Thirty-five years ago tonight, on December 8th 1979, I went along to an
under-eighteens matinee gig in a shabby basement club in a run-down
street in Liverpool city centre.
I was fifteen, the band I went to see was called Joy Division and the
club was called Eric's.
To say the experience was life-changing is an understatement.
Eric's was situated at one end of Mathew Street, and was already
legendary for birthing a colourful post-punk underground made up of
bands with ridiculous names such as Echo and the Bunnymen and the
Both these bands were signed to Zoo records, run by two young men from
an office at the other end of the street, over the road from Probe
Records, a social hub where all the Eric's crowd hung out.
A couple of years before on the same street in an old warehouse
transformed into an arts lab and cafe called the Liverpool School of
Language, Music, Dream and Pun, maverick theatre director Ken Campbell
premiered a twelve-hour stage version of a sprawling science-fiction
conspiracy novel called Illuminatus.
The production of Illuminatus too had become the stuff of legend, and
featured the likes of Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy in the company, with
set design by a young carpenter called Bill Drummond, who went on to
play at Eric's in a band called Big in Japan before co-founding the
aforementioned Zoo Records.
Illuminatus transferred to the just opened National Theatre in London,
and was the first show to play at the centre's Cottesloe space.
Even earlier, Mathew Street had been made famous by another basement
club situated across the road from Eric's, and called The Cavern.
The Cavern of course gifted the world The Beatles, and suddenly that
one shabby street became the centre of the universe.
These days, such activity would have prompted Mathew Street to be
dubbed something called a 'Cultural Quarter', that dead-eyed piece of
twenty-first century Newspeak designed to make property developers
As it is, Liverpool's city fathers decided to fill in the space where
the Cavern had been and build a car park on top, while Eric's closed
four months after the Joy Division show following a police raid.
Only later did anyone realise they could make money on the back of the
street's heritage, so now Mathew Street has a fake rebuilt Cavern, a
fake rebuilt Eric's and a lot of glossy Beatles theme bars where stag and
hen parties congregate.
At one point there was a wine bar called the John Lennon Society which
you had to wear a tie to get in.
The reason I'm rewinding across mine and my home town's back pages
isn't just out of middle-aged nostalgia.
It's an attempt to illustrate where a city's culture comes from, and
how urban regeneration can sometimes be the death of it.
This is highlighted in an exhibition currently running at the
Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh by Canadian artist Stan Douglas, whose
play, Helen Lawrence, was seen at this year's Edinburgh International
Both looked in part at the world of Hogan's Alley, a run-down district
in post World War Two Vancouver, where a blind eye was turned to a
back-street black economy, while also attracting musicians such as Duke
Ellington and Miles Davis to play.
Once the war was over, however, Hogan's Alley was cleaned up and
ultimately demolished in the name of gentrification.
This sort of thing is still happening all over the world.
It's happening in Liverpool again, where the site of the world's first
super-club, Cream, is about to be bulldozed away so flats can be built.
It happened too in a once bankrupt New York, where CBGBs, the club that
gave the world The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie, was forced to
close because the people who ran it could no longer afford to pay the
high rents that came with regeneration of the once mean streets around
But this has been happening far closer to home for years.
When Jim Haynes, inspired by the energy of the Edinburgh Festiuval Fringe – which was
started, let's not forget, as a grassroots event when a group of
students turned up in the city during the International Festival and
started putting on their own events – opened up the UK's first ever
paperback bookshop close to the University, it set in motion a chain of
events that led to the creation of the Traverse Theatre, now rightly
regarded as one of the world's most important institutions for new work.
Rather than have a preservation order slapped on it, the street where
Jim's bookshop sat was flattened and turned into a car-park before the
University's Informatics Centre was eventually built.
A generation on, and the old bus station on New Street which housed the
original Bongo Club was demolished and the land taken over by property
developers who left it as a gap site for over a decade before the
Caltongate project as was was eventually given the green light.
