Will the UK government save or kill live music tomorrow?

Monday 5th October was supposed to be the day when the Government announced the first recipients of its £1.57 billion Cultural Recovery Fund. Unfortunately, this desperately needed lifeline was delayed. Announcements are now due to be made tomorrow (Monday 12th October), but with this Government, who really knows? And so, the fate of 650+ small music venues continues to hang precariously in the balance. By the time you’ve read this another small venue will probably have closed. Forever.

A big night out at The Forum, Tunbridge Wells (photo by Phil Avey)

Grass roots music venues are under threat as never before. I have been both a professional musician and a live music promoter so I’ve seen things from both sides of the fence and believe me, it’s a brutal world. The day to day reality is that most small venues are usually just one bad month away from going out of business.  But the UK Music Industry contributed £5.2 billion to the economy in 2018. So money is being made here, it’s just not filtering back through to the soil from where it started to grow. And now each of these venues are having to prove their viability in order to draw from a fund that doesn’t really value them. Why fund a struggling live music venue in Leicester when there’s the elitism of opera to be saved?

It sickens me to the core that everything has been boiled down to financial worth. Viability cannot be measured in the here and now of a global Pandemic. This is to disregard the fact that popular British music has been a vital and accessible part of British cultural identity for over sixty years.  And it’s still looking good. As a nation, we’ve continually punched above our weight and attracted envy (and visitors) from all over the world. Pop music has bought wealth into our country but now we’re supposed to go along with its decimation simply because the government has no interest in understanding the contribution of grass roots venues across the UK. So goodbye future music, goodbye freedom to create. Excuse me, but I need to vent. Let’s have a bit of context here.

Going out to see new bands in small venues has been a rite of passage since Skiffle invaded unsuspecting coffee bars in the 1950’s. 

A little known British skiffle band who may have gone on to sell a few records later in their career!
(photographer unknown)

For subsequent legions, live music quickly became that thing you did to upset your parents.  And this helped musicians sell millions of records all over the world. When prog rockers insisted we watch them whizzing around an ice rink decked out in capes and crowns, music simply reinvented itself yet again. The shock waves of punk became so big they could be seen on iridescent mohawks via London postcards which overseas visitors bought in their thousands. Punk’s back to basics legacy bled into the do-it-yourself ethos of 1980’s indie which eventually culminated in our Prime Minister grabbing photo opps with Britpop bands in order to turn 90’s ‘Cool Britannia’ into much-needed votes.  As recently as 2017, the British music economy has been re-hitting the heady heights of 1995’s Britpop heyday.  If the U.K.’s music industry isn’t a poster child for continued viability then nothing is.

And it’s no co-incidence that the UK has always been a trail blazer in music. We have constantly invented new music genres to upset the status quo. In turn, the establishment gets worried and we remind those in power that the people will always find a way to be heard. Things get done on non-existent budgets in dark, sticky-floored breeding grounds because it’s absolutely essential. It’s also in our blood. Generations have grown up knowing the thrill of that illicit under-age night out where minds get blown by what’s up there on the stage or on the decks. And that’s something the establishment has never been able to stop. But now it feels as if they’ve finally found a way to bring down the hammer and if we don’t act quickly then we stand to lose everything.

Without grass roots music venues there can be no subculture. No new bands means no youth movement. And musicians cannot simply start at that semi-mythical next level.  This would be like entering athletes into the Olympics without years of prior training. It simply couldn’t happen. We need the same building blocks in music and grass roots is that beginning. Small venues allow aspiring musicians to be useless and magnificent in equal measure. It’s also where creative people go to meet. So say goodbye to fashionistas, artists, designers, managers, producers, directors, budding cameramen, choreographers, provocateurs and sound engineers if live grass roots music dies. And what about society’s outcasts and weirdos? Where would they go without the sanctuary of music? We do not know exactly how many creative people are currently out of work, but there are around 52k employed professional musicians in the U.K, so I’m guessing we’re going up into the hundreds of thousands here.  The stunningly flippant Rishi Sunak is sorely mistaken if he really believes everyone will simply go away and retrain, like we’ve all just been messing around before getting a real job. This latest Tory mouthpiece is just another ex hedge fund banker who wouldn’t know grass roots creativity if it smacked him in the face.

