Originally published in Arthur No. 28 (Feb 2008):
Five years ago, London’s gig-goers experienced a cultural upheaval the effects of which are still being felt today. Paul Moody takes up the story.
It seems so long ago now. But just under five years ago, London’s nightlife found itself at the center of a seismic cultural explosion that still reverberates around the U.K indie-verse today. As with the psychedelic scene based around the UFO Club in Tottenham Court Road and the punk movement’s Soho HQs The Roxy and The Vortex, it involved a small group of movers’n’shakers taking control of the pop apparatus to create something new, exciting and—whisper it—revolutionary.
For a short while the fat cats of the British music business—a dismal alliance of promoters (tell me, have you ever seen a skinny one?), lazy managers and idea-free labels—were on the back foot, and oh, what pleasure it was to be alive to see it and be involved in it. In its place? A new form of night-time activity, where gigs could take place on a bus, a subway train or even, at one memorable soiree in Regents Park, up a tree, and the old ways—not least the capitalist chicanery of (yawn) advance credit card bookings—could go swing.
Ever since The Stone Roses had attempted to subvert the medium with their gig at Spike Island in 1990—deemed a failure by anyone who hadn’t actually been there—promoters in the U.K had ensured that any free expression amongst bands was brutally clamped down upon. At many venues—not least the once-prestigious The Rock Garden in Covent Garden—young bands were even forced to endure a “pay to play” policy which meant they had to cough up £50 before they could even get on a stage. Worse, it was an unspoken rule that if any band dared go beyond these preset boundaries, there would be hell to pay.
I’d had firsthand experience of it myself.
As a member of London art rock band Regular Fries, in the late ’90s, I’d found any means of creative expression conducted outside the studio frowned upon. Our determination to play gigs involving film projections, banks of TVs and an array of props brought despairing looks from our own management, so you can imagine what promoters made of it when we walked through the doors of venues clutching six-feet high “Fries” letters. The idea of playing gigs outside the established circuit—a well-trod path involving The Barfly, The Garage and The Astoria—was treated like heresy. Why couldn’t we just play by the rules like everyone else?
Promoters actively discouraged us from playing at venues no one else had with lame talk of “bad acoustics.” “Why do you think no one else plays there?” was an asinine excuse we’d regularly be subjected to.
This came to a head when, due to a fire, a headline gig at London University (ULU) was cancelled at the eleventh hour. Hastily, we printed up flyers to paste over the front of the building telling our fans to head to a nearby venue in Camden where another promoter—sensing a windfall—had hastily juggled his bill so we could play last.
Within minutes, our well-intentioned belief that “the show must go on” had all but turned into an international incident. The promoters at ULU threatened violence for advertising another chain of venues on their doorstep. Our own promoter blew a fuse at our temerity in organizing an alternative ourselves. And our manager even warned us darkly that if we played the gig, our agent would never book us a tour again. All because we wanted to play a gig at short notice.
It was in this climate that the concept of the “guerrilla gig”—which peaked in June 2004 with a “happening” at Buckingham Palace, headed by Pete Doherty—took root.
At the heart of it, inevitably, were The Libertines. Chaotic, quixotic, and blessed with an in-built D.I.Y. credo, the Libs started by using their own lounge at band hang-out ‘The Albion Rooms’ as a place to play. Young, reckless and mercifully minus a seasoned manager, agent or publicist, they just did what came naturally—playing gigs to friends without any plan or strategy. It didn’t end there. Imprompru soirees would be conducted in parks, bus shelters or, most often, at friends’ flats, with instructions being given out by text only hours before each show. Fans arriving at a designated point—usually a nearby phone box or anything typically British—would be met by Pete, brandishing a bag of sweets. It should be noted that for all the tabloid paranoia which was to come, Doherty at this point was the very picture of good manners, even reassuring one teenage fan’s mother over the point that she’d be looked after and cash organised for her to get a cab home—which duly happened. Sarked by The Libs’ example, a new generation of musicians quickly seized on this anarchic spirit to put on their own underground soirees.
Almost overnight, chroniclers of the capital’s live scene noticed the same thing: something serious was stirring in the seedy backrooms and cellars of London. From the New Cross D.I.Y scene headed by Art Brut (first covered in NME’s May 15, 2004 issue) to the sleazy emissions from Whitechapel’s Rhythm Factory to the relentless guerrilla gigging of The Others, an urchin militia of bands and fanzines—young, angry, weird, clever—emerged, sick to death of rock clichés, plastic chart pop and conventional “indie” strategies, determined to create their own alternative.
You only had to scour the listings or log on their websites to see what was going on. The level of energy was relentless. In the week of Glastonbury 2004, whilst Oasis bickered over the size of the dressing rooms and The Strokes moaned of exhaustion, The Others played a gig on a tube train. Take for example, one week in April as proof that this new gestalt was taking root in the capital:
Monday: The Rakes, The Ludes and The Souls play a Fierce Panda album launch party called ‘On the Buzzes’ (cover image: a Routemaster bus).
Tuesday: Babyshambles play an unannounced show.
Wednesday: The Others play a guerrilla gig in the foyer of Radio One, followed by another up in a tree in Regents Park.
Friday: Neils Children, The Rakes, and Twisted Charm play a packed gig at the Verge.
Saturday: Selfish Cunt plays a launch of new label ‘1,2,3,4’ in a warehouse in Aldgate with half of London on the guest list.
Money wasn’t an issue for any of these events purely because no one had any. South London’s The Unstrung couldn’t afford bed-and-breakfasts for their tour supporting The Paddingtons, so they pitched up at campsites across the country instead.