The Cowgate Fire was a disaster which nobody could have foreseen, but
which destroyed venues such as La Belle Angele, The Gilded Balloon and
The Bridge Jazz Bar, as well as artist's studios and the work contained
Twelve years on, at long last we have La Belle Angele back, and I've
been inside and it's beautiful.
But above La Belle Angele, we also have brand new branches of Hotel
Ibis, Cafe Costa and Sainsbury's Local, three prime examples of the
creeping homogenisation by faceless multi-nationals of a city that's in
danger of having its unique heart ripped out.
The spectacular mismanagement of Edinburgh University Settlement led to
the demise of both the Roxy Art House and the Bristo Halls home of the
Forest, both thriving grassroots ventures which grew up in the spirit
of the Bongo, but which were sold to owners who only seem to use them
with any real visibility during August.
Right now, the Picture House on Lothian Road is about to be given
planning permission to convert this former cinema and concert venue
into a superpub by Wetherspoon's, a brewery based in Watford.
This, despite some 13000 signatories of a petition protesting the move.
Meanwhile, the property developers who own the old Odeon cinema on
South Clerk Street appear to be letting the building go to wrack and
ruin until they get their own way and are allowed to turn this listed
building into flats.
And, last weekend, yet another Edinburgh bar cancelled its live music
nights because a solitary complainer didn't like it, while the archaic
notion of a zero audibility clause deems such a move acceptable.
If such a clause had been enforced in the recent past, both the Fringe
and the 1960s folk revival would have been dead in the water before
they'd even begun.
And imagine what might have happened the night when the late Kurt Cobain played
an impromptu gig in the Southern Bar if a couple of Council officers
had turned up and told him to keep the racket down.
And yet, great things still come out of Edinburgh, despite what seems
sometimes like the best efforts to restrict, police or just prevent
artistic activity beyond the city's great institutions.
This is the city that sired Grid Iron theatre company, the
site-specific auteurs who started off performing shows in Mary King's
Close, and who have since performed in Edinburgh Airport and Ratho
climbing centre, and are rightly regarded as one of the world's great
contemporary theatre companies.
Now in its third space, the artist-run Embassy gallery off Broughton St
has just celebrated its tenth anniversary, while down the road on
Arthur St, the Rhubaba artspace is similarly thriving in a Leith
brought to glorious life during the two-day LeithLate extravaganza.
Initiatives such as the Village Pub Theatre, which operates out of a pub
function room, and Discover 21, a thirty-five-seat theatre space in an
old office block, are also thriving.
Then there is Young Fathers, the Edinburgh band who won this year's
Mercury Music Prize, and who met at an under eighteens hip-hop night in
the Bongo Club.
Since winning the Mercury, Young Fathers have been vocal about the
noise laws in the city, which everyone knows has been a problem for
A grassroots spoken-word scene led by nights such as Neu Reekie and
Rally & Broad is making waves across the country.
So it's great that Edinburgh Book Festival is already recognising that
scene in the city through their Unbound season of Sunday night
speak-easy events in the Spiegeltent featuring programmes by Neu
Reekie, Rally & Broad and others.
But those nights have their roots in the sort of events which Neu!
Reekie! co-founder Kevin Williamson used to put on with his seminal
magazine Rebel Inc in the back rooms of pubs and community centres and
the old Unemployed Workers Centre on Broughton Street, which was
forcibly closed following a police raid.
Similarly, it's vital that a novelist such as Julian Cope can be
embraced by the Book Festival.
But if he and his band the Teardrop Explodes hadn't found a platform to
perform in a shabby basement club in Liverpool called Eric's
thirty-five years ago, he might have ended up becoming a teacher, which
was the original plan.
So while Edinburgh's festivals and institutions need to be cared for
and resourced and constantly refreshed, art doesn't work from top-down
Art works from the ground up, in back-rooms of pubs and creative spaces
with cheap rents where artists can make a scene.
In this way, the whole city is a cultural quarter, whether you're
watching a band in a bar on Leith Walk, walking up Martin Creed's steps
or wandering through the Richard Demarco archive in this magnificent
We don't need to look to Austin, Manchester or Glasgow for advice on
how to do things.