As far back as you dare look, the Government has continuously failed to understand the culture of new music. It has never been even remotely aware of what is needed to nurture this ephemeral thing, yet it was happy to sit there and make countless billions simply by doing nothing at all. And now we need our Government to stand up and give something back. In fact, the £1.57 billion on offer to ‘viable’ businesses is nothing short of a slap in the face, especially when you consider that this sum will be shared with heritage projects as diverse and money guzzling as cathedrals, royal palaces – and even Harry Potter film sets!? Let’s compare the £1.57bn recovery fund with conservative (ha!) estimates for the HS2 railway project which currently stand at around 100 billion in 2020 money.  30 million people went to a live music event in 2018, which I suspect is a damned sight more than the number of people who need to shave 15 minutes off a journey between London and Birmingham, right?

Let’s also compare the British government’s support for popular music with South Korea’s – not a sentence I ever saw myself writing, but in this case, relevant!  When K-pop showed potential to become a global export, the South Korean government responded by investing in its growth and development.  K-pop now brings a massive $5 billion dollars a year which has had a mighty impact on the relatively small South Korean economy.

Rather than quibbling over viability in order to grant a few thousand quid, why don’t we make it easy for our Government and just give all the grass roots venues a helping hand? There aren’t that many of them left – survival of the fittest happened long ago!  Surely you can’t be biased towards certain areas of the country…talent knows no borders. The next potential big money spinner may live in Hull. Or maybe they’re in Plymouth. But each is important in its own way.  Choosing the most worthy small venue is like asking you which one of your children you would save from a burning building.

When the Government bailed out the banking crisis back in 2008, £500 billion was set aside to deal with the collapse. So Covid or no Covid, I suspect there are the funds available to save our small venues. But I fear that popular music is an alien being which members of this government rarely if ever enjoy and will never understand or truly value.  If we are not careful here, the only thing left will be those overpriced, sanitised Corporate-sponsored Festivals which happen in greater quantities every virus-free summer. And this, I suspect is something that the Corporate powers would happily agree to. Pubs and venues could then be sold off as prime real estate so that Boris can Build, Build, Build and those ailing town centres will become even more of a ghost world than they already are. And one more thing worth thinking about, Mental Health has become a big issue during Covid, with Government departments now being instructed to ask us how we feel whenever we need to engage with them. So tell me faceless telephone (non)entity, how do you think I am going to feel if live music is taken away and all the small venues shut down?

Over the last week I have spoken with my friends Jason Dormon from The Forum, Tunbridge Wells and Will Moore from The Prince Albert, Brighton. They are both music fanatics who manage two of my favourite grass roots venues. And up until March 2020 both were putting on live bands most nights of the week. But since Covid, both venues are experiencing different fall-out symptoms from the government’s inability to come up with an effective survival plan.

The Prince Albert pub and live music venue, Brighton (photogapher unknown)

Since lockdown, The Prince Albert (a true music pub which has hosted legendary nights for everyone from Neneh Cherry to Peter and the Test Tube Babies) has transformed it’s upstairs music venue into an extended area of the pub. The Albert is keeping its head above water only due to its flexibility and ingenuity, but this has come at a high price because the management has been advised that The Albert would be highly unlikely to secure funding for its live venue given that the bar is taking money.  OK, so you could argue that The Albert has made it through the last few months and is perhaps luckier than some, but factor in the Government’s new 10pm curfew which has already played havoc with bar takings (largely because last orders are being called at the ungodly hour of 9.15pm) and it might soon be a different story. Pubs are currently not allowed to open long enough to make a profit.  And what about the music?  The Albert without live music is not the Albert. It’s just a pub. And this is not just a loss for Brighton, it’s a loss to visitors, tourists and the music industry as a whole. More worryingly, it has poleaxed the legions of bands, sound engineers and bar staff now dumped onto Universal Credit (if they’re lucky) with little or no reassurances that anything will return to ‘normal’ when the Pandemic is over.