“The scene had been growing over the previous few months” explained Andy Macleod, promoter of Club Fandango at Camden’s Dublin Castle. “The bands all wanted to play together. It was healthy, it meant they had a mutual support system which meant they could spread their message more quickly…”
If recent pop culture had been about re-cycling traditional macho rock stereotypes of speed and power (Kings of Leon, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Jet) then these groups promoted the opposite: self-doubt, rejection, a sense of worthlessness, partially, you suspect, brought on by this lack of encouragement to play live. Art Brut bawled, “Popular culture no longer applies to me” (“Bad Weekend”); Neils Children yelled “I Hate Models.” The Rakes sang “Something Clicked And I Fell Off the Edge.” And you only had to look at their names to see they were out to give radio programmers nightmares: Dogs, The Others, Selfish Cunt.
At the heart of the guerrilla gig scene was London itself. As Peter Ackroyd writes in his definitive biography of the city, “London refuses no one,” and, just as the Libertines first sought the coordinates for their mythical “Arcadia” here—a fantastical Edward Lear-ish land dream’t up by Doherty, where park benches were made of denim and cigarettes grew on trees—so these groups came to the capital because they were unable to get such freedom anywhere else.
“I had to come here,” said Martin Tomlinson, singer/lyricist with Selfish Cunt, and editor of ‘Vomit In The Mainstream’ fanzine. “I’m from Blackburn. It was horrible, just full of gay bashers, very patriotic. I couldn’t do what I wanted there. London gave me that freedom. I’ve got one weapon, my voice, and I’m learning how to use it. Now I want to play as many gigs as I can, everywhere, across the country. I want to set this country ablaze, north to south.”
Acknowledged leaders of the guerrilla gig phenomenon were The Others. Led by charismatic singer Dominic Masters—a Britpop scruff with strawberry blonde hair, electric-blue eyes and retro-jumble sale wardrobe, Masters took on the role of an indie Pied Piper, in command of a highly devoted posse called the “853 Kamikaze Division” who would turn up anywhere at the drop of a text.
“When we’ve sold a hundred thousand albums the first thing I’ll do is open a pub,” Masters told me at the time. “There will be one in the north and one in the south, an all-ages place.
“I’ll show all those people who don’t believe in me. Look at New Year’s Eve! After the gig I provided a party for 350 kids of all ages until 5am. Everyone got in free, smoked hash, took coke, and did what they wanted….”
Smart, charismatic and media-savvy, Masters was a master media-manipulator blessed with a warm-hearted Somerset burr, unrecognizable from the cockney blitzkrieg he employed on record. Wherever Dominic went, he was accompanied by a constant electronic bleeping. Armed with a mobile and his blackberry pager, he claimed to have the number of 1,700 fans programmed into his phone, whilst his conversation was peppered with references to 853 members like “Dave from Belfast,” “Sally from Wakefield” and “Harley from St. Helens.” The story goes that on Christmas Day, Dominic switched his phone back on after cooking the turkey to spread a message of festive cheer to his ever-growing flock.
“Look at us! We’re not the Strokes! We’re not the fucking Kings of Leon! We were never gonna get signed on our image,” he explained. “No fuckin’ label would touch us! I had to go beyond the image barrier and touch people on a different level. I’m protective of my fans because they’re my friends. I speak to them every day. I text message them. I email. I talk to them. I go clubbing with them. I do drugs with them. I know who my fanbase are!”
Such mutual devotion saw The Others memorably invade a Circle Line tube train, and—armed with a toy drum kit (brought from Argos), a microphone and a hundred members of the 853—staged the world’s first mobile, underground gig, an event which exploded across the pages of the NME thanks to Andrew Kendall’s pictures, and which soon saw everyone from The Guardian to BBC News running articles on this new phenomenon.
Such was the anarchic spirit involved, guerrilla gigs were almost impossible to police. The band would turn up with instruments and battery-operated amps, a crowd would be contacted by text, and the gig would last as long as it took for the police to come along and disperse the crowd—usually at least half an hour, thanks to the chaos involved. Promoters, appalled at the prospect of bands not doing what they were told, would tell anybody who’d listen that such reckless behavior was a passing phase, and Christ, wasn’t the sound quality awful?
For the bands involved—all without major deals—the industry was as gridlocked and over-mortgaged as the city itself. Who—went the rationale—needed a huge advance when you could print up a 7” single yourself or get a like-minded label to do it for you?
It was the classic cycle. Every now and then, those who haven’t been given the opportunity to shine throw their misery back in the faces of those who would stop them. The flowers in the dustbin. If anything, the spirit was more like a return to the spirit of early rave culture than anything else: setting up word-of-mouth gigs, distributing records there and then, and making up the rules along the way.
No wonder the New Rave scene of 2006, which has since spawned the Underage Scene (destined to be the big U.K media buzz of ’08), took so many cues from this cultural explosion.
As for imitators, well, U2 got on the bandwagon barely months after The Others’ antics hit the UK media, launching their dreary “How To Defuse An Atomic Bomb” with a series of ‘ impromptu’ gigs across New York. And only last month the multi-millionaires of Radiohead performed a cynically contrived showcase at Brick Lane’s new Rough Trade shop in order to flog more copies of In Rainbows, which must, at the very least, have made Pete Doherty and Carl Barat smile.
The corporate waltz goes on, inevitably, but for a short while, we rolled some beautiful marbles across the dancefloor.