While travelling, there are few things better than popping on the headphones and listening to a little music as you peer through the windows of the train/ plane/ car etc. Growing up in the north of England meant that I had a lot of exposure to plenty of different music from early on – from live bands in Sheffield (I’ve seen everything from The Beach Boys to Limp Bizkit in the mighty city of steel!) to incredible clubs in Manchester. Of course England is well known the world over for its musical output, from genres as diverse as Punk, Britrock and Madchester to the lesser known, but hugely influential Industrial music that boomed in Sheffield in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Here is a little history on some of my favourite musical styles from all around the country – sorted by city. Enjoy.
Our journey starts in what many regard as the capital of the north, iconic Manchester, home to England’s second largest airport and millions of Mancunians all running around in parkas in the now infamous Fac 51 The Haçienda club. Manchester birthed the “Madchester” scene sometime in the late 80’s, and at the core of it all was the aforementioned Haçienda club, operated by Joy Division/ New Order manager Rob Gretton and financed by their record label Factory Records. Before the Madchester term was coined the club saw acts as diverse as The Smith’s and EBM groups like Liaisons Dangereuses and Einstürzende Neubauten grace its converted factory floors. The latter of those even drilled a few holes into the wall whilst on stage – in-keeping with the gritty factory-like interior. The club is now closed and an apartment block named The Haçienda Apartments, stands in its place – so make sure you stop by there to see the iconic plaque which still adorns the walls outside. The music that made Madchester what it was is perhaps some of the most diverse in this list. It included bands like New Order who formed from the ashes of Joy Division, The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, 808 State and The Happy Mondays. The sound was very much 60’s rock inspired, with gritty punk-pop melodies and a final layer of house absorbed from the Haçienda club’s soundtrack. Manchester still carries the music torch and is today a great spot for its nightlife – spanning every kind of genre imaginable – head to Fallowfield for a lively night out with plenty of clubs and live music venues to choose from or to Canal Street if you’re in the mood for something just a bit more colourful.
Just a bit further north – we head to Sheffield. The centre of industry, the home of steel, and as it happens one of the homes of some of the country’s greatest experimental music styles – namely Industrial and synth-pop. It all began in the late 70s. The times were dark and most kids lived with the sounds of factories, metal crushing metal and the smells of smoke and coal at their doorsteps. One of the first bands to be involved with the industrial scene listened to all that and with it he made the cold abrasive sounds that were to become known as Cabaret Voltaire. Elsewhere, Clock DVA were making similarly dark electronic music while bands like the Human League and Heaven 17 were winning over crowds with their infectious brand of synth-pop. The sounds on offer here were mostly made up of treated tape-loops and analogue synthesisers, a sound that fitted in well with the rise of Thatcher’s England, and the stark reality of the poverty stricken industrial-north. These days the city is better known for the likes of Pulp, the Arctic Monkeys and its huge indie and metal scenes than any of this.. though some excellent industrial music still does the rounds with the annual Resistanz Festival and plenty of live shows featuring local bands. The Devonshire Quarter and Division street are good places to head if you feel in the mood for some live tunes, though just around the corner you’ll find the Corporation club which still holds industrial nights for those in the mood for something a little darker.
I could go on for hours about the various musical genres that London has spawned over the years, but instead we are going to discuss the phenomenon, which was Britpop in the 90s. Camden gave us some true greats, such as Lush, Blur and Suede all of whom were a very British answer to what was becoming a hugely Americanised music scene. Grunge was king. Nirvana were all over the airwaves and big English indie bands like the Stone Roses had all but disappeared. It was time for Camden to shine. Suede and Blur were some of the earliest and most accessible success stories, but on the other side of the coin, punkier bands such as Elastica were gaining headway until soon the hazy days of Grunge were nothing but a memory to the mainstream press. It all peaked in and around ’95 when a chart battle between Blur and the northern Oasis fired up and gained front cover attention all over the country from the NME to BBC news. Blur won, but sadly in the long run, Oasis became the true success story and took the musical crown back north to Manchester until Britpop began to fade into what some were calling “Noelrock”, after sheepish guitarist and sometime singer of Oasis Noel Gallagher – (Christmas Gallagher as the French would say). Later bands like Radiohead and The Verve stole the airplay and it was clear that Camden’s Britpop pioneers were becoming a distant memory. To this day Camden remains a great spot for live music, everything from punk, pop, goth and indie are on the menu. Take a peak at Camden Market during the day and in the evening head to one of the pubs on Camden High Street to get a glimpse at real north London nightlife.
During the 70’s and 80’s Hip Hop was getting huge and beginning to settle on English shores and Bristol was one of its earliest adopters. At first the city was giving birth to DJ’s and producers who attempted to put their own spin on Hip Hop – the core of which was made up of a sound system known as the Wild Bunch from St.Paul’s, Bristol. They played with music from all genres including hip hop, Punk and Reggae until in the late 80’s, 3 out of the group went on to form the hugely successful Massive Attack, while the incredible Tricky continued as a solo artist and collaborator of Massive Attack. Together, they popularised a genre of music, which was to become known as Trip Hop. The 90’s quickly came and with it more and more bands subscribing to the Trip Hop sound, one of the most renowned of which were Portishead – named after the small coastal town just a few miles from Bristol while bands like the Sneaker Pimps lent the genre a poppier aesthetic – and later morphing into IAMX which went dark and rather epic with some beautiful cabaret elements. Bristol isn’t one of the largest cities in England but it has a vibrant nightlife – to sample it, check out the Harbourside bars, Gloucester Road, which has a couple of live venues and the clubs in the city centre ….which can be colourful to say the least.
If you fancy getting away from the musical centres of England, then head to the coast and perhaps explore the little town of Portishead.
This is an edited version of an original piece that I wrote for the excellent online travel magazine Yettio.