Luke Bainbridge searches for Britain's musical identity

From Scotland to Cornwall and all points in between, Luke Bainbridge goes in search of Britain's true musical identity

It is an early Sunday morning in late June, I am slightly hungover and I am being berated in front of the departing congregation of St Nicholas's Cathedral in Newcastle by Canon Peter Strange, who thinks there can be too much pop in this magazine. Only a few hours ago, I was accosted not far from this spot by a 20-strong hen party dressed as policewomen and armed with truncheons. Who would have thought a road trip around the country for OMM would be so glamorous?

The idea was not to search high and low for the next big thing, or simply to hang out with the cool youth of Britain; rather, I wanted to gain a sense of the extent to which this truly is a musical country, from the north of Scotland to the deep West Country. Ray Davies of the Kinks once complained that the Rolling Stones sang about Route 66 in America whereas he was more familiar with the M6. So is there a British sound? Do traditions still hold firm? Do people in different places listen to different sorts of music? Can pensioners learn to love hip hop, and teenagers in turn appreciate the classics? These and many other questions are begging to be answered as I trudge alone down a country road on the Isle of Skye.

At any other time, I'm sure that all is peace and calm on Skye: certainly, in crisp and clear weather, there are few more beautiful and invitingly restful places in the British Isles. But towards me comes the ominous thump of loud house music. I have been picked up at dawn in Edinburgh by photographer Murdo MacLeod, who is heading north to shoot dance music star Mylo for his 'Best of British' pictures featured elsewhere in this issue. Murdo is from the neighbouring isle of Lewis, and his family have lived on the same smallholding for 500 years. On the drive we talk of traditional Scottish folk music, and Murdo talks of ceilidhs where everyone is in and out of each other's houses. 'There are probably 10 songs that everybody knows, and when everyone gets drunk they'll start singing them.' He wants to pass these traditions on to his children, as 'it's something that needs to be nurtured'.

Come 7pm on Skye, there is little evidence of traditional Scottish folk influences being nurtured. Most of the punters at the annual Isle of Skye dance music festival are already wasted; those who aren't stumbling due to the booze have tell-tale saucer-like pupils and flushed cheeks. And that's just the parents. As the evening wears on and the light fades, the atmosphere takes on a feral intensity. There is one main tent, which holds a couple of thousand people, and a 'chill out' tent for about 200. Both are playing incessant hard house and because of the rain, there's no escape.

Outside the bar, I talk to burly security guard John Hamilton, 45, who comes from Glasgow. What does he think of the music here? 'I don't mind the music, it's trying to keep the little uns out of the bar that's the problem,' he complains, as a girl of about 12 tries to sneak past him. I ask what he likes to listen to at home: a lot of soul and a few rather fey new bands - 'Interpol, the Killers and the Bravery'. Already, my preconceptions are taking something of a battering.

Mylo himself picks me up in the morning for a lift to Inverness. I have an hour to kill before catching a train south, so I wander off. The high street has been overtaken by a farmers' market. A one-man band set-up called the Bang On Boogie Band, including drums, cymbal and guitar, lies deserted. A no-man band. The only music emanates from a cous cous stall and the North African stallholder tells me that the record playing is by Mokhtar Mezoud, who is hugely popular in Tunisia.

I find John Casey busking with a battered acoustic guitar covered in scrawls. He seems a little sceptical of me, and I only realise why when I catch a glimpse of myself in the train window half an hour later. Unshaven and showing the signs of only seven hours sleep in 72 hours, I look like the one who should be doing the busking.

What sort of songs does he play? 'All the usual stuff, you know ...' He plucks out the opening bars of 'Stairway to Heaven'. Do you play any traditional Scottish folk songs? 'I hate Scottish music. I tell you what does work, though: classical.' Any particular pieces or composers? 'Beethoven and stuff. I don't know the names of most of 'em, it's just stuff I pick up from Classic FM. But it's mostly old dears that stop and listen, and they love that sort of stuff.'

Walking out of Glasgow Queen Street train station at 2pm, I hear music wafting over from George Square and the main stage of the Glasgow Jazz Festival. Hundreds of people are sat in the sun, enjoying a pint and the Black Star Steel Band. Next to a trestle table laden with second-hand jazz records, a man in a blue linen suit and thick black spectacles is playing with a battery-operated portable turntable. He introduces himself as Mark Robb, who runs Glasgow's cutting-edge jazz haunt the Buff Club as well as the fringe part of the festival. He points me in the direction of independent record store Mono, where Dep, the owner, talks of a five-year cycle in Glaswegian indie music, starting in the early Eighties with Aztec Camera and Orange Juice, last coming around again two years ago with Franz Ferdinand and Sons and Daughters. He sends me to a hip hop store around the corner, and the guy behind the counter, Danny, fills me in on the local scene. He has run a host of club nights, including 'They're After Us' which united modern-day MCs with Glaswegian poets. 'They loved it, man.' Do people rap in Glaswegian accents, I ask. 'Of course,' says Danny. 'If a kid gets up and starts rapping in an American accent, they get booed off.'.

