A closer look at the music scene in Berkshire
PUBLISHED: 14:12 28 May 2019
While new technology has prompted monumental shifts throughout the music industry in recent decades, Berkshire has valiantly kept apace. Today, the county continues to be a hotbed of emerging talent keen to emulate the success of its musical forefathers
It has been the setting of iconic music videos, housed legendary recording studios and has been called home by a star-studded array of musical talent; Berkshire's musical roots certainly run deep.
It was the beguiling waters of the Thames that lured many of the big musical names of the 1960s and '70s. The Boathouse in Pangbourne, bought by Jimmy Page in 1967, was where he and Robert Plant bonded over tea and records, and where the full Led Zeppelin line-up first came together.
Further up river sat The Skindles Hotel in Maidenhead, whose famed La Valbonne nightclub (in 1980 voted the world's best nightclub) gained a reputation for luring music's great and good. It staged performances by The Rolling Stones and Thin Lizzy, and attracted guests such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono - who moved to Tittenhurst Park in Ascot in 1969 in the midst of The Beatles' split. Here, Lennon filmed the iconic music video for Imagine, before selling the property to his former bandmate Ringo Starr.
Meanwhile, just a few miles along the river in Cookham, history was being made in an old watermill. The Mill studios, set up by acclaimed producer Gus Dudgeon in the mid-1970s, was built initially as a venue to remix Elton John's back catalogue in a new format. Elton had just moved up the road to a stately pile in Old Windsor, where he still lives today.
Head Engineer at the studios, Cookham-based Stuart Epps − who now runs Epps Music Productions − recalls: "It was always Gus' dream to one day build the best recording studio in the world. So when he discovered an old water mill property in Cookham, Gus realised it was just the place to build that dream…
It was an amazing time."
The studio's reputation grew and it went on to host recording sessions with the likes of Mick Fleetwood, Voyager and Bill Wyman, as well as Jimmy Page − who bought The Mill in 1980 − and Chris Rea, who acquired it just under a decade later.
Up river in the opposite direction, the Ricky Tick club nights, which started at the Star & Garter hotel in Windsor, before moving to a mansion on the Thames, was creating its own buzz. In the 1960s it proved a launch pad for everyone from The Yardbirds to Fleetwood Mac and Jimi Hendrix, who performed there in their fledgling years.
While Berkshire's popular music heritage until that point had been rooted in rock, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the county found itself at the centre of an unlikely cultural revolution, inspired by the party island of Ibiza.
Renowned DJs Terry Farley from Slough and Andy Weatherall from Windsor helped to bring Ibiza's own brand of dance music to Berkshire with popular nights at La Valbonne and Sunday afternoon raves at Queen's Reservoir Sailing Club and The Greyhound in Colnbrook. Before the commercialisation of clubbing took over, these venues became the unlikely centres of 'Home Counties Hedonism' as it was dubbed, attracting the likes of Boy George and The Pet Shop Boys.
Now The Mill recording studio is no longer in action, and on the site of The Skindles Hotel sits a new restaurant owned by the Roux family. The Ricky Tick club is no more and Tittenhurst Park belongs to the President of the United Arab Emirates. Yet don't be fooled into thinking it marks a sad end to Berkshire's thriving popular music scene.
"With every new generation of music you can be sure that there will be one or two of Berkshire's local bands poking their head above the parapet," says longstanding Reading-based music promoter Jack Hepplewhite.
Jack is a promoter for Berkshire's live performance arm of the prestigious BBC Music Introducing programme, which was set up in 2007 with the aim of discovering, supporting and propelling emerging artists from across the UK.
"We have always had a strong indie/rock scene in the county, which is still arguably the strongest genre, with bands from The Amazons and Sundara Karma topping festival bills and selling out tours," says Jack. "But there are also now some strong local R&B, soul and hip hop talents starting to come through. The work that BBC Music Introducing has been honing over the last 11 years has allowed other genres of music − aside from rock and indie − to breathe. It has been a great incubator and something tangible to aim for."
This emergence of new talent in Berkshire is helped by the wide variety of recording, rehearsal and performance venues that have sprung up in the county.
"I have been in and around the music business in Berkshire for some 40 years and I have seen enormous change in that time," says Andy Rowe, founding member of Ascot-based progressive rock band The Room, which has just released its third studio album, Caught By The Machine.
If anyone can lay claim to knowing the county's music scene intimately then these guys can; they are signed to Berkshire-based record label White Star Records, wrote their new album in Berkshire and recorded it at Outhouse Studios in Berkshire, with a Berkshire-based producer.
"The massive change has been in the rehearsal and recording infrastructure," notes Andy. "There is something for bands just starting, right up to high-end recording studios. You only have to look at the number of rehearsal rooms in Reading as an example to confirm that the music scene is vibrant here. Festivals like Reading's Are You Listening? are swamped with bands wanting to play. There are so many opportunities here for people to come together and create music, it's magical."
Berkshire's one to watch
- Cecil - The alternative pop singer-songwriter from Thatcham is tipped for big things in 2019. Her bewitching single Toybox turned heads last year and she has been recording new music with DJ duo Audio Bullys.
- Tom Dunne - Reading-based Tom Dunne has been making a name for himself with his R&B influenced electro soul sounds. BBC Introducing has championed him and he has new music set for release this year.
- Renee Cullen - Soulful Cookham-based singer-songwriter Renee, who has worked with acclaimed producer Stuart Epps, has been busy recording her new album, Old Coast Road, which is due out later this year.
- Tabi Gazele - Her powerful voice led Reading-based Nigerian-Australian Tabi to reach the final of BBC1's All Together Now last year. She has been compared to Emeli Sande and her single, Without You, is out now.
- Chatting to Little Cooks Co founder Helen Burgess - Entrepreneur Helen Burgess has a goal: to teach children to love cooking and eating healthy food. She launched the UK's first monthly cooking kit for children, Little Cooks Co