So after much deliberation I’ve decided to make my MSc Film & TV project public. For those of you who don’t know me my name is Matthew Tiller and I work at The Wedgewood Rooms. I’ve also played in a few bands locally over the last seven or so years most recently Grief Daddy and Battery Hens (plug). While I’m a film student my real passion has always been music, so I decided I would create an artefact related to music in the city. The objective was to create links between it’s past and present in a new and exciting way. You can jump straight to the site here but it’s recommended that you read the following post for some context and useful links before exploring.
For the last few years I’ve been fascinated by the Portsmouth Music Experience and the work that has been done to preserve Portsmouth’s musical heritage. While it is rarely mentioned in the national press Portsmouth has always had a vibrant music community. While very few bands have ‘made it’, that hasn’t put bands off forming in the city. The venues are currently few but there are a number of practice spaces and recording studios available for young musicians. Projects like Pompey Pop, Pompey Punks, The Popular Portsmouth Music Scene Index and more have all done an incredible job documenting Portsmouth’s musical past. There have also been a number of books published on the subject over the years, however the majority of those are no longer in print and difficult to find. Some can be found on the third floor of the central library but cannot be removed. Most influential to my project were Almost Forty Years of Southsea Rock and Pompey Blues and Twenty Missed Beats Portsmouth’s Music Scene 1977-1996. The former is the memoir of local musician Dave Allen which details his experiences playing between the sixties and the nineties. He would later go on to create the Pompey Pop project further delving into Portsmouth’s musical history. Tony Rollinsons Twenty Missed Beats takes a less personal account but still provides a fascinating insight into the punk and indie music scene between 1977 and 1996. This is achieved through oral history much like the book Please Kill Me which chronicles punk.
While I’ve been interested in Portsmouth’s musical past for a while now it’s not something discussed among my contemporaries. How much of this is due to a lack of interest and how much of it is due to accessibility is something I have yet to explore. As demonstrated already there is information available but you really have to seek it. The Facebook groups, while brilliant, are largely there for the members of those communities to reminisce and could be considered impenetrable to those who weren’t present. A lot has been written about the bands who came through; The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Clash, Cream. While this is fascinating as a music fan I am far more interested in the local musicians and how they have shaped or been shaped by their environment often free from any real financial gain. Working at The Wedge means I’ve become aware of just how much music is happening in the city presently, some of which has been going strong for decades.
Originally the idea was to make an interactive timeline, a digital space that tied together different strands of Portsmouth’s musical heritage under one roof, free of the restrictions of printed media or a physical museum. This would have meant covering everything from the 1940s to today in an attempt to be all-inclusive and to avoid creating any dominant narrative. However, a film based project of this size is simply too large for one person (and an inexperienced one at that) and taking my tutors advice I narrowed my focus. Mick Coopers site serves this purpose very well already and remains a great place to explore the facts, the names and the places. However what intrigued me about his site wasn’t what was there already but what wasn’t, notably the motives and the voices of those pictured. You can’t look at a picture of a band like Hector, Warriors like in matching dungarees and stripy tops and not ask “what were they thinking?!”. As I grow older I continue to question my motives for playing and this is where Dave’s book Almost Forty spoke to me. Reading this I became aware that while a lot has changed, nothing has changed. Being in a band is still what one of the subjects in my project would describe as a “quixotic behaviour and to no ones benefit”. His self-proclaimed attempt to beat obscurity through his research is something all musicians can relate to.
So for the last few months I’ve been putting together a digital archive of oral histories detailing the experiences of some of those who have played, attended and enabled gigs and music related activity around Portsmouth for the last thirty years. Giving them a voice on camera and a space for them to rationalise their efforts. The project lifts its name from a compilation released by local label Bite Back! in the mid eighties. A large number of people involved in that cassette are still active today and while the project doesn’t deal with that tape exclusively it seemed like an appropriate name. I decided I would talk to people I had become familiar with playing in a band and working at the wedge, a decision that was both practical and also offered a more personal perspective. The catch being that they had to have participated in the ‘scene’ for sustained period of time and provide something that maintains the structure. So the intention was to talk to venue managers, sound engineers, musicians, audience members, all the components you would need to put on a gig essentially. These people would have a great vantage point that could offer insight into the past, the present and most importantly the future. While I’ve been acquainted with Geoff (techy now venue manager), Linda (audience member/ticket outlet) and Andy (techy/musician) for some time it was my first real experience of Paul (musician now radio dj) and Johnny (musician now tour manager to the stars) who I knew of but never actually spoke to properly.
