Words: Lloyd Bolton | Photos: Spela Cedilnik
With singers running poetry nights, poets appropriating song lyrics, and events bringing both
forms together on their bills, we take a look at the interactions between music and poetry in
London’s underground culture.
A Monday night in July, the Heavenly Social in blue light and blue smoke. Gathered, a collection of freaks and weirdos, many underdressed by their usual standards in mid-July heat. They looked like the usual crowd for a gig here, though they had all arrived unfashionably early, half of them carrying notebooks. In fact, they were our performers for the night, gathered for a special edition of the monthly poetry open mic night Blue Shout. This night constituted an early celebration of a year of Blue Shout’s time in London, where it was reborn after dying of Covid in Brighton. These nights are usually hosted at a different ‘Social’ at Copeland Park, with its ad hoc signup done on the night. On this occasion, however, our performers were pooled from contributors to ‘No Red Roses for Me’, a collection of work read across the past 9 months at Blue Shout nights, published by Toothgrinder Press.
Our host, as ever, was Angus Rogers, known to some as the lifeforce of Blue Shout, to others as the lead singer of Opus Kink. He put the night together with Ned Green, poet, head of Toothgrinder and frontman of Opus’ musical peers Legss. Roped in as the event’s official photographer was Spela Cedilnik, whose stunning Instagram portfolio doubles as a who’s who of the latest batch of exciting bands playing in the capital. Looking around, I was hard-pressed to find anyone who is not involved in some capacity in London’s sprawling underground music scene. (I use the word ‘scene’ lightly throughout this article, not wanting to bore you with an interpretation of the endless intersecting subgroups constantly crossing paths at The Windmill/George Tavern/Avalon Café/etc.) The night as a whole seemed to stand for the crossover between the realms of music and poetry in London, which seems to be making itself increasingly felt of late.
“Poetry and music have long overlapped”, says Green, citing “poets warming up for bands in the ‘70s and ‘80s; spoken word dialogue over films and performance art; the Ink Spots using spoken word in their songs in the 1940s; African storytelling and poetry being accompanied by drums.” He views the current interaction between music and poetry in London’s scene as nothing especially peculiar, rather a part of this continuum. Rogers similarly describes it as a natural, incidental crossover, pointing out that “a lot of musicians, myself included, started writing before playing music and then cottoned on through that,” finding writing a way into that creative mindset and social scene before being particularly accomplished on an instrument.
In this vast and overstimulated city, the smallness of the world of creative weirdos persists, drawing people to the same outlets for their various forms of work. As Rogers puts it, “They’re two sides of the same dice, and lots of people round here are rolling the dice.” Alongside gigs at the city’s landmark venues, poetry open mics enter these spaces, with Blue Shout usually running at the Bussey Building site and Gobjaw taking over the Avalon Café. Brodie Rake, open mic regular and the brain behind Wrld Bldr, a new series of multidisciplinary nights based at the George Tavern, points out that “the audience for all these things is the same… if you’re into one thing, you’re likely going to at least be interested enough to take a chance on another.” The latest incarnation of Wrld Blder, which took place the Saturday after the Blue Shout birthday, was testament to this, busy with a crowd open to a range of musical styles on offer, performance art, and poems by Paddy Hornby and Lewie Magarshack (both familiar faces from open mics), before the night gave way to a jungle DJ set.
“I would go so far as to say there is not an overlap [between the music and poetry scenes] because they are one and the same”, suggests, Sophie Muir, whose poetry often reflects on and quotes London’s recent musical output. Certainly, the two forms both constitute outlets for expression based on the literary vocalisation of the collective consciousness of city creatives. Considering specific factors influencing the overlap of performers and their audiences, Muir points to the initiative of Rogers and Green, who provide platforms for the performance and publication of poetry and prose while also fronting two of the city’s defining rising acts. Though Green is hesitant to hail our present moment as unique in bringing these two creative realms together, his work is among that which raises the profile of spoken word in an alternative music context and showcases other writing through Toothgrinder publications. It seems particularly significant that the Gobjaw Collective has been given a slot at the Visions official afterparty, showing that these groups have the connections and relevance to be a consideration for festival curators.
It feels as though we are experiencing a boom in this heavily speech-based lyricism, with the ascendancy of black midi, Black Country New Road, Dry Cleaning and a slew of smaller groups like English Teacher, Loose Articles and Do Nothing to name just a few tips of the iceberg. Green sees this as something of a fashion, with “public taste for that type of music… spawning more bands who write in a similar way” to existing post-punk and post-rock bands, who “have always [used] spoken word elements.”
