Earlier this year, the Assembly Rooms – one of the biggest venues in Derby – burned to the ground.
Well, it didn’t quite burn to the ground. An air conditioning unit caught fire in an adjacent car park. The fire spread, and the place has been closed ever since. There’s no visible damage on the outside, but for the sake of gravity and symbolism, let’s just pretend that the Assembly Rooms really did burn to the ground.
The point is, unless you’re a denizen of Derby, you’re probably blissfully unaware of the demise of the Assembly Rooms. I doubt it made the news. And even if you do live in Derby, it’s likely that upon hearing of the Assembly Rooms fire, you simply shrugged and got on with things.
But for me, the Assembly Rooms fire feels like a big deal. Not big in a “this changes everything” sort of way. More in a “the biggest venue in Derby’s been shut for months and nobody’s noticed” sort of way.
The Assembly Rooms, you see, had chops. Serious, serious chops. Since opening in 1977, it has played host to many acts who have shaped popular music and inspired millions across the world.
The list of those who have played the Assembly Rooms almost reads like a list of the most popular, influential or fashionable bands of the past four decades: AC/DC, Judas Priest, The Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Elvis Costello, Motörhead, Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne, The Damned, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, The Cure, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Thin Lizzy, The Human League, Bauhaus, Gary Numan, U2, The Smiths, Take That, Ride, The Verve, Cliff Richard, The Pogues, The Prodigy, The Levellers, The Wedding Present, Radiohead, Sleeper, Suede, Orbital…
True, the building’s exterior is an utterly unremarkable slither of polite brutalism, and its interior felt more like a school exam hall than a venue, but still. I believe that such a strong alumni makes the Assembly Rooms the equal of the Manchester Apollo, the Liverpool Empire, Nottingham Rock City and the Sheffield Leadmill. If a fire were to occur at any of these venues, there’d be gushing tributes and thought pieces in the NME, The Quietus, Drowned in Sound and The Guardian.
But Derby loses its claim to rock history, and nobody notices.
Two reasons. First of all, the Assembly Rooms has seen better days. For as long as I can remember, the place has hosted little beyond the mundane, the dispiriting, and the unchallenging: Tedious life-hating panel show comedians. Blue rinse songbook musicals. The safest bets possible from the world of musical theatre. In terms of live music, the most cutting edge band to have played in the past few years is The Stereophonics.
Second of all, and this one is a lot more upsetting, Derby’s live music scene has been in decline for so long that the loss of a major venue barely registers as a loss at all.
I grew up in Liverpool and I went to university in Manchester. My formative years, then, were based in cities where, on any given evening, you could throw a dart at a map and be sure to find something to do within walking distance of your striking point.
When I decided to move to Derby, I knew not to expect much in terms of live music. I simply took it for granted that this city, for all its charms, simply didn’t care for the life affirming immediacy, the sparkling electric connection, of music played at immense volumes by musicians stood in the same room.
But then I started talking to people.
The hub, she tells me, was The Old Vic. This is a venue that’s still in use today, but it’s another Derby venue that feels as though it’s seen better days. I saw Johnny Foreigner there a few years ago. Singer Alexei Berrow commented that the posters on the wall, surely intended to show off the venue’s glittering alumni, actually more closely reflected his CD collection circa 2002.
My girlfriend also speaks wistfully of The Blue Note, a rock, indie, metal and ska club that, like all the beloved clubs in Manchester and Liverpool, played the same set of reliably energising standards every night.
Again, The Blue Note has chops. There my girlfriend’s parents saw Dexy’s Midnight Runners, for example. But again, the Blue Note’s best days are long gone. We keep a wide berth of the place now, as now they only seem to play the same sort of regurgitated cheese that gets played in the city’s various Walkabouts, Wetherspoons and Slug’n’Lettuce nightmares. Don’t get me wrong, that’s absolutely fine if you like your music to come fully loaded with helium vocals and bass drops, but I can’t help but yearn for what used to be.
In fact, the more people I talk to, the more it becomes apparent that Derby once had something that’s now been lost.
I contacted Drowned In Sound writer Dom Gourlay, who told me about venues that not even my Derby friends knew used to exist:
The Wherehouse and the Dial were two of the most prominent places on the East Midlands gig circuit in the early 1990s.
I remember seeing Spiritualized supported by Slowdive at the Dial – only 50-60 people were there – not to mention numerous Sarah Records bands including The Field Mice, Heavenly and the Sea Urchins.
As for the Wherehouse, I first saw Oasis play there supported by Cable in early ’94. Again no more than 50 people turned up.
Other bands I saw there included Medicine, Swervedriver, The Primitives and Stereolab. Not to mention the infamous Huggy Bear/Bikini Kill gig where the bands refused to play after 3 songs because there were guys rather than girls standing at the front!
