Anyone Can Be Famous: Pub Rock

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 12 August 2014 |

I wonder how many musicians reading this will have heard of a band called Eggs Over Easy? They’re not widely mentioned today, but, even though they were American, they have exceptional significance in British music history. Eggs Over Easy were the band who, in May 1971, started Pub Rock, at a (now sadly demolished) pub in Kentish Town, London, called the Tally Ho.


Above: Some pub rock stills taken from the excellent BBC4 series Punk Britannia, which provided the source footage for all of the stills in this piece. Top left: Eggs Over Easy. Top right: Brinsley Schwarz. Middle left: Ducks Deluxe. Middle right: Ian Dury in Kilburn and the High Roads. Bottom left: Lee Brilleaux fronting Doctor Feelgood. Bottom right: The Kursaal Flyers.

Eggs Over Easy were not really the kind of band most people would associate with the classic London pub rock style of the early ‘70s. Rather, they were a stepping stone between the jazz which was formerly de riguer in London pub venues, and the up-tempo, raw and energetic style epitomised by bands like Ducks Deluxe, Doctor Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods. Eggs Over Easy had the initiative and breadth of repertoire to break the Tally Ho’s jazz only tradition. They were, by and large, a heavily country-influenced pop band to whom the word “rock” could perhaps only tentatively be applied. But they inspired and influenced the earliest pub rock exponents, and their success in diversifying live pub music away from jazz paved the way for much more aggressive sounding bands to enter the game.

DEVELOPMENT

Pub rock certainly didn’t turn into a nationwide craze overnight, but the long term outcome was that more rock/pop-orientated musicians, managers and promoters wanted to progress what Eggs Over Easy had started, and over time, more pubs wanted the increase in revenue this new live music phenomenon was offering. Although pioneers Eggs Over Easy were only fleetingly on the scene and had returned to America by autumn ‘71, their influence was profound and their torch was taken forward by on-the-spot British bands such as Brinsley Schwarz, Bees Make Honey and Ducks Deluxe.

Pub rock didn’t really get underway until 1972, and it wasn’t a major, happening ‘scene’ in London until 1973. Even then, it wasn’t a licence for just any band to go into a nearby pub and play whatever they liked. In a 1978 printed interview for International Musician and Recording World, former Doctor Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson spoke of having to play covers of chart music initially, because it was the only way the band could get gigs. It’s also notable that none of Feelgood’s first four singles were hits, and despite having a London pub rock presence from 1973, they didn’t in fact get a single into the charts until 1977. Their albums were much more successful, but even the album chart didn’t see an entry from Doctor Feelgood until the second half of the decade.

That was the essence of pub rock though. The whole deal was that the bands were relatively obscure and cult-driven. Had they had fanbases like The Osmonds it would have been stupid if not untenable for them to be playing in pubs. Much of the more widespread kudos awarded to the early pub rock bands has been awarded retrospectively.

Doctor Feelgood did outgrow the pub scene and become a ‘name’ in the mid ‘70s. But they remained synonymous with their pub rock roots, and this, coupled with a (false) notion that they’d risen to prominence overnight, created a sense that good bands could walk onto a pub stage one day, and onto television the next. In combination with the Doctor Feelgood story, a lot of what happened during and after punk, made it at least look to new bands like the pub circuit was the fast track to fame. To an extent, that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the late 1970s, the cut and thrust of British chart music was coming directly out of the live pub scene, and the early godfathers of pub rock had become much bigger, established names. Indeed, Dave Robinson, who did much groundwork in establishing pub rock as a band manager in the early '70s, was by 1976 a label boss at Stiff records, so it was almost inevitable that many of the best pub acts would be brought to the fore commercially as the label progressed.


Above: Doctor Feelgood's Wilko Johnson proved to be one of the most influential British guitarists of the 1970s. His functional yet sharp and grippingly exciting style became the antithesis of the period's self-important showmanship and inspired a widespread back-to-basics attitude towards the guitar. Wilko is probably now the name most synonymous with '70s pub rock, and his style epitomises why the movement had such appeal.

But with this perception that the pub circuit was a Holy Grail of opportunity, came an ever-increasing flood of fame-seekers. Early pub rock had been all about the music – musicians wanting to put on great shows, and take brands of exciting music to the public that the mainstream wasn’t bringing them. But by the end of the ‘70s the scene was very much a bandwagon, which hopefuls were associating with fast potential fame.

ANYONE CAN BE FAMOUS

It would, however, be wrong to equate the dynamics of the late ‘70s pub scene with those of something modern like X Factor. Pub bands were making the commitments and taking responsibility for their own progress. They were buying their own gear, creating their own material, rehearsing hard, getting themselves prepared to gig, organising their own logistics, etc, so they certainly weren’t going in on a whim and relying on some TV impresario to hand them fame in a gift-wrapped parcel. But there was a shift emerging, particularly after punk, in which non-musicians were looking at pub bands hitting the charts, and thinking: “I can do that.” Elements of: “Right; I’m not musical, and I don’t play anything, but there must be a way for me to get famous through this”, were starting to creep in.

In the context of its time, this wasn’t a bad thing. It wasn’t the kind of deluded expectancy we’ve seen exploited by 21st century music-related reality shows. It was really just a natural reaction to the sense of performer/audience equality promoted by the bands.

