelt, bitter sweet folk. At least, that’s what this five-piece lure you into thinking they play. The songs are so beautifully written: story songs of tempestuous relationships and self-doubting reassurance, always thought provoking as much as they are intriguingly entertaining. Sharing the lead vocal – his baritone and her unpredictable range reminiscent of The Civil Wars, but with greater drama, and much more versatility – Marc and Charlotte instantly had the crowd in their familial palms. With folk set aside as their set continued, the volume amped, culminating in a smile-inducing cover of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill‘. The Breretons have good things coming for them, including an album later this year. But there is plenty of them to listen to online now . . . and you won’t stop until your bottle of wine is finished.
Next up on the bill was not just one of my favourite unsigned bands, but one of favourite bands of all time. They are known as The Diarys. Not only is their music wildly original, it’s relevant and visual, inspiring and bright; the performance dangerous, edgy, yet fun; the songwriting of sometime solo artist Richard Sanford honest and true, not just grabbing your heart in a tight grip, but squeezing until just before the point where you can take no more, and then asking, “Are you ready to party now?” Then picking you up, chuckling, to carry you through someplace you’ve never been, showing you the way even when you want to stop and explore where you’ve been taken, only to be transported somewhere even more vivid. Then they’ll set you down, lay out the picnic, make you feel safe, and then tickle your mind with a poetic tale of life at its pressurising, testing best and worst. “How’re you feeling now?” A true band of platonic brothers, they’ve a rare attribute for an unsigned band: they leave the melancholy aside; they don’t bring you down with heartbreakers – morose and self-indulgent clichés of sitting in bedroom alone with a guitar asking why no body loves you, and if they love you why would can’t they show you better. It’s all upbeat. From ‘Devil’s Dance‘ – if Jack White was guesting with The Libertines to play The Specials songs for a gig in a ghost house – to ‘London Boy‘ – uniting the crowd like Jack Johnson in his 2005/6 heyday – they just won’t put you down, and you won’t want to let go anyway. And given half a chance you’ll want to sing along. If you don’t like them you’ll love them; if you don’t love them you’ll adore them.
Last on the night was the sexual deviants (they’d freely admit it themselves) known as The Creatures of Habit, a band that you can only imagine have been very, very naughty. Led by the incredible virile, virtuosic, versatile and violet guitar skills of Steve Spall – a schmoove captain if ever I’ve seen one – they only want to take you on a free ride on their dirty ship of funk. Everyone was on their feet after the first few chords; maybe even before that, and didn’t sit back down until they were done. I’m certain that later, on the way home, I saw the roof of The Grey Lady in the street. And it was The Creatures of Habit who had blown it clean off. They were loud. They were tight, but raw. And they were infectiously entertaining. As a four-piece, fusing jazz with hip-hop, adding a twist of punk and just a slither of ska, again the music was as original as can be seen in the fringe tents at Glastonbury or the basement clubs of London, like the previous two bands, more enticing and authentic than most offerings heard on national radio. They could get any crowd going in any venue. But it was in a small venue in a conservative town on the buckle of the Kentish Green belt on a Thursday night in August that a capacity crowd of just eighty people were treated to some of the best that live music in the UK has to offer.
In my novel (which I haven’t mentioned for five minutes: ‘The Reputation of Booya Carthy’, which is out now!) there is a line spoken by the head of a recording studio, in which he says: “Even the response of a small town . . . can gauge the reaction of the nation, believe it or not.” Well, having witnessed the reaction of a small music lounge in a medium-sized British town, on a weeknight, I believe it to be true. And that was just one night. In one town. How many more folks are out there being entertained by musicians who play just for the love of their music?
Put your Coldplay or your Florence record down. Go seek something a little less anthemic, something a little closer to the heart. It’s out there. It’s in your local pub, just round the corner. You can’t find the core of music at The 02 or the aircraft hangars that are known as national arenas; you never will be able to. And there’s plenty out there to listen to that is so much more rewarding; such a greater thrill to discover. There is a free music festival in Tunbridge Wells at the end of August each year, just weeks away now. And with the chance to witness more of the quality local music that was on display this night, something like 200 acts(!), personally I can’t wait . . .
So is the British Music Scene alive and well? You bet it is. And it’s kicking butt in a small town near you.