In this week’s post we’re pleased to present Neil Cooper’s stirring address to Edinburgh’s Live Music Matters Forum at Usher Hall last week, organised by City of Edinburgh Council. It also featured a report on the progress of the council’s Music is Audible working group (of which Neil as well as LMX’s Adam Behr and Matt Brennan were a part) and discussion of the ongoing challenges faced by venues and musicians in the city that drove the Live Music Matters forum in November 2014.
This comes alongside recent concerns voiced by UNESCO about the quality of new developments in the Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site and its call for a review of the city’s approach to development. With venues in Edinburgh still voicing concern, the city’s world heritage status in the spotlight and a wider context of calls nationwide for the introduction of the Agent of Change principle, the overview provided in this address shows that the cultural life of a city cannot be taken for granted in the face of urban development.
Address to Live Music Matters – Usher Hall – February 22nd 2016
Last week, the touring stage production of Footloose: The Musical arrived for a week-long run at the Edinburgh Playhouse.
For those who may not know Footloose, the stage version is based on a 1984 film of the same name starring Kevin Bacon. Bacon plays Ren McCormack, a fun-loving Chicago teenager who is packed off to the small town of Bomont.
Once in Bomont, as this is a teen movie, young Ren of course falls for the local bad girl, falling foul of the local authorities as he goes. The main obstacle that fun-loving Ren come up against, alas, is the fact that due to external pressure, the local city council has banned dancing and rock music.
The last time a real life incident similar to this occurred in Glasgow in 1977, when the city’s local authority banned what they deemed to be Punk Rock gigs, and – just as in Footloose, in which Ren and his pals were forced to travel a hundred miles to a country bar to dance to rock and roll – Glaswegian punk rockers had to travel to Paisley to pursue their anarchic pleasures.
Something similar happened in 1994 with the implementation of the Criminal Justice Act, which, in an bid to outlaw rave culture, imposed restrictions on gatherings anywhere for the purpose of dancing to repetitive beats.
This new law applied to groups of twenty or more people in England and Wales, while in Scotland, gatherings of up to 100 were acceptable. In a reflection of its full absurdity, the Criminal Justice Act could be legally enforced even if no illegal trespass was involved.
As with what happened in downtown Bomont in Footloose, this was an ideologically driven attempt to ban dancing. While the Criminal Justice Act attempted to outlaw this new wave of freaky dancing across the UK, Glasgow’s loss in terms of the locally enforced punk rock ban became Edinburgh’s gain.
As I pointed out to the Licensing Forum in December, Edinburgh has a long history of live music in bars and small venues in Edinburgh. In modern times this runs from the 1960s folk revival that ran parallel with the dance-hall scene, to bars such as the now demolished Tap O’Lauriston in West Port, which was a key venue for Edinburgh’s punk scene.
The importance of the Tap O’Lauriston in particular was highlighted recently by a man called Bob Last, who may now be best known as a film producer who helped make such films as The Illusionist – a film which featured an imaginary animated band – and Sunset Song, but whose career began while a student at Edinburgh College of Art.
Bob Last lived in a flat in Keir Street, next door to Edinburgh College of Art, and it was through going to gigs in small venues and tour managing a band called The Rezillos that he ended up starting a record label called Fast Product which put out the first records by the Human League, The Gang of Four, The Mekons and The Dead Kennedys.
This was arguably one of the earliest sitings of a genre we now know as post-punk, with Fast Product acknowledged as a major influence on the far better historicised music scene of the time in Manchester based around Factory Records. It is equally arguable as well that the Human League’s global success when they went to number one in the charts over Christmas 1981 changed pop music forever.
And all that out of a tenement flat next to Edinburgh College of Art.
This very recent history has just been been documented in a full-length feature film called Big Gold Dream, which intersperses new interviews with all the era’s key players with fantastically scratchy archive footage.
It is my view that Big Gold Dream – which was made over ten years without any public funding – should be compulsory viewing for anyone who believes there has never been any live music in Edinburgh.
