Ipswich Rock City

Somewhere between the pub stage and the capacity-filled stadium is Ipswich, home to one of Britain’s most overlooked music scenes. Though why anyone would want to look there in the first place is anybody’s guess.

Ipswich is a soulless place: the archetypal, fairly large British town, a pathetic mimic living in the shadows of its charming, handsome, and successful older siblings—London, Birmingham, Manchester, et al. Since 2000 the council has applied for city status twice, trying to cash in on the millennium and Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee, but nothing has ever come of it. It’s ironic, as in size alone, the town’s dismal streets easily sprawl wide enough to justify the label.

But cities need to be living, breathing things, and Ipswich is just a conglomerate of buildings. People come here for the train station so they can catch a ride to somewhere nicer. There’s no word for an inhabitant of Ipswich, no “Londoner,” “Brummy,” or “New Yorker,” because it simply isn’t needed: Nobody wants to talk about living here.

Some months ago, a quarter past six on a Saturday evening, I was sitting on the no. 64 bus, riding toward a skyline of unremitting gray—the abundant clouds one shade, the block of flats to my left (which seemed, rather disappointingly, to be the tallest building around) another. The rickety vehicle sped through the Ipswich outskirts, past many a boarded-up shop and second-hand furniture outlet, into the town center.

As we continued into the town, it got a little easier on the eyes—not colorful, just a nicer shade of gray. I disembarked from the bus not far from one of Ipswich’s most prized claims to fame, Norman Foster’s Willis building. Formerly the headquarters of insurance company Willis, Faber, and Dumas, the huge ‘70s glass structure still looks stop-and-stare incongruous today, a testament to the lack of architectural development in its surroundings.

The other characteristic “nice area” is the revitalized waterfront. Ipswich is still a fairly busy North Sea port, the docks handling millions of tons of cargo each year, but, as the word “revitalized” suggests, the waterfront is a strictly private-yacht affair. Strolling down the hotel-lined street beside the river on a sunny day can be pleasant, but it’s hard to shake the feeling of artificiality as you remember where you actually are.

A quick walk down the high street, past a few Starbucks clones, round the back of a chemist, and I was sitting outside at Church’s, a secluded bar facing the graveyard of one of the town’s many places of Christian worship. At the table were Joe Johnson and Rhys Thomas, drummer and singer of the Fast Articles. Mobile phone in one hand, gin and tonic in the other (he claims Church’s serves the best G&Ts in Ipswich), Joe spoke exasperatedly with somebody at the Drum and Monkey, the venue at which the Articles were supposed to be putting on a gig that night. Then he hung up.

They lie and tell her I’m the drummer in another band, for which I thank them later. “They’ll only go on at 7:30,” he sighed, passing the phone back to Rhys.

“But we fucking told them 7:00. They’re meant to be first on.”

“Yeah, I know what we told them. Look, you’d better give Tom Excell a ring. Tell Dustmen’s Royal Party to get down to the Drum as quick as they can—they’re going to have to take the first slot.”

It wasn’t a major problem—a bit of a communication breakdown and a fair amount of ego inflammation had resulted in one band refusing to play the first slot of the night, at seven, and the only one available to fill in stuck a considerable distance away. By now it was 6:55, so, sadly, pre-show drinks had to be cut short and we were forced to leg it, as swiftly as our obligatorily skinny jeans would allow, down to the Drum and Monkey.

It’s a grim-looking place from the outside—formerly the pub of choice for assorted football hooligans, it’s situated a stone’s throw from Portman Road stadium, home ground of the wildly unsuccessful Ipswich Town Football Club. The aging wooden sign jutting out from the building’s flat gray facade bills it as a sports bar, though, as Rhys would later remark, it doesn’t even have a TV anymore.

Its interior is equally confusing. The walls are adorned with ‘70s geometric patterns that appear to have been painted on a few weeks rather than a few decades ago. Andy Pearl and Kyle Greg, the Fast Articles’ bassist and guitarist/harmonica player, respectively, are accompanying one of the proprietors taking money on the door. They lie and tell her I’m the drummer in another band, for which I thank them later.

The show went well, one of the best the Drum had seen in a while. The Rumblestrips, a fairly high-flying London band, had come down. All of the audience members seemed to have downloaded and brushed up on the lyrics from their debut album, so they get a nice sing-along reception. Afterwards, everyone remarked at how good it was of them to play little old Ipswich.


