Friday, January 27, 2012


That's the title of the Candyskins' second album, and for much of Anyone Can Play Guitar, an independent documentary about the Oxford music scene of which they were a part, it (including the question mark) is apposite. Being in a band, a succession of talking heads suggest, is all about sudden success, crashing falls and the middle ground too - grinding grimly along.

Film maker Jon Spira did well to round up such a range of people. The city's biggest musical exports are all represented: Ed O'Brien and Colin Greenwood of Radiohead; Gaz Coombes of Supergrass; Andy Bell, originally from Ride, then Hurricane #1 and Oasis. But it's significant that supposedly lesser lights are also given attention and the opportunity to speak.

And those interviewed aren't just musicians. Spira also spoke to members of the all-important support network: producers (most prominently Sam Williams), promoters, managers, record label founders, the editor of the listings mag to which I semi-regularly contribute. All are essential components for any scene, particularly one in a relatively small city like Oxford.

In this respect, the history of the Zodiac is revealing, founded as it was when various musicians and non-musicians clubbed together and dipped into their own pockets to buy a venue, collectively recognising the value in having a good-sized forum in which local bands could showcase their music and which fledgling outfits could aspire to play. The sale of the dilapidated building to the Academy Music Group in 2007 is the source of some disagreement - those who benefited understandably defensive, but others critical of the fact it's now in the hands of a national (multinational) business with no special ties to or interest in Oxford.* Sadly, with the closure of the Regal, it's left as the only decent-sized venue in the city.

The strapline - "The story of the small town music scene that changed the world" - struck me as somewhat hyperbolic so I began watching in a sceptical frame of mind, but it's true that Oxford bands did regularly blaze a path or at least prefigure a subsequent trend. Here Comes Everybody, for instance, were C86 before the term was coined, and Foals were at the vanguard of the vogue for taut, trebly post-punk-disco.

The stratospheric ascents of Radiohead, Ride and Supergrass are of course covered, but given more weight is the tale of the aforementioned Candyskins, whose career was one long catalogue of horrendous misfortune. Repeatedly on the verge of making the big breakthrough, they found themselves sabotaged by circumstance: labels imploding; having a single called 'Car Crash' lined up for release when Princess Diana died; the bosses of both their UK and US labels falling ill with cancer at the same time; getting gazumped by Geffen, who having dropped them re-released Fun? to capitalise on newfound success just before their new independently released album was about to drop. I can't say their music does much for me at all, but the succession of hard luck stories can't help but leave you feeling sorry for their plight. Unlike the Brian Jonestown Massacre in DiG!, their misfortune was never of their own making.

While Spira, like most of his interviewees, is clearly of the opinion that the scene and network is supportive and nurturing, there are indications that it's not always that way. There are evident competitive rivalries, jostling and bristling at the relative success of others; tales of friendships soured slightly by business dealings; hints that the scene can be stifling and sometimes clings on and refuses to let go when a band are ready to venture out from Oxford into the wider world.

Most critical are the Young Knives, who initially refused to take part in the film but then, when they were the subject of several negative comments (and outright animosity from members of Rock Of Travolta and Smilex), agreed to a separate interview, which is included as a bonus feature. Having stuck in a pin in the map and moved to Oxford to try and make it as a band, they found it cliquey and hard to break into, though they do at least acknowledge the scene and some of its key players as a formative influence on the band.

As for the film itself, it has its flaws: the narrative, supplied by former Oxford student Stewart Lee, is patchy; the opening segment about superbly named punk band The No is pointlessly brief; a couple of interviewees (Jamie Stuart of Dustball/Dive Dive and Tara Milton of Five Thirty/The Nubiles) come across as pricks and are overindulged (the former particularly in the bonus feature on Dive Dive). Nevertheless, it gives an admirably comprehensive insight into the scene and one which has helped me value that bit more what's gone on (and continuing to go on) on my doorstep.

* You may have noticed that in gig reviews I've always refused to refer to the "Oxford Academy", preferring the "Oxford Zodiac" instead. Well-meaning if rather pointless stubbornness - or so I thought. One thing that Anyone Can Play Guitar made clear is that the Zodiac very definitely no longer exists, even if parts of it physically survive - and it now feels like I'm doing the old place (which I never went to, I should add) a disservice by continuing to refer to the new £4-a-pint-of-pisswater venue by the same name. So I'm dropping it from now on.


Another perspective on the film from Lanterne Rouge of football blog The Two Unfortunates

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