So you’ve got into York. You probably got lots of As. Nice one. Be happy – it’s a respectable university, despite its duck shit and dystopian architecture that calls to mind low-budget 60’s sci-fi rather than a seat of learning. It might not be Oxbridge, but it’s sometimes in the Top Ten. York itself, unlike the campus, is aesthetically very much in keeping with the antiquated idea of university life; a quiet, pretty little town brimming with museums, history, pubs and boutiques. It’s a bit like a real life Hogsmeade, and if you squint it could be Cambridge. Not the sort of place you’d imagine to be constantly alight with flaming guitar licks, all day/all night parties, pumping bass, leather trousers or any sort of vibrant music scene. And it isn’t. Really. It’s telling that the two biggest bands to emerge from the town are dire – Emma Watson-romancers One Night Only and T4 Unsigned winners, the upsettingly mediocre Hijack Oscar. But, while York’s music scene has been much lambasted over the years, if you know where to go or when things are happening, it can be very rewarding indeed. It just takes, as Gary Barlow once tenderly sang, a little patience. Before you prance off in search of the aural delights of York, it’s important to make some acquaintances with whom to prance with. No-one wants to be seen standing alone at a gig, pathetically pretending to text to make it look like they have friends to other members of the audience.
The best opportunity to meet some similarly musically-minded individuals will come at the end of the daunting, cringeworthy, inebriated, degrading assault on the senses that is Fresher’s Week. You younglings will be ushered into a mighty hall in the Physics building to choose some societies to join, many of which will rob you of the sweet pennies of your student loan and give you little in return. There are several music-based societies from which to assemble a motley crew, all varying drastically in quality. It all depends on your tastes really, although the options are slightly limited. The biggest music society on campus is Breakz, a dj collective who fundamentally cater to the drum & bass, dubstep (wub) techno and electro markets. York surprisingly has a fantastic electronic music scene, and Breakz are one of the principle reasons for this. As well as ushering top artists like Benga, Scratch Perverts, Chase & Status and Skream into York with their neon tractor beam, they throw the ‘best raves in town and on campus’ with their gang of resident djs. Student-organised clubnights like Idioteque, which hauled Joy Orbison into York this year, as well as sterling local artists such as Chalices of the Past solidify the university’s electronic reputation.
However, if you dislike the bitter taste of horse tranquilizers and waking up with your lips chewed off, there are alternatives. Indie Soc happily doesn’t focus on mainstream Kooks-Wombats twattishness – iconic ex-Chairs Eddie and Morten steered the society last year towards encompassing all elements of independent culture, from film to art – and the group generally have some of the broadest tastes on campus. Head towards their tepee at Fresher’s Fair to get the chance to be a part of a long promised Indie Rock Roller Disco (which I’m pencilled in to perform a dj set of pure warp-speed 80’s hardcore at). Fringe Soc is the closest thing the university has to a ‘Rock Soc’ – but focuses more on the metal side of things with its Asylum clubnight on a Tuesday. I like metal as much as the next longhair but I will state a warning. If you define metal as semi-operatic keyboard driven drivel a la Nightwish, or folk-influenced re-enactment Viking lols then this is the society for you. If, like me, you dig early Celtic Frost and Electric Wizard you might want to take your headbanging elsewhere. This is truly the domain of the full-length Neo trenchcoat and twelve sided dice. Band Soc draws a similar crowd, while Nouse legend Jim Bulley’s dastardly attempt to make York’s music scene even more cheesy – Cheesy Pop Soc – has, over the past year, rendered this writer gibbering and lactose intolerant. There are of course, plenty of orchestras and classical/jazz groups to get involved with, a Rockabilly group, Samba and Big Band, as well as the somewhat eccentric activities of the cultish Wholly Folk and Revolutionary Society – who may end up burning you in a Wicker Man should you deign to join.
Even if you’re allergic to nightclubs, you’ll soon be in one upon arrival to York, herded in by those shepherds of alcohol poisoning – the STYCs. While my dismay at the York club scene is well documented, it’s definitely worth a few nights of rolling in your own and others’ filth – what better way to break the (Smirnoff) ice with the flatmates? Clubs Salvation, Gallery, Tokyo and Ziggy’s are the four horsemen of the nightclub apocalypse. Salvation is probably the best (cheap drinks, unpretentious, karaoke on a Thursday), but it is more an educational experience than anything, a place where I have gently comforted a shellsuited stranger who had got a girl pregnant, and made great friends with a depressed taxi driver called Ian and his ketamine-addled 17 year old daughter. Beware though, if you value your sexual health, avoid Ziggy’s like the literal plague. That said, its dubstep and d&b nights are fairly savage, but possibly not quite savage enough to balance out the inevitable gonorrhoea. York’s most famous, hallowed hall of partying is no doubt the Willow. It is to clubbing what the Rocky Horror Show is to theatre. A cheese-fest disco in a decrepit Chinese restaurant, which doesn’t seem to have a food licence, it is without doubt one of the most ridiculous places available to humanity. A club where a bouncer won’t bat an eyelid at a crowdsurf, or a turd on the floor. A club in which prawn crackers are available for munching on the dancefloor. With its own merchandise range and a cult following, it’s the place to be after everywhere else has shut. A visit there cannot fail to end in broken glass, Bryan Adams, and tears of laughter.
