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The Only Fun in Town? – Neil Cooper

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Today’s guest post is by Neil Cooper, an arts journalist and critic who writes extensively for The HeraldThe List and other publications in Scotland and beyond. Active in promoting, and protecting, Scotland’s live music scene, he provides an overview here of the rich variety of musical assets in Edinburgh – and the challenges they face.

More of Neil’s writing is available at: http://coffeetablenotes.blogspot.co.uk/

You can find out more about a current projet to conduct an Edinburgh Live Music Census at: www.edinburghlivemusiccensus.wordpress.com

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(Image Credit: Brian McNeil, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY license)

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 have been and gone since then for a variety of reasons, including fire, mismanagement and demolition, I could maybe understand such a complaint. Right now, however, live music and a grassroots arts scene in Edinburgh is thriving. This despite what feels at times like every effort from City of Edinburgh Council and its 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.

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 hosting 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 a host of one-offs in people’s flats or one of the equally thriving network of grassroots 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 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, and whose background at Edinburgh College of Art 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 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 frontman 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 St 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 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, the Informatics Centre and, alongside New media Scotland, at the Talbot Rice Gallery.

There have 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 shows 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 on a regular basis. 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 projects a facade of respectability while the really interesting things happen in the shadows beyond. This is the case in the numerous niche live music 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 grassroots 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.

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, which in its last incarnation had been owned by HMV who in turned had sold it off to the MAMA group, had been bought by Watford based pub chain, Wetherspoons, with a view to converting the building into a ‘superpub’. Wetherspoons’ raison detre is of providing music free spaces, so the chances of them running a music venue were non-existent.

Objections were raised to this in the form of a 13,000 signature petition, although a CEC report recommended to councillors that Wetherspoons 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 the Amphitheatre 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 some ECA students and others who really do think nothing ever happens here. What’s required here 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 superclub 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’s 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 them away, property developers, breweries and supermarket chains should have to take into account the cultural provision that already exists. 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’s 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.

Neil Cooper

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.

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5 thoughts on “The Only Fun in Town? – Neil Cooper

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  1. Although I agree that there is a music scene in Edinburgh, and that there are many venues that host a platform for many different types of acts, you simply can’t deny that there is still a gap.
    I’m all for preserving what we’ve got, and promoting it too, but I got the impression from this article that it was written by someone from an older generation than my own, and I don’t think this article represents my generation’s views or needs. Unfortunately I didn’t recognise all of the artists referred to. I know from my own countless experiences that every time an artist that I want to see announces a show that I need to then plan my travels to and from the show, more often than not to Glasgow. Why is it that Glasgow book all the popular (and by that I mean popular in all genres, not just what’s in the charts) acts? It’s because Glasgow has the venues. Especially after the closure of the Picturehouse, there is a real need for a decent sized, city centre location venue in our capital city. I would love to not have to worry about catching the last train back to Edinburgh and getting home really late. Nevermind the added expense of it. A show that might cost me £15 for a ticket ends up being a lot more expensive when you factor in the £20 for the return train journey. Any other young music lover I’ve ever met feels this way, so I don’t think it’s an issue that should be side passed. Give me one good reason why we shouldn’t open up a shiny new msuic venue? I guarantee you it’ll be a hit.

  2. Neil,

    If like Radical Independent Music you are out at gigs pretty much every night of the week in Edinburgh, there is no doubt that there is a very vibrant live scene which is thriving regardless of what the technocrats in the City Council choose to do or not do.

    For example, Radical Independent Music was at Honeyblood’s gig in the Dissection Room at Summerhall on Thursday night along with 300 other punters who had come out on an evening which is not that popular, given the weekend is ahead.

    At Summerhall we must have picked up no less than a dozen different flyers printing either specific gifs or specific venues across the city.

    None of this is has anything to do with the Council, who of course can have an impact in terms of what they do with regards to licensing policy. You just need to look at what has happen recently to The Arches in Glasgow, who have been forced to close because the Council withdrew their licence following concerns from Police Scotland (again) about drug dealing inside the venue.

    We speak to enough bands, promoters and venue managers/owners across Edinburgh to know that the live music scene here is in rude health and you don’t have to walk very far to stumble across a gig or a venue that you were not previously aware of. Until a couple of months ago, Radical Independent Music had not been away of the existence of The Mash House, which is tucked a way up an alley in the Cowgate, and yet the first night we went there four bands were playing live simultaneously in the various rooms inside the venue.

    We also frequent Glasgow weekly and whilst there are a lot of higher profile gigs held there at the SECC, The Hydro (did they really custom design the place for the sound quality? It is awful!), Royal Concert Hall, etc., Edinburgh outdoes it’s western neighbour in terms of smaller venues and the number of gigs put on in anyone night.

    Much fuss was made about the fate of the old Caley, but to be honest with you, it was no great shakes as a music venue having gone to gigs there since the early 1970s, and in our opinion is of no great loss to the music scene in the city. It was too big for the vast majority of up-and-coming local bands to play in and too small for bigger names who were touring and wanted to play Edinburgh.

    We are far more excited about venues like Summerhall who have done an awesome job again this year with their “Nothing Ever Happens Here…” series of gigs featuring Broken Records, Paws, James Yorkston, Hubby (RM Hubbert), Withered Hand, THe Phantom Band (who have to be Radical Independent Music’s live band of the decade award winner, if we had such a thing) and Honeyblood.

    All Scottish bands you will notice, and each played Summerhall with 2-3 local support acts. We had never heard or seen Jesus H. Foxx until they supported Honeyblood on Thursday night or Man `Of Moon until they supported The Phantom Band the previous Thursday. Now both bands are on our hot list, tipped for bigger and better things.

    Our view is keep the City of Edinburgh Council as far away from cultural policy in general and live music policy in particular, as is possible. Politicians and bureaucrats who know nothing about music will only f**k things up. The notorious trams project is a great example of their gross incompetence and mismanagement even when they engage dozens of consultants on £1000 per day.

    The live music scene in Edinburgh does not need any hep from CEC other than for them to stay well out of the way!

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