Tokyo Taboo performing at The Prince Albert
(photo by Cris Watkins Photography/PunkInFocus)

Although The Forum in Tunbridge Wells has applied for crisis funding, it’s owners were immediately confronted by a complex legal process of having to pitch for a share of the money by proving viability beyond a shadow of a doubt. But which ‘expert’ decides what viability means and is anyone considering the bigger picture here? What is the cost to the UK economy if its’ music industry collapses? The UK record business pumped over £5 billion into the UK economy last year alone, so surely we can take a punt and throw a few crumbs to those grass root venues, right? Wrong! Every small venue owner has had to get busy writing bids for funding even though most have limited (or no) bid writing skills and are only looking for a fraction of what corporate venues are seeking. You see, this is yet another area in which grass roots venues are all at a severe disadvantage because, like The Forum in Tunbridge Wells (which operates as a not for profit organisation), so many rely on donations and volunteers to keep them functioning. These smaller venues officially employ very few people and those who are paid work for the love and not for the money. Small venue owners have found the government guideline capping individual salaries at £150k completely laughable. But it’s also a glaring indication of just how little our government truly understands the reality of what it takes to run a grass roots venue. Many venues would be lucky to take this amount in a year.

Slaves indulging in a little crowdsurfing at The Forum, Tunbridge Wells
(Photo by Lauren Towner)

To make a bad situation even worse insiders fear that crisis funding will only be allocated to those organisations employing a large number of people, even though a number of these entities have reserve funds and rich patrons to turn to. In fact, it has even been whispered that some of the bigger theatres and venues are merely applying to top up reserve funds which have been hit during Covid. I mean, come on guys, play fair. If now isn’t the time to be dipping into that rainy day slush fund then when the hell is?!

Although it cannot actively put on live music right now, The Forum has managed to survive by selling branded merchandise to its loyal customers.   Supporters have stepped up and opened their wallets but there’s a limit to how much merch a venue can sell (and how many donations local well-wishers can make).  Co-owner Jason Dormon is concerned that should the Forum not receive Government funding, it will simply run out of benefactors. On top of this, as the funding is to be distributed geographically, the Forum inadvertently finds itself pitted against the likes of local theatres and other (larger) council run venues and arts centres. It’s future is in no way guaranteed. And this is a crying shame.  Need I remind you that this is a venue which has won countless awards and gave an early break to bands including Oasis and local boys Slaves who have gone on to become one of the UK’s biggest selling indie bands in recent times.  I suspect that like hand claps for the NHS, awards and kind words are very welcome but Jason would rather have money to keep The Forum open for business.

The award winning Forum team!
(photographer unknown)

In an impressive show of solidarity, smaller venues have come together under the Music Venue Trust banner, and it is said that those of the 650+ venues who are eventually successful with their bids for funding, many will put some of their money into a communal pot for other struggling small grass roots venues to access. This then, is probably the best hope for the near future of our gigging landscape.

I believe that it would be a crime to lose even a single grass roots music venue. They are all as important as each other and provide a service in towns big and small which is impossible to measure in monetary terms. So please do everything you can to support your local venue because if you don’t, when this Pandemic is over we will all be guilty of looking back at this moment and realising that we lost something totally irreplaceable. We simply cannot rely on this Government, so matters have to be taken into our own hands.

So if you aren’t ready to say goodbye to all those unforgettable nights out and bands whose greatness is yet to be realised, now is the time to pledge allegiance to keeping it Grass Roots…  contribute to the Save Our Venues Crowdfunder and/or the GMV Crisis Fund and keep supporting funding initiatives at your local venue because they’ve never needed you more!

Authors note: I am a musician not a politician. I write songs, not posts about economic viability!  I am not affiliated with any of the organisations I have written about and the only political activities I am involved in is voting once every 4 years.  I wrote this blog from the heart and for no other reason than that I care. 

Big Gold Dream (The Sound of Young Scotland) DVD Review

I love Scottish Pop. If Spearmint hadn’t already written a song about it (it’s on their 2001 LP A Different Lifetime) I would have. But it’s fair to say that Scotland’s role in the development of punk and indie bands has been largely swept under the carpet over the years. Big Gold Dream goes a long way to rectifying this and sets out the vitally important part Scottish independent labels Fast Product and Postcard Records played between 1978-82. It takes mavericks to start bands and record labels alike. Throughout this film, Big Gold Dream shows us that Scotland had more than its fair share of both.

