Saturday night in central Newcastle upon Tyne and a small but hyper-committed audience is soaking in a 40-minute playback of melancholic space dub as it soundtracks a century-spanning montage of the north-east’s shipyards, estates, dancehalls and cafes. It is followed by an hour of blissful live ambient music from local duo Golden Shields, then a fearsomely intense set by the Newcastle-based Spanish singer-producer Laura “Late Girl” Stutter García which evokes minimalist composition, early grime and Björk all at once.
We are in World Headquarters, a venue in Curtis Mayfield House, every wall covered in portraits of Black radicals and musicians, anarchist and anti-racist texts, and an command to “love one another”. The event has been put together by Geoff Kirkwood, AKA left-field dance DJ-producer Man Power, head of community engagement for WHQ, and head of the label and promoters Me Me Me. He also played the opening set, under his Bed Wetter alias – a test run for a coming Royal Northern Sinfonia orchestral version, supporting the US ambient trailblazer William Basinski, at the area’s huge arts hub Sage Gateshead later this month.
Tonight is the product of an experimental music community – which also encompasses everything from the pagan electronic folk of Me Lost Me to the raw noise of Kenosist – that crackles with creativity and regional pride. It is a scene that’s persevering despite serious challenges. After nine years, the radical art and community space the Old Police House (TOPH) recently closed after being hobbled by Covid lockdowns. The equally exploratory, internationalist Tusk festival, which has showcased international underground mainstays from Moor Mother to Terry Riley, just failed to secure further Arts Council funding after nine years of previously successful applications, seemingly due to increased competition.
Nevertheless, DIY spaces and collectives abound. The Star and Shadow cinema and event space (which hosted early Tusk festivals) has been volunteer-run on non-hierarchical principles since the 00s. Cobalt Studios is a gig venue, club, print workshop and cafe with workspace for hire in a labyrinthine building and shipping containers, in between a BMX social hub and a folk pub. (“We often get clog dancers coming in to the cafe,” says Cobalt founder Kate Hodgkinson.) Nonprofit music venue, bar, workshop and radio studio the Lubber Fiend is a new addition, co-founded by Stephen “Bish” Bishop of the outsider electronica label Opal Tapes.
Much of this is spurred by a sense of being unfairly isolated. “The north-east has been overlooked and cut off by a succession of governments,” says Kirkwood. “Especially after Covid there was a strong sense of: OK, nobody’s going to do anything for us – fuck it, we’ll do it ourselves.” Hodgkinson talks of visiting acts arriving “not expecting much, thinking of this end-of-the-line ex-shipbuilding and coal, stag-and-hen-do place that doesn’t afford cool spaces”. Her mission is to provide them with a welcome and an audience that prove otherwise.
Every day, gigs, workshops and projects continue. Tusk is rebooting, beginning with a new gig series. Kirkwood is launching a plan for cheap workspaces for locals in impoverished North Shields, which contrasts starkly with the neighbouring oyster bars and craft markets of the scenic and distinctly on-the-up Tynemouth.
And preservation of the hidden but vital past is under way. N-Aut (No-Audience Underground Tapes) gives away free cassettes of past gigs and festivals from spaces such as TOPH; it’s run by David Howcroft, allegedly the inspiration behind Ravey Davey Gravey of Newcastle’s own Viz comic. A wistful new documentary, The Kick, the Snare, the Hat and a Clap, by Susie Davis, looks back at the Ouseburn Valley outdoor raves of the 90s, and Tusk TV’s dizzying YouTube channel archives vast swathes of underground culture.
Kirkwood will follow the Bed Wetter orchestration at Sage with a new composition with Fiona Brice. It will be performed partly by a choir of people with dementia, including his grandfather, who raised him, in the church where his grandparents married 70 years ago. The piece is about the past, of course, but it is equally about building an artistic future, and pulling more attention to an area that, as Kirkwood says, “isn’t just some outpost away from what’s happening, but has culture all its own”.
It is hard in an overwhelmingly white, Brexit-supporting area, but this scene fights to be inclusive. Mariam Rezaei is a turntable artist and academic who now programmes Tusk with founder Lee Etherington, and who co-ran TOPH with noise musicians Adam Denton and Mark “Kenosist” Wardlaw. She credits the avant garde harpist Rhodri Davies and William Edmondes of noise-pop duo Yeah You with not only inspiring and supporting talent but also providing an alternative social framework, including her in shows and collaborations from the turn of the millennium to today. “I’m a brown, mixed-heritage, working-class girl,” she says. “Working full-time while studying, it was always going to be difficult for me to make friends. I felt the lines of class and I’m so grateful I was included.” Her turntablism is now taking her career global with burgeoning commissions and collaborations.
