Bristol A Haze of Trip Hop and Graffiti I
We embarked once more on a trip with the Mondo Sonoro crew of journalists. This time we decided to investigate Bristol’s music scene, highly active as of the late 1970s, during the heyday of punk. However, it was in the early 90s that music in this port city of southern England riveted world attention, as it was there that one of the defining genres of the late 20th century was born, evolved and, they say, died – Trip Hop. But things did not stop at that. Shortly afterwards, Bristol challenged London as the cradle of drum’n’bass, while today it is dubstep that has earned it a top spot among avant-garde electronic music. As well, it continues to be a haven for all kinds of live music. So, we headed for Bristol with a fistful of question marks; perhaps too many to be answered in a space of just 48 hours. Here’s what the experience yielded.
Bristol lies just 48 minutes from Cardiff by train, a short ride which you can use to go over the lineups of the countless clubs and concert halls that liven up the night of a city with little over 400,000 inhabitants.
Bristol was England’s busiest port for several decades. The city once flourished as a trading post, garnering its wealth from the distribution of wine, tobacco and, in the 17th century, slaves, too. Not for nothing was the home of pirate Long John Silver, of Treasure Island fame, located here. In World War II, the importance of its docks and aeronautical industry made it a target for terrible aerial bombardments. The harbour area has come into its own again recently as a result of an ambitious urban renewal plan, completed in 2008, which paved the way for one of the most popular promenades – Harbourside. The area, which has been totally remodelled, features leisure and hospitality areas, as well as an open-air flea market crammed with second-hand books and records, in addition to craftwork, confectionery and even craft beer.
Also sited there is the Bristol Tourist Information Centre, an inexhaustible source of information, where we learned that here too are the headquarters of Aardman Animations, the studio where the Oscar-winning Plasticine figures of Wallace & Gromit were created. This is also the birthplace of Cary Grant, a star of Hollywood’s early period who continues to be celebrated in the form of a festival bearing the name of this perennial Hitchcock actor. Another titbit – the writer, JK Rowling, Harry Potter’s mater, lived in the city’s environs until her adolescence. However, our most prized acquisition in the Tourist Office was a street plan for locating a host of works scattered about the city by someone who is probably the most popular local celebrity, even though his identity remains a mystery. I am talking about Banksy, Bristol’s favourite son, although not all the city councils would refer to him in such terms.
However, before setting out on a photo safari around the city walls, it might be an idea to first explore it from the river that traverses and connects it to the sea. Several companies organise boat tours, including Bristol Ferry Boats, The Bristol Packet and The Matthew. The latter offers rides lasting up to four hours, during which you can enjoy the classic Fish & Chips or a Cream Tea – milk tea with scones and jam and cream.
Still in the neighbourhood, we were tempted to visit At-Bristol, which combines an interactive science centre with a planetarium, but there are many cultural enclaves worth exploring. First we headed for the nearby area of theatres and dropped in on the Bristol Hippodrome, which focuses on great musicals, notably one dedicated to the “Million Dollar Quartet” (Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley), where the legendary producer, Sam Phillips, is played no less than by the ex-pop star Jason Donovan! Around there we came across a number of tapas bars, attesting to a marked increase in Spanish emigration, including El Puerto and La Tomatina, the latter located next to the first Banksy we were able to enjoy, the hilarious “Well Hung Lover” on Park Street, a steep commercial thoroughfare which is a must for picking up bargains. Our hotel was near there, in the historical Old City, so we still had time to wander through St Nicholas Market, a charming covered market, like a bazaar with glass ceilings. We also made for St Peter’s Church, an evocative ruined church at the top of Castle Park, on a stretch of the river bordering the Broadme addistrict, the city’s commercial centre. Further north lies Bearpit, an unusual square sunk between a junction of trunk roads that swerve around pedestrian tunnels plastered with posters announcing musical performances and street art exhibitions. We were taken aback by a number of graffiti paying tribute to the tragedy of the 43 missing Mexican “normalistas”. There were also skate ramps, a space for performances of all kinds and even a typical double-decker London bus converted into a food truck serving Mexican dishes.