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Film maker and music lover Grant McPhee has assembled a stellar cast of talking heads to reflect on what exactly did go down during more chaotic and idealistic times. Davey Henderson (Fire Engines/Win) cuts a particularly enigmatic figure as he explains, with some regret, just how his music career never quite happened the way it should have. Fast Records supremo’s Bob Last and Hilary Morrison are (rightfully) cast as visionaries of the rapidly-evolving late 70’s Scottish music scene, although it’s fair to say that some of Bob’s more controversial ploys have caused divisive reactions over the years (his pivotal role in the breaking up of the original Human League is covered here with a great Martyn Ware interview). But Bob was onto something and the Edinburgh-based label gave the world The Gang of Four, Fire Engines, The Mekons and perhaps most importantly, Scars-one of the most influential Scottish bands of this period. I wasn’t particularly aware of them before watching the DVD, but their story is told via former band members detailed recollections. It’s heartbreakingly great.

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A short while later, and operating on the East coast of Scotland, Alan Horne launches Postcard Records from his Glasgow flat. As the story progresses, the two labels quickly become intense rivals. Alan Horne was famed for his dislike of the London music industry, but disdain for the bands on his own label is somewhat harder to fathom. Aztec Camera’s Campbell Owens observes this whilst casting a weary eye over goings-on at Postcard HQ in the early 80’s.

Big Gold Dream traces a line through to Factory and Creation Records, with Joy Division’s Peter Hook and Creation label boss Alan McGee giving their own thoughts on the influence of both Fast and Postcard. Built more for the short term than major chart success, the legacy of Scottish indie pop is proudly proclaimed over this wonderful ninety-minutes. An illuminating watch even if you don’t religiously know all the bands.

Grant McPhee treats his subject with warm-hearted respect and the story cracks along at a fair pace-never lingering too long over uncomfortable subject matter although grievances do get aired. In places the story is horribly poignant as some of the artists were woefully ill-served by their tenures on the indie scene. But, this being a documentary about Scottish bands, there’s also humour and pathos. Nobody seems to feel too sorry for themselves-even if careers were dashed horribly quickly. As a musician myself, I was left with a feeling of what could have been for a lot of the acts involved. Interestingly, the film’s stronger characters are revealed as both tyrants and saviours. Ego can carry you a long way in the business of music. But you’ll always need a good song. And the sound of young Scotland had these in spades.

As soon as the new Vinyl Revolution record shop opens its doors in 2017 you can bet we will be stocking this DVD. Long live the Big Gold Dream!

 

 

 

 

The Cure

Head On The Door

I’m pretty sure that The Cure Saved my life.  Not in a “jump in the river and pull me out” type of way but more because they offered me an alternative mind set to the crushingly conservative and predictable 1980’s teenage life I found myself living in West Sussex.

Courtesy of the local charity shops, The Cure changed my image but they also changed my outlook.  Suddenly it was more than OK to be slightly ridiculous and not in-step with other people.  Being yourself was the most important thing and if society didn’t like this then that was just fine with me.  I finally found a voice, and a wardrobe which included a pair of Converse sneakers and a second hand black suit that was at least three sizes too big for me, and don’t forget the fluorescent socks!

Very important were those garish socks because they were a feature of The Cure’s 1985 “Head On The Door” album.  A definitive Cure classic, and their first true “pop” album, although the band’s version of pop was devised of skewed and jumbled styles, no two songs sounded the same and yet it was all undeniably the work of one fiercely individual group who just happened to come from Crawley, not that far from my own home town of Chichester.

If it’s in print, Vinyl Revolution will always stock “The Head On The Door” because it meant (and still means) so much to me.  Without this LP (named after a recurring dream of singer Robert Smith) I would never have found the courage to set off on my own musical adventure.  And I guess that means there would be no Vinyl Revolution.

For those thinking of exploring The Cure’s extensive back catalogue (do it!), may I humbly recommend you begin with “Disintegration”, “Seventeen Seconds”, “Bloodflowers” and the “Standing On A Beach” singles compilation.

And of course “The Head On The Door”.  Who knows? Maybe it will save your life too.

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TRASHCAN SINATRAS-WILD PENDULUM

This isn’t really an album review. It’s a piece about records. And specifically it’s about vinyl records. Some of them made by Trashcan Sinatras.

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The context in which you first hear a record plays a huge part in what will eventually become one of those collections of songs you just keep returning to. For me, the Trashcan Sinatra’s are a marker in my life. From exploring strange intoxicating streets of Paris during their debut album ‘Cake’ (1990) to a new start in a big new town ‘I’ve Seen Everything’ (1993), through getting signed to a small record label ‘A Happy Pocket’ (1996), the Trashies seem to have had an uncanny knack of releasing a new album just when I needed it. Indeed, around the time of ‘Weightlifting’ (2005), I even got to help bring them to Brighton for a show with American Music Club. Suddenly, two of my favourite bands were colliding in front of my eyes. Sometimes it’s a wonderful life.