The main incentive was to add some visual material to the mix. It many ways its reconciles the personal approach of Dave’s book with the collective approach of Tony’s but updated to fit todays media swirl. A pick and mix interactive site that can be binged on like Netflix or picked up like a book. Twenty Missed Beats deals with events like the label Bite Back, the demise of Emptifish and the opening of The Wedge. This isn’t so event centric and charts personal development through individual profiles that occasionally cross paths. Coincidentally just as I started proposing my project the first real visual explorations of Portsmouth’s musical heritage came to light. First up was the Pompey Punk documentary released last year followed closely by Cool Days & Groovy Nights. The former is available online while the later can only be seen at the PME. Unlike those projects what Against The Tide isn’t explicitly historical in a traditional sense. Unlike hippies and punks it’s not quite subcultural. Cool Days and Pompey Punk both deal with generation gaps, huge shifts in popular culture and attitudes with the influence coming from outside the city. The ripples of punk can be felt in this project it is more concerned with the indie scene that followed beginning in the early/mid eighties. This is important as I believe there is an independent spirit that runs through all of the different scenes that carries on today. The ‘scene’ today most closely resembles this time.
To explain some of the shortcomings of the project, no funding was sought in the creation of this and it was shot, produced and edited entirely by myself. I wanted the project to sit outside the heritage industry in the same way the music has always sat outside of the music industry. I could have used slicker cameras but I wanted it to reflect the DIY ethos at the heart of the scene and create something that was explicitly not for profit. I had my reservations about releasing something unfinished but thought It would be a shame for these conversations to go to waste. Of all the individual profiles the only “finished’ one, the one that truly shows the potential of the archive is Paul Groovys but that does not mean the other profiles aren’t interesting. His has a clearer narrative path and will appeal to a casual audience. The other profiles may only be of interest to the hardcore music fans who already have an interest in this subject.
A drawback to the project for my MSc is the simple fact that the oral history format simply isn’t filmic. While I love hearing the stories contained I do understand that they aren’t the most engaging material visually. Unfortunately to do recreations would require a huge budget and a crew so only a few exist, the rest represented by storyboards. Images and archive footage require copyright clearance and money. While it’s not complete in a filmic sense the site does operate as intended. I would have liked to have added more hyperlinks and widgets to give you more information but the basic navigation is there and useable. The possibilities of documenting people’s stories this way are enormous and I believe that shifting the emphasis to the internet is inevitable. The FB groups already established this but something a little slicker and curated might be needed to engage younger audiences.
During one of the videos Andy makes note of the ‘links that run through’ his musical activity including several famous and influential figures. The Portsmouth Music Scene is a family tree or sorts, a game of six degrees of separation that continues to grow. A few names crop up in the videos who don’t appear, people like Ken Brown who ran the fanzine Safety In Numbers who now runs Square Roots Promotions. Ian Binnington formerly of Bite Back now of PVC. A maintained online archive would allow those people to be added in a growing network of stories and opinions. Creating and hosting a website is something I had no prior experience with and that will become apparent once you see the site. Despite my limited experience I think it came out alright. Of course while this now is more accessible than any book to keep the site live will cost money. Due to having no money I can only afford to host it for the next three months. After it will disappear into the ether like Twenty Missed Beats and Almost Forty Years before it.
After writing ten thousand words on the project this post feels slightly insufficient but i hope it gives some insight into the reasons I made it. There are admittedly many flaws but try not to pick at it too much and register whats there already. The thesis itself looks at historiography and metahistory and goes into greater academic discussions around the writing of history, how you set about doing it and what projects like this actually mean. It also examines the position of local music within the culture industry. It may end up on this blog depending on whether or not I cocked it up. Anyway I’ve rambled long enough. Check out all the links and visit the PME.
To explore the full website please go to www.against-the-tide.co.uk
For the best experience please use at a computer and not on your phone!
audio/visual (music/pop culture is multi sensory after all)
requires routine maintenance
not always engaging visually
lack of actual music!
Final verdict: My reach far exceeded my grasp but if you have an interest in Portsmouth’s music scene you might find something to enjoy here. Like Pompey Punk and Cool Days this is just another building block in the visual documentation of local music heritage. There are plenty more ‘scenes’ within the ‘scene’ to explore.I hope to do some more research projects into the contemporary scene soon.
- Viv Gregson for letting me use footage from his vast archives. Head over to his youtube channel to see a wide range of Portsmouth related videos dating back to the late seventies.
- Mick Copper for giving me permission to use images from his website. If you’re in a band please send him a photo and your names as he still updates it.
- Nigel Grundy for letting me film inside the PME and Dave Allen for our conversation at the start of the project. I look forward to reading his new book Autumn of Love (a launch event takes place on the 21st of September)
- Thanks to all the subjects Paul Groovy, Andy Thomas, Geoff Priestley, Johnny Haskett and Linda Fitzgerald for giving me their time and thoughts. Listen to The Paul Groovy Show, shop at Dress Code, attend The Wedgewood Rooms. Contact Andy and Callum Thomas for PA hire, restore the music industry so Johnny can go back to just doing sound!
- Lucid Rising for being awesome. Check them out.
- Thank you to Geoff for letting me shoot interviews inside The Wedge
- Footage from The Wedge has been ripped from 20 Framed Beats. A film that came with Tonys book back in the nineties.