Creativity runs through Blackpool like text through a stick of rock, though you’d be forgiven for having missed this. In recent decades the seaside town, not quite close enough to Manchester and too far from Liverpool, has been somewhat overlooked by touring musicians. Blackpool currently has both the highest divorce rate and the highest number of alcohol-related deaths in the UK. Depressing stuff – and that’s before even get to Blackpool grime.
A 2016 documentary, The Controversial Rise of Blackpool Grime, offered viewers a chance to rubberneck at a scene some considered a freak show. (Although some of its criticism was more than valid, the film also felt uncomfortably like a southern journalist gawping at the fact that there is music in the ‘north’.) Yet the once-thriving destination is also home to a new wave of artists hoping to wash away the stigma.
“There are a lot of great artists from Blackpool but they don’t get acknowledged in the way that they should,” says Bobby Bentham, frontman of Blackpool’s electronica punk outfit Strange Bones, who were nominated for best live act in 2018’s Unsigned Music Awards. “It’s the town that time forgot. People just come to get fucked up.”
Indeed this is one of the most deprived areas in the country, despite residents from previous generations recalling a bustling playground of end-of-the-pier entertainment, donkey rides and afternoon tea on the beach. For those of us who live here, this is bittersweet: our town’s one-time status as the northern capital of entertainment is now largely only visible in boarded-up hotels or run-down ones that offer sesh gremlins a cheap weekend piss-up.
Blackpool, though, is founded on the draw of the crowd. Its heritage of fortune tellers, shows on the pier, traditional theatre and donkey rides having been neglected, but grassroots artists are now stepping up to tread the boards instead.
Less than a decade ago a shortage of venues left Blackpool’s local music scene stagnant, giving the emerging wave of prospective talent nowhere to perform. This left artists to adopt DIY ethics and showcase their talent without the machinations of the music industry. 2014, though, saw the opening of Bootleg Social, an independent venue founded to support the grassroots scene.
Soon after, in 2016, The Waterloo finalised its transformation from a local boozer to 300-capacity music venue, a fast-growing indie spot that regularly hosts weekend shindigs such as the fabulously named Sleaze Rock Festival. Dirty Blondes, which opened in 2019, overlooked by Blackpool Tower, is a neon-soaked dive bar frequented by the likes of emerging alt. rock solo talent Harrison Rimmer. Across these venues you’ll find the likes of fun punk heroes IDLES, Canadian hardcore goliaths Cancer Bats and indie stalwarts The Wombats.
“The music scene has come a long way over the last decade,” explains Henry Cox, vocalist with hometown heroes Boston Manor. The synth-pop band spent 2019 smashing back-to-back headline tours across mainland Europe and North America. “When we first started playing here there wasn’t any kind of scene or a venue. You would be playing a Scout hut, pizza place, church hall, YMCA, and so many pubs.”
Local sound engineer Ash Betton remembers the bad old days very well. “There were loads of kids starting bands and making music but nowhere for them to play,” he says. “The venues were either pubs or a bandstand at the local park. The majority of the pubs putting on gigs were forced to stop due to underage drinking.”
As a result, he explains, “the music scene felt very DIY”, with bands forced to find their own voices without industry support. This chimes with Cox: “It’s all about community. We would hit all the colleges; we’d sneak in and just flyer the shit of the place. We would get hundreds of people coming down [to our makeshift gig spaces].”
“There is a revival going on” – Strange Bones’ Bobby Bentham
But if Blackpool is such an epicentre of culture, thanks in part to all those new venues, why do so few people outside of the town seem to know about it?
“It has been neglected by the media in terms of what’s going on underground,” says Bentham, “I think people just find it bizarre that things actually happen here.”
Stephen Skelly, managing director and part-owner of Bootleg, who recently booked pop-punk outfit ROAM, an Eastbourne quintet currently enjoying six-figure streaming numbers, agrees: “For the first year every agent we talked to had so few positive things to say. It was so hard to sell Blackpool as a place that they should be sending their bands.”
Gradually, this is changing. Since its inception, Bootleg has experienced a surge of interest from big promoters such as Live Nation, highlighting Blackpool’s growing significance on the national touring circuit. The venue has grown from hosting 40 live shows in 2016 to just shy of 100 in 2019. Skelly insists that this year is looking even more promising.
“I feel like it’s our moral duty to try and get as many people in the room for these new local bands because they deserve it,” says Skelly. “They have done it off their own backs and it’s something to be proud of. They have talent; it just needs to be nurtured in the right way.” Bootleg, he explains, “is run on passion” for the bands who perform there.
Cox beams with admiration for Skelly’s work at Bootleg. “Blackpool needs to cherish that venue”, he says. “They have done absolute wonders – they have had a vision and they just keep doing it.”
“It’s changed people’s mentality”, agrees Bentham. “Because of that venue there’s a breeding ground for a musical subculture. I honestly see Blackpool becoming a popular destination for subcultures and music in general. There is a revival going on.”
Sound engineer Betton says this is partly down to attention to detail and – mirroring Skelly – the nurturing of talent: “Over the last five years venues such as Bootleg and Waterloo have done massive things for the scene, putting on regular gigs with good bands and actually working to make the artists sound good. Not long ago I saw Cancer Bats and Loathe at the Waterloo; bands I never thought would come to my hometown.”
As has been hinted at, this is about creating a healthy eco system for new acts and burgeoning fanbases, says Boston Manor’s Cox: “You need those teenagers making the music and constantly putting on shows. You need those kids to discover alt. culture.” He’s speaking down the phone somewhere on Nevada highway in the midst of the band’s US tour, a testament to how far grassroots support can take talented performers.
This support extends beyond the stage: Skelly recently took on a flat above Bootleg, which bands can stay in after their show. “It makes your life so much easier as a touring band instead of having to pay for hotels,” he says.
Beloved artists now flock to the same venues that emerging bands depend upon. Blackpool has cultivated a scene that’s turned the heads of the music industry without depending on them; these small venues have taken on the responsibility of nurturing future talent, reading from the same pages as the nearby culture capitals of the north.
Local gig-goer James Johnstone says the town feels less overlooked all the time: “The success stories showcase the talent that can come out of Blackpool, and the support of new local music venues will do nothing but good things for up-and coming-acts. Blackpool offers a brilliant pit-stop for bands in the surrounding areas. Just a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Snash, a Scottish punk band on their way back from Manchester. This isn’t just a great opportunity for more artists, but also fans.”
Strange Bones’s Bentham agrees that the town, once so unfairly unlooked, feels like it’s seriously on the up. “Loads of my mates in bands have started coming to play Blackpool,” he says. “They are coming from Essex, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Hastings. They all come down saying, ‘This place is fucking mad!’ Everyone wants to come in from out of town now and see the shows in Blackpool.”