Skip to main content

The Only Fun in Town? - Going Live in Edinburgh's Grassroots Music Scenes

Whenever people say there's nothing musically going on in Edinburgh
outside of August I find myself bristling, because I know it's not true. Ten
years ago when it seemed like there were only a handful of bands, while assorted
venues and club nights that existed then have been and gone for a variety of
reasons, including fire, mismanagement and demolition, I could maybe understand
such a complaint. Right now, however, live music and a grass-roots arts scene in
Edinburgh is thriving. This despite what feels at times like every effort from
City of Edinburgh Council and it's archaic laws on noise restriction to police
or else stop live music completely.

The fact is, there is plenty of live
music – and I include a club culture here that goes beyond boys with guitars -
that takes place pretty much every night at small venues such as Sneaky Pete's,
Electric Circus, Henry's Cellar Bar, the Wee Red Bar at Edinburgh College of
Art, Citrus, the Caves, the Bongo Club, the Forest, Cabaret Voltaire, the Mash
House, Studio 24, Bannerman's, the Liquid Rooms, the Banshee Labyrinth, the
Voodoo Rooms and La Belle Angele.

If you want to move a step up to something
more formal, there is the Queen's Hall,  which has seen many artists who started
out playing Henry's or Sneaky Pete's move into a bigger arena. The Usher Hall
hosted the 1972 Eurovision Song Contest, and hosts large-scale pop/rock, jazz,
folk and classical music concerts. Outwith the city centre there is the Corn
Exchange, although no-one seems to like it overly much.

Beyond that, there
are numerous one-offs at assorted church halls, working men's clubs such as
Leith Dockers Club and a lively pub circuit, with events taking place in the
back rooms of the Safari Lounge and many others. Sandy Bell's and the Royal Oak
host nightly folk sessions as they have done since the Scottish folk revival of
the 1960s, while upstairs in the Outhouse a fortnightly jazz night called
Playtime takes place. 

One church hall, the Central Hall on Lothian Road,
looks set to be the venue for a night presented by Neu! Reekie!, one of the many
nights which mix up spoken-word with live music. The Neu! Reekie! night on June
9th will feature Young Fathers, Andy Weatherall and Fini Tribe as well as
spoken-word artists.

There is the Jazz Bar, which puts on three gigs a night
364 days a year, and there are a host of one-offs in people's flats or one of
the equally thriving network of grass-roots art spaces that exists such as
Rhubaba and the Embassy. There have been gigs at Summerhall pretty much since it
opened. There are micro festivals such as LeithLate, and now in August itself
even Edinburgh International Festival has embraced pop, hosting shows by the
Sparks/Franz Ferdinand collaboration, FFS, Sufjan Stevens and Oneohtrix Point
Never.

At the time of writing I've just come home from Moonhop, a monthly
night at Henry's Cellar Bar run by the band, FOUND, who at various points have
released records on the Fence and Creeping Bent labels as well as their own
Surface Pressure imprint, and whose background at Gray's School of Art in
Aberdeen has seen them dabble with conceptual type shenanigans such as running
club nights. Social sculpture, as they probably wouldn't call it. Tonight
featured River of Slime, which is Kev Sim from FOUND doing sci-fi analog synth
stuff, while the night was headlined by The Sexual Objects playing their
instrumental Cream Split Up album, which has been played to death by BBC 6Music,
in full.

This is significant in that The Sexual Objects front-man Davy
Henderson has roots going right back to Fire Engines, the Edinburgh band who
were key players around the city's post-punk scene from 1979 to 1981, and who
would go on to be name-checked by Franz Ferdinand as a major influence. Fire
Engines were part of a scene based around Fast Product records, the record label
run by Bob Last and Hilary Morrison from a flat in Keir Street next to ECA. Fast
put out the first records by the Gang of Four and the Human League, was a huge
influence on Factory Records – and it's interesting to note the differences
between Edinburgh and Manchester in terms of how each city's musical history has
been treated - and arguably changed the pop landscape forever, as is explained
in Grant McPhee's forthcoming documentary film, The Sound of Young
Scotland.

The sole album released by Fire Engines' Edinburgh contemporaries
Josef K, also featured in the Sound of Young Scotland, was tellingly called The
Only Fun in Town. This was undoubtedly a nod to a time in the pre-punk late
1970s when there really wasn't any kind of live music scene in Edinburgh after
many of the city's clubs and dance halls were either demolished or turned into
bingo halls.

Three and a half decades on, Moonhop was packed, and was one of
several nights I could have gone to tonight, including the first edition of the
ironically named Summerhall-based Nothing Ever Happens Here, featuring Broken
Records and others. Last Friday I had even more choices. As well as The Unthanks
at the Queen's Hall, I could have gone to see the Alabama 3 at Studio 24, retro
garage rock veterans The Thanes at the club-house of Leith Cricket Club or a
Song By Toad night at Henry's. On Sunday night I went to a bill of four
Edinburgh bands at Krafty Brew, a micro brewery set in an industrial estate off
Leith Walk, while this weekend there is live music taking place on Saturday
afternoon at the Elvis Shakespeare record and book shop.