All those cities do wonderful things in their own special way, and out
of a particular set of social, economic and political circumstances,
but so does Edinburgh, and we have all the expertise we need in this
room right now.
This isn't about money, because everyone here knows there isn't any.
This is about developing a will to do great things and, rather than
being seen to put obstacles in artists paths, to enable them.
And through that will, the City needs to learn to say no to property
developers and breweries, and to protect its existing cultural assets
by annexing the arts centres, bars and grassroots spaces and asset-lock
them so they can't be turned into one more Sainsbury's Local, an outlet seemingly so named without any apparent irony.
Over at the Traverse tonight, photographer Alan McCredie is launching
his book, One Hundred Weeks of Scotland, a collection of images taken
across the country over the two years leading up to this year's
referendum on independence.
In a pub in Leith, Paul Vickers – the singer with the band, Paul
Vickers and The Leg as well as a comedian and stalwart of the Free
Fringe - is running a pub quiz in a way which I suspect will more
resemble surrealist performance art.
On BBC 6Music, a band called The Sexual Objects, led by a man called
Davy Henderson, whose musical roots go back to Edinburgh's
world-changing post punk scene with his band Fire Engines, who formed
after seeing The Clash's White Riot tour at Edinburgh Playhouse, and
are now cited by the likes of Franz Ferdinand as a major influence, are
playing a live radio session.
None of these artists needed official approval for what they're doing.
Nor were they part of any managerialist box-ticking strategy.
And yet, 100 Weeks of Scotland has already caught the national
imagination; Paul Vickers is planning to take his new show to the
Prague Fringe next May; while The Sexual Objects are about to release a
new album that might just prove to be the record of the year.
All of these artists just did this stuff because they wanted to, they
needed to, and, in the context of tonight, they desired to.
And that's exactly how it should be.
As The Clash's Joe Strummer said long after he played Edinburgh
Playhouse, the future is unwritten.
It's up to everyone here to make sure that future is written the way we
want it to be.
A shorter version of the above was originally presented as part of
Desire Lines – What makes Edinburgh a culturally successful city?,
which took place in the Dissection Room at Summerhall, Edinburgh on
December 8th 2014.
Desire Lines was an initiative set up by a steering group of fourteen
representatives of some of Edinburgh's major arts institutions to
promote discussion on arts and culture in Edinburgh in a way that looks
forward to City of Edinburgh Council's forthcoming cultural strategy in
Desire Lines was chaired by Joyce McMillan, and consisted of four
parts; 1. Divided City? The audience for the arts in Edinburgh; 2. The
arts and the city economy; 3. Spaces for the arts in Edinburgh; 4. The
different artforms and the challenges they face.
Each part of Desire Lines featured an introductory three-five minute
'provocation' by invited speakers, which were followed by
contributions from the floor.
Divided City? The audience for the arts in Edinburgh featured Linda
Irvine (Strategic Programme Manager, NHS Lothian).
The arts and the city economy featured James Anderson (Trust Manager,
Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust PLC).
Spaces for the arts in Edinburgh featured Malcolm Fraser (Director,
Malcolm Fraser Architects) and myself.
The different artforms and the challenges they face featured Olaf
Furniss (Director, Born to be Wide), Caitlin Skinner (Artistic
Director, The Village Pub Theatre), Morvern Cunningham (Festival
The Desire Lines steering group consisted of Jan-Bert van den Berg
(Artlink), Deborah Keogh (Culture Enterprise Office), Adam Knight
(Edinburgh Playhouse), Cerin Richardson (Festival City Theatres Trust),
Janine Matheson (Creative Edinburgh), Jenny Langlands (Dance Base), Ken
Hay (Centre for the Moving Image), Karl Chapman (Usher Hall), Duncan
Hendry (Festival City Theatres Trust), Faith Liddell (Festivals
Edinburgh), Nick Barley (Edinburgh International Book Festival), Frank
Little (Edinburgh Museums and Galleries), Donald Smith (Traditional
Arts and Culture Scotland), Fiona Bradley (Fruitmarket Gallery).