The pub rock, punk and immediate post-punk bands tended to be very unpretentious, and even when they became bigger names they’d often retain a relatively normal relationship with audiences. They weren’t on power trips shouting: “Hey! Put your hands in the air! Clap your hands! Do this! Do That! I’m the important one! You’re just the fans and don’t you forget it!”. And they didn’t patronise. They spoke to the audience, appropriately enough, like someone would speak to a mate in a pub. That was natural for pub bands in small venues where they’d step off the ‘stage’ after playing and straight into the crowd, and the almost one-to-one communication style stuck with a lot of the performers even when they started playing at much bigger venues.

It was a completely different band/audience relationship. The audiences would appreciate, but not idolise or mob. The audiences had a similar status to the bands, so you could see where the “anyone can be famous” ethos came from. It was better and more healthy for audiences to feel equal to the bands than for them to be screaming, fainting and kneeling at the singer’s feet in worship.

But the “anyone can be famous” notion did saturate the pub rock scene with hopefuls, and in some circles it prompted so many audience members to form bands that the performers started to outnumber the crowds. By the dawn of the ‘80s, some pubs were struggling with this problem, and with an almost unlimited range of small live venues across the land, the potential for a full house was seriously diluted. The chaotic saturation of the scene, and the inverted bias towards everyone wanting to be in bands rather than watch them, introduced a lot more unknowns and risks for those booking the acts.


Above: The punk and post punk period of the mid to late '70s was built entirely on the foundations laid by pub rock. Punk acts The Sex Pistols (top left), The Damned (top right) and The Clash (bottom left) were all basically pub rock bands who took a more fashion-conscious, youthful and shock/message-led approach. They remained roughly in keeping with pub rock tradition in that their fanbases were more cult than mainstream. The Jam (bottom right), however, took an almost identical energy/aggression and married it with catchier songs, which took them over into the mainstream. The Jam were unusual in that they were both a cult and a mainstream band at the same time, and pretty much unique in the way they appealed across many of the different youth subcultures of the late '70s and early '80s. Again though, they were at root a pub rock band.

BEGINNING OF THE END

By the early ‘80s a lot of the novelty had worn off for the pub rock consumer, and most venues were unreliable or unpredictable in terms of the acts they were booking. It was no longer even a ‘scene’ really. It was just chaos. Bands everywhere, and venues everywhere. People couldn’t just pick a pub and say “Let’s go there – they always book great bands”. It was pot luck. Could be good, but could equally be an awful waste of time and money.

This unpredictability meant that audiences tended to form allegiances with bands rather than venues. So a pub might get a full house one night, and literally ten people the next. And even individual bands could not be relied upon to fill a pub from one night to the next. If the group worked hard to promote a gig it could be well attended, but if they were booked at short notice and/or couldn’t be bothered whipping up a buzz, they could be playing to the proverbial one man and his dog. No Internet, remember. Getting an audience took a lot more than just a couple of Tweets and a Facebook update.

TECHNOLOGY

But pub rock was really dealt its final blow by technology. In the first half of the 1980s there were big changes to the way music was delivered to the public. Technology was gaining a bigger and bigger role in studio production, to the point that the listener could really hear its effects. This was not only making studio recordings more spectacular and harder to replicate without prohibitive expense on stage – it was also prompting the music biz powers-that-be to look in different places for their new acts. In contrast to the way things were in the late '70s, the new face of British chart music in 1983 or 1984 would not so likely be found among pub bands. There were some exceptions, The Smiths being a good example, but even they weren’t a pub band in the studio and on record. It was now hard even for the professionals to sound as good on stage as they did on record, so the chances of amateurs managing it were minimal, and the public could easily see that.

With the industry’s eyes moving away from the pub scene, the impetus for real movers and shakers to play in pubs was declining, and in any case, commercial music on TV and radio was now a lot more able to meet diverse tastes than it had been in the early 1970s. In 1973, there was a serious role for pub rock to fulfil - namely providing styles of in-demand music that couldn't be found in the discos. But ten years on it was the other way round. It was the discos that were providing what the live pub bands couldn't. The disco was back, and it was hitting live pub venues hard.

Through the first half of the 1980s local live venues were closing as interest thinned out and a huge economic downturn bit deeper. But it was around the middle of the decade that the decline really started to accelerate. A lot of pubs which hadn't done so previously, began to explore ‘pay to play’ policies, in which the bands would be asked for money up front by a landlord, to protect the pub against losses. Technically, with ‘pay to play’, the venues stopped booking bands, and instead invited the bands to book the venues.

But it wasn't just the increasing number of pubs reverting to this system that heralded the end of the pub rock era. That was really just a symptom - not a cause. The real problem was the increasing desperation among bands to pull any sort of crowd. The high-demand market for live, original rock and pop music in pubs no longer existed, and once it reached the stage of even decent bands begging or bribing people to go and watch them, the original notion of pub rock was dead. Several attempts have been made to fight public disinterest since the mid 1980s, (with tribute bands proving one of the most notable and successful), but a phenomenon like pub rock is now most unlikely to return.

That’s a shame, because pub rock did create an environment in which, truly, ANYONE could be famous. You didn’t have to be middle class, or attractive, or playlisted. You didn’t have to manage your profile, or have family in the biz, or arse-lick TV impresarios, or strike 'publicity deals' with paps, or kowtow to corporate executives. You just had to do something people liked, and there really did exist a route-one path to national, and even international fame. It did take more than just stepping onto a pub stage to become a star. But the musicians’ connection with the machine of success could be very direct. In the heyday of pub rock, audiences were hungry for the music and there was no middleman. Bands would get in a Transit van, and a short while later step straight out in front of the people who could, and often would, make them into a ‘name’. So much more logical than radio stations trying to pick out the next chart sensation from the million or so hopefuls relentlessly shouting “Check out what I did in Pro Tools!” on Twitter.

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