Some people seem to
think there is no such thing as a scene in Edinburgh, and, in a way, they're
right, because rather than there just being one, there are many. Outwith the
main promoters such as Regular Music, there are regular nights put on by the
Song, By Toad label in Henry's or else at the warehouse space that forms Toad HQ
in Leith. The Gentle Invasion, run by Bart of the band Eagleowl, puts on
extravaganzas of left-field songwriters in Pilrig Church Hall and other places
as did the Tracer Trails organisation before them. Over almost a decade, Limbo
has provided monthly bills of local artists at the Voodoo Rooms.

Braw Gigs
provide a platform for the city's thriving experimental scene, following in the
footsteps of the Giant Tank label, whose 'house band', Edinburgh duo Usurper,
were recently championed by Scottish Symphony Orchestra director Ilan Volkov,
who programmed them as part of his Tectonics festival in Glasgow and Reykjavik.
Operating out of the University of Edinburgh, Martin Parker's Dialogues
initiative has promoted experimental music at the School of Music based in
Alison House and elsewhere, often in association with New Media Scotland at the
Informatics Centre. EdImpro have continued this relationship, with events at the
Talbot Rice Gallery and the Reid Concert Hall.

There has been the Pleasance
sessions at Edinburgh University featuring the likes of the Phantom Band and
Honeyblood, and a series of shows in the Traverse Theatre bar featuring the
likes of Alasdair Roberts by the Soundhouse project, whose house concerts fell
foul of the sort of noise complaints which are in part at the root of any damage
currently being caused to live music in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Folk Club puts
on regular shows at the Pleasance, Edinburgh Blues Club hosts nights at the
Voodoo Rooms, while an underground thrash metal scene operates unmolested in the
once folksy environs of Bannermans. The Wee Dub Festival now promotes reggae
nights across he city on a regular basis, and there is a thriving open mic scene
in numeropus bars around town. For a decade Olaf Furniss' Born To Be Wide and
Wide Days events have brought together local musicians and bands for a series of
music industry seminars, showcases and social events.

As a journalist I'm
privileged to be able to move across these worlds, dipping a dilettantish toe in
each as I'm wont to do, witnessing a bigger picture in a way which maybe those
steeped in a particular niche or scene perhaps aren't interested in doing simply
because they're too busy doing their own thing. But in terms of the multifarious
activities described above, Edinburgh's music scene is in no need of
revitalising, regeneration or reincarnation in any way, and anyone who thinks
otherwise probably needs to get out more. And, you know, the more the
merrier.

Edinburgh has always been a Jekyll and Hyde city, in which
establishment-based institutions project a fa├žade of respectability while the
really interesting things happen in the shadows beyond. This is the case in the
numerous niche live music micro scenes that co-exist in Edinburgh as much as
with everything else that goes on here, and that's fine.

In terms of civic
will, however, the story is very different. Over the last decade, numerous
venues have been flattened or bulldozed away as the City has increasingly seemed
to favour property developers over grass-roots arts and culture on its own
doorstep. The result of this is that few art students arriving in Edinburgh are
aware that before the student flats, boutique hotel and the Sainsbury's Local
next to their alma mater were built, crucial venues such as the Tap O'Laurieston
and the Cas Rock hosted the like of the Planet Pop festival and provided crucial
focal points for bands and artists  by promoting gigs all year round.

Then
there is the now notorious 'inaudibility clause', which has seen pubs and other
small venues close down their live music nights at the behest of what has more
often than not been a sole complainant. While city centre living is at a premium
in Edinburgh, as the current CEC laws stand, the notion of what does or doesn't
warrant a noise nuisance is at best subjectively vague and lacks
specificity.

The most striking example of botched civic will comes in the
form of the Picture House, a much needed 1500 capacity city centre venue with a
long history as a venue dating back to the 1970s after its original incarnation
as a cinema. Two years ago the Picture House was purchased by Watford based bar
chain, JD Wetherspoon, with a view to converting the building into a 'superpub'.
In its last incarnation, the Picture House was owned by HMV, who in 2010 had
acquired the whole of entertainment venue operators the MAMA group, who had
bought the Picture House in 2008. While the building has currently lain empty
since late 2013, given that JD Wetherspoon's raison d'etre is one of music-free
bars, the chances of them retaining the Picture House as a music venue are
non-existent.

Objections were raised to this in the form of a 13,000
signature petition, although a CEC report recommended to councillors that JD
Wetherspoon should be granted a change of use for the building, despite the
report being riddled with inaccuracies including the suggestion that the venue's
prime function was as a nightclub. This hadn't been the case since an inglorious
period in the 1980s and 1990s, when closing time on Lothian Road outside what
was then known as the Amphitheatre and later Century 2000 and Revolution was
invariably accompanied by several police vans.

This raises the question of a
lack of civic knowledge concerning Edinburgh's rich musical history. It is a
lack of knowledge shared with s others who really do think nothing ever happens
here. What is required to counter that perception  is an extensive archiving
project, which puts Edinburgh's bulldozed musical legacy back into the public
domain where it can potentially inspire others as well as give CEC officers a
primer in pop history.

