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By Ashley Cooke
Oxford’s music scene is quite remarkable, though a glance at the O2 Academy’s calendar would not fill you with confidence. Many touring acts eschew Oxford, with its small population and handful of venues, leaving the list to be dominated by tribute bands. Yet the city is home to a band that has racked up over 30 million album sales, and is arguably Britain’s most famous band to still be releasing music. Of course, I’m talking about Radiohead, but I don’t intend to tire you with talk of the art-rock five-piece, who tend to overshadow the rest of Oxford’s music scene. They’re from Abingdon, anyway. Instead, I want to give a broader insight into the city’s soundtrack.
A documentary on Oxford’s music scene, Anyone Can Play Guitar, was released last year with narration by the comedian and Teddy Hall alumnus Stewart Lee, and it paints a fascinating portrayal of a very creative thirty years. Although named after a Radiohead song, the film deliberately avoids focusing on the well-known influence of the band, and centres on those less discussed groups. In fact, many of them scarcely attained any commercial success at all, and the film serves as a graveyard for some great acts that never quite made it. Take The Candyskins. They released three albums and some infectious Britpop singles, but they couldn’t have had worse luck. Their record company went bankrupt, and what could have been their breakthrough single, ‘Car Crash’, had to be shelved following the vehicular death of a certain Princess.
Other Oxford groups, as influential as they were, continue to be overlooked. Talulah Gosh were active during the 1980s crafting brilliant twee pop, made famous by NME’s free C86 tape. C86 quickly became shorthand for guitar-based jangle pop, and Talulah Gosh went on to inspire bands such as Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura, and more recently, Allo Darlin’. Similarly, Ride fail to garner the attention they deserve. You may not know their music, but you will know the work of their guitarist Andy Bell, who joined Oasis in 1999 to replace departing bassist “Guigsy.” In 1990, Ride released their debut album Nowhere, which AllMusic recently aruged to be the second greatest shoegaze album ever, after My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Overdriven guitars, hazy vocals, reverb, and plenty of distortion engulf the listener, and their influence is felt on albums by M83 and The Pains of Being Pure At Heart.
Still, Oxford has produced many altogether more successful and popular acts. Supergrass have sold over 10 million records, racking up six number one albums, and received PRS For Music’s ‘Music Heritage Award’ this week, erecting a plaque at Oxford’s Jericho Tavern to recognise it’s role during the band’s formative years. Dance-punk band Foals, led by Oxford drop-out Yannis Philippakis, released Antidotes and Total Life Forever in 2008 and 2010 respectively, both to critical and commercial acclaim. And Stornoway, heralding from Cowley, craft folk-pop rhythms à la Noah & The Whale, and released their debut album in 2010.
For those with their finger on the pulse, Oxford collective Blessing Force produce the most exciting music of the moment. Consisting of musicians and visual artists, this group supply the contemporary soundtrack to the city. Hugo Manuel appears to lead the project, making music that ranges from folk to tropical with his band Jonquil, and balearic dance pop under the Chad Valley moniker. (Look out for the latter’s debut at the end of this month.) Trophy Wife make more synth-driven pop music, whilst avant-pop act Pet Moon is the solo project of Andrew Mears, the former leader of now defunct Oxford band Youthmovies.
For a city with a population of just 150,000, Oxford is home to rich music scene ready to be explored.