A&E Goes Abroad: Life on the borders of the U.K.’s underground music scene

Peter Boyle

Part of the reason I chose to study abroad in London was the cultural bounty the city has, particularly in my academic disciplines of English literature, art history and film. I am also, as my articles for this section make plain, a music nerd — the guy who can rattle off several British bands unheard of to most people I know.

In some ways that was the impetus of my trip, to go see what treasures I had yet to unearth. My results didn’t necessarily match my expectations — there were only two CDs in my bags when I returned — but London had plenty to offer, as did the other cities I visited.

Early on in the program, we’d been strolling back from the pub when I happened on a flyer at a bus stop. The postcard-sized advertisement was for a club night called White Heat at Madame Jojo’s, a renowned venue in the seedier Soho district. Several of us decided to give it a try that week, and we were greeted with a comfortable scene: a few bands, mostly regional acts, kicking off the night; DJs playing things like LCD Soundsystem and Erasure, Metronomy and even an unfortunate Lana Del Rey remix; a plethora of young British people out for an evening in which they didn’t have to compromise their taste to dance.

White Heat was a big hit among our London Centre group, and a bunch of us even went to see STRFKR and Com Truise there, a laughably Amerocentric billing to find in London. They made us feel at home, and they simultaneously made us curious why popular taste seems better in the U.K.

As an avid record shopper, on the other hand, I wasn’t interested in finding anything familiar. In my travels I sought only the strictly regional releases, the stuff I would never hear of back in the States. While in London I didn’t do much in the way of browsing; I’d made my requisite pilgrimage on a previous trip in 2006, to the legendary Rough Trade record store. Former home of the Rough Trade Records imprint, which gave the world records by the immortal Smiths and the legendary Fall. Rough Trade is the first and last word in British independent music.

Though I didn’t acquire anything in London, I kept my eyes and my wallet open on a trip to Glasgow. The third in a trio of legendary U.K. music scenes, along with London and Manchester, Glasgow thrives on its university-rooted young creative population, its rough-and-tumble reputation, and its relative affordability.

The hostel I’d booked was only a block away from the beloved Nice n’ Sleazy, not only an outstandingly cheap bar but also a venerable spot for the best Glaswegian bands to show their stuff. Members of Mogwai and Franz Ferdinand have sipped the £2.50 White Russians at Sleazy’s, and I was proud to join their ranks.

Knowing some great music has come from the city, I made sure to try and find a local release, and the internet guided me to LoveMusic, formerly part of the Avalanche Records franchise.

While I was there they played “Greater Inventions” by For Abel, a blast of clean, melodic guitar rock that I immediately purchased. Frontman Rob Armstrong has the arresting baritone great post-punk singers often employ, and Darren Foy plays drums with the fast, precise style that made everyone go nuts for the Arctic Monkeys six years ago. I never would have heard “Greater Inventions” had I not made it to Glasgow, which would have been a shame.

My experience abroad wasn’t entirely informed by the U.K. music underground, but I can’t deny it brought me real excitement to go beyond the New York scene I’ve grown accustomed to. Any Lawrentian stands to benefit from a study abroad experience, and if you’re a discerning listener like me you could do a lot worse than shipping out to London for a few months.