What is lacking most of all at the moment from CEC is
any kind of vision. Instead of planning grand schemes regarding the bogus
concept of cultural quarters and suchlike, the powers that be need to stop
listening to property developers and breweries and start listening to their
constituents and the artists and musicians contained within that
constituency.

At the moment, CEC is kow-towing to notions of gentrification,
which is the by-product of urban regeneration in which lip service is paid to
notions of art and culture without any real understanding of it.

Such
botched attempts at social engineering aren't exclusive to Edinburgh. In London,
what would now be described as a song-writing 'hub', Tin Pan Alley on Denmark
Street, is being razed in the name of development. In Liverpool, the site of
super-club Cream is being demolished to build flats. And in New York, CBGBs, the
shabby home of American punk, was forced to close because its management could
no longer afford to pay the rent in the once derelict but now gentrified East
Village district of Manhattan.

What is needed in Edinburgh is a vision that
both enables artists, musicians and promoters to put on live music in the
multitude of spaces mentioned here in a way that allows them to co-exist happily
with their neighbours. That means looking at licenses in terms of the
inaudibility clause, which, while again not unique to Edinburgh, affects it more
due to a highly residential city centre.

Existing spaces also need
protecting, so rather than build new properties close to venues or else bulldoze
the venues away, property developers, breweries and supermarket chains should
have to take into account the cultural provision that already exists and which
they are effectively inveigling upon. This means live music having a voice in
planning decisions that may threaten historically significant live music
venues.

Promoters, musicians and every other artist in Edinburgh are already
in full possession of the sort of vision that is required . There are even
signs, through the Live Music Matters and Desire Lines initiatives, that at last
there is some kind of will from City of Edinburgh Council to help facilitate any
necessary changes to current legislation. Whether that amounts to anything in
real terms remains to be seen, but without any vision of their own, CEC run the
risk of not being able to recognise any of the wonderful live music events that
go on in this city, some of which have already changed the world.


Written quickly in March 2015, this was originally intended as a couple of paragraphs in response to an approach by Chris McCall, who was writing an article on live music in Edinburgh for Vice magazine, and asked me to expand on a post I made on the Keep Music Live Edinburgh Facebook page to be used as quotes in his piece. As yet the article hasn't appeared, and as my couple of paragaraphs had grown considerably it was published on the webpage of the University of Edinburgh's Live Music Exchange at the behest of Adam Behr. Live Music Exchange is an initiative made up of assorted academics researching live music.

ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Honourable K.W. Harman: Ltd Ink Corporation

31 Bath Road, Leith Docks, March 17th-20th

In a monumental shipping container down by Leith Docks, a Sex Pistols tribute band is playing Anarchy in the U.K.. on a stage set up in the middle of the room. Either side, various constructions have been built in such a way so viewers can window shop as they promenade from one end of the room to the next, with the holy grail of a bar at either end.

Inbetween, there’s a confession booth and a mock-up of a private detective’s office with assorted documentation of real-life surveillance pinned to the walls. Two people seem to be having a conversation in public as if they're on a chat show. An assault course of smashed windows are perched on the floor like collateral damage of post-chucking out time target practice. A display of distinctively lettered signs originally created by a homeless man in search of a bed for the night are clumped together on placards that seem to be marking out territory or else finding comfort in being together. Opp…

The Maids

Dundee Rep

Two sisters sit in glass cases either side of the stage at the start of Eve Jamieson's production of Jean Genet's nasty little study of warped aspiration and abuse of power. Bathed in red light, the women look like artefacts in some cheap thrill waxworks horror-show, or else exhibits in a human zoo. Either way, they are both trapped, immortalised in a freak-show possibly of their own making.

Once the sisters come to life and drape themselves in the sumptuous bedroom of their absent mistress, they raid her bulging wardrobe to try on otherwise untouchable glad-rags and jewellery. As they do, the grotesque parody of the high-life they aspire to turns uglier by the second. When the Mistress returns, as played with daring abandon by Emily Winter as a glamour-chasing narcissist who gets her kicks from drooling over the criminal classes, you can't really blame the sisters for their fantasy of killing her.

Slabs of sound slice the air to punctuate each scene of Mart…

Scot:Lands 2017

Edinburgh's Hogmanay
Four stars

A sense of place is everything in Scot:Lands. Half the experience of Edinburgh's Hogmanay's now annual tour of the country's diverse array of cultures seen over nine bespoke stages in one global village is the physical journey itself. Scot:Lands too is about how that sense of place interacts with the people who are inspired inspired by that place.

So it was in Nether:Land, where you could see the day in at the Scottish Storytelling Centre with a mixed bag of traditional storytellers and contemporary performance poets such as Jenny Lindsay. The queues beside the Centre's cafe were further enlivened by the gentlest of ceilidhs was ushered in by Mairi Campbell and her band.

For Wig:Land, the grandiloquence of the little seen Signet Library in Parliament Square was transformed into a mini version of the Wigtown Book Festival. While upstairs provided a pop-up performance space where writers including Jessica Fox and Debi Gliori read eithe…