I meet photographer Scott Kershaw and we stumble across hundreds of teenagers standing in line for an under-18s club called Cube, split into separate queues for girls and boys. I ask the girls what music they like. 'R&B!' they chant as one. Anything else? 'Hip hop'; '50 Cent'; 'Eminem'. Any local bands? 'Franz Ferdinand are all right.' The boys, all cropped hair, gel and teenage testosterone, are only interested in sticking two fingers up to the camera. What music are you into? 'R&B', 'hip hop'. What artists? '50 Cent', 'Eminem'. Don't you listen to any other types of music, I press. 'Aye, we listen to fuckin' opera all the time, pal,' says one cheeky young pup. The spirits falter, slightly, but it's Newcastle next, where the locals are sure to be up for a Saturday night.

We take a taxi to the notoriously raucous Bigg Market. Is it really that full-on, I ask the driver. 'I'll tell youse, you'll fill that in two minutes, man,' he says, pointing at Kershaw's camera. 'Just turn that carner there and you'll see what I mean.' We turn the corner and are faced with two guys squaring up - 'Haway then, ya fucking prick!'. Behind them scantily-clad lasses are queuing for a club. One points at the photographer and screams 'CaaammmmerrraaAAAA!!' before turning round and hitching up her miniskirt to show her arse. We cautiously make our way down the street, and it's at this stage that we're accosted by the hen party from Manchester, who demand to spank one of us with their truncheons before they'll discuss their musical tastes. Every bar is playing either cheesy house or Eighties 'classics'. We find ourselves in Reflex, an Eighties-themed venue whose decor pays tribute to the Tom Cruise film Cocktail. The lyrics of a Duran Duran song spring to mind: 'I'm on a ride and I wanna get off'. We move to another bar, called Pop, only to be accosted by another hen party, this time from Cambridge, one of whom is carrying a 5ft inflatable penis. What kind of music are you looking for, I ask. 'Seventies!' they scream. Enough debauchery, some of us have to get early up for church.

Next morning, we're at Newcastle Cathedral, ostensibly to chat to the choir, although our own souls could do with a little cleansing after the night before. After being gently chastised by OMM reader Canon Strange, we meet organist and choirmaster Scott Farrell. The garrulous Scott describes himself as a 'closet composer' and explains he chooses all the music for the services, but tries to pick pieces that complement the sermon. Does he like any popular music? 'Er, I'm not sure I dare admit to my popular music tastes,' he says nervously, before blurting out: 'I'm a big fan of Steps! I was gutted when they split up, I didn't see that coming.'

Before leaving the north east, we stop at The Angel of the North in Gateshead, and chat to ice cream seller Richie Smails, who listens to Newcastle FM all day in his van. What music do they play? 'My kind of music,' he says, as the Beatles' 'Getting Better' swirls from the tinny speaker behind him. 'And they broadcast from all over,' he says. 'One day they'll be in South Shields, next they might be down in Sunderland, ya never know.'

The rain starts again as we head through West Yorkshire and across the Pennies to Manchester. We head for Rusholme, and the strip of Wilmslow Road packed with more than 100 Indian restaurants, sweet shops and stores. Razwon Ahmed, who runs the Pan Asian music store, explains the difference between the bhangra scenes here and in Leeds and Bradford, and why he considers Manchester artists like Tariq Khan to have a more contemporary bhangra sound than their more traditional peers from other British cities. If the extent of Britain's susceptibility to contemporary American pop is dispiriting, the way in which immigrant communities continue to carve out intoxicating new sounds is refreshing. We head back into town to the Bridgewater Hall for the finale of BBC3's Beethoven series. I get chatting to Pam and Robert Waiton who are regulars here and belong to the Friends of the Philharmonic Orchestra. They listen to Radio 2 and Radio 4 at home, and Robert is planning to experiment with downloading when the BBC puts tonight's concert online. 'I'm not really sure of the rules, though,' he worries. 'You hear stories of people being taken to court, don't you?'

It's Sunday night, but some hours later the city's Gay Village is still raging on. Most of the bars pump out a diet of US and vocal house, but in the depths of the New Union, Manchester's oldest gay pub, a procession of drag queens belt out classic karaoke hits like 'Fever'. A huge, sweaty guy called Paul puts his arm round my shoulders. 'That's Carmen,' he says, nodding to the stage. 'I discovered her. She's from the Seychelles, tits and a dick, isn't she fantastic, darling?'