There is an immense sense of hidden local history behind all this, too. Etherington has run Tusk since 2011; the previous decade, he promoted gigs as No-Fi with Ben Ponton of local ambient-industrial duo Zoviet France, who in turn built a local micro-infrastructure for weird music that dates back to 1980. Etherington traces these links back further still when he mentions the venues where No-Fi often programmed events, such as the Morden Tower, “a medieval craftsmen’s guild built into the old town wall, that hosted Ginsberg, Trocchi, Bunting in the 60s then all kinds of avant stuff later”.
Club and rave culture provides a vital historical pillar, too. World Headquarters has been going since 1993, founded by Tommy Caulker, the first mixed-race licensee in central Newcastle. Before WHQ, Caulker had withstood National Front assaults to run the Trent House, a city centre pub that was haven to misfits including the founders of Viz. It was one of the first in the UK to play house music, spinning to a gay crowd at its night Rockshots. Although WHQ has new directors, including Kirkwood’s creative partner, Gabriel Day, Caulker’s insistence on it being an anti-discriminatory safe space remains etched into its policies – and its decor.
Throughout the 90s the north-east had a thriving illegal party scene, which ranged from techno tear-ups in valleys and warehouses to – as Suade Bergemann of Golden Shields recalls – “mad parties above a dodgy clothes shop in Whitley Bay where you’d get the weirder and more ambient end of Warp or Ninja Tune-type acts coming up and playing live”. From this scene, overlapping with the hippy rock world, came figures such as Coldcut collaborator and turntablist Raj Pannu – now making deep techno for Me Me Me – and Steevio, founder of Freerotation, the small festival that has become a social hub for the UK’s millennial electronic music community.
Of course, it is impossible to talk about the north-east’s music scene without touching on folk. The Cumberland Arms pub, where those clog dancers gather, is at the heart of a scene that nurtured the Domino Records-signed art-rocker Richard Dawson and newer off-beam talents such as Me Lost Me and the hypnotic loop-pedal manipulator and singer Nathalie Stern. There is barely a degree of separation between the DIY circuit and well-established local folk acts such as the Unthanks. Even Mark Knopfler has recently been revisiting his roots in the same pub scene, decades ago. A city this size creates a connectedness that Kirkwood sums up in the canonical Viz phrase: “Sting’s dad did me milk”. (Ernest Sumner did, in fact, do a milk round where Kirkwood grew up in Wallsend.)
In the midst of all these underground traditions sits the huge, shiny multi-arts venue the Sage. There is ambivalence towards its cultural dominance, to say the least: Etherington talks of “money being poured into landmark venues” (Sage, along with the likes of Gateshead’s Baltic Centre, has received millions over the years) while independents are frozen out. Rezaei briefly worked at Sage but left soon after it hosted the 2014 Ukip conference. “I just can’t and won’t tolerate hate speech and racism,” she says. Others are more forgiving: Day is a trustee there and Late Girl an artist-in-residence. Cobalt’s Kate Hodgkinson talks of it creating a cultural gravity when it opened in 2004, helping arts graduates like her to “stay and really make stuff happen” rather than “join the rat race” in London.
Kirkwood’s upcoming Sage show, then, is an attempt to use its big stage to showcase something distinctly north-eastern and underground. Mingling with the crowd at WHQ, who range in age from teens to seniors, we amble out to rejoin the Saturday night drinkers and meet with their fierce passion: an odd blend of hard-left politics and entrepreneurialism, and a definite geordie enthusiasm for getting stuck in. Unknowingly, several musicians repeat Kirkwood’s phrase: “Fuck it, we’ll do it ourselves.”
With a gaggle including local house DJs, poets and rag trade hustlers joining the musicians, we decamp to Zerox, a new mixed-LGBTQ+ indie bar where kids are going wild to Erasure, Grace Jones and Talking Heads. It is a far cry from the hypnotic immersion of the WHQ show, but in its way it too refutes the idea of the north-east as a monocultural “stag-and-hen-do place”. Nobody here is resting on their laurels. Every one of these DIY artists and venues struggles daily.
“It’s hard out there,” says Rezaei. “But we did things on our own and I’m proud of that.”