Requiem for a Scene
Following the end of Radar, former AU Magazine editor Chris Jones raises a final toast to a golden age for local music
Image by Carrie Davenport Photography
Around Queen's Students Union last Thursday night, all the talk was of 'the end of an era'. Radar, the free weekly showcase for Northern Ireland's best up-and-coming bands, was drawing to a close after 10 years, with one final farewell.
There was a pleasing symmetry to the line-up, in that headliners Mojo Fury had played the very first Radar back in 2005, but it felt like the end of more than just one club night. It felt like the curtain was finally coming down on a banner period for the Belfast music scene.
During its decade-long lifespan, and especially from 2008-2012, Radar was at the heart of an exciting time. We watched Two Door Cinema Club and And So I Watch You From Afar graduate from small rooms in Belfast to arenas and festival main stages on the other side of the world.
Meanwhile LaFaro, Girls Names, Fighting With Wire, The Wonder Villains, Mojo Fury, General Fiasco, Cashier No. 9, Not Squares, Axis Of, Panama Kings, Kowalski and many more graced the Speakeasy stage on their way to big things – or so it often seemed.
Musically, these bands often had little to nothing in common, but they were tied together by the camaraderie of people around them, and the sense that, collectively, we were punching above our weight.
Radar founder Dee McAdams put the bands in front of eager, boozy, usually heaving crowds ('non-students welcome', as the posters emphasised). Entry was free and cheap drink flowed, and the professional production values showed them off to their best advantage.
And it was far from the only live band night to support the array of young, local talent. Two Step at the Limelight, Up In The Attic at Auntie Annie's (RIP), Gifted at the Empire, Club AU and SONI at Lavery's, and more I've no doubt forgotten about helped to nurture the bands and foster the scene. Gigantic at Lavery's became its unofficial club night – Animal Disco and Radio K too. Afterparties were legendary.
Outside Belfast, Glasgowbury and Forfey were festivals that gave over their stages to new bands, put them on with heavyweights like Therapy? and Ash and encouraged them to think big. Alternative Ulster magazine (full disclosure: I edited it for two years), did something similar in its lovingly designed pages, and there was radio support from Rigsy and Paul McClean on Across The Line and Rory McConnell and Jimmy Devlin on Radio 1 Introducing.
Not every band was a potential world-beater though, and some of the best never got close to fulfilling their potential. There were moments of triumph and moments of hubris. And those of us covering the scene had our share of detractors – which occasionally included the bands themselves.
Plus, everyone was skint, as much of this was going on in the midst of the financial crisis, and most of the people involved were either students, on the dole or in low-paid jobs. But there was a febrile energy, and an abundance of creativity and talent. I remember it as an exciting time, ripe with possibility.
For the last three or four years, for local fans of guitar music at least, things haven't looked so rosy. Most of the bands that shone brightest during the boom times have either outgrown the scene, split up or moved on, creating a vacuum that has never been adequately filled.
Something similar can be said for the punters. Looking around the room on Thursday night, it was sobering to think of all the people who would have been there had they not moved to London, Berlin, Glasgow or Dublin in search of better things.
Meanwhile, the support network has shrunk. At AU, we published our last issue in March 2012, undone by funding cuts. BBC cutbacks led to the end of Rory McConnell's Radio 1 show. Two Step, Up In The Attic and SONI are all long gone, and while Animal Disco has made a semi-regular return, there are fewer than ever showcases for new bands. Local band nights are an infinitely harder sell now than they were five years ago – especially during the week.
At the start of the boom, in 2008, And So I Watch You From Afar – supported by Radar – put on a two-day festival at Queen's Students Union with a stellar line-up of Northern Irish bands and called it A Little Solidarity, epitomising the spirit of the time. It's hard to imagine something similar happening now.
But this isn't about hand-wringing. Times change, people move on, settle down, have kids. Musical trends tend to be cyclical. These days, all the energy, creativity and talent that was once a hallmark of the indie fraternity can be found fuelling Belfast's booming house and techno scene, which had its own version of A Little Solidarity in this summer's superb AVA Festival.
For ASIWYFA, read Bicep. For Therapy? and Ash, read Phil Kieran and Timmy Stewart. Indie rock just isn't in vogue any more, no matter where you are (take a look at the recent list of Mercury nominees or – heaven forbid – recent NME covers for unscientific evidence of that), so by-and-large guitar bands struggle to attract the interest they once did.
There's still plenty of talent around – take Hot Cops and Jealous Of The Birds, who both played the final Radar, Ryan Vail, Autumns, Documenta, Girls Names, Ciaran Lavery, R51, Robocobra Quartet, Malojian, Sea Pinks and Mercury nominee SOAK.
And there have been positive developments like music website The Thin Air, which rose from the ashes of AU, and mentoring schemes run by the Nerve Centre, Oh Yeah and Generator NI, which have helped young artists become more industry-savvy.
What has gone is a time and place symbolised by figureheads like ASIWYFA and Panama Kings and all those around them – AU, Two Step, Glasgowbury, Radar, the familiar faces; that energy. It's not coming back – it's over to the next generation now.
So as we raised our plastic pints last Thursday night to toast the end of Radar and give thanks to Dee McAdams for a decade of great service, it felt like the curtain was coming down on much more than just a club night. It felt like the last remnants of those heady years were finally ebbing away.