So to Liverpool, 2008 City of Culture and home to the Beatles, as if you wouldn't know it otherwise. Waiting for the Magical Mystery Tour bus, I meet Terry Keane, who is astride a scooter and, despite the baking sun, still wearing his parka. How long have you been a mod, I ask. 'I'm not a mod,' he insists. 'I'm a scooter boy. Mods were from London, all that arty lot.' What does he think of the Liverpool scene? 'This is the home of music, no matter what anyone says,' he says, before admitting 'there's no good venues any more.'

Later, Alan Wills from the label Deltasonic, home of contemporary Liverpool acts the Coral and the Zutons, complains that too many young Scousers are 'still obsessed with [Captain Beefheart's] Trout Mask Replica and the La's'. Across town, we meet a young band only too happy to acknowledge their influences. We find the Maybes? holed up in their rehearsal room, deep inside a disused old meat market, a familiar sweaty stench particularly pungent. While they talk morbidly about the effect of 'crack and smack' on the scene and of being hassled by 'the bizzies', they also enthuse about the strong tradition of melody in the city. 'It's been a port for 800 years, like. I think that's a lot to do with it: you'd get all the old sailors in the boozer and that, and they'd all get tanked up and it goes off, doesn't it?' This seems to explain a lot, but Liverpool is no longer an imperial city. Instead, it's looking towards the tourist and leisure industries.

The Magical Mystery Tour is endearingly shambolic. The aged bus limps around old Beatles haunts as monotone tour guide Eddie, who's been doing this for 25 years, explains how some have gone and some have changed. Virtually everyone on the bus is a foreign tourist, here to see Penny Lane, where the fireman rushed in from the pouring rain. Very strange.

By now we have covered 883 miles, but it's ever onwards, the radio tuned to another local station, Wave FM. Another night, another city and in Britain, in 2005, that increasingly seems to mean the opportunity to spend the time in another brand of Reflex. But instead in Blackpool we end up in a club called Gaiety's, where two girls from Rochdale are performing a karaoke version of 'Sweet Child O' Mine'. I explain I'm from The Observer. 'The Rochdale Observer?' they ask excitedly. Dee Greenwood and Emma Francis are obviously up for a big night, even if it is still only Monday. Their favourite bands are Keane, Snow Patrol, Scissor Sisters and Franz Ferdinand. Del Boy, a local from Blackpool, is next up to sing 'My Way'. I don't know about regrets, but beers, he's had a few. We make our excuses.

Next morning, we're at Blackpool Tower for ballroom dancing. The Grade I listed ballroom has seen a resurgence of interest since it hosted Strictly Come Dancing, but even so most of the regulars are pensioners. John Nelson, 67, from Wigan, now lives round the corner, and often pops in twice a day. Widows Doris Greenwood, 74, and Doreen Spencer, 81, drive over once a month from Burnley and have been 'dancing since we were five-year-old'. Beryl Strickett is '80 plus VAT' and comes here from Bangor twice a year for a week, and spends all day every day in the ballroom. 'I've got all the CDs of the organists at home as well,' she says. With its sense that little here will ever change, the ballroom can't fail to warm one's cockles.

As we head for the Midlands, I learn from a chance phone call that Slade frontman Noddy Holder has opened a bar in Bilston, a suburb of Wolverhampton. It's actually a small rock venue and shut today, but its sibling bar next door is open. Woody's is owned by Roy Wood, from Wizzard, but this Tuesday teatime there's only a young Asian bar girl and a delivery driver sinking pints of Banks bitter, crooning along to Robson and Jerome's 'I Believe'. Framed pics of Roy in all his glam make-up glory adorn the walls. Does Roy choose the music and does he come in himself often, I ask the barmaid.

'Dunno. I dunno what he looks like.'

'He looks a bit like that,' I say, nodding to a framed pic behind her, 'but a little older. And a little less make-up.'

On the drive to Birmingham in scorching heat, local radio station The Wolf promises 'All the best hits for Wolverhampton', and delivers Lemar's 'Not Much Justice' and Chic's 'Le Freak'.

Within the past decade, the most interesting music to come out of Birmingham has been drum'n'bass and then bhangra - but I want to know if there's still a thriving metal scene in the birthplace of the music. Fruitless journeys through concrete passageways reveal that three recommended venues - Gallows, Edwards 8, and Snobs - are all closed tonight. Instead, we stumble across a fantastic scene in Chamberlain Square, where a couple of hundred people are spread across the concrete in the setting sun, watching a live feed from the Royal Opera House of Rigoletto on a giant screen. Many have brought deckchairs and rugs, some have bottles of wine and cheese. Margot Russell, 56, and Jason Bright, 80, are sat at a picnic table with a McDonalds. Both are members of Birmingham Opera and Birmingham Cathedral Choir. At home, Margot listens to opera, music hall and Mozart, as well as pop artists like Jean Michel Jarre and Enya, and she likes 'a bit of rap'. Jason listens almost exclusively to opera. 'And he's a big fan of Elgar,' Margot reveals. Behind them, Khalid Sidahmed, 29, is resting on his backpack. Originally from Birmingham, Khalid spent 15 years living in Russia, and as a result, although he does like pop music, 'there is a love of opera inside me'.

