From the Hippodrome to the Pavilion to the Corn Exchange, Brighton’s love for music is deep-rooted in the city’s history.
Brighton was a byword for hedonism long before big beat became the city’s biggest export. It was the sea that made it so, sea bathing being all the rage among the 18th century elite and the craze bringing with it all the trappings of leisure tourism.
At the end of the century, royal patronage turbo-charged Brighton’s transformation into a magnet for pleasure seekers, as during the Regency it became the favourite retreat of George, Prince of Wales, Prince Regent from 1811 and King George IV from 1820. He commissioned his pleasure palace, the Brighton Pavilion – an outrageous statement of decadence with its minarets and domes – as a 25-year-old good time boy with a notoriously large appetite for every luxury, and the town was given a sheen of glamour if has only slowly lost.
Music was a central part of Prince George’s indulgent life at Brighton. The Pavilion’s music room, with its 40ft ceiling and gilded Chinese dragons adorning the walls, was the lavish venue for private musical performances put on by a prince who spent as profligately on his musical staff as he did on everything else. While the celebrated composer and former pupil of Mozart, Thomas Attwood, was installed as the organist in the Pavilion’s private chapel, a private band of some 42 handpicked players was stationed at the Pavilion.
They were decked out in a uniform expensively decorated with gold lace, their trumpets and drums were made of solid silver, and they entertained many illustrious names from the world of music, including Rossini when he spent three days at the Pavilion in 1823.
As the 19th century wore on, domestic tourism became a social revolution and the familiar seaside resort began to evolve, catering to the new middle and working class alike.
The coming of the railway in 1840 saw Brighton become a premiere coastal resort, drawing Londoners to the seaside for fresh air and, crucially, entertainment. From Wright’s Music Hall, which opened in 1892 and later became the Empire Theatre of Varieties, to the Palace Pier theatre, opening in 1899 and hosting performances by music hall stars like the elegant singer and pianist Margaret Cooper, and later the big dance bands, like Jack Hylton and His Orchestra, the venues that sprang up were myriad.
From the first decade of the 20th century, the Hippodrome was a variety theatre that hosted every major musical act of the day, while Sherry’s Dance Hall on West Street opened in 1919 and thrived into the war years.
While there were plenty of local acts to be found in pubs and performance venues, operating within a home-grown music hall template, Brighton also attracted acts from all over the world. New Orleans jazz came direct to Brighton in the summer of 1921 via the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which featured the celebrated clarinettist Sidney Bechet. The orchestra played a month-long residency at Brighton Dome – formerly Prince George’s royal stables – becoming one of the first jazz bands to play in Britain and the first black musicians to play this iconic venue.
The photograph of the orchestra posing in front of the windows of the Pavilion’s Corn Exchange is one of the few that survive of this historic early jazz band.
After the Beat revolution had dawned, Brighton became synonymous with the mods, an association that vivid images of fighting on the beaches on the May 1964 bank holiday weekend, and the Who’s Brighton-set Quadrophenia (1973) have set in stone. But Brighton’s punk and post-punk scene – contemporary with the film version of Quadrophenia (1979) and the attendant mod revival – is a lesser-known story.
Attrix Records, based not far from the train station, on Sydney Street, was crucial to this scene. Founded by Rick Blair of local band The Parrots, the label’s compilation album Vaultage 78 – Two Sides Of Brighton, gave a first outing to bands like the ska-influenced The Piranhas and comic punks Peter and the Test Tube Babies.
Vaultage 79 – Another Two Sides Of Brighton and Vaultage 80 – A Vinyl Chapter followed before the label folded after a brief but glorious run.
Along with the Attrix offices and its accompanying record shop, The Vault was another Brighton punk scene hub, and had given the Vaultage series its name.
In fact the crypt of the old Presbyterian church on North Road, it was used for gigs and as a rehearsal space. While later Brighton punk and post-punk bands could be seen in the rather more salubrious surroundings of the Top Rank Suite, a brutalist edifice opened in the mid-1960s and still going as Pryzm nightclub, The Vault could not be beaten for its punk grit – famed Brighton punk poet Atilla the Stockbroker, variously of the bands English Disease and Brighton Riot Squad, later recalled how ‘skulls, bones and bits of coffin’ worked their way out of the walls as the ear-splitting music made the place vibrate violently.
In the 1980s and 1990s, when Brighton was steeped in the sense of faded glamour common to all British seaside resorts of the era, the town produced everything from the folk rock of the Levellers to the riot grrrl punk of Huggy Bear.
In 1989, Bromley’s Norman Cook, late of The Housemartins, formed Beats International in Brighton, and their Dub Be Good to Me occupied the No.1 spot for four consecutive weeks in March 1990.
A few years later, Cook would spearhead a new genre that went a long way to defining the 2000s. Taking the ‘build and drop’ of house music and hip-hop breakbeats and slotting them into a more traditional rock/ pop structure, the big beat sound had been born in London, at the Sunday Social at Great Portland Street’s Albany pub, but it would be a Brighton club night that gave it its name and sealed its reputation.
Big beat landed in Brighton in 1995 when Damien Harris founded Skint Records and Norman Cook launched the Big Beat Boutique club night on Friday nights at the Concorde club, opposite the Palace Pier.
It would later move to Concorde 2 on Madeira Drive, to a building that was originally the shelter for the Victorian-era Madeira Lift. Big beat’s euphoric feel and association with drug use made the scene an heir to rave culture, but its musical accessibility also saw it cross over into the charts in a big way.
As Fatboy Slim, Cook’s monster second album You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby (1998), released on Skint, saw all four of its singles go UK Top 10, with Praise You garnering Cook another No.1 and Rockafeller Skank’s ‘Right about now/ The funk soul brother’ was heard endlessly on film and TV in both the UK and the US.
While album track You’re Not From Brighton played with an idea of south coast cliqueiness, the video to Build It Up, Tear It Down was filmed on the last night at the old Concorde and showed the building’s walls and ceilings being torn down by clubbers.
The fact that Skint sponsored Brighton and Hove Albion throughout the 2000s, the name emblazoned across the players’ chests, indicated the degree to which big beat was a matter of local pride for Brighton.
But the 1990s weren’t all about big beat. Brighton was also where the Bella Union label was founded in 1997 by the Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie, and the town provided inspiration for the dreamy trip hop of Morcheeba’s The Sea (1998), much beloved of advert makers.
As Brighton and Hove faced the new millennium as a city, that status being bestowed in 2001, it was heavily identified with jaunty indie rock, the baby-faced Kooks, who had formed in the city, having three Top 10 singles in 2006-2008 and proclaiming on an album track on their debut Inside In/ Inside Out (2006) ‘I fell in love with the seaside’, while Razorlight sang of Brighton Pier (2018) in a throwback to such indie sounds of the decade before.
Rather more interesting in the intervening period had been the tongue in cheek hip hop of Jordan Stephens and Harley Alexander-Sule, aka Rizzle Kicks, a duo who started on YouTube and made much of their Brighton roots, including filming the video for their debut single Down With the Trumpets (2011) on Hove seafront.
Rizzle Kicks were born well after Norman Cook’s first No.1 with The Housemartins in the mid-1980s, but he produced their third single Mama Do the Hump in 2011 – Brighton’s music is both well-rooted in a sense of local camaraderie and is endlessly self-seeding.