A love song to a city of musical dreams
Oxford has an extraordinary rock heritage, which includes Radiohead and Supergrass. At last it is being celebrated on film
Away from the dreaming spires, the tourists and the punting, there lies another side to Oxford. A small university city it may be, but it has still been the home of one of the country's most vibrant music scenes, producing bands such as Radiohead, Supergrass and many more. With Oxford at one point claiming to have more signed bands per head of population than anywhere else in the UK, a new rockumentary aims to tell the story of how so much musical talent has come out of a city with little more than 150,000 inhabitants.
Narrated by comedian Stewart Lee, himself a former student in the city, Anyone Can Play Guitar is a love song to this alternative Oxford from the film's writer and director Jon Spira.
"When people talk about music scenes, they talk about Manchester and London – with punk – and Sheffield and Liverpool; but these are not scenes," says Spira, who was born and lives in Oxford. "These are very brief regional explosions which happen over one or two years and produce a handful of bands who are all making essentially the same kind of music."
In contrast, Spira wanted to show not just the length of time that the Oxford music scene has been going on (the film starts in the late 1970s), but also the links running through three generations of musicians.
"No one's ever put together the fact that these amazing bands came from not just the same city but an actual community," he says. "They all know each other and their stories are intertwined."
While there is plenty of screen time for bands who never had much fame outside of Oxford, the first real success story comes with the emergence of shoegaze pioneers Ride in the late 1980s. Going on to sign to Alan McGee's Creation label, they ended up kicking off a remarkable run of bands from the city.
"At the time, it was a big surprise," says Ride's Mark Gardener, who met future bandmate – now guitarist for Liam Gallagher's Beady Eye – Andy Bell while they were both pupils at Cheney School in the Oxford suburb of Headington. "I remember thinking: 'The only bands that are really getting a look-in are from Manchester and wear flares – we don't do either of those things'."
For Gardener, Oxford's musical heritage is a product of something inherent in the city. "Oxford's always been an inspiring place," he says. "It obviously was for Lewis Carroll and the Inklings, so there's always been a strong history of amazing writing and writers that came from Oxford."
By the time Ride were taking their first steps to stardom, a group of teenagers from Abingdon School, seven miles out of Oxford, had already started performing under the name On a Friday. After graduating from university they ended up moving back to the city, and in 1991 were signed by EMI. They changed their name to Radiohead.
As well as taking its title from one of Radiohead's earliest singles, the film features both Ed O'Brien and Colin Greenwood from the group reminiscing over their beginnings. One of their memories, accompanied by very youthful-looking pictures of the band, was making early four-track recordings in the bedroom of their school friend – and future bandmate of Thom Yorke's brother, Andy, in his band Unbelievable Truth – Nigel Powell.
"It was great – [doing] versions of songs, Phil [Selway] would bash them out on a kit in his room and we'd all play live," remembers O'Brien.
Not that everyone knew what Radiohead were destined for; one NME reviewer at an early gig called them "a lily-livered excuse for a rock band", while Spira himself admits turning down the opportunity to be in the crowd for the "Creep" video because he thought it would involve too much standing around.
It was that song's success in the US that ended up kick-starting Radiohead's career, although having sold barely 6,000 copies the first time round in the UK, it almost didn't get another chance on these shores.
"We ummed and aahed about that, thinking 'Are we selling out, re-releasing the single a year later?'," O'Brien says in the film, "and of course it was just nonsense, and it went top 10."
It didn't take long for the next big band to emerge from Oxford. In 1994 three ex-pupils from Wheatley Park School released their debut single, "Caught by the Fuzz". A No 1 album, I Should Coco, followed, and Supergrass went on to catch the attention of Steven Spielberg, who wanted to base a TV show on them.
At the beginning, despite receiving some jibes over their age from some older members of the music scene, frontman Gaz Coombes recalls the opportunity to build up a strong following in Oxford as extremely helpful.
"I think it was just a great way to start a band, with that sort of local support and I definitely remember feeling there wasn't really much pressure," he says.
As Supergrass exploded on to the scene, record companies started cottoning on and were paying regular visits to Oxford, with groups from elsewhere in the country even moving there in an attempt to get signed.
"I remember thinking, 'This is rather convenient'," says Nick Cope from Britpoppers The Candyskins. "We just have to step out of the door and we're involved in a little scene here."
Spira describes The Candyskins, who were all from the village of Islip, as "the spine" of the film, and their story is one of a band dogged by bad luck, always on the brink of breaking through but never quite making it.
One of their attempts at the big time saw them play on TFI Friday the week after Chris Evans had quit Radio 1, guaranteeing a huge television audience. As a result, hopes were raised for their next single, "Car Crash", until – just weeks before its release – Princess Diana died and the plans were scrapped.
One notable aspect of the city absent from Anyone Can Play Guitar is the university. The most recent band to make it big from Oxford, Foals, might be one of the few to have a direct link. Both frontman Yannis Philippakis and keyboardist Edwin Congreave dropped out of St John's College to concentrate on the band, although all apart from Congreave still grew up in or near the city.
"The town-and-gown divide is never more evident [than with the music scene]," says Spira, adding that, "generally it's a tradition of just locals."
However, Gardiner believes that the university's presence has still had an effect on the music scene. "There is a weird energy in Oxford in the sense that it is a very cosmopolitan place, especially east Oxford," he says, "and I think you have got this cosmopolitan thing which rubs pretty much shoulder to shoulder with future, let's say, presidents and God knows who at the university."
Many of the venues featured in the film may be no more, with the legendary Zodiac now yet another O2 Academy, but Coombes believes that the ingredients for bands to emerge from the city remain. However, he feels that recently some of its diversity may have been lost.
"I kinda like Foals, but there's also a big influx of bands that are sort of sounding like Foals," he says. "It happens everywhere, but I think Oxford should also try better than that."
Anyone Can Play Guitar, which is being released on DVD as well as going on a tour of cinemas around the UK this month, shows that there has been no one style of music that has dominated the music scene in Oxford. Spira hopes that it will awaken music lovers to the less celebrated side of the city: "It would be nice if it showed people that Oxford has a very separate cultural history every bit as valid as your Lewis Carrolls and your Tolkiens; just a little bit seedier."
'Anyone Can Play Guitar' is touring UK cinemas to 1 December and is available on DVD from www.acpgthemovie.com
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