Norfolk bands face geography test
EMMA LEE Despite not gracing the charts as a singer for years, pop starlet turned songwriter to the stars Cathy Dennis is probably still Norfolk’s most famous musical export. But, as EMMA LEE discovers, there’s a whole generation of local bands with the talent and ambition to put the county on the musical map – and their efforts seem to be paying off.
Rarely has Norfolk's homegrown music scene been in better shape. In Norwich, thanks to the efforts of enthusiasts, local musicians have platforms to showcase their talent.
Wombat Wombat, Wilde Club, Howlback Hum, Metal Queen Projects and Slow are just some of the city-based nights that give fledgling bands the chance to perform alongside national and international acts.
And DIY record labels enable bands and singers to put out singles - albeit on a comparatively small scale.
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Aside from a few names like Cathy Dennis, Beth Orton and Myleene Klass - and, going back to an earlier pop era, the Singing Postman - Norfolk is more renowned for being the home of fictional DJ Alan Partridge than producing big-time music stars.
While the other side of the border has produced spangly rockers the Darkness, the likes of the Farmers Boys, the Higsons and Catherine Wheel have had to make do with hanging out on the fringes - although Norfolk could lay claim to huge-selling singer-songwriter James Blunt, as his parents own Cley Mill.
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But now, with rock band Cord securing a deal with major label Island, and EDP Next Big Thing winners Pistolas, singer-songwriter Rory McVicar and Bearsuit due to play the major industry showcase Manchester in the City, could Norfolk be set to make musical waves?
While you can go so far putting out records yourself, to move up a rank you need the backing of a major label, pluggers who will get your songs on to radio playlists, PR companies to create a buzz around you and influential journalists to shmooze with.
And there lies a problem for Norfolk-based bands - geography.
A similar buzz surrounded the city's music scene in 1997, when music paper the NME dedicated its On section, featuring its tips for the top, to Norfolk bands.
Former EDP writer Simon Dunford was a member of the Bardots, which almost made it big.
He believes that the band - and others from the county - could have made it if they had been prepared to up sticks and move to London.
“My experience of the music industry in the 1990s was that it resembled a somewhat wayward gentlemen's club,” he says.
“Music journalists, record company chaps, agents, promoters, managers and musicians were all part of the same boisterous gang. And their playground was London.
“It's not that the streets are paved with gold. But they ARE lined with journalists, promoters, A&R men, etc, etc . . .
“I say all this, of course, with the benefit of hindsight.
“The Bardots were constantly pestered to move to London but, like many bands around the country, felt 'Why on earth should we?'
“It's anybody's guess, but I reckon we might have been far more successful had we bitten the bullet and turned our backs on the Fine City.
“I look at a brilliant Norwich band like the Pistolas and can't help thinking that if they lived in London, they would already be signed to a major record label and on the front cover of the NME by now.
“It's not just about going down to London to play gigs - and, God knows, the M11 is littered with Transit vans crammed full of Norwich musos - it's about drinking in the right bars and rubbing the right shoulders.”
Barry Newman, who has been involved in the Norwich music scene since 1988 and was the man who booked the now legendary Nirvana to play the city's Waterfront venue, says the local music scene is particularly healthy at the moment.
He organises Wilde Club gig nights and has recently restarted releasing records on the label of the same name.
“I don't think I can remember a time when there were so many bands around,” he says.
“I think it's going to happen for the Pistolas. A major label will come along and sign them.”
Scene veterans Magoo and Kaito, Cortez, Army of One, Giant Robot and the City of Tokyo, Cineclub, Hyper Kinako and the Gore Vidals are just a handful of the local acts he rates.
But despite the scene's vibrancy, as Dunford says: “Aside from brief forays into cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, the UK music scene has always remained incredibly London-centric.
“Yes, there are talented bands in Norfolk - always have been - but without moving to London they may as well take up needlepoint.”
LOCAL BANDS THAT COULD MAKE THE BIG TIME
t Cord: The Norwich fourpiece - made up of singer James Leeds, drummer Phil Davison, lead guitarist Mike Jackson and bass player Andrew Walsh - signed a deal with Island, the home of global superstars U2, in March. Recording of their album was delayed because their preferred producer was busy working with Coldplay, but when he was free the tracks were laid down at a West Country studio owned by Peter Gabriel and at the London studio where Led Zeppelin recorded Stairway to Heaven. When they were signed, Leeds declared Cord were “the biggest thing to come out of Norwich since Cathy Dennis”. The album is due for release early next year.
t Kaito: The Norwich fourpiece - singer Nikki Colk, guitarist Dave Lake, bassist Gemma Cullingford and drummer Dieta Quantrill - have toured America several times and have been tipped as a band to watch by Time Out New York and Rolling Stone magazines. Their energetic guitar pop has seen them build up a big following and their second album, Band Red, released last year and recorded at Narborough, near Swaffham, was described by Rolling Stone as “one of the year's most enjoyably explosive albums”. The band have been working on the follow-up.
t Pistolas: Last year they won the EDP Next Big Thing contest and picked up two awards that could catapult them to national success. The four-piece won the Rock award at the Diesel U Music Awards and were chosen as the best live performers at the event. They have been interviewed by the NME and the radio station Xfm. After winning the awards, singer Simon Buller told the EDP: “The music scene in the city [Norwich] is very strong, but the industry is based around London, Manchester and Liverpool at the moment. We really wanted to promote the fact that there are other good bands outside London.” The band is playing Manchester in the City - a music industry showcase which has been the springboard for bands such as Oasis, Coldplay, the Stereophonics and the Darkness - today.
t Rory McVicar: The 19-year-old singer-songwriter from Sprowston recently won a BBC Radio 1 competition to find the nation's best unsigned talent, and his voice has been described by one record producer as “one of the most beautiful” he has ever heard. His prize is a slot on the Radio 1 stage at Manchester in the City and a session on the station. He recorded his debut album at a recording studio at Narborough, near Swaffham, during the summer. Rory has just left Norwich to study to become a primary school teacher in Edinburgh - although if the talent scouts like what they see in Manchester he could well have to consider a career change.
t Bearsuit: The late, great John Peel was a fan of Bearsuit, playing their very first demo CD. On hearing their first single, a vinyl-only release on a Norfolk-based label, he booked the band to record a session for his influential Radio 1 show, which is credited with helping the Smiths and Pulp on their way to success. The band were formed by schoolfriends Iain Ross, Lisa Horton and Matthew Moss in the mid-90s and the current line-up features Iain and Lisa, on shared vocal duties, multi-instrumentalists Jan Robertson and Cerian Hutchings, drummer Matt Hutchings and bassist Richard Squires. Peel's successor Rob Da Bank and Steve Lamacq have also played their tracks on their radio shows and they are due to release their new album, Team Ping Pong, on the well-known indie label Fantastic Plastic.