On this note we wind up the first part of our intense and interesting visit to Bristol. In the second part we delve into the area where most of the clubs are concentrated. We also talked to Euan Dickson, sound engineer of Massive Attack, one of the seminal bands in the city’s music scene. Get going and discover the sounds of Bristol – check out our flights here.
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Bristol A Haze of Trip Hop and Graffiti II
On the far side of Bearpit lies Stokes Croft, the bohemian area seething with music bars, clubs and cafés with multi-purpose basements like the one in Cafe Kino or The Art House, where what caught our attention on their menu were the paninis christened with the names of the most popular local electronic bands. For a rather quick, nutritional eat – even in vegan variety – we can also recommend the nearby restaurant in the local Biblos chain where we tasted the wraps and shared food trays. The same street features one of Banksy’s first murals, “Mild Mild West”, a teddy bear brandishing a Molotov cocktail as a group of bobbies approaches, painted after clashes between riot police and ravers in 1999. The graffiti is at the entrance to Hamilton House, a building housing cooperatively managed artists and start-ups with a spacious, crowded bar called The Canteen. There we had arranged to meet Euan Dickson, the young sound engineer of Massive Attack, celebrated Bristol citizens and the most prolific survivors of so-called Trip Hop. Dickson has overseen the gestation of their music since early 2000, including the albums “100th Window”, “Heligoland” and the recent EP “Ritual Spirit”. He also operates as a keyboardist in their world tours, although he admits having reached music by a different route: “When the band released ‘Mezzanine’ in 1997, I was only 10 years old! Oasis prompted me to take up the guitar, but it was PJ Harvey and Radiohead that opened up a new world for me. I was lucky enough to have my Dad recommend me as a porter in the Massive Attack studio, where I also learned to use Pro Tools and, thanks to my enthusiasm, ended up helping them with their music”, Euan Dickson revealed to us in the company of two friendly mates of his and a few pints we shared in good cheer.
We chatted about the racial diversity in the city, the result of immigration in the fifties, which has also seen some conflict. Nowadays “it’s just taken as normal because you grow up with people from everywhere. Bear in mind that 70% of Bristol voted to stay in the EU in the Brexit referendum”, Dickson explains. In fact, the origins of the group he plays in is deeply rooted in the vibrant scene born of that cultural mix. Since the 70s, the Jamaican diaspora has left its musical mark on the St Pauls suburb, an area where riots broke out in 1980 in response to a police raid. It would also have been the haunts of the young DJ Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles, Grantley “DaddyG” Marshall and the then graffiti artist, Robert “3D” Del Naja, later recognised as the original core members of Massive Attack. In the eighties, they jointly founded one of the first “sound systems” in the United Kingdom, the legendary Wild Bunch, which also included such illustrious Bristolians as Tricky, a future collaborator of the group and, subsequently, a star in his own right, and Nellee Hooper, a star producer of Soul II Soul, Björk, Madonna and Gwen Stefani. Between steamy reggae and punk activism, the first New-York-style spray and lettering, sweaty MCs and incisive scratches, dark nights and cold rain, the original foundations of Trip Hop were laid. The controversial label was applied to the scene sparked by Massive Attack, together with other local groups that achieved global recognition, like Smith & Mighty, Kosheen and the acclaimed Portishead, the latter named after the nearby town and birthplace of their lead, Geoff Barrow, who met Beth Gibbons when he was earning a living as a singer in Bristol’s night spots.
As if Massive Attack’s ties to the local underground were not enough, there is even a theory which identifies Del Naja as the face behind Banksy. Although we had been warned that the group were fed up with the subject, we couldn’t help slipping the question. “If 3D were Banksy, I would have found out long ago”, Dickson asserted. He added that the headlines came out the day before the band were due to hold a big concert in their hometown and that, “when 3D turned up at the rehearsal, Daddy G began to shout, ‘Look everybody , Banksy’s arrived!’, and we fell about laughing”.
