Why the long-neglected North-east music scene is coming into its own
Tuesday 23 May 2006
It certainly looks like a creative renaissance for the region with so many groups emerging over the past couple of years. First, The Futureheads came out of nowhere (well, Sunderland) with their stark take on the punk funk revival and a winning cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds Of Love".
In the past few months, though, their success has been overtaken by that of Maxïmo Park, the Newcastle-Upon-Tyne group that have barged their way to fame via a steady stream of singles from A Certain Trigger, an album so strong in depth the band played it in its entirety at Xfm's Winter Wonderland bash.
With guitarist Duncan Lloyd recovering from a broken arm (caused by arm wrestling with the band's lawyer), singer Paul Smith has had time to muse on Maxïmo's rise to fame and the change in fortunes for the region. Until these bands came along, the North-east was known mainly for folk rockers Lindisfarne, The Animals, Sting and teen punks Kenickie, the band in which TV presenter Lauren Laverne began her showbiz career.
Smith is an apt figure to discuss the perceived north east revival, having been brought up near Middlesbrough, but playing in bands when he moved to Newcastle to study. From his point of view, the area was beset by a lack of ambition, which was why his first outfit was instrumental.
"My approach was anti-singer, because I had seen so many local bands and the first thing that came out of their mouths was 'I'm a singer', but there was no belief in what they were doing, just a drive for acknowledgment."
Smith was playing guitar in Me And The Twins when he was approached by Maxïmo to join as a singer, he says.
"They saw me on stage jumping around - I was always the most prominent member. I wanted to engage with the audience.
There is a shared attitude and, sometimes, personnel between the best new north-east bands. Maxïmo drummer Tom English played in Field Music, and that band's Peter Brewis played in an early incarnation of The Futureheads. Each group also made a stand against the mediocrity around them.
"We wanted to write pop songs that were different," Smith asserts. "Other bands wanted to do something easy. The area was not known for music, so because no one thought they could get anywhere, the bar was lowered."
Another thing the groups have in common is they all sing in their own accents, which is as good a statement of intent as any, though for Smith it wasn't conscious.
"I came to singing late, so I wasn't influenced by anybody in that way."
For The Futureheads and Field Music, though, singing in their Mackem voices was a way to stand out from the pack, Field Music singer/guitarist David Brewis explains.
"Listening to our early recordings, I was singing a certain way. I thought, 'Why do I sing like that when I don't talk that way?'"
Having played in a pub rock band in his youth, Brewis was intimately aware of how easy it was to adopt a transatlantic accent. Later, he heard the Britpop groups pretending they were cockney sparrows.
"We couldn't play blues rock as well as the original artists, so we had to find our own direction. We had to sing in a way that was natural for us."
Ironically, the lack of interest in music from the area allowed Brewis and his peers to make these decisions that made them so distinctive. While the three bands appeared to explode on the scene, in reality they had spent several years forging their own identities. Field Music have yet to enjoy the same success as the other bands mentioned, but last year's self-titled debut album has proved to be a slow burner. Indeed, their label Memphis Industries are so keen to capitalise, they are already releasing a compilation of B-sides, many actually recorded by Peter or David in earlier bands.
If groups in the area lacked ambition because there was little chance of success, there is now a determination to prove themselves. This is welcome news to Generator, a music development agency for the north of England.
Generator was set up to deal with the fact that artists from the region were being ignored by a London-based music industry. Its development manager Jim Mawdsley believes initiatives such as this have laid the groundwork for recent success stories, though admits homegrown acts making it big spur on their peers.
"We made sure the infrastructure was there for high quality live music events, but these guys have made other bands realise they need a certain amount of knowledge to get somewhere."
Mawdsley points out that is not only successful bands that are working together. As director of NewcastleGateshead's Evolution festival, he has encouraged local promoters to cooperate on the 10-day series of events that culminates this year in an open-air gig later this month headlined by Hard-Fi.
"Promoters come together to make this happen in a way I've not seen in any other city. Cooperation is the bedrock of all our success."
So this year look out for former Kenickie drummer Pete Gofton's solo career, the innovative guitar shapes of Dartz! and experimental sound artist Andrew Hodson. Even after a couple of vintage years, the north of England has still more talent to reveal.
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