Saturday, 31 January 2009

The Charlotte: Just not cool?

So The Charlotte in Leicester may have closed its doors for the last time after the venue ceased trading and called in administrators. The licensee pulled the plug after it no longer became financially viable to keep it running, because of a fall in numbers so I’ve been reliably informed. The venue owners, Punch Taverns, have expressed their interest in keeping it open as a live venue but are yet to make any decision.

It’s a place I hold dear in my heart, where many a good night was had in the company of some fantastic acts and people. It’s a venue that needs no introduction, having been right at the centre of Leicester’s music scene for many a year – if you come from the area and don’t know The Charlotte, quite frankly you don’t know about music.

The fact that it doesn’t require an introduction is indicative of how engrained in the Leicester scene this great venue is. I frequented it many a time but actually have little idea of its history. All I know is that when I arrived in Leicester it was The Charlotte that people talked about in the bars and online, like they were talking about an old friend and that's how I soon came to view it too.

It doesn’t boast about itself or its history, its flyers are simple monochrome jobs listing upcoming gigs and its website is pretty prehistoric. It doesn’t have to come to the fan because the fan goes to it, a strange kind of relationship in today’s market driven music industry and as such you kind of take the place for granted.

It simply exists and you subconsciously check out what’s happening there because with near daily gigs there is always something to suit your tastes. I’ve heard ska, dub, breakbeat, hip-hop, indie, drum’n’bass, math-rock, punk, prog, blues, a whole lot more and also probably missed God knows what else.

This is why it is so loved, because it gives everything and everyone a chance to be heard. The likes of Oasis and Radiohead all played here in their formative years and many of those bands have returned since making it big – there’s not many venues where superstars can share the stage with first timers.

Musically, I live by a general rule of thumb, that the rawer the venue, the better it is. Nowadays too much comes in a sterile, soulless veneer that doesn’t really let the music breathe. The Charlotte delightfully ignores all this for a filth ridden shell and nothing more. It’s just beautifully simple. Everything inside is painted black, no doubt to hide the filth, there’s no shiny plastic or fancy sound system, the crowd are crammed into a low ceiling room and bands have to squeeze all their equipment on a stage right next to the women’s toilet.

On a busy night The Charlotte absolutely rocks. It’s a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare, being stood shoulder to shoulder in a touchy feely, boiler room atmosphere. Before the smoking ban you could barely breathe at times and on busy nights there’d be beer everywhere. As for the toilets, they’re undoubtedly disgusting. I lost track of how often the men’s sink was blocked with vomit or I had to trudge through piss, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

The Leicester music scene without The Charlotte is like The Beatles minus Lennon. It’s a place where being cool counts for nothing, unlike many other venues in Leicester and further afield it’s all about the music and the connection between fans and the artists.

Note how I’ve talked about it in the present tense. It may have ‘ceased trading’ but so do banks on bank holidays, hell, even some Tescos cease trading on Christmas Day. There’s hope yet that it will reopen, although with little being heard it’s only a faint glimmer of hope we can see, because maybe within its success lies the problem.

Because it’s a place where cool doesn’t exist, it’s no longer a cool venue and today, nothing seems to matter in music more than being cool, especially amongst the youth in Leicester. Although there is a bubbling house and techno scene in the city, the more serious stuff shall we say, few young student types bother. Instead, they’re attracted to the electro and ‘urban’ spectrum, which to be fair is producing some cracking music but is unfortunately overshadowed by a crowd obsessed with being cool and being seen at particular venues and events.

It’s a trend I’ve noticed more generally in dance music mainly, where my heart lies the most. Dance music culture always seems to be plagued by trends. And I mean cultural trends as opposed to musical trends. I started DJing towards the end of the superclub era, when a clubbers backlash against being force-fed the same music, same DJs week in, week out in the same superclubs at the same super expensive prices ushered in a new era that returned to the underground. This soon morphed into a more welcome and open minded view of what is acceptable for DJs to play, leading to somewhat more ‘eclectic’ sets and music policies in the clubs.

Today, the prevailing trend seems to be about being cool. Coolness has always existed but now in Leicester particularly it appears more prominent than ever before. Everyone has suddenly become shallow. Before, going to a club was about enjoying the music and having fun regardless of any other expectations; simply being oneself.

Now we see people wearing ridiculous outfits and adopting equally ridiculous personas in a blatantly transparent effort to draw attention to themselves, indulging in cocaine and mandy to achieve parity with their pickled peers whilst enslaved by scenes which are incredibly cliquey and/or image centric such as Justice and their whole live bollocks; a snapshot of youth culture so brilliantly predicted by Chris Morris’ Nathan Barley a few years ago.

It first hit home at a gig at The Charlotte about 18 months ago, where two cunts in front of me sporting shades with floppy fringes and a wardrobe straight out of Shoreditch spent the entire gig photographing each other poncing around the dancefloor. They clearly had no desire to pay any attention but simply record their time at the gig, no doubt for the benefit of their Facebook friends to coo over them seeing whichever band it was playing that night.

Point is, it was completely out of place at The Charlotte, because The Charlotte isn’t a ‘cool’ place. Ironically, it actually is cool, probably the coolest venue in town because it doesn’t in fact try to be cool, a fact that is lost on these drug addled prats who share more in common with a Topman mannequin than an actual cognitive being.

Rather, in Leicester, the ‘in’ place to be has shifted. Weekend revellers must now go somewhere the rest of the ‘in’ crowd end up, which tends to be Sophbeck and Superfly or occasionally Esko. Everything seems to gravitate towards the shit infested Sophbeck. Even many ‘genuine’ music fans have been sucked in by its inexplicable allure, either fully converting to the cool or at least embracing their inner sheep, flocking to Sophbeck where the cool runs riot and the dancefloor is populated by the kind of people who thought Nathan Barley was actually a documentary.

Unfortunately for The Charlotte, this means that many people now forgo the smaller gigs from local or lesser known bands for a night getting trolleyed with their fellow cunts at Sophbeck. Apart from the bigger gigs from the bigger bands, it would seem people have forgotten The Charlotte, which can’t even think about diversifying because of the monopoly on cool held by Sophbeck and Superfly further in town, not that it should have to.

Leicester is in thrall of image and being known. In a way it’s too small for its own good as access to the inner circles of the trend set (an overstatement since they do little of anything original) is easy if one if willing to divulge oneself of any facet of a personality, thus perpetuating the cool zeitgeist and sucking the lifeblood from the young scene. This is by no means an all encompassing reason for the decline of The Charlotte, but I reckon it can explain a lot and quite frankly – it’s saddening.

Fair enough, the sound and facilities in The Charlotte aren’t top notch and I don’t want to sound like I’m clinging to tradition and shying away from innovation, but there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of filth now and then. Sometimes all music needs is a space for people to come together and enjoy the beats and bass and riffs and hooks and forget about everything else, just let the music do the talking and provide a blank canvas for personalities to meet and clash and spark off each other like the crowds in The Charlotte used to, which unfortunately seems to be an ideal antithetical to what much of Leicester craves today.

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