We said goodbye to Dickson and started reviewing the development of local electronic music. At the same time Trip Hop was flourishing, another native of Bristol was coming to the fore – Roni Size who, together with the collective, Reprazent, would define drum and bass, spawning a host of sub-genres that continue to feed the city with breakbeats. For instance, while London is regarded as the nerve centre of grime, Bristol is the birthplace of renowned DJ and producer Joker, said to have a spectacular home studio here. Another local figure is DJ Blazey, from the Bodynod collective. He has managed countless clubs dedicated to urban sounds combining rap, electronic and reggae. Unfortunately, we didn’t coincide with any of them, but we were able to attend a whole night of dub, dubstep and grime sound featuring two beacons of UK Urban Music, The Bug and Flowdan. They performed for a radically young, totally devoted crowd in the gigantic, multi-space Lakota, in the Stokes Croft area. Other clubs where fans queue up at the weekend are the neighbouring Blue Mountain and SWX, in Broadmead. Sure enough, electronic seems to well up by spontaneous generation in a city which is also home to the boisterous Fuck Buttons and The Third Eye Foundation, the alter ego of Matt Elliot, also a singer of dark folk.
Well, music is just everywhere in Bristol – in the transhumant buskers who entertain tourists with their guitar playing, in the numerous shops selling instruments and in the new record stores – like Idle Hands, a must-visit for electronic devotees – that have emerged in place of the plethora of forerunners that closed down during the previous decade. However, the sound is experienced above all in the endless array of music bars and concert halls like The Lanes, where that weekend various members of Fun Lovin Criminals DJ’ed. On Saturdays they host Mod nights, currently featuring DJ Andy Crofts of Paul Weller Band fame at the helm. Others include the famous venue Louisiana – “The Louie”, among friends – or the large syndicated auditorium O2 Academy, used for big occasions. Pubs, too, notably the seedy The Surrey Vaults or The Crofters Rights where, apart from tasting a huge number of craft beers, we spent an evening organised by the London label Trashmouth Records and caught sight of Big Jeff, an endearing local figure whose presence at a concert acts as an endorsement of your choice of venue from among the endless offerings in the city.
All music is welcome and, if one day it is electronic that blares out, this doesn’t mean the next day guitars shouldn’t prevail. No wonder, then, that Bristol is also the city of Wayne Hussey, the former Sisters of Mercy guitarist, and singer of The Mission, both beacons of gothic rock. Also hailing from Bristol are rockers like The Alligators and Rob Ellis, the drummer, producer and arranger known for his close collaboration with PJ Harvey for over two decades. The band Airbus is from nearby Portishead and is actually a spin-off from the group of the same name and with whom they recorded the B-side track “Sour Times”. But, if you’re looking for harder sounds, there are the small standout classics by Onslaught who were part of the thrash metal explosion in the eighties and split up shortly afterwards, only to reunite in 2004. Then there are Jaguar, part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and the hardcore punk group Disorder. So, Bristol begets a penchant for sharp riffs, as evinced in the crowded 3-storey pub, Mother’s Ruin, or at the venue Stag and Hounds, where that weekend happened to feature a performance by Olanza whose bassist is the son of the Black Sabbath drummer.
And, of course, we can’t overlook the fact that some seminal post-punk groups like The Pop Group and Glaxo Babies were founded in Bristol in the late seventies, followed the next decade by such acolytes as The Agents, The Escape and Rip Rig + Panic, whose members include the selfsame Neneh Cherry who would subsequently let Massive Attack use the kitchen in her London flat as a studio during the group’s initial forays in the metropolis. Bristol also witnessed the birth of two members of the popular Bananarama. And, another yardstick of mainstream eighties, the sorely missed Tears for Fears, came together in nearby Bath, where the Propellerheads also emerged. This is clearly fertile ground for music.