It is my view as well that Big Gold Dream should also be shown at every higher education institution in the City during Fresher’s Week, and should be on a permanent loop at the National Museum of Scotland lest this vital cultural artefact be allowed to disappear from history.
But more of that anon.
Given the key role of Edinburgh College of Art and Bob Last’s Keir Street flat, it’s perhaps ironic that fairly recent noise complaints concerning Edinburgh College of Art came from neighbours in Keir Street, a few doors away from the flat where Fast Product Records was based.
But the complaint – which wasn’t to the Council, but was made to the College directly – wasn’t about the noise generated by the live music playing in the Wee Red Bar, which is the College of Art’s student union and one of the key small music venues in the city and which finishes its live music events no later than 10pm.
The complaint was about a transistor radio playing on the ledge of an open window of one of the College’s studios where a student was working – in the daytime.
Before Christmas I was heartened, not just by the fact that every band on the main stage of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay – Biffy Clyro, Idlewild and Honeyblood – had been nurtured in small venues like Bannerman’s, the Cas Rock, Sneaky Pete’s, Henry’s Cellar Bar, and Electric Circus.
It was in these places that these bands tried things out, probably messed up a fair bit and used a cheap and cheerful platform to find out who they are and what they’re about en route to becoming the world class artists who appeared at Hogmanay.
It was the same story when the Bay City Rollers headlined the Usher Hall for two nights.
Here was a band who were sired from the thriving dance-hall and club circuit that existed before the Council and property developers conspired to rip up the city around Leith Street where some of those clubs existed, and where further bull-dozing is already currently ongoing – and who for a fleeting moment in the 1970s were the biggest band in the world.
According to a recent TV documentary on the Rollers, their song Saturday Night is said to have inspired The Ramones song, ‘Blitzkreig Bop’. Whether that’s true or not, the point is that artists don’t come fully formed, but need time and space to develop.
That such an observation regarding the missing link between the Bay City Rollers and The Ramones has taken almost forty years to come to light speaks volumes about how shoddily Edinburgh’s musical heritage has been treated compared to that in New York.
But Edinburgh hasn’t always had such a seemingly illiberal attitude to live music.
Last summer I spoke to a musician called Andy Moor, who plays in a band called The Ex.
The Ex are based in the Netherlands, having formed out of the city’s punk – or post-punk – scenes thirty years before. Through extensive touring, The Ex developed connections with like-minded artists across the globe.
This was especially the case in Edinburgh, where they teamed up with a band called Dog Faced Hermans, who were active in a loose-knit disorganisation called Edinburgh Musicians Collective, who held gigs in the Wee Red Bar at Edinburgh College of Art.
Andy Moor originally played in Dog Faced Hermans, and both they and The Ex toured and recorded together until Moor joined The Ex full time.
Moor told me that one of the earliest gigs he remembers the two bands playing in either the late 1980s or early 1990s was in a small bar in the Cowgate which was one of a row of three, though he couldn’t remember which.
It might well have been Sneaky Pete’s, back in the days when it was better known for being one of the scariest late night bars in town rather than its well-managed live music programme and select clientele, but who can say?
As I remember it, these three bars, – lined up unassumingly like three rather hard looking maids in a row – changed their names every time someone was murdered in one of them.
At that time, as far as I can work out, one of the main advantages of having live music in a pub was that it enabled the bar to stay open later. This understandably made for a somewhat colourful clientele, many of whom were more concerned about how cheap the shots were than the nuances of the live music being played.
This was something Andy Moor, The Ex and Dog Faced Hermans discovered first hand when they played the Cowgate bar that may or may not have been Sneaky Pete’s that night, when three songs in, The Ex’s soundman was hit by a bottle or a pint glass.
The gig never really recovered after that, apparently, and was abandoned shortly after.
But these are changed days.
We have venues like the Sneaky Pete’s of today, which are run safely and responsibly and with consideration to their neighbours, and which to the best of my knowledge hasn’t had to consider changing its name at all following any late night homicide.
