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Rock & Pop: Pub Rock

The End of the Road for Pub Rock?

- Capacity crackdowns, poor promotion and theme pubs threaten London's musical backbone: An exclusive LondonNet feature by Catherine Chambers

IT'S ALMOST unthinkable, but the demise of pub-rock culture has become a worrying trend.

Venues that were once an integral part in shaping London's musical heritage are being made extinct in the face of the more profitable yet soulless theme pubs. And that's not all. Once hailed as the capital of music, London is in danger of losing sight of new talent. The changing nature of pub culture - driven by need for profit - is causing the rising stars, Britain's future new musical heroes, to go unheard of. For underground acts, trying to land a gig in one of the capital's smaller venues can be an almost impossible task.

Little Hell, regulars on London's pub circuitPub rock experienced its hey-day in the 1970s when an altogether new gig circuit provided an independent alternative to established concert venues. This was before the economic slump of the 80s and the rapid growth of pub chains. It was a place where talent-spotters could make their mark. The idea was to persuade pub landlords, who had few customers, to let bands play in front of eager audiences. It worked, and the pub rock scene was born, a movement that later helped pave the way for a musical revolution -in the form of punk, with bands such as Ian Dury and The Clash leading the charge.

Bands suffer

Today it's a different story. Small venues have been hit by problems involving noise complaints and licensing, not to mention increasing pressures on profit margins. Unfortunately it's the bands that suffer. A crackdown earlier this year by Camden Council on venues that overstretched their capacity led to licenses either being temporarily withdrawn or severe restrictions placed on it. the Camden Falcon and The Dublin Castle, both an intrinsic part of the Camden scene, have had their capacity severely cut back, whilst the Water Rats in Kings Cross was forced to close for a month after its license was withdrawn due to overcrowding.

PillboxArt-rockers Pillbox who regularly tour the pub circuit suffered directly as a result. " We had a show booked at the Water Rats the day before it closed and all our listings were wrong," explains singer Susan Hyatt. " The problem is it's hard to find anywhere to gig anymore. the Water Rats and The Dublin Castle have lost their vibe now. the Camden Monarch seems to be the only good place left."

Restricted capacity

Venues with a restricted capacity mean fewer punters, and therefore less money. But bands that are only able to pull crowds of just 40 simply aren't worth bothering with, says Tris Dickin promoter of the Spitz venue Spitzin East London. "It's a Catch 22 situation," he acknowledges. "We get bands calling to book gigs and if they only bring a small crowd it isn't enough. We need about 100 people to break even."

Sean Worrall, who runs successful underground label Org Records and promotes his own nights, agrees. "Part of the problem is that as a promoter you've got to hire a venue. It costs £300 to hire the Camden Monarch, you need at least 130 people in to break even, and then you have to pay the band." Some have pointed to the rise of dance culture and DJ's or the spread of comedy venues as a cause.

However, Sean blames the decline of pub-rock culture on promoters being out of touch with the current music scene. "Bands can't get on decent bills, so when they do get a gig they can't play to the right audiences. Promoters should be thinking about matching bands up together. In the smaller venues there should be a lot more care taken into whom they're supporting. How often do you go to gigs now and see three bands that you're really excited about?"

No Passion

Bee Rozzo, who promotes the extremely successful Barfly Club, which hosts gigs every week night, moved from the Camden Falcon to the Camden Monarch after the Camden Falcon's capacity was cut to 100. "A lot of people in London just aren't passionate about the music they're putting on," he asserts.

"Some promoters charge their bands to play and don't care who hasn't got a gig. Talent Scout run 'Pay To Play' which means the band have to put up a deposit up and unless they get X- amount of people in they lose the deposit. These people just don't give a f**k about the bands they're promoting, they just care about getting people in there. They're just exploiting talent and people who don't have talent."

There is, however, a unanimous verdict on the high quality of music in London, which makes the decline of pub rock culture even more alarming. In the words of a regular gig-goer, Stewart Holmes, "We're proud of our home-grown talent in this country, and it wasn't long ago that London led not only Britain but the world in popular live music. It's galling to think that young talent is being crushed before it has a chance to shine. Where would Blur be without the rock venues of Camden? London needs to wake up if we are to help the UK music industry."
Catherine Chambers

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