The Curse of Bury St Edmunds: Why No Bands Ever Made It From The Town John Peel Dubbed “the New Seattle”
In 2002 Rolling Stone named it the number two “capital of culture” in the world. What happened?
After John Peel died, I took a day off from middle school to attend the public funeral. It was in the town he'd put on the map and one that his legacy continues to inspire today. Robert Plant walked past me outside Woolworths. Jack White drank in the Queens Arms. It was an almost perfect image of the brush with fame so many of the town's misfits had enjoyed under Peel's watchful eye. We listened from outside the cathedral as Paul Gambaccini reflected that “every artist needed a John Peel”. That might be true, but the bands round here had the John Peel.
Two years earlier, I'd be listening to Peel's Radio 1 show in the passenger seat of a Ford Mondeo, as he exposed the sounds of a sleepy sugar-town in Suffolk to the rest of the UK. For the rest of Britain, it must have been bizarre to hear Bury St. Edmunds, the 205th most populous town in the UK, described as "the new Seattle" by the most knowledgeable DJ in the world. But to me, it was exhilerating.
The Dawn Parade, in session that night, sang of the boredom of the countryside, sunrise walks from the town’s nightclubs to the villages I’d cut my teeth in, of the schools I’d always pass through. I listened as frontman Greg McDonald screamed praise for the road that led from the sticks to the city it felt like Bury St. Edmunds was, for a brief moment, the most important place in the world.
“Long live the A14, long live rock and roll, we’ve been The Dawn Parade."
I first discovered that my town might be cool when I was throwing a sickey from school. I went to the shop and brought home a copy of NME. On the very last page stood four mismatched rent-a-punks in front of Buckingham Palace. Holding 99s, ice cream melting down their hands, Miss Black America were sons of Bury St. Edmunds, equal parts Jarvis Cocker, Richey Edwards and your weird older brother. Frontman Seymour Glass (adopting a stage name from a Salinger book) stood apart from his band of baggy jean, shag-band wearing 'greebos'. Glass, ever the self-promoter, had personally mailed a demo to John Peel's house. What followed was an almost father-like endorsement that saw the band receive multiple radio sessions for Peel, Steve Lamacq, Tom Robinson and John Kennedy, nationwide tours, a record deal with Integrity Records and a support slot with The Libertines at the Astoria in Central London. This success, a surprise to everyone, kick started the countryside movement and (briefly) put Bury on the map.
“Other bands formed because everyone in Bury saw what Miss Black America were doing and thought ‘I can do that’," says Matt Dupuy, once a member of The Exiles, one of the bands that came in Miss Black America's wake. With slick back hair, onstage sunglasses and a cigarette tucked between the strings of his bass he was an obvious hero to the local teenagers, myself included. “Everyone who watched those early Miss Black America gigs was inspired, because they were so intense. They were young, exciting acts with a big, enthusiastic audience. We had a supportive infrastructure and the sort of spark in the air which only comes when something really new and urgent comes along.”
Listening back to the music they produced at the time, the playing is sloppy, the amps are crackling and the levels are peaking, but there is something about it. Created before every laptop came with recording software, at a time when a studio was at worst a four-track in a living room and at best an industrial unit with a mixing desk, the songs still hold up today.
“We received a phone call one day from the man himself [Peel] asking us if we wanted to do the show,” explains Dupuy. “Miss Black America had already done a session or two, so maybe they pushed us. It ended up being the 'Bury St Edmunds night' live session, with us and The Dawn Parade on March 5th 2003. The night even gets a mention in the Peel autobiography. It was one of the best gigs we ever did. Looking over after one song and seeing Peel grinning and clapping above his head is one of my proudest moments.”
That same year Rolling Stone named Bury St. Edmunds the number two “Culture Capital” in the world. To write that now seems totally ridiculous. This is a town that in 2015 spent £40,000 on two metal trees at the entrance of a shopping centre and replaced its historic cattle market with a Frankie and Benny's. Back then, the town had something to say, having clawed back youth culture from the grasp of a council that had basically banned live music venues for two decades after The Clash left town, the rumours go, with the Chief of Police's daughter in tow.
Despite an inordinate number of bands from Bury getting on the radio and signed to labels made a noise at the turn of the millennium. These days the only fame they know is the comment section of grainy music videos copied on home video from MTV2 or on the town’s Wikipedia page beneath descriptions of a mummified cat that hangs above the door of Europe’s smallest pub. Whether it was local band Jacob's Mouse supporting Nirvana or The Long Blondes’ main songwriter suffering a stroke at the height of their career, Bury St. Edmunds is now a town of musical "almosts". Generations of hopeful, greasy youths reaching out for but never quite grasping the green light of success.