The rain never let up throughout our time in the city and, while we never quite grasped the rationale behind some locals – obviously used to such downpours – calmly strolling about in shirtsleeves or jerseys, we did come to appreciate the early nightfall and stimulating cold of Bristol in winter. We admired the city while recalling the verse by Beth Gibbons: “All mine / you have to be / from that cloud / number nine”. And, although soaked through, we felt lucky to be treading its streets.
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Vintage Trip To Aranjuez
Among the host of outings to go on in Madrid’s outlying area is one to Aranjuez, with its panoply of artistic, cultural and ecological heritage sites. Not for nothing was it listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Landscape in 2001.
The Strawberry Train – Experiencing a Bygone Age
For enthusiasts of both old times and new experiences, there is an alternative and highly original way of travelling from Madrid to Aranjuez, which is by taking the Strawberry Train. But, what makes this means of transport so different from the others? First, it runs on the second railway line to be built in Spain, inaugurated on 9 February 1851. The first line to come into operation was the Barcelona–Mataró line, opened in 1948. The aim of the second route was to connect Madrid to the coast, with Alicante as the final destination. In its early days, its importance lay in the produce it transported to Madrid from the market gardens in Aranjuez, prompting it to be known as the Strawberry Train.
Its other big draw is that the train operating this line was built in the early 20th century. Having been restored, it gives you the feel of what train travel was like in bygone days. It has a rakish engine with wooden carriages. And, during the journey, passengers are offered strawberries from Aranjuez by hostesses dressed in period costume. The Strawberry Train runs at weekends in May, June, September and October and leaves from the Railway Museum or Museo del Ferrocarril. The timetable is posted here.
Aranjuez, An Area of Courtly Recreation
Aranjuez’s fortunes changed when Philip II awarded it the title of Royal Site. It was turned into the Spanish monarch’s country residence, thus becoming a royal precinct, particularly during the reigns of Philip V (17th-18th century) and Charles III (18th century). It was precisely these kings who commissioned the creation of the areas which are now the city’s must-see sights. In line with prevailing tastes during the Enlightenment, the inner city was designed in a reticular layout which has survived to the present and never fails to surprise visitors.
Among the standout monuments is the Royal Palace, designed by the architects, Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera. It also features a later extension, including the wings added in 1775. The interior houses such curiosities as the Porcelain Study – the capital work of the Royal Porcelain Factory in Madrid’s Buen Retiro – and the Arab Study, inspired by the Hall of the Two Sisters in the Alhambra of Granada.
Also worth visiting is the Real Casa del Labrador (Farmer’s Lodge), set in the so-called Prince’s Garden, the work of Juan Villanueva and Isidro González Velázquez. Lastly, another notable landmark is the Church of San Antonio, commissioned by Ferdinand VI in honour of St Anthony of Padua.
Another standout feature of Aranjuez is its Royal Gardens. There are four in all, namely the Parterre, the King’s Garden,the Island Garden and the Prince’s Garden, situated on the Tagus riverbank and within the Royal Palace precinct. They were all designed as recreational areas for the Court and attest to a blend of French taste acquired from the Bourbons and Italian influences, yielding a stunning result which is worth strolling around and enjoying.
Wait – There’s More!
For those who aren’t satiated by monuments and gardens, another feature of Aranjuez is its huerta or market gardens, among the most important in Spain. Situated between the Tagus and Jarama rivers, the fertile soil produces such crops as asparagus – here known as pericos– and strawberries, introduced by the French Bourbons. The latter also patronised farming research and experimentation on this land, as evinced in the surviving Renaissance layout of the allotments.
Don’t fail to make a gastronomic stopover to savour the fruit of this land. A classical option is Casa José, one of the most celebrated restaurants in the Madrid Community.
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