Best gig in town

Fifty years after The Beatles played there, a Liverpool youth club is offering recording equipment and rehearsal rooms for young wannabes to hone their performing skills. Talk about a hard act to follow, writes Richard Garner

If the walls of the Knotty Ash Youth Centre could talk, they would have a few tales to tell. The centre in Liverpool hosted the Fab Four eight times early in the band's career. Last year was the 50th anniversary of The Beatles gigs, and it seems that the vibes given off by those past performances are helping a whole new generation of wannabe showbiz stars write their own success stories.

The centre is one of 14 youth clubs chosen for a pioneering new venture in which rehearsal rooms have been fully equipped with sound recording equipment and enough space for budding musicians to practice and play gigs.

In the case of Knotty Ash, there is also a theatre available for the young people to perform in. The rehearsal room venture was originally intended to help 16- to 24-year-olds – but children as young as nine have now used its facilities to fine-tune their skills.

One regular attendee has already got a foothold on the ladder to stardom – Joe Slater, who this year landed a part in the BBC One soap Waterloo Road playing a tearaway called Lenny, is one of the youth centre's early customers. Joe, who is pursuing a singing career in addition to his TV acting role and is busy working on his first album at the club, says: "I know that it was since I came to Knotty Ash that I've learned what music is all about. It is not something you just sing or listen to – it is a way of life.

"I didn't know how to play bass guitar, I only knew how to play a piano. I've learnt my craft since I came here," he says.

He is not alone in flourishing thanks to the guidance of the centre. Vanessa Murray, a 17-year-old singer/composer, won a national rock competition after first performing at the centre and is now one of the youngest people to study for a BA honours degree at Sir Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts. "She's done amazingly well," says Phil Windever, from the centre. "It's very competitive to get into LIPA (pronounced "lipper" locally). There's all sorts of international competition for places and she's very young to have started on a degree."

Vanessa, who began her course in September but still takes time to visit the place that got her started, says: "I came here three years ago. Last year, I was in college and I was asked to do a music video and I came to the centre to record it.

"Most young people don't have the money to go to the professional studios to do their recordings. These facilities are just great and you get all the professional advice and help that you need."

Young people who want to hire rehearsal rooms are charged £2 per session, says John Bligh, the music manager at Knotty Ash. "We'd love to give it for free but we make the charge so they realise how important it is. It shows it means something."

All 14 of the rehearsal rooms in the UK have been set up in areas of urban and rural deprivation by UK Music, an umbrella organisation representing the interests of the music industry, with a pump-priming grant from the Department for Culture, Music and Sport (DCMS). The £440,000 funding was used to provide instruments and equipment – and also made a contribution towards necessary capital works such as the soundproofing of studios.

Since the project began, more than 30,000 young people have visited the centres and – in addition to Knotty Ash's successes – one young music producer has had works performed at the Glastonbury and Reading festivals, while another young singer appeared at London's Royal Albert Hall. Other bands have been support acts for groups such as McFly and Bombay Bicycle Club.

The DCMS has now withdrawn its funding, as was the plan once the rehearsal rooms were up and running. All 14 are still operating, drawing funds from a variety of places – including local councils and arts charities. Some are feeling the squeeze, though, and are urgently looking for further support.

The venture is just one of a number planned by UK Music that are aimed at making careers in the music industry more accessible to today's young people – especially to those from disadvantaged communities. In conjunction with Creative and Cultural Skills, the industry training body for the music profession, it has also launched the UK Music Skills Academy, which aims to provide 200 new apprenticeships in the profession during the next 12 months, and offers to help set up music businesses with grants worth £3,500.

According to Jo Dipple, from UK Music, behind the scenes, the industry is still a largely middle-class, white male preserve, with 93 per cent of employees white and 61 per cent male. She hopes that, gradually, through the apprenticeship scheme, opportunities can be provided to change that image. The 14 centres encourage the development of backstage technical skills, too.

Back to Knotty Ash, though, and it is hardly surprising that one of the centre's most enthusiastic supporters is the comedian Ken Dodd, who lives just down the road and is responsible for making the area known to a wider audience (even though most people think it is a fictitious place he dreamt up for his stage act until they actually make a visit). The veteran 86-year-old comedian still pops in from time to time to give the young people encouragement.

The local Liverpool MP, Stephen Twigg, is also keen to offer any help he can. He was forced to give up his brief as Labour's shadow Education Secretary in the reshuffle earlier this year by Labour leader Ed Miliband – but has not forgotten his roots. "I miss education," he confesses, and believes the centre is one way of keeping him in touch with the hopes and aspirations of the young people he used to meet regularly on his previous beat. It also helps him in his present portfolio – shadowing constitutional affairs – where he is responsible for promoting Labour's plans to give 16-year-olds the vote.

"I think it would be hard for these young people if this was not here," Mr Twigg says of Knotty Ash. "It would have been a struggle for them to find anywhere in Liverpool where they could have gone. Some are travelling from other parts of the city to get here – and there are many positives to be got out of this place being here. It gives them somewhere to go – somewhere they want to go."

Two bands who were practising at the centre on the day that I visited would wholeheartedly agree with him. New English Rebels, a rock band who play "anything from heavy metal to jazz", formed in May after its three members started visiting the centre. "We knew each other through school," says 20-year-old Dan Christian, the group's drummer. "It gives us somewhere to practise. The average cost of hiring a professional place would be around £30, but this offers cheap and affordable facilities to young people." The group have just played their first gig.

Lucid Repetition describe themselves as a punk/indie band who also got together about two months ago when their four members came to the centre. "It's great – it's a really good place to practise," says guitarist Liam Gibson. "The centre has been massively supportive of us."

The centre has also provided much needed theatrical space for the local comprehensive school, Cardinal Heenan Roman Catholic secondary school, the drama teacher of which, Donna Jones, says the school had been looking for space a few years ago. "Now that we've found it, we don't want to let it go," she adds.

According to John Bligh, facilities such as the rehearsal room are a way of dragging youth clubs – which sometimes have a "fuddy duddy" image – into the 21st century. And now they have got there, there is no way he wants to see them going back.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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