The arrival of Footloose: The Musical at Edinburgh Playhouse made me think of another, much older musical film which was set, not in some back-woods – and possibly backwards – American town, but in the bright lights, big city of London.
The Young Ones dates from 1961, and was a vehicle for Cliff Richard, who at the time was still considered a voice for youth having once been seen as the UK’s answer to Elvis Presley.
For those too young to have seen this very British celluloid reaction to the rise of the teenager in a city that was about to swing…
In The Young Ones, Cliff Richard played a would-be singer who was part of a youth club, which was under threat by millionaire property developers who wished to knock it down so that they could build office blocks.
In retaliation, Cliff, The Shadows and the gang take over a deserted theatre which possibly also belonged to the millionaire property developer, who was perhaps leaving it to fall into disrepair until he was allowed to bulldoze it away and build more office blocks, maybe, or perhaps student accommodation, or perhaps leave the theatre standing before converting it into a 900 capacity super pub.
And it probably wouldn’t matter if twenty thousand people signed a petition to keep the theatre as a theatre, the millionaire property developer would get his own way because he had the money and the lawyers to make it happen.
In the film, there is of course a happy ending, when the millionaire property developer – who turns out to be Cliff’s dad – hears Cliff sing on pirate radio, realises the error of his ways and declares he’ll buy Cliff and the gang a brand new youth club.
That’s not what happened in Edinburgh, alas, when JD Wetherspoon was granted planning permission to convert the Picture House into a superpub.
Not only were the thousands of local constituents who signed the petition protesting the move ignored by the Planning Committee.
A third of the committee elected to represent their constituents on planning issues were somewhat conveniently absent from the meeting in which the decision was taken and unable to vote.
Since then, it should be noted, after almost two years since its closure, the site of the Picture House has remained unused, with as yet no sign of any building work evident on the outside at least.
Perhaps the Planning Committee aren’t aware of the significance of the site of the Picture House, both as a cinema and a major live music venue in the 1980s.
They certainly weren’t when they were presented with a first report by officers, which was roundly rejected as being, according to the convenor ‘not a good report.’
This lack of knowledge of the city’s cultural heritage on the Planning Committee might explain the Convenor’s comments in a newspaper interview when asked about what was until recently a gap site on New Street which now forms part of what I think is now called the Caltongate development, protests about which were again disregarded in favour of millionaire developers.
When asked about the site, the Convenor described it as a former bus shelter, making no mention of the the building’s decade long existence as the Bongo Club, one of the city’s finest cultural centres and grassroots music venues.
The main problem with live music in Edinburgh, beyond the encroaching gentrification that is ongoing, is the so-called ‘inaudibility clause’, whereby if live music can be heard beyond the four walls of the venue it is being played in, then it is in breach of the law.
Of course, music being music, it makes a sound.
That’s why it’s called music, and even with the most rigorous attempts at soundproofing as all responsible venues fit themselves out with, it will be heard.
To illustrate the absurdity of the use of the notion of inaudibility, one of the venues in Edinburgh which has suffered the most regarding noise complaints in recent years is Studio 24, situated on Calton Road, where it has been run since the 1970s.
Noise complaints only started after new housing developments were built on Calton Road, with the owners being informed that their new houses came with sound-proofing, which – as it turned out – wasn’t actually the case.
Even so, Studio 24 was presumed to be the guilty party, and, despite increasing the sound-proofing which already existed in the venue, had protracted and not always successful dealings with the Council.
Recently Studio 24 has started putting on gigs again, and, as far as I’m aware, there have been no complaints.
I went to one a few months ago, and as I had to leave the gig early while the band were still playing, I took the opportunity to try and gauge for myself what noise from the venue was audible on the street.
All I could hear directly outside the venue was a muffled bass sound that was so low that it sounded like it was buried underground. Beyond this and the occasional car passing by, the main noise on the street wasn’t coming from Studio 24 at all.
