It might seem ironic because only a few weeks ago I was writing about pubs that are too noisy, but I’m feeling misty-eyed about pub gigs. I’m not talking about crap covers bands that are little better than karaoke. I mean the real thing. Bands who, although they want a career from their music, know you have to put in effort to succeed. Luck comes into it, but you get nowhere without practice and persistence.
Sometimes you just get nowhere anyway. Many of the bands I used to watch in pubs like the Bull & Gate, Kentish Town; and the Falcon, Camden; split up with barely a record to their name. Even sadder, those old music venue pubs are gone too.
In my teenage years I spent a lot of time, pint in hand, seeing bands in pubs. It was quite different from going to a club or purpose-built music venue – and not just because of atmosphere and sound quality. The places I liked best sold a decent pint of bitter. Pubs usually offered cask ale, while clubs had cold, fizzy keg bitter – which was at least pleasant – being the days before ‘smoothflow’ sullied the bar.
Recently I had the pleasure of going to the sort of gig dreams are made of at the Duke of Wellington, Shoreham-by-Sea (aka The Welly). Part of my dreaminess was about who was playing: Justin Sullivan, of stalwart rock band New Model Army, doing a rare solo show, but it also had much to do with the pub itself.
‘Live ale, real music’ is the pub’s tagline and it completely lived up to this. A diverse selection of brilliantly kept cask beer meant I could watch my favourite musician while supping a perfect pint, in a place that looked and felt like a real pub – rather than an identikit, decorated-by-numbers chain outlet.
Throughout the evening, including between songs, I watched the staff nip out from behind the bar to collect glasses. When I was at the bar, it never took long to get served even though the place was utterly packed. And even though it was rammed – not least because Justin Sullivan and New Model Army are the kind of artistes that inspire many fans to travel ridiculous
distances to go to all and any gigs they can – the staff looked happy. That’s when it hit me, what set The Welly apart. It was more than great beer and fantastic music, it was because it was clearly a pub run and staffed by people who like pubs.
That this isn’t a thought that hits me often, when I’m someone who goes to pubs often, is worrying. Then again, I have no memory of the people who ran those London boozers I used to frequent, week after week, as a gig-going youth. I do remember feeling welcome though and that the custom of us beer-swilling indie music fans was wanted and valued; so perhaps there’s a connection between live music and job satisfaction for pub managers and staff.
Waiting for key change
Times have changed, of course. The pub industry has seen a variety of legislation come and go since the days when live music was at least a weekly feature of my life. The beer world too is also pretty much unrecognisable, being now so full of flavour and choice, rather than simply brown or yellow beer.
I’m still waiting for the change I really want to see though. Warm and genuinely friendly customer service across the board, rather than as a rare and treasured oddity.
I know I might sound like a moaner but that’s almost exactly the point. When I go out and spend my money in the hospitality industry I expect some hospitality; not to be greeted as if the staff wonder why I’m there and my appearance in ‘their pub’ is an inconvenience. I feel like a stuck record saying it, but the fact I’m still writing about it shows we’ve still got a long way to go. I know it’s not just a pub industry issue because I receive the same offhand treatment in shops. Instead I fear it’s a British thing, some sort of paradoxical islander mentality where we think we’re above being polite or not good enough to deserve it. Neither are true. But if music is the food of love in some pubs, I wish we could channel that to create a cultural shift towards kind, friendly and welcoming as the pub’s norm.