When you think of Blackpool what images pop into your mind? The iconic tower? Donkey rides? An overpriced amusement park perhaps?
How about a thriving local music scene? Didn’t think so. . .
But it’s true. Hiding behind Blackpool’s glowing kitsch exterior lays a throng of guitar strumming sea-siders desperate for a shot at the big time. There’s a multitude of locally formed bands doing the circuit, hitting the limited venues and performance halls Blackpool has to offer on a weekly basis.
From the mainstream rock sounds of Switchboard Spectacular to the wailing guitar solos of the Electric Ladyboys, there’s definitely no shortage of determination or creativity in this holiday town. And yet with so many bands aiming for the stars, you would think that there would be a relatively high percentage that would have broken through and gained some critical attention.
In fact, in recent years there have only been two notable artists who have made it out alive. Karima Francis, with her quirky style and spectacular vocal range earned her the title of number one act to watch in 2009 by The Observer. An example of her talents can be viewed below.
And then there’s Little Boots, AKA Victoria Hesketh. She burst onto the scene after honing her musical skills in Blackpool and appearing only a handful of times in the in the town as part of the band Dead Disco before finding mainstream solo success.
Both acts are extremely talented, but still, it echoes the fact that very few Blackpool bands make it all the way to the top. Is this the quality local musicians should be aiming for?
To answer that question you really need to consult an expert, someone who has both monitored and been an active part of this sea side scene in recent years – someone who has watched it develop.
Blackpool resident and web designer Stephen Skelly fits the bill perfectly. After noticing that there was nowhere for local bands to share information and promote themselves he took it upon himself to create BlackpoolBands.co.uk, a website which provides just such a service. Since creating the site in 2003 he has seen bands come and go and became the go to guy on all things musical in Blackpool.
So what was his take on the state of his hometown’s music scene? “It goes up and down” he says, “When I started the site you saw the music scene grow, not because of my site, but because at that time there was a good local scene, people put on their own gigs and there were a few good venues, but then it dips for a while.”
However this was not a permanent slump as Stephen explained, “It does seem to be picking up again. With local artists such as Little Boots and Karima Francis being signed its given the town a boost and obviously there’s a lot more going on now than there was a couple of years ago, it’s actually looking up in a way I think.”
Despite his optimism, he still believes that Blackpool cannot compete with the surrounding big cities, in his opinion: “It needs that dedicated live venue I think.”
“Basically what’s missing is the venue between 200 and 1000 (capacity), the one that would bring in all these upcoming bands and basically that is what’s needed to get the scene noticed” he continues.
But what about the bands, how do they feel playing in a city with so many potential limitations? The overall consensus is varied, but some musicians believe that it’s important to know where you came from, but more important to know where you’re going.
Steven Kenney, drummer for the Blackpool/Leeds based prog-rock band (OK) had this to say: “I don’t think anyone’s really going to be known for being in the Blackpool circuit. That’s not knocking Blackpool; I think you can do well in Blackpool. All the bands know each other really well and it’s quite close knit, but if you want to make it you’ve got to get out, just go down the motorway to Manchester.”
Dan Clayton, lead singer of Switchboard Spectacular had similar thoughts “I feel Blackpool’s music scene is in need of some love and attention. There just isn’t the drive from fans that want to hear new bands which is a shame.”
He added that “In turn, this forces bands to play away from Blackpool and further slowing its growth!”
On the other hand, Blackpool born artist Idas, or Howard Murphy as he’s known locally thinks that “the music scene is at its strongest right now. With the success of artists such as Little Boots and Karima Francis Blackpool couldn’t be better for aspiring musicians.”
Nevertheless Blackpool is by no means a dead end. The Gazette, Blackpool’s local paper actively helps to promote and encourage this growing community. In recent weeks it has played its part in organising and hosting Rock Quest, a battle of the bands competition, in search of new talent. With over seventeen bands competing, for the top spot, competition is fierce but the enthusiasm and sense of community is definitely there.
If you’re a band looking to expand your horizons then here’s some final words of expert advice from Stephen Skelly “Organise as much stuff as you can, there’s definitely a danger in playing too many gigs when you first start up so, the more special you can make a gig the more people are going to want to enjoy it.
If you can do one off gigs every now and again but make them spectacular then that’s the best way to do it.” However, If the Blackpool music scene stays as just that, a Blackpool music scene, then so be it. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Maybe not according to Steven Kenney: “All I can think about is the movie Anvil and how it worked out for them! They spent about three hundred years trying to work that stuff out, and it worked out!”
Check out an exclusive interview with Rock Quest finalists (OK) or get all the advice you need on musically making it by listening to the full interview with Stephen Skelly, both can be found below!
Stephen Skelly interview.