Busking the mould


Is creativity in busking a distant memory?


By Lewis Garfield

My fingers remain frozen in position. A nervous energy fills the cold air around me. To hell with it, you only live once and it’s not like anyone will judge me.

The first notes echo down the canal, cannoning off empty spaces, into unsuspecting ears.

An onslaught of politically fuelled adolescent rap descends over Bob Dylan’s classic “all along the watchtower”.

My 15-year-old brother is showing me how it’s done, reeling verse after verse of seamless rhyme over my guitar chords.

A 50 pence piece leaves the hand of a passer-by and safely nestles into the open guitar case at our feet. In shock, we momentarily stop and look at one another. Did someone appreciate our busking efforts?

We continued to jam until all nerves have left our bodies gone until my fingers were literally bleeding. Who would have thought busking could be so much fun and creative.

Being a live music junkie I have always admired buskers and often find myself emptying my deep student pockets of any loose change.

However, when walking the labyrinth’s of the underground, I can’t help but feel I’m being stalked by renditions of “popular” music. 

From Oasis to Ed Sheeran, Metallica to Adele, we have all been subjected to different “interpretations” from the streets of London, often to the detriment of our ears.

This question is more relevant than ever. Is creativity in busking a distant memory?

While descending down the familiar escalator at Leicester Square underground I’m hit by, a poor at best, bond theme tune played on guitar.

Waiting for me at the bottom is Vladimir, an underground busker who has spent six years on the highly sought after circuit.

Before allowing me to interview him he finishes his set, subjecting me to a version of Queen’s “Don’t stop me now” which would have Freddie Mercury somersaulting in his grave.

What surprises me as he finishes his cover based two-hour “set” is how long it takes him to claw in his earnings from his guitar case. It would appear it’s been a very lucrative day.

Vladimir had to pass an audition to gain an underground license. With all the talent in London is this really the best the capital can offer?

Like a well-oiled machine the busking void left by Vladimir is filled seamlessly by another guitarist clocking in for his Metallica covers fest.

Never ask a busker how much money they earn. The result will be a well-rehearsed rant to a question they have heard a million times before.

Student journalistic mistakes aside Vladimir said: “The underground scheme gives musicians the opportunity to play here legally. You often get people approaching you to do other gigs, birthday parties for example.”

As rock and roll as birthday party gigs sound it doesn’t quite get the juices pumping. As the conversation continues it becomes evident that busking is strictly a business for many.

This is Vladimir’s bread and butter. There is no time during the set to creatively break-away from the covers that are so financially rewarding.

Like any manufactured act the soundtrack loving busker has one eye firmly fixated on his target audience.

He added: “You have to be conscious of what class you’re playing to, what songs are popular and what tourists enjoy. This changes station to station. You have to play songs that people recognise.”

Covent Garden has long been London’s mecca for buskers and creativity.

Packing up his guitar quietly outside the London Transport Museum is singer/songwriter Terry St Clair.

Terry has been busking in London for 30 years. He has played the hotly contested plaza since gaining his license in 1982.

He has seen a fair few changes over the years within the busking community.

Terry said: “There is only me and Sam Willoughby who sing our own material on this circuit. Nowadays it’s back to doing covers and stuff that everybody knows. Twenty years ago quite a few of us were doing original and experimental stuff.”

He added: “I don’t compromise. I do what I do and don’t just sing pop songs. I’m a musician and performing and making my own music is very important to me.”

This wave of creativity is bolstered as he name drops Eddie Izzard. He showed the fresh faced comedian around the site in the early 80s.

He said: “A great school of entertainment came out of Covent Garden at that time.”

Terry is a true musician with his own material which he promotes through his busking. He has clearly worked at his trade and has built up a devoted fan base.

It took a trip to Notting Hill’s famous Portobello Road market to truly rekindle my faith in London’s busking scene.

Walking around the vibrant street I was instantly drawn to a musician playing an instrument I have never seen before.

Daniel Waples, a hang musician (a UFO shaped metal instrument invented in 2000 from Switzerland) was wowing the market crowds with his original compositions.

He has been busking in London for the last four years. The problem for Dan is the extensive waiting list to gain a busking permit. He applied in 2008 and had the mandatory audition 11-months after. The whole process took two-years and left the Hang genius in financial hot water.

He was recently forced out of his flat and is now sleeping in his white van on these cold winter nights.

Competition for busking sites along the Portobello Market is fierce.

Dan said: “No license can be granted on the spot when busking in Notting Hill. You can play inside the market but you have to be there at 5am and stand your ground.  I’m not really that way inclined.”

He added: “There are millions of tourists in London, it’s a great place and everyone seems to be catered apart from the people who want to make music.”

He said: “It’s financially beneficial to jump on a train and spending three hours a week commuting to Bath where I know I can busk. You don’t need a busking license in Bath. You can sit and sell CDs. If there was a place in London where I could get a permit and play, then I would.”

Dan explained that he had already been asked by the police to move. Last week he was stopped and moved seven times in one day.

Dan’s situation makes me angry. Here is a talented individual who plays his own material and pleases the crowds. It seems tragic that “musicians” like Vlad have been granted these elusive permits, churning out soundtracks simply for financial gain, while true musicians are being forced off the streets.

Tom Morley, a musician on the cusp of going professional, told me there is a shortage of younger artists in the licensed circuit.

He said: “It is the individual’s choice as to what they play but I believe original composition and creativity should be prioritised and fought for.

“I believe busking is something we should embrace as a capital city. The current system doesn’t seem to be realising the full creative potential of artists – some of the most creative minds in the world.”

Tom has busked in the Olympic village as well as entering the Undergrounds busking competition.

“More effort should be made in selecting locations and appropriate and original music rather than an army of “Sweet child of mine” electric guitar arrangements.”

Speaking to musician’s such as Tom, Terry and Dan I am relieved to see creativity is very much still alive in the capital. We live in the age of such gimmicks as X-Factor which thrives on ripping off original music and manufacture artists.  It is up to us to support original material buskers breaking the mould. 

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