I can still picture Seymour Glass leaning on the shoulder of one of the dozens of rainbow-haired Miss Black America followers on the evening that the rest of the band quit. It was the night of BurySOUND, a battle of the bands which at the time seemed like the Mecca of music. Steve looked like a man that had lost his winning lottery ticket. Some 13 years later as we sit down to talk, I'm congratulating him on the the birth of his second son just days earlier. As I ask him how the band fell apart, I neglect to mention the poster he once signed for me that I still have in the loft.
“In all honesty we just weren't ready to get the kind of attention we suddenly received,” explains Glass, “we were winging it, and we'd just clamber into a van for 30-date toilet tours 5 or 6 times a year and drink ourselves mental. Through all the premature acclaim we were receiving, we forgot to have any fun. It's an easy mistake to make when you're fresh from school or college like we were. Even bands who love each other and live in luxury fall out; we didn't particularly know or like each other when we started touring and we were perpetually skint, so by the end the frustration and hatred were tangible.”
But why was it that none of these Bury bands ever managed to reach the masses? How did fate repeatedly claw each one of them back? I asked Glass. “I think we need to be wary of these notions of ‘success’. If you're basing it on t-shirt sales and YouTube hits, you're fucked from day one. I consider Miss Black America a comparative failure as a band because we concerned ourselves with this elusive notion of ‘making it’ above actually making any records, so after seven years of sweaty toil we only had two studio albums to show for it. The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Bikini Kill, Fugazi - none of those bands were thinking about record sales, they just blasted out record after incredible record and eventually, history caught up with them. So fuck the riches, build a legacy - that's my advice.”
The concept of inevitable mediocrity began to grip me at a time when the band I joined at sixteen started to gather momentum after five years of the heard-it-all-before toilet circuit story. We knew, as so many Bury bands before us knew, that we were the ones to break the spell. Stood in front of a mate's camera, beside a backdrop of the most seemingly "working class" block of flats we could find (we had to drive to the next town over), we were hell bent on burning every bridge with our hometown as possible, because simply: this was it. I wondered, perhaps smugly, why it was that bands from a town named after a beheaded 7th century king had failed to make the jump from champions of the little league to the NME poster boys we were sure to become. I looked back at the groups that had inspired so many of us. They might have resembled Manics rejects, but there were no rock star delusions. These were bands made up of the temps your dad worked with, the sons of your science teacher, even the vicar's boy.
But one by one the town's hopefuls had fallen at the last hurdle. Glass put a new Miss Black America line-up together, but failed to recapture the excitement of their debut. The Dawn Parade's stadium anthems seemed destined for the aching hearts of England's youth, but their second Peel session would be the band's final recording. The Exiles, having walked the golden streets to Studio 4, played their last show at a battle of the bands as if none of it had mattered. They smashed guitars and amps like it was their fifth night at Brixton. It probably should have been. It seemed that bands swept up from the sticks and thrusted towards the industry just couldn't hold it together.
The likes of Miss Black America and The Exiles were heroes to a generation of kids that had grown up in the decade after grunge. Their influence can still be heard in the feedback of a new bands stomping across the town. When it came to making an impact outside of East Anglia however, it seemed that the rest of the country was simply not ready to accept Bury St. Edmunds as the new Seattle. Succes rate wise, it wasn't even the new Ipswich. After Peel's death, there was no one left to give a hand to bands in the countryside and those that kept at it were lost in a sea of Nu Metal.
The more I asked, the more I heard the same thing: When you're trapped along the A14, honing your songs to cure the boredom of brewery town existence, you have more time to believe in what it is you create. As the fads of the city pass over the steam from the sugar beet factory, those on the ground clamber into sweaty rooms to escape the middle-aged weekend warriors starting fights in wine bars. Time and time again bands from Bury St. Edmunds have vaulted the abbey walls and found themselves floored by the last hurdle. After driving further, working longer and fighting harder, they stumble spectacularly. It isn't a lack of talent or an unwillingness to push, but a bright-light-seclusion whispering into the collective ear to not compromise.
As the Bury scene grew and my parents divorced, my dad and I began putting on fortnightly gigs in neighbouring Newmarket. We'd hire out a pub called the Palomino in the middle of just about the roughest estate the countryside can spit out and booked three bands every other Wednesday, most times without ever hearing them. I must have been around 12 years old when it started. The locals would throw anything they could at the bands. Bottles, bricks, even a cat. When we discuss it now, my opinion switches, depending on the day I've had, from “I should have been in bed” to “I wouldn't change it for anything”. Years later, as my own band began to take off, we wanted to play the Palomino one last time. We'd all met there, we'd all drank there underage, we'd played our first gigs there. It seemed fitting. We were headlining the 100 Club soon after, followed by sold-out support tours in Europe and the U.K. We were to play the Palomino as a send off, to only ever return for a victory lap after we'd 'made it'. One year later, following the pattern of those that came before, I'd sold my amps and applied for university, the band having crumbled under the weight of our own self-belief.