* * *

Arguably the most famous Ipswich inhabitant, of whom there are currently around 140,000, was Thomas Cardinal Wolsey. The son of a wealthy landowner, he worked his way up through the British political and religious ranks to become lord chancellor, cardinal, and first minister to the infamous, multi-wived King Henry VIII.

The most popular image of Wolsey is a dark portrait, depicting his pale face and wild eyes peering out from some sort of red Tudor robe. In fact, it could be said that he bears a convenient resemblance to the holders of the no. 2 position on the Ipswich fame chart—gothic metal band Cradle of Filth. I doubt he’d approve of their music, however, as it is known to incorporate passages from the Bible, no doubt screamed in various interesting ways.

Other musical highlights of the town include the Ipswich Jazz Club, held on Sundays at the Manor Ballroom (a venue that, as legend has it, once played host to the Who, though it’s suspiciously hard to find somebody who was there at the time). In contrast to the Drum and Monkey, where the average age is quite low, the Jazz Club seems to cater for the more silver-haired contingent of the Ipswich gig-going public. Much fun is to be had sitting around on the ballroom’s stackable metal-and-foam chairs, and enjoying the sonic delights of various quintets, quartets, and soloists.


* * *

Given Ipswich’s considerable lack of glamour, it’s unsurprising that local bands with any serious ambition tend to stick to a simple, three-step plan: 1) Play a few gigs, 2) get noticed, 3) get the hell out. A dearth of music venues means a band must either get noticed quick or be stuck, for the foreseeable future at least, on a seemingly never-ending Bob Dylan-style tour of the same, old, run-down former-sports bars and fake Irish pub franchises night after night.

“James Blunt, James Morrison—they’re making all the money. James Severy: He’s fucking excellent, but where is he? Ipswich.” Crushing monotony aside, this actually has an upside, as the small-time Ipswich gig carousel is essentially an automatic fan-base generator. After all, when you’ve seen a band 52 million times, it’s impossible not to feel a bit of loyalty. If, eventually, said band gets a record deal and is catapulted into the London big league, it has an edge on any band that got snapped up quick and thrown in at the indie deep end without a few hundred dehydrated, cheering, beer-stained human life preservers.

The Fast Articles are, quite happily, ploughing through step one. They’re young and energetic. They jump on one another, throw their guitars around, stage-dive with a worrying disregard for crowd density, and play songs about vibrant colors, gentlemanliness, and BBC Radio 2 presenters. Other bands here play Guns N’ Roses covers.


* * *

On a recent night at the Drum and Monkey, I stood, yet again, in the perpetually sweaty gig room. On stage (I say “stage,” but it’s only about two inches from the ground), strumming an acoustic guitar and singing a song about a cat down a drain, was James Severy. Rhys, who stood nearby, leaned over:

“James Blunt, James Morrison—they’re making all the money. James Severy: He’s fucking excellent, but where is he? Ipswich.”

I’m inclined to agree. An hour or so later, the Fast Articles took charge of that same stage. Andy stepped up to the microphone and launched into an abridged rendition of the intro to Dillinger’s “Cocaine in my Brain”:

“Hey, Rhys, how do you spell New York?”

“N-E-W Y-O-R-K?”

“No, man! A knife, a fork, a bottle, and a cork, that’s the way you spell New York!”

About halfway through the set, I maneuvered myself around a fan standing to my right who seemed to be using his fingers to rhythmically plug and un-plug his ears and made my way to the bar. As I handed over my £2.30, I notice, with considerable surprise, that the guy serving is wearing an “I love NY” T-shirt.

Ipswich may not be the most chic habitat for these four chaps, but, then again, it’s all they’ve got. Sitting in one of the town’s coffee franchises (staffed by half the band, plus friends) you can almost feel the imported, sterilized “cafe culture” become real. Never mind the cardboard coffee cups or the overpriced, watered-down beer—the bars they play could be anywhere, Paris to New York, and the atmosphere would be identical.

A “scene,” whatever that may consist of, is characterized, first and foremost, by the people, not the arena. Long live Ipswich Rock City.

Louis Goddard is a writer, an unashamed enjoyer (and occasional purveyor) of all things pretentious and, most importantly, an infallible gentleman. He lives in Suffolk, England, yet doesn’t own a tractor.  . More by Louis Goddard