Interestingly, Green and Rogers comment that much of their poetry writing comes about in isolation from songwriting for their bands. “I find it advisable to keep them at a safe and respectful distance”, says Rogers, though he concedes that “I can’t always keep to my own advice and then verbosity breaks through and ruins a song and everyone’s day.” Green describes the unlikely origin of Legss’ inclusion of spoken sections, which one might assume was drawn from his poetic endeavours. The way he tells it, their approach actually had more to do with a period where he would begin shows reading fake hate mail addressed to the band. There is something inherently punk (in its truest sense, in spite of how tired and mundane that concept has become) about the delivery of lyrics as speech, opening up the position of lead singer to the person with something to say, not simply a voice or a melody to show off. Of course, the current popularity of speech-singing derives from more than just the strength of the city’s poetry scene, but the instinct speaks of the same appeal that Rogers sees in the accessibility and freedom of writing as opposed to songwriting.
The significance of this open, loose poetry scene is that it provides places for people to experiment and share ideas in a highly social setting, framed on the terms that attract people also involved in the music scene. At the Blue Shout birthday, I found myself talking to Lucas Edwards, frontman of Web who is known to bring brilliant absurd haikus and limericks to open mics. The meter of the latter form also takes centre stage in his lyrical delivery over Schlagenheim guitars on Web’s most recent single ‘Why Why Why Why Why’. The song marks the latest in my imaginary lineage of works describing the mutual influence of these two forms in London’s contemporary underground culture.
What always makes poetry open mics so inspiring is the vast range of performers, styles and subject matter, which open up your mind and offer a collage of the collective consciousness of the city. Reference points I have only just gotten my head around are already becoming material for the city’s writers. Muir’s style is especially representative of this, and it was a particular joy seeing her poems quoting Opus Kink’s ‘Faster than the Radio’ and Legss’ ‘Local God’ back to their authors at the Blue Shout birthday. She sees her writing as exploring “my own position within the ‘scene’… Not only do I want to explore contemporary culture; I also want to contribute to it”. Her work asserts the cultural validity of the scene, with ‘I am a Princess’ in particular making the argument that Opus Kink and Sorry can be as valid intellectual references as Hegel and Sartre, especially down the pub after lectures. Through the adding up of personal experiences and tastes, Muir looks for “something more universal, which accounts for the type of music and culture coming out of these scenes” in art historical terms, thereby suggesting the wider significance of these events.
Beyond the cross-pollination of words and images between London’s music and poetry is a sharing of approaches to events and performance, which feels like it has been particularly aided by the necessarily accepting open mics. At Wrld Bldr on the Saturday after Blue Shout, it felt as though I were watching an allegorical graduation of open mic stalwarts to a new platform with a slightly broader audience. “It’s like ‘Avengers Assemble’!”, organiser Rake excitedly tells me, speaking of how the night brings together various brilliant performers from different but related fields, along with their Venn diagram audiences. Paddy Hornby, who read at Wrld Bldr but also plays music as Howell Owdly and with Boil King, affirms this sentiment, glad to be looking out to a crowd he does not know so thoroughly well as the Gobjaw regulars. Indeed, his performance seems to grow in this environment, rantings sharpening as he paces a smoky George Tavern stage late on Saturday night. The work thrives in this festive, sweaty atmosphere, a little looser than the earlystart poetry open mics.
Headlining this Wrld Bldr was the debut performance from Bande à Parte, who play rock with improvisational tendencies behind the Patti Smith-inspired invocations of Sabina Hellstrom, herself an occasional Blue Shout performer. It capped off a night that was testament to the growing interdisciplinary spirit behind some of London’s more adventurous events and acts. Such cross-pollination is the mark of a thriving artistic scene, and it feels as though ours is really hitting its stride in these terms. Blue Shout and Gobjaw are bringing in more and more patrons by the month. Wrld Blder is three events in and a self-evident success story. Elsewhere, I’ve seen listings for bands performing alongside live painting, a gig night combined with a book club, and film screenings supported by bands. The mutual influence of creative scenes is fuelling the evolution of the city’s music and poetry, offering overlapping platforms for its performance and thus encouraging its practitioners to look beyond the particulars of their work’s form. Nights like Gobjaw and Blue Shout offer up so much inspiring creative material to a significantly music-oriented audience and of course, also, as Rogers notes, always make for merry occasions with time “for a swally afterwards”.
Order a copy of No Red Roses for Me here.