After being pointed in its direction by several people, we finally end up at Scruffy Murphys. In the tiny basement, 20 or so people are watching a towering metal band so tall that a couple of them have to stoop beneath the ceiling. Claire Kay, 25, one of the band's girlfriends, tells me her mates are all into heavy rock and metal. 'Metalllica, Sabbath, Maiden'. Mostly the old classics then? 'Well, I also like System of a Down, and the Darkness are all right ... and I was once dragged to a Peter Andre concert.'

Later, we chat to the group, who are charmingly unlike their stage personas. They used to be in a tribute band called Black Zabbath, playing to crowds of up to 1,000. Guitarist Mike Kay, 33, says now that they're called TFK and that they play 'cross-over death-industrial'. But it's all relative, explains singer Giles Preene, 32. 'There are people upstairs who wouldn't consider us extreme at all.' They would think your sound is too soft? 'Well, not too soft, but too melodic maybe.' Finally, I have a regional prejudice confirmed.

The home straight is in view. We make an impromptu stop in Hereford, and stumble across the weekly cattle market. Most of the farmers are too preoccupied with missing a sale to talk to us, but Aubrey Davies, 62, pauses for two minutes. 'Music?' he booms. 'Well, music is the bloomin' Sixties, innit? The Seekers and the Hollies, that's what you want. Mind you, that ' ... Amarillo' song's alreeght.' Aubrey refuses to be photographed with his sheep, as 'they're only end product, see', which appears to mean they're old, knackered ewes he wants rid of and not representative of his flock. 'In the tractor, my radio's just tuned to one station, see. I don't know what it's called but it plays all the golden oldies like Jim Reeves.'

We speak to a couple of street workers. Jamie Buston, 22, from Worcester tells me of his passion for drum'n'bass and hard house. He travels to Birmingham to go clubbing, but says there's a drum'n'bass scene growing in the bars of Worcester, where young kids are starting their own nights.

In Cardiff, Charlotte Church's alleged alcohol consumption is the big local news. First destination is one of Charlotte's haunts, the redeveloped Cardiff Bay, which is so depressing and soulless, all chain bars and piped music, I'm surprised it only takes Charlotte 10 double vodkas and a couple of special Vimtos to enjoy herself here. In the taxi back, Red Dragon FM ('South Wales's No1 Hit Music Station') is playing Stereophonics' 'Dakota'.

The main drag, St Mary Street, seems eerily familiar: a Walkabout Inn, followed by a Life bar, followed by yet another Reflex. I ask a bouncer at Life what's on tonight. 'Two for one, mate.' Yes, but what's actually on? 'Two. For. One. Mate,' he replies slowly. 'Two drinks for price of one.' A student from south London tells me all the best places in Cardiff play R&B. 'Everyone goes to the same places,' he says, as if this is a good thing. 'Mondays is Creation, Tuesday is Bar Cuba, Wednesday is Risa, Friday is Creation ...'. Once again, the identikit nature of High Street Britain is wearily dispiriting.

Next is a pit stop in Bristol before heading to Glastonbury for the festival, where all walks of life in Britain come together, but I feel as if I've seen and heard it all already. Then through Somerset and Devon, along the A30, to our final destination. We drive down to the Newquay beach of Fristal, which boasts the best surf in the region. I want to be comforted that surfers have their own subculture. Thankfully, Dave Perrin and Will Riseley, two 18-year-olds from Kent who are in Newquay for the season, confirm that their peers listen to their own particular acts, like Jack Johnson and the John Butler Trio.

After more than 2,000 miles on the road, I look back on 10 days which have proved depressing and refreshing in equal measures. Depressing to witness first hand the ubiquity of mainstream US acts and the stranglehold that R&B seems to have on the nation. Refreshing to be reassured that wherever you go in the British Isles, if you look hard enough, you can find someone plugging away, trying to create something new, something different, whether in a bedroom, basement or disused meat market.

In Newquay, some surfers outside the Walkabout Inn ask me to join them for an evening out. I decline. Without the aid of music, my head is already ringing.

· Luke Bainbridge is deputy editor of OMM


Luke Bainbridge

The GuardianTramp

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