One man with a microphone leaps around the corner of the pub designated a ‘stage’, shouting about hating his job and how people who initially seem nice can turn out to be Nazis. He’d have been thrown out of most pubs by now, but by calling himself Pink Eye Cub and doing it along to laptop beats, he’s drawn quite a crowd.
Lias from Fat White Family props up the bar – his brother Nathan’s latest lounge sleaze combo is playing later, but as he tells us, “I’ve been here almost every week for 12 years”. A grey-haired cowboy appears to be running the place and the clientele runs the gamut from psych freaks to aging skinheads to acoustic heroes to ragged-glam students to blokes who, if they aren’t actually in Shame, seriously want to be. Before I’ve managed to order a drink, I’m hailed by an indie rocker I interviewed in the late ‘90s, when he was in the Llama Farmers.
Something’s happening here – at a weekly open mike night in a scruffy pub in the middle of a suburban street in Nunhead on a wet Wednesday night – but what it is ain’t exactly clear.
For about seven years Fat White Family have been telling us about the underground South London art-sleaze-punk-freak scene they grew out of, but no-one’s ever bothered to try to find it. I’m only at one of its midweek outposts by chance, because a neighbour of mine, Simon from Bromide, has been promised a solo slot before chucking out time.
But all these years in, the place where the wider FWF circle try out the latest of their ever-growing incarnations and spinoff bands – and where Fat White Family themselves first slapped an unsuspecting punter with a greasy chop – still has the all-inclusive, anything-goes buzz of the Good Mixer in 1993, or the early punk reggae nights at the Roxy, before there were even any punk records to play. It’s a scene that’s stayed underground so long, I suspect no-one would thank me for telling you where it is. I’d probably get tarred and offalled.
This is the new face of scenes in 2019. Tiny enclaves of like-minded locals sharing a mutual, hermetically sealed party vibe all their own, caught forever at the initial spark stage of a national explosion that never comes. You might well live in a new-build flat next door to one, and are currently being petitioned by your new neighbours, who moved there last week for the edgy vibe, to help get it shut down.
Ten or 20 years ago, this pub would’ve been crawling with A&R men, journalists and wannabe ‘scene’ bands, all decked out in the appropriate uniform and all hoping to get a noseful of A-grade powdered hype, down millennial ideas by the pint and ride the tsunami of young blood to Tidyprofit Central.
Within months of the first music mag insider article, it’d be crammed full of tourists, undercover tabloid hacks and dodgy accountants scouting for easy marks. The key bands would all be off headlining the second-rank European festival circuit and the original scene diehards would be shunted out, forced to abandon their precious grotty HQ and find a quieter pub to seethe over missing the boat and develop regretful heroin habits in.
Now, there’s precious little chance of the rest of the world catching on. There’s no real currency in nurturing local scenes anymore. There are no cover-priced ‘new music’ magazines for them to help sell, no single media platform with enough clout to kick off a regional revolution, no tribalist culture to make anyone think that, just because you like Idles, you might like the brother of the bass player’s dentist’s dog’s band as well.
Where once we had scenes, we now have the vaguest of movements. Playlist compilers at 6 Music or Spotify cobble together bands that sound similar to whatever’s currently ‘doing the numbers’, and the algorithm goes about its quiet, insidious work, ushering you gently towards more popular and/or heavily promoted artists. Take the one scene that is notoriously happening right now – Dublin. There isn’t a streaming platform on earth that’ll notice you’re listening to Fontaines D.C. and instantly suggest you might also like their awesome Dublin punk scene-mates Fangclub. Nope, you’re on a one-way algorithm road-trip through the entire new Foals album, destination Blossoms.
Scenes like Dublin or South London’s gristle rock (I mean, come on, I’ve even made up a name for it) might get a blink-and-you’ve-ignored-it blog running down the primary acts (which only those related to the bands in question will notice), and here at NME we’re still fighting the good fight. But in today’s cherry-picked musical morass there’s so little opportunity for one particularly inspired bunch of drug buddies to make a national mark.
Part of me is saddened by the shift – it used to be that scenes were what shaped us. I, personally, tried on the tye-dyed shirts of shoegaze, the hemp trousers of crusty and the soiled plaid of grunge before I discovered my inner Child Of Britpop. The algorithm might well recognise a nationwide explosion of British rock talent such as we saw in the early and mid-‘00s, but wouldn’t give a flying Capaldi for the eclectic NYC basement scene of The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Andrew WK that inspired it.
But looking around at the beautiful freaks of that Nunhead pub, still immersed in the conception spark of their scene twelve years on, it felt as though this is what scenes are supposed to be like. The mystique and magic of bubbling under, undiscovered, can last forever in a place like this, unspoilt by money, media or Machiavellian managers. You don’t need to come find this one. Start your own, and enjoy it for the hell-for-leather road to nowhere it is. Leave the bean-counting to the white soul dicks and let Nunhead expose its undercover Nazis in peace; I’m for stayin’ underground.