Pub rock was both a musical idea and a political movement in British rock from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, when 1960s heroes had outgrown the audiences they had once played for, beginning as the punk had yet to show its gobby head and ending when MTV was still a sci-fi dream. It’s a special genre in that it’s defined less by a specific musical style than by the venues the bands played in: London pubs that featured live music, often in a room downstairs from the main bar , where patrons drank and danced. The Tally Ho pub in Kentish Town is widely regarded as the birthplace of the scene, which began when American band Eggs Over Easy – who had emigrated from the Bay Area to London and couldn’t get gigs – managed to persuade the owner to let them play there and replaced the traditional jazz music the pub had previously featured.
London band Brinsley Schwarz were having similar trouble getting a booking after suffering a disastrous publicity stunt when their managers flew two planes full of British journalists to see the band’s US debut at the Fillmore East… and they bombed. The group grabbed the eggs from the Tally Ho – which The Guardian retrospectively dubbed “CBGB of pub rock” – and soon had a residency there.
Pub rock bands were heavily influenced by American roots music—blues, country, and folk—and Jamaican ska. Oddly enough, most would probably all be classified as Americana bands if they existed today. It was a homecoming movement clearly designed to offer an alternative to the glamour, pomp and circumstance surrounding Britain’s biggest rock bands of the time. The London punk scene evolved from many of the same stages where pub rock flourished, and many punk bandleaders and players emerged from pub rock bands, including Joe Strummer in The 101ers and Elvis Costello in Flip City.
The movement never produced breakthrough stars or, with one exception, hit singles. But by the mid-1970s it was a mainstay of London’s live music scene, with bands playing in pubs across the city and attracting punters to drink and enjoy the sound largely good time. The music of its best bands stands the test of time and has certainly rocked with fervor. The following are the best pub rockers and their best songs.
10) “Caldonia” by Bees Make Honey
This video of kids drinking imperial pints and the band playing an edgy cover of a blues hop hit by Louis Jordan and the Tympani Five at the Nag’s Head pub pretty much sums up the pub rock ethos in a nutshell.
9) “Back on the Train” by The Electric Bluebirds
Formed at The Duke pub in Deptford in 1979, the Bluebirds featured members of The Realists and The Fabulous Poodles and were in the same circle as Squeeze’s Mark Knopfler and Glenn Tilbrook. Accordionist Alan Dunne, who later performed with Van Morrison, is credited with introducing Cajun music to the British pub scene. Those who thought Mumford & Sons had invented something new will hear their style some three decades earlier. Bonus Points: Richard Thompson plays guitar on this track.
8) “Doghouse” by Nine Below Zero
Guitarist/vocalist Dennis Greaves fronted a fairly straightforward hard-blues pub band before changing the name to Nine Below Zero after the Sonny Boy Williamson II song and recording the hit album. Living in the marquee in 1979.
7) “Teenage Depression” by Eddie and the Hot Rods
Known for their rowdy shows at London’s Kensington pub, the band went straight to punk even as they got rid of the stuffed mascot “Eddie”.
6) “How long” by Ace
Led by future Squeeze/Mike + the Mechanics member and Eric Clapton sideman Paul Carrack, Ace produced a smooth R&B sound that produced that top 20 hit in England and America.
5) “Standard Susan” by Mickey Jupp
One of pub rock’s unsung heroes, Jupp wrote many classic songs of the genre, a number of which were later recorded by Nick Lowe and/or Dave Edmunds, the co-frontmen of Rockpile – the only band that could getting the most mileage out of the pub rock roots music ethos.
4) “England’s Glory” by Kilburn and the High Roads
Named after the street in North London where they played and drank in many pubs, this band was the backing of the brilliant Ian Durywho wrote many great original songs for this unit and its punk-era spin-off, Ian Dury and the Blockheads.
3) “Coast to Coast” by Ducks Deluxe
Among the first pub rockers, they emerged from the Welsh rock scene, combining crew members from Brinsley Schwarz and Help Yourself. Their flint-edged hard rock was the antithesis of the glam rock they sought to defeat and they quickly became regulars at the Tally Ho. What It’s About. Martin Belmont continued to play with Graham Parker’s backing band The Rumor, while former Ducks Nick Garvey and Andy McMaster later formed the Motors and enjoyed minimal success during the new wave movement.
2) “She Does It Good” by Dr. Feelgood
Dr. Feelgood quickly became the face of pub rock, then a British rock institution under the leadership of singer Lee Brilleaux and the amazing Wilko Johnson, whose unique rhythm/lead guitar technique sounds like the explosion of a unbalanced watch spring, and who made a scorching album with the songs of Roger Daltrey from Feelgood, Go home (see our review here).
1) “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding” by Brinsley Schwarz
Vocalist/bassist Nick Lowe, keyboardist Bob Andrews, and guitarist Brinsley Schwarz all made significant contributions to the music scene after leaving that group: Lowe as a solo artist, Rockpile member, and producer; Andrews and Schwarz in Rumor. Lowe’s most famous composition became a cornerstone of her career and earned her a small fortune when featured in Whitney Houston’s film. The bodyguard and on the film’s multimillion-selling soundtrack album.