A few weeks ago the band released ‘Wild Pendulum‘. It was only their third record this century and funded by a successful Pledge campaign. It goes without saying that I chose the vinyl album option. This ended up taking a little longer to arrive than expected. No worry, as the band had already furnished us faithful Pledgers with a download code. But somehow I just couldn’t introduce myself to ‘Wild Pendulum’ in this manner. Vinyl has a magic all of its own, invisibly transferred from the grooves to our souls as we take the record from the sleeve for the very first time. So I waited. And other people got to hear and write about the record before I did. No matter. It was worth the wait. The magic came. Vinyl won.

‘Wild Pendulum’ is a romantic triumph, shot through with samples of long-forgotten fairy tales and dusty opera. Back in the nineties, the Trashies used this trick of magpie melody to enhance their cover version of The Smiths ‘I Know It’s Over’, and in the process, somehow managed to improve upon the original. No mean feat, but then some of us had always suspected TCS were the Scottish Smiths. In 2016, ‘Wild Pendulum’ picks up from where ‘I Know It’s Over’ left off and enhances the bands’ yearning, melancholy beauty. Pressed on silver vinyl for private moments in monochrome, there’s a song called ‘Autumn’ on side one. It’s the most perfect soundtrack to this perfect season. Everything on ‘Wild Pendulum’ floats by on a cloud of languid guitars augmented by flourishes of Mariachi brass and Nathaniel Walcott’s exquisite string arrangements. Not forgetting those samples…so bask in ‘I Want To Capture Your Heart’ and ‘Waves’. Moods will be brightened and loads slightly lightened. ‘Wild Pendulum’ unfurls a little more with every listen.

And what seismic event in my own life does ‘Wild Pendulum’ usher in? Well, I may be too old to trouble the charts but music is still the guiding light so I’ve decided to start a vinyl business, bringing my own version of iconic rock and roll moments to those discerning enough to want to explore fifty years of pop counter culture through T-shirts, posters, pictures and records. For those on their own journeys to hear knows where.

A vinyl revolution™. Coming soon.

Arthur-THE Great Lost Kinks Album?

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Since it was first released in 1969, ‘Arthur or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire’ has inexplicably fallen off of the critical map. Just as the bands 1968 album ‘Village Green Preservation Society’ disappeared quickly but blossomed as the years rolled by, so ‘Arthur’ has only shriveled and died on the vine. This is both peculiar and unjust…

Originally conceived in early 1969 as a Granada TV play about a family relation of the Davies brothers, the initial idea may have been unceremoniously kicked into touch but what has remained is a very British album packed full of classy Kinks material. In parts scathing and angry (and threaded together by Ray Davies railing against antiquated Victorian values), ‘Some Mothers Son’ preempts Roger Waters’ anger at the old boys establishment blindly sending men to their death in the name of patriotism. ‘Australia’ details the UK’s late sixties exodus in search of new beginnings in sunnier climes whilst ‘Young and Innocent Days’ looks back sadly at a rapidly changing world-a theme Ray Davies has returned to on many occasions in his esteemed career.

Some weighty issues are tackled on ‘Arthur’, but delivered with a refreshing lack of pop star preaching from his country idyll. Each song is equally flecked with Ray Davies barbed wit delivering angst and trademark dreamy summer pop (see ‘Drivin’ and the epic ‘Shangri La’) in equal measures. A younger Damon Albarn must have been listening very closely to ‘Brainwashed’, for Blur’s ‘Pop Scene’ would surely never have been born without it.

Some of the themes from the previous years ‘Village Green’ are revisited on ‘Arthur’, but this time round they feel world-weary and battered. The jaunty ‘Victoria’ (later covered by The Fall-always the sign of a good song!) is probably the best known track on ‘Arthur’ and a decent calling card for what is the most underrated album in the bands extensive catalogue. Make no mistake, this is the sound of a group operating at the peak of their powers even if the world had chosen to stop listening.

But now it’s time for all that to change, right? Go on, give it a spin! You won’t be disappointed.

5/5 in anyone pop aficionados book…