The main noise on Calton Road just before 10 O’Clock on a Wednesday night was actually coming from Waverley Station, where the arrivals and departures of train times where being announced through an amplified tannoy system.
The use of an amplified tannoy system is interesting, as the current Council legislation states that amplified vocals and drums must remain inaudible beyond the venue where they are being used.
The amplified voice of Waverley Station’s train announcements, which can be heard all day and until late at night along the length of Calton Road, might be seen to be potentially in breach of that legislation.
While such an absurdity will obviously never be acted upon, just as the noise generated by the Edinburgh Tattoo and other events during August’s festival season will never be acted upon, this is potentially how ridiculous the inaudibility clause – non-scientific and subjectively implemented – appears when taken to its logical conclusion.
But let’s be clear here.
Any proposed removal of the inaudibility clause isn’t about creating a free for all that would allow bands to crank up the volume to eleven.
Rather, it is about live music events – be they in pubs, church halls, galleries and museums as well as regular venues – to operate responsibly in the full knowledge that they are being recognised as equals with other constituents of the City Council.
Because despite everything, new live music venues continue to pop up.
Leith Depot and Paradise Palms are the latest two venues to open that I’m aware of, while at Summerhall the programme promoted beneath the ironically named banner of ‘Nothing Ever Happens Here’ becomes increasingly ambitious.
This week’s news of Leith Theatre being developed back into a fully working venue might mean that at long last there is a viable mid-scale replacement to the Picture House.
Beyond the regular venues and the plethora of pubs that continue to put on live music, I see live music events that happens in church halls, community centres and dockers clubs; in grassroots art-spaces, warehouses and museums after-hours.
As the Live Music Exchange has already confirmed, there are hundreds of live music events that take place in Edinburgh which pass by largely without incident.
There is a new collective looking to open and run a DIY venue which can exist for all ages, and again, this is about education, whereby young people can experience the thrill of live music from an early age, whether playing it or listening to it.
Before Christmas, while the big bands played the Usher Hall and Princes Street Gardens, two significant events took place.
The first, at the Collective Gallery on Calton Hill, saw the culmination of a three year project by artist Ross Sinclair, who together with the Collective, had given musical instruments to young people, who then learnt how to play them, formed bands and wrote songs.
The night at the Collective was the launch of the record that had been made of those bands, who all played in front of an invited audience in what was a wonderful example of how music can empower young people.
Down the road during the same week at South Bridge Resource Centre, Totally Sound – a City of Edinburgh Council funded community initiative set up in 2003 as a music project for local youth – hosted something similar.
Again, after being taught to play instruments and the rudiments of live music and recording by professional musicians and sound engineers, several bands made up of young people performed sets that included covers of Christmas songs.
The Totally Sound show was a benefit gig to raise funds for the project because, as with so many music education projects, its funding was rumoured to be under threat.
That’s one form of music education, but given what seems to be an absence of knowledge concerning the City’s musical history, I would also propose a major archiving project, which presented a permanent physical document of Edinburgh’s musical history, past, present and future.
Perhaps, depending what happens with St Mary’s Music School proposal to move into the Old Royal High School, it might even be housed there.
One thing that is clear that has come out of this process, is that a city which attempts to outlaw live music as Bomont did in Footloose – or a city that allows millionaire property developers to knock down clubs so they can build office blocks as in The Young Ones – is completely missing the point of what a city is.
Put simply, a city without music is a city that has lost its soul.
As the efforts of Live Music Matters, Music is Audible, the Live Music Exchange census and the Music Venue Trust have proven over the last year with the publication of the report presented to City of Edinburgh Council’s Culture and Sport Committee, Edinburgh has enough live music to ensure that it doesn’t lose it’s soul in the way that property developers and hoteliers would rather it did.
But like any souls, Edinburgh’s musical soul not only needs protecting.
It needs nurturing.
And that is the task of every one who cares about live music in its myriad of forms.
Music is audible, and live music does matter.
If Kevin Bacon and Cliff Richard can understand that, then Edinburgh surely can as well.
Neil Cooper, February 2016
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