On Friday and Saturday nights, Derby feels about as raucous and alive as any other UK city. But still, the idea that Bikini Kill once played here and caused a scene is hard to fathom. Derby simply no longer feels like the sort of place where this sort of thing can happen.
Beyond the groaning sadness of The Assembly Rooms and the grubby cheer of The Old Vic, what has Derby got these days for those who value music as more than just part of a lifestyle?
There’s The Venue, a tiny garden centre tea-room of a place where the walls drip with sweat on summer nights. Over the past few years, it’s played host to such bands as Ash, The Lemonheads, and British Sea Power. Beyond that, though, you get stopovers from also-also-ran britpop survivors interspersed with months upon months of nothingness. It’s not enough.
Then there’s The Flowerpot, a wonderfully welcoming and warming microbrewery that occasionally stages shows from such first-wave prog wizards as Focus, Fish and Wishbone Ash. Beyond that, though, you get wall-to-wall tribute acts. Admittedly, tribute acts go down really well with real ale, and some of them have really quite creative names. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not enough.
Finally, there’s the pubs. Ryan’s Bar, The Old Bell et al. The Old Bell is definitely haunted, and used to host a dub night with bass so heavy it threatened the structural integrity of all surrounding buildings. Now it’s been refurbished and gentrified, and seems to host little beyond the sort of singer songwriters who like to lavish their Mumford & Sons covers with five notes where one would do. You get similar fare at Ryan’s Bar. In fact, Ryan’s Bar can lay claim to launching the career of James Morrison, so there’s that. Again, fine if you like that sort of thing. But once more, it’s not enough.
Well it’s not, is it? How can a city go from offering so much, to offering so little that it might as well offer nothing at all?
And don’t tell me that this is simply the way things are these days. Don’t try and tell me that rock is dead, long live clubbing, or whatever. This isn’t Vice, and this isn’t about rock music. This isn’t about any genre of music, really. It’s about live music; and when it comes to live music, I feel as though Derby has died a slow death.
And it’s such a shame, as you can regularly see evidence that people in this city want things to change.
Subcultures thrive in Derby. The amount of two tone on display in certain bars on certain nights suggests that the ska scene never really went away. So where did the bands go?
Derby, too, has always had much to offer if you like your music beardy and folksy. The Assembly Rooms used to occasionally host shows by some of the world’s finest touring folk outfits, such as Bellowhead and Steve Earle. Indeed, The Waterboys were kind enough to bring their Appointment With Mr. Yeats show to Derby, and what a wonderful night it was.
There’s also the annual Derby Folk Festival, which will go ahead this year regardless of the Assembly Rooms fire.
All well and good if you like folk music, but what if your tastes are a little more, shall we say, leftfield?
Right now, local arts and music collective Holy Smokes are pretty much the only people flying the flag for independent and experimental music in Derby. They’ve brought acts to this city so exciting, so exotic, that they might as well have opened a rift in time and space: Aidan Moffat, Com Truise, Blanck Mass, Allo Darlin’, Y Niwl, Gnod, Cantaloupe, Pete Bassman…
Their activities are sporadic, but given that they’re the only people in the city currently doing this sort of thing, this can be forgiven. As fantastic as their nights are, I just wish they weren’t so remarkable. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Holy Smokes was but one collective out of dozens championing the weird, the noisy and the colourful in Derby?
Finally, it’s impossible to talk about music in Derby without mentioning metal. It seems hard to believe now, but the first ever Bloodstock Festivals took place at the Assembly Rooms.
Bloodstock is a metal festival so hardcore that Download crosses the street to avoid it. From the sublime to the terrifying, from DragonForce to Children of Bodom, Derby metalheads have welcomed some of the world’s loudest bands with open arms and grateful hearts.
The mere existence of Bloodstock, Holy Smokes and the annual Folk Festival surely prove that Derby has a counterculture, and that this counterculture is currently going hungry.
I’m not for one second demanding a total upheaval, or even the resurgence of guitar music. But Derby used to have a thriving live music scene, and I see no reason at all why it shouldn’t anymore.
But I also see opportunity. A new velodrome is opening that, we’re told, will feature a live music venue. It’s a little bit out of town, but it might attract the sort of bands with large fanbases who struggle to fill the larger venues in the area.
And perhaps from the ashes of the Assembly Rooms, something wonderful can rise. If not a whole new venue, then why not a whole new attitude? A realisation that Derby can, once more, hold its own as hub of live music in the East Midlands.
NOTE – I fully acknowledge that it might just be me. There might be a very healthy live music scene going on in Derby right now, of which I am simply unaware. I truly hope that this is the case.
Indeed, I plan on following this article with a look at the sort of sounds currently emanating from the backrooms, bedrooms and small stages of the city. So if you are a Derby-based musician, get in touch! Send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org