From Berlin’s warehouses to London’s estates: how cities shape music scenes27 days ago
Cities dont get a songwriting credit or a royalty cheque. But from grunge in Seattles garages to hip-hop in New Yorks community centres, urban design has profoundly influenced musical genres across the world
Most modern music is an urban animal. Cities regularly birth music scenes, and artists often claim to be inspired by the streets, or by their neighbourhood. Yet the actual is connected with the music they make and the make environment where they do so is generally underplayed spoken about as a matter of mood, or information sources of lyrics. Music historians generally quote a critical mass of musicians as being crucial to the birth of a scene: classical composers in 18 th century Vienna, for example, or modern metal bands in Helsinki. But the city itself? Well thats principally just credited as a convenient place for the musicians to hang out though David Bowies residency in Berlin, for one, took that relationship to particularly intimate levels.
But what if a citys role isnt quite so one-note? Washington Post journalist David Maraniss became obsessed with that topic, particularly in respect to Motown. I was fascinated by the idea of why the musical magic happened in Detroit, he says. What is it about some cities and civilisations that bring about these creative explodes?
While writing his recent biography of Detroit, Maraniss came across the usual reasons cited for the rise of Motown in Detroit. First, the migration of African Americans from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana for factory undertakings, bringing with them the oral traditions of church music, jazz and blues. Next, the entrepreneurial genius of one family, Berry Gordy Jr and his four sisters, who generated Motown and induced it flourish.
But Maraniss also dug into the citys economic geography, and became aware that the vast majority of Motor City residents in the 20 th century lived not in high-rise apartments, but in two-storey, single-family homes which induced it easier for the local piano producer Grinnell Brothers to deliver pianos to families, including Gordys. The particular construction of homes in Detroit, unlike many other predominantly black mill cities in the US, meant that they were crucial to the development of the Motown sound.
I had no idea about the role of pianos, specifically Grinnell Brothers, Maraniss writes, until I started interviewing Motown musicians, singers and local historians, all of whom constructed the connection and said they had pianoes in their homes.
You can hear how important the piano was to the Motown sound in, for example, Earl Van Dykes passioned, pounding keyboards on to Aint Too Proud to Beg, My Guy or For Once in My Life. The affordability of the pianos, the disposable income of Detroits working class, and the fact that it was a city of single-family homes mile after mile of sturdy brick two-storey homes with commodious first-floor rooms into which pianos could be moved easily all played roles, Maraniss says.
Which got us thinking: if Motown owed its life to easy ground-floor access, where else has urban design shaped musical genres?
The garages of grunge
The cradle of creation for the 1980 s band Screaming Trees, considered one of the godfathers of grunge, was a garage in the back of a video store. The store was owned by the parents of Van and Gary Lee Conner, in Ellensburg, a small city outside Seattle. The young Conner friends painted the walls of the garage, pinned posters to the ceiling and hung up Indian tapestries and psychedelic bedspreads. For a while, Gary Lee lived in it. When the latter are joined by singer Mark Lanegan and drummer Mark Pickerel, the new band played got a couple of small shows there, too.
The best thing about the garage was that it was totally isolated, like another world we had created for the band, recalls Gary Lee, who played guitar in Screaming Trees. Since it was downtown, we could make noise all night long and not have to worry about bothering anyone.
Garages might be built for parking vehicles, bikes or household junk, but their spiritual intent, we know now, is to kickstart creativity, whether youre inventing a Mac or starting a band. Yet for the Screaming Trees, the garage wasnt simply a place to practice: it physically shaped their sound.
Like most garages, ours had a concrete floor and drywall, with boxes of junk stored around the place, Gary Lee says. But the echoes and reflections from that stuff created a audio different than, say, a club or a studio. Just listen to the soaring screeching of his guitar on the bands 1986 debut album, Clairvoyance: that scuzzy, distortion-laden sound. The garage helped to reinforce the rawness and the energy of the music. We never had another place like that after we moved over to Seattle, but the spirit of our music never truly changed.
Moreover, 25 years on from Nirvanas Nevermind, musicologists still wonder why the grunge scene including with regard to coalesced around the cities of the Pacific Northwest. Surely, geographical isolation was a likely factor: Seattle in the 1980 s wasnt the cosmopolitan Starbucks-Microsoft-Amazon city slicker of today, and it was all very far away from the music industry hives of New York and Los Angeles. There was a culture of innovation and experimentation, a what do we have to lose? position, says Dr Tom Bell, an expert on the geography of American popular culture at the University of Tennessee.
But in those west coast cities, the committee is also rains a lot. Not merely did that damp marine climate probably persuade bands to stay in their garages and practise more, but its also somewhat temperate, meaning the garages were warm enough to hang out in without needing to be heated separately unlike, say, Minneapolis, where an unheated garage is a miserable place in wintertime. Is it any coincidence that, long before the grunge, the Pacific Northwest was also home to the first garage boulder bands like the Fabulous Wailers, Sonics and Trashmen?
The tower blocks of grime
The gleaming skyscraper of One Canada Square in east Londons Canary Wharf business district was a provocative inspiration for the 17 -year-old Dylan Mills, who grew up two miles away, on the Crossways estate in Bow. Its in your face. It takes the piss, he said after winning the 2003 Mercury prize for Boy in Da Corner, his debut grime album as Dizzee Rascal. There are rich people moving in now, people who work in the city. You can tell theyre not living the same way as us.