The birthplace to Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys), Brian Johnson (ACDC), Dire Straits, Sting, The Animals and many more, but now the music scene in the North-East is heading to the doldrums. Although Newcastle does attract a slew of bands into its borders thanks to hosting a lot of great venues, the rest of the region, particularly neighbouring Sunderland, is feeling the hurt. The economic realities are what they are, not only for the North-East, but all around the UK, and it’s more difficult than ever during these cash-strapped times for new bands to even exist.
Frankie & The Heartstrings’ music shop on Sunderland High Street, Pop Recs Ltd. is just the sort of positive, communal outlet that gives you hope. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s a music shop and gig space, which also sells coffee and merchandise. Franz Ferdinand played there for just a fiver a little while back, and all the tickets were only available on the door. People actually queued for tickets. Probably for the first time since 2007. Pop Recs Ltd. represents something exciting going on in an area thirsting for something to happen, exclusively for people who live in the region. As BBC Radio 6 Music’s Lauren Laverne said, “It starts with a small thing – a song, a record, a book or art show but the knock-on effect can be really powerful. It’s the kind of place that could change the world if it gets the chance. I hope it does.”
There are a lot of great venues in the North-East. But I’d like to focus on one specifically in this article. The Cluny, Newcastle. Do you like pints? How about two pints? Well then The Cluny is perfect for you, because it serves two pints in a tetrapack. Yup, those tetrapacks formerly reserved for your morning milk have been given a Geordie upgrade. It’s brilliant. If that isn’t enough to convince you, The 300-person capacity Cluny also happens to be one of the best small venues in the country, heaving the best new bands onto its intimate stage by the tetrapack (sorry), from recent performers Drenge, Radkey and Splashh, to the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Mumford & Sons and The New York Dolls (who took up a 3 night residency) in the past. It’s the go to place for up and coming talent. My favourite bit of The Cluny is just how close you are to the band. There is a stage, but nothing separates you from the performers. When I saw Drenge back in September 2013, things got feral. There’s a real charm to The Cluny, there’s nothing commercial in sight, and the very building itself is so finely woven into the community that you just couldn’t imagine Newcastle without it. The Cluny is the Mother Goose of small venues, its undeniable passion for nurturing and supporting local music and talent positively inspiring. It also serves lovely food. What more could you want?
Now meet Gallery Circus, a duo based in Newcastle with rock-y anti-garage heavy riffing so massive you wouldn’t believe two people were capable of it. Expect a lot of noise. Check them here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTdQ99G1n8A
Next, In Vibes. They’re a shoegazey alt-rock outfit from Sunderland who can pile on beefy riffs. They’ve got a real immediacy about their sound – these guys definitely have something. Give them a whirl here: https://soundcloud.com/invibes/counter-culture
Lilliput – a harmony-heavy pop-rock outfit hailing from Sunderland, whose latest E.P. is being put out on the Pop Recs Ltd. record label. Seeing a band such as Frankie & The Heartstrings support other bands, when the government, local authorities and promoters clearly aren’t, is seriously fucking cool.
On that note, Frankie and the boys brought In Vibes along with them on a recent Northern mini-tour too. There’s a communal spirit to it all that is just so admirable, a spirit that seems so rare. There is talent in the North-East, and it deserves to be recognised. Which is why Split Festival, taking place over August 9-10, is so exciting. While it has big names, such as headliners Maximo Park (a North-East success story) and The Cribs playing, Split is an opportunity for a whole lot of talent to get the exposure it deserves.
I caught up with Gary Jarman from The Cribs, and asked him what he made of the situation going on with the music scene in Sunderland and the North-East. “ I know that you can often feel overlooked for the bigger cities in the area. Wakefield had precious few shows in the 90’s, and I think it fed into an attitude of pessimism – the feeling of hopelessness…like, why even bother? But, when there is something exciting like that, with national/international bands coming through, it really galvanises people. It takes away that ‘why bother’ excuse, which can be prevalent. If you can see something happening, it makes it tangible that you can do something too. I’ve seen Wakefield go through something of a cultural renaissance in the last 10 years, and now there seems to be a lot going on there [Sunderland].”
Frontman for Frankie & The Heartstrings Frankie Francis echoed feelings that Split 2014 could mark the start of something exciting for the region “I think it means a lot. It’s starting to help Sunderland be recognised as a destination for bands to play, not just for where bands come from.” But perhaps these economic troubles could create something altogether more exciting. If talent is forced to make the decision between hiking off to London or staying at home, what happens to all those that aren’t attracted by the Southern super-city? A counterculture develops. On the matter, Gary Jarman said “It’s great to see what Frankie and the Heartstrings have done in Sunderland too. Taking the incentive. Being proactive. You guys should be really proud of those fellas. I have always felt that the most interesting stuff happens away from the bright lights of the big city – people gravitate to those places to be stars. Forget that – the real counterculture develops from people WITHOUT that mentality.”
And there might just be evidence of that counterculture, of people shunning the “bright lights of the city” in favour of something altogether more exciting. There is a slew of talent now spewing out of the North-East. I nitpicked a couple and shared them with you earlier in this article, and I really do hope that you enjoy them. Trust me, there’s much more where that came from. Frankie Francis said that “Records can change people’s lives forever” – all we need now is for people to divert their attention in the right directions.