Love song for a city of dreams

Toby Green investigates Oxford's extraordinary rock heritage

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The Independent Online

Away from the dreaming spires, the tourists and the punting, lies another side to Oxford. A small university city it may be, but it is also home to of one of Britain's most vibrant music scenes, producing bands such as Radiohead, Supergrass and 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 the 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 has 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 beyond Oxford, the first real success story comes with the emergence of shoegaze pioneers Ride in the late 1980s. Signed to Alan McGee's Creation record 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 his future bandmate Andy Bell (now guitarist in Liam Gallagher's Beady Eye) 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'."

By the time Ride were taking their first steps to stardom, a group of teenagers from Abingdon School, seven miles from Oxford, had already begun 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 about their beginnings. One of their memories, accompanied by pictures of a very youthful-looking band, was making early four-track recordings in the bedroom of schoolfriend Nigel Powell, a future colleague of Thom Yorke's brother, Andy, in his band Unbelievable Truth. "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.

It didn't take long for the next big band to emerge from Oxford. In 1994, three ex-pupils of Wheatley Park School released a 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 jibes about their age from older members of the city's music scene, frontman Gaz Coombes says the opportunity to build up a strong following in Oxford was extremely helpful. "I think it was just a great way to start a band, with that sort of local support. I definitely remember feeling there wasn't really much pressure," he says.

As Supergrass exploded on to the scene, record companies cottoned on and began paying regular visits to Oxford. Groups from other parts of the UK even moved there in an attempt to get signed. "I remember thinking, 'This is rather convenient'," says Nick Cope of 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, all from the village of Islip, five miles north of Oxford, as "the spine" of the film. 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 Oxford band to make it big, 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 their music, although all apart from Congreave grew up in or near the city. "The town-and-gown divide is never more evident [than with the music scene]," says Spira, "Generally it's a tradition of just locals."

Spira hopes Anyone Can Play Guitar 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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