Written by Alexa Povey - as part of Commission Mission.
Last night another band saved my life! Well, actually, it’s been three months and 18 days since another band saved my life, and with each day in lockdown feeling eerily the same as the last, my patience is dwindling. Seeing live bands feels like something I used to do in a past life...
This pandemic has brought so much universal pain, anxiety and confusion I still hear myself on the phone to my mum saying “what the hell is going on?” There is so much sadness, loss and a feeling of trepidation for what will come in the aftermath. More than ever we are turning to the comforts of the arts to sustain us; my comfort is, as it always has been, music - especially the live stuff.
Early on in life, music set itself up for me as the meaning of all that is good in the world, in return I invested all of my time, money and energy into it. Live music became my nirvana. I have a diary full of road and tube maps my mum drew out for me, directing my 14 year old back-combed hair self from Kings Cross to Camden Underworld, The Shacklewell Arms, The Astoria (RIP), Brixton Jamm and many other sweaty, loud dungeons of glittering misadventure. These sit alongside photocopied IDs from friend’s older cousins, but let’s not look too closely at that...
These mini Meccas are in danger of becoming another casualty of COVID-19 and along with many independent art institutions, are in serious threat of not being able to survive the emerging economic crisis. Before the pandemic, we were already living in a world whose heart beat through the pages of social media and now that we are forced to predominantly communicate this way, we’ve realised how stagnant this can be. To thrive we have to have spaces that allow us to connect to each other, to experience a live sound, a new ethos, a different idea and a distraction from the anguish of mundane life.
Now let me start by saying: venues are by no means perfect, there’s definitely room for improvement, but thanks to the activism of groups like Safe Gigs for Women who have worked tirelessly with venues over the last five years, standards of safety for women and gender minorities have noticeably improved. Bikini Kill’s ‘girls to front’ ethos is alive and kicking and it will need a space to come back to. So many life stories have found their footing and grown up in these institutions, so many life-changing moments happen within their walls, and I’m not prepared to see them disappear.
Without live music venues, I know I’d be a completely different person, but let’s start at the beginning…
‘Freak’ was the name I was more fondly known as, back in my home-town glory days. From the school toilet toffs, to the middle-ground, middle earth teachers and overly-concerned conservative neighbours. I can only describe my ‘look’ as a lost alien riding the waves of every book, TV show and movie I could get my fingerless gloved hands on. A Clockwork Orange hooligan one day, a wedding dress Kate Bush disciple another, Millais drowning Ophelia (I wrecked the bath) and simply once just a sad clown, at what turned out to be a very strained parent teaching meeting. As many other teen Boo Radley’s out there know, as fun as it was, it could be incredibly lonely.
However, at 14, a miracle came before me. A moment that changed my life forever. As I arrived at the pearly gates, a green haired mohawk-ed Saint Peter blew a cloud of cigarette smoke for me to pass through, into a musk of sweat, beer and dust. Blinking through a pitch black room, illuminated solely by the neon stickers that adorned the walls. A crane suddenly dropped a bass drum into the room, and the first strum of a freaky looking Ibanez is still to this day the loudest thing I have ever heard. I looked up and saw a group of people throwing themselves around in an armor of tartan ponchos and glitter. It was feral, dangerous, and the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
I learnt later on, as I nervously made my way up to these divine creatures, that they had been playing ferocious covers of X-Ray Specs, The Slits and The Raincoats. I remember asking them “what’s the name of their band” (they didn’t have one), where they were from (couldn't possibly be from my town?), clicking the name of their last song into my nokia phone. It didn’t have ‘notes’ so I had to just sent my mum a confusing text of ‘Fairy tale in the supermarket’, I think she replied “Thanks :)”.
I had found my people, my place, the fucking meaning of life. Not only were there others there expressing what I suspected everyone else had been keeping secret, they were making sounds and poetry that tore through my already over stimulated heart. I didn’t have to be lonely and lost ever again. From that day on, gigs were my salvation. A spiritual experience, where tossed beer onto the back of your head was holy water and the stamp at the door was a blessing from a beefy priest.
In a world that had once felt so small, that had no room for a mistake like me, I felt like I had discovered that there really was life on Mars (lol), a planet of hope, rebellion and freedom. Musicians are given such a powerful platform on these stages, they can evoke change and hope within communities and it begins for so many at these venues. The earth-shaking words of Poly Styrene’s “OI BONDAGE UP YOURS!!!” were once shrieked at the humble Hope & Anchor in Islington. "Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard..." was the line solely responsible for my legendary week-long detention for telling my Head Teacher that ‘I was sorry that she had a problem with my short skirt, but that she should educate herself on the male gaze.’