For those into ‘serious’ clubbing, Leeds is twenty minutes and seven pounds away on the train. Big nights out aren’t its forte, but York does have a selection of underrated smaller clubnights. Regular nights are held at the two main venues, The Duchess and Fibbers. These range from legendary indie rock & roll hangout Up The Racket to new drum & bass/dubstep night Hit & Run. Being a garage freak, the acclaimed Revolutionary Freaked Out Fuzz Club is a joy to have on the doorstep. In various venues they put on psychedelic freakbeat nights of a quality rarely seen outside of London. The City Screen Basement and Dusk bar are often occupied with odd clubnights of myriad genres, from dub and reggae to gabba and happy hardcore. Look hard enough on Dusk’s poster-strewn walls and you’re sure find something to tickle your fancy, and you can quaff down on of their tasty Milkybar Kid cocktails while you’re at it. There’s a selection of other musically-minded bars – Stone Roses is constantly stuck in the mid-90s Britpop craze, while Stereo is home to a constant stream of clubnights and bands. Stereo pretty much personifies the York gig scene: hard-working, strangely busy and getting in the odd diamond act. Glasvegas, Times New Viking and Grammatics have all recently played, and, while it’s a tiny venue, it has the best atmosphere and friendliest staff in York. The Duchess and Fibbers are the two ‘big’ venues for gigs – inverted commas because by a normal city’s standards they’d be squats. Fibbers is currently having a lavish 250k refurb though, and both, for all their infinite supplies of tribute bands, every now and then get in someone like Foals, or (in decades past) Oasis.
You’ll probably want to calm down and relax after having your mind blitzed by the host of new friends, hangouts, venues and experiences that York provides. In this case head off to Evil Eye Lounge for an exotic Thai dish or a stinging cocktail. The bar is one of the hippest dens in town, with a tropical interior and intriguing clientele. Most importantly, it plays the best tunes in town while you eat and drink. Another way to wind down might be to pootle off into the cobbled streets and search out some records. For those seeking more adventurous climes than the air-conditioned consumer nightmare of HMV, head to one of York’s hard-to-find but rewarding record shops. While Rebound on Gillygate has a good selection and The Duchess often holds great record fairs, there’s two main options if you’re hankering for some vinyl. Attic Records is hidden away up a few flights of stairs near the market. As well as selling tickets to local gigs, it has eclectic, varied stock and a dedicated, ‘High Fidelity’ vibe. Around the corner on a Saturday and Sunday hunt out ‘Vinyl’ Phil on the market, who wields a rainbow of good-condition acetate with the option to part-exchange. Students often forget that the Minster holds a great deal of first-rate choral concerts and recitals, and what better way is there to soothe a hangover than to lie back against some cold stone to the soaring strains of ‘Miserere Mei Deus’? With such a concentration of religious buildings, it seems silly, even for heathens like myself, to ignore the banquet of devotional music provided. If – to the consternation of those around you – you harbour a love of musicals, you can check out the Theatre Royal or the Grand Opera House for the odd song and dance rolling through town. Lastly, the town plays host to a variety of small, quirky festivals throughout the year. The NCEM puts on the York Early Music Festival annually, a rare opportunity to investigate the more obscure music of the past, focusing on pre-18th century classical works. The DV8 festival also darkens York, a retro goth event that sells out the town’s hairspray, Snakebite and patchouli oil. After all, the place is a bit of a goth-spot with its gargoyles, graveyards, dungeons and ghosts, and The Sisters Of Mercy played their first gig in Vanbrugh College. The York Spring Festival of New Music is another classical showcase, while rather obviously the Leeds Festival is just down the road in August.
York, then, is a mixed bag for music fans. If it’s an epic, widescreen night out you’re after, you’ll want to invest in a railcard. Or just get a dozen pills off the bloke down the Stonebow car park and head to Reflex, an 80’s theme bar with a revolving dancefloor. Similarly, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder seem to leave the town off the tour map, so if you want huge names don’t get your hopes up. Happily, Leeds has, in my opinion, the best music scene in the North, and is constantly awash with brilliant acts. It also feels great to experience the bright lights and then return home from its grimy alleys to cosiness and small town comfort. York will stop you hopping on that train a lot of the time, though, with its broad selection of bustling smaller venues and bars, where a preposterously friendly bunch of people work tirelessly to keep the tunes pumping. The scene is so tight that you’ll soon get to know loads of like-minded folks, and the university’s multifarious societies provide all the support you’ll need should you want to get involved, book a band or even cook up your own clubnight. For all the thrills and spills of bigger cities, nothing quite beats being down at the shithole that is Ziggy’s, jumping up and down in a sweaty crowd made up of all your friends, to an improbably great act someone’s booked who for all intents and purposes should be somewhere far cooler.