Alex Parnham-Cope for Varsity

Cambridge is known for being a breeding ground for acting and comedic talent. From Fry and Laurie to Rowan Atkinson, the Footlights alumni list reads like a Who’s Who of British comedy legends. Our University has also produced its fair share of heartthrobs: Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne both split their time between the ADC and Pitt Club, which, location wise, in all fairness, must have been very convenient.

However, Cambridge's musical contributions list is less star-studded. While researching Cambridge musical alumni, I was taken to the Music faculty’s “About” page which lists a host of Cantab conductors, organists and cellists. Call me a philistine, but where was our Mick Jagger or Brian May? I’d even take a Chris Martin. A Varsity article, Pink Floyd to Clean Bandit: Cambridge’s Musical Legacy, gave me false hope. Of course! Who else could have written “We don’t need no education” other than a supo-weary Cambridge student with a particularly bad case of the Week Five blues? The Dark Side of the Moon cover had Phys NatSci written all over it. As I read on, however, I discovered that, although Syd Barrett and Roger Waters went to school in Cambridge, the band formed at what is now the University of Westminster. Our loss.

“Call me a philistine, but where was our Mick Jagger? Our Brian May? I’d even take a Chris Martin.”

But that was Yesterday, and I believe that, today, Cambridge boasts a variety of student band talent. From rock and roll to jazz, we bop and ball to the music of our peers. I spoke to some members of Cambridge’s hottest bands for their take on the University’s music scene.

So, you want to start a band? Blue Velvet, a rock four-piece whose setlist ranges from Jet to Arctic Monkeys, began in true rock and roll fashion. Katie (vocals) heard through a mutual that Eddie was keen to start a band and dropped him a message: “Do you want to make some music?” After a successful chat at Sidgwick, Katie got in touch with Finn (bass) who she’d met on an “Où est le Poulet?” pub crawl during Freshers' Week, and Eddie (guitar) “nabbed Ben”, (drums) a College-mate. Blue Velvet was born.

Orpheus, a pop rock band which covers everything from Fleetwood Mac to Amy Winehouse, also got its start organically. Leila (vocals) says everything “fell into place via random associations with each other”. On night one of Freshers', Leila (vocals) and Izzy (drums) started chatting about starting a band. They met Dan (bass) at a formal. Leila knew Marcus (guitar) from a Greek summer camp before uni – which explains the Classics-inspired band name. Without a bass player, they got Dan to “play bass on guitar while drunk”. Thankfully, however, his skills as a guitarist were transferrable. So, they became a four-piece.

“How does one balance academic weaponry with gigs and rehearsals?”

So Sidgwick, formals and Greek camps are just some of ingredients to make a Cambridge student band. But what next? How does one balance academic weaponry with gigs and rehearsals? According to Josh of Stanky Johnson’s and The, a jazz band born out of Christ’s Jazz, their genre helps a lot. He says: “what we do doesn’t require a lot of rehearsal - jazz standards are pretty simple and the rest is just improv.” He adds that “Danny and Manav are so sick they can just turn up and play whatever”.

Blue Velvet found themselves rehearsing for three hours per day for 4 days in the lead up to an end of term string of gigs. A bit “crazy”, but they enjoyed rehearsals because they “allow us to have fun rather than being worried about things going wrong”.

Orpheus shares this sentiment. They consider rehearsing “a break from their degrees” and more like “free time”, but add that, when they’re all very busy, they have had to rely on their “very good chemistry” and perform songs learnt on the day of the gig.

“I love that my friends get to see me enjoying that part of my life”

For me, the idea of performing to my peers brings back haunting memories of botching Für Elise for five consecutive years in class concerts. But what struck me was how much the bands love playing for their friends. Ellen, vocalist of funk collective Hot Content, says: “It can be quite nerve wracking performing for other students, but when we start playing, I lose those nerves, especially when I see people dancing in the crowd and singing along.”

Ellen says that when performing in front of her friends “[she] love[s] that they get to see [her] enjoying that part of [her] life”. Josh of Stanky Johnson’s and The agrees. He used to “get stage fright quite often” but now it “seems to have disappeared”. Meanwhile, Orpheus say that – especially when playing on a flat stage – they imagine they’re just dancing and singing with their friends in Revs.

What is particularly unique about the Cambridge band scene is that the gigs are usually Uni-affiliated. Orpheus loved their first gig at Clare Cellars, even though they were only booked a few days before and Leila “had a fever of 40 degrees and was on antibiotics”. They also said that playing the jazz stage at St John’s was particularly rewarding because they started with “hardly anyone watching” but “by the end had a large crowd”. Stanky Johnson’s and The enjoy playing their “home turf” of Christ’s Buttery the most because they love playing to familiar faces.

“Though some would consider putting out some originals on Spotify, rockstardom did not appeal”

Hot Content’s Ellen did mark their headline gig at the Portland Arms as a standout: playing “three hours of all [their] music” and keeping a big crowd entertained “for so long” was “a great feeling”. But, on the whole, most tales from the road were limited to College-linked events.

Is the ‘Cambridgeness’ of the Cambridge student band scene its USP or a limitation? A bit of both, it seems. The phrase “word of mouth” came up a lot in the interviews. Also, securing gigs often requires either personal connections or being a long-established band. I heard tales of woe from the Big Audition Weekend, which was described as “very badly advertised”, lacking proper equipment and biased towards established groups, putting newer bands in dead time slots. Nevertheless, after breaking onto the scene, Cambridge’s insularity can be helpful: one gig leads to the next, provided people like what they see.


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So, will the University be name-dropped in Rolling Stone interviews to come? It seems unlikely. Not for want of talent, the Cantabs I spoke to viewed music as a hobby, rather than career goal. And though some would consider putting out some originals on Spotify, ‘rockstardom’ did not appeal. I suppose this is to be expected. Unless you’re Dr Alex George, you don’t tend to leave medicine for celebrity, and I get a sense that these student musicians don’t want to ‘waste’ their Cambridge degrees.

While I didn’t discover the next big thing, I did find a wealth of talented student bands whose gigs are a guaranteed good night out. And at Cambridge, where competition and ambition are part of the fibre of our University, it’s refreshing to find people doing things they love and just for the sake of it.