The point is, these grass roots venues are as important to our culture and lifestyle as sports halls, after school clubs and National Trust houses. As a teenager, the things my school weren’t teaching me, these places and performers made up for it. They are places of refuge that have become synonymous with showcasing musicians, artists, drag acts, poets and activists who speak more openly about cultural challenges and the issues of that generation than any politician.
What can we do to help save these vital spaces?
Music lovers across the board are donating money and keeping hold of festival and gig tickets they bought, to honour the promoters and venues that already have tighter margins than a Conservative uncle.
Alongside this, Music Venue Trust (a charity which acts to protect, secure and improve grass roots Music Venues) has raised just over one million pounds in support of the venue crisis during coronavirus. The company’s #saveourvenues campaign collected generous donations from Beggars Group, Amazon Music, The BPI & the Mayor of London.
Speaking to Mark Davyd, the CEO of Music Venue Trust, he explained “Right across government and the music industry, we have seen a tidal wave of support. It's been really heartening to see people in positions of power and influence feel the same way audiences and artists do about the vital role these grassroots music venues play.” However support is still required to get them through the toughest financial time they have ever experienced. “The critical point will come at the end of June… we really are into a phase where either the UK Government acts or hundreds of grassroots music venues will permanently close.”
Kate Tempest, Fontaines DC, Black Midi, Goat Girl have contributed music to a compilation album Live at The Windmill, to save the Windmill Brixton venue . All of them past alumni of this significant venue, they have become staples of the indie music diet and pillars of the current live scene.
The album features artists that have not only created Mercury Prize nominated albums, but have worked hard to give a voice to the social issues that are plaguing millennials. Tim Perry (Booker at Windmill Brixton) talks about how the venue specifically supports artists charity work; “Artists on the compilation have written songs with an overt political message, but even more of them work a lot on causes they believe in. We've had quite a lot of benefit gigs for local refugee and homelessness organisations and as a venue we actively join in on the promotion.”
It’s so important that these spaces are thriving and available to house the work of activists working to educate and build a better future. The donations from buying this album are shared between the venue and Brixton Soup Kitchen.
We’ve also seen sixty-five bands come together to create the fundraising album 'Group Therapy Vol 1’. A compilation album of B sides, covers and unreleased tracks available on bandcamp to raise money for Music Venue Trust and the NHS. The compilation includes contributions from Porridge Radio, Pixx & Gams, 404 guild and many other artists who found their footing at these venues and others who are still at the beginning of their euphonious fairy tale.
These small, independent venues are where bands and artists first cut their teeth, accepting drink tokens as payment for playing their first gig are the first, and maybe most vital, stepping stone for every band that goes on to tour and make a career. Kristian Bell of The Wytches explains what it could mean for his band, “The venues that are at risk right now are the kind of venues we play the most. If you’re not an artist whose music gets loads of streams, touring is one of the only ways to make a living [in music]”. Venues have to survive for musicians to survive, who in turn have to survive for music to survive.
Every time I begin to leave these sanctuaries, walking out as the door frame rattles under the railway arch and someone is sweeping up the confetti of bottles and lost earrings, the teen in me rages on. I think about the unexpected friends I made in bathrooms, the slogans I picked up from punk poets, the reckless kisses I had with strangers, all the good, bad and damn ugly music I’ve seen. These venues have cradled, loved and launched every nutty, dangerous, beautiful, staggeringly silly, filthy idea that someone came up with in their bedroom.
It’s funny to think about it right now writing this from my own bedroom I haven’t left in weeks. I’m privileged and lucky to be so safe right now but I do find myself sitting here, dreaming about sweating off my make-up with 100 strangers in a tiny, hot, beer stained room, with a ludicrously loud bass amp. So, when the time comes for them to return safely, for everyone, we must ensure our grass roots venues will still be there to open their doors. Support the fundraisers, buy the album and keep hold of your gig tickets. It will return, because it has to and it will all begin again in a small building, on a little stage bracing itself for the next big idea.
Commission Mission was created by Young Guns Network and London In Stereo to commission 20 new and experienced freelance writers to create articles to inspire, inform and entertain young people in the music industry who are struggling during Covid-19.
The supporters who made this project possible were Association of Independent Music, London In Stereo, Musicians Union, Motive Unknown, PPL, Remi Harris Consulting, Small Green Shoots, Young Guns Network, Youth Music.