Memphis in Motherwell

9th February 2007 at 00:00
Forget 'Amazing Grace' and Amadeus Mozart. A rock 'n' roll competition run by North Lanarkshire education authority is teaching the students other types of music

spotlights illuminate the stage, the first chord strikes up on a guitar and a group of teenage fans scream and shout, encouraging their band to come out on top of the competition. It sounds like a scene from an American teen movie, but this is Motherwell, not Memphis. Nor is it some backstreet club, but the concert hall attached to the town's civic centre.

The attitudes traditionally associated with rock 'n' roll would seem to be positively anti-establishment, yet for the last decade the North Lanarkshire education authority has been running the Battle of the Bands competition. It's a long way from school choir, which as the head of North Lanarkshire's education department, Michael O'Neill, explains, is precisely the point.

It was Mr O'Neill who instigated this pioneering project in the belief that it would offer something for those children, particularly boys, who don't necessarily relate to other parts of the education system. The majority of children involved in classical or folk music at school tend to be girls, he says, whereas far more boys are interested in rock. Indeed, it's noticeable that of the 11 bands in the final of the 2007 competition, boys are in the majority.

The Motherwell concert is the final stage in a competition that begins with the 25 schools in the education authority selecting a band, or two, a number then whittled down in further heats to the 11 or so who appear in the final.

These bands have thus already passed two rounds of selection and some of what I hear is astonishingly good. The set-up is slick with professional sound and lighting and Clyde 1 DJ George Bowie introducing the bands.

The stakes are pretty high; the winning band gets pound;500 for its school to spend on equipment in Sound Control, the musical instrument retailer, in Glasgow, with similar smaller prizes for the second and third-place groups.

Each band plays two numbers; a cover version and one of their own compositions and the range of styles on display is diverse. It's not just the music; these bands have the look to go with it.

The evening kicks off in an atmosphere of retro-hip, courtesy of The Routes from St Ambrose High who, dressed in sharp trousers and ties, perform a classic Rolling Stones cover with suitable laid-back cool.

As the concert progresses, however, rock anthems seem to be more the thing.

There are covers of current bands such as The Libertines and Girls Aloud, but there are plenty of oldies as well; the Stones, the classic anthem "I Love Rock'n'Roll" and even some Michael Jackson.

With such a range of styles, it's difficult to imagine how the panel of four judges - Simple Minds keyboard player Andy Gillespie, Clyde 1 DJ Sharon Oakley, Michael O'Neill and the head of music in North Lanarkshire, John O'Dowd - can choose between them.

The band's own composition is a big factor, one of the judges tells me at the interval; it's not too difficult to copy someone else's sound with a cover version, but the original is more difficult.

As the concert progresses, it's clear that some bands just have it in a way that the others don't. Some look slightly awkward on stage; others have a self-possession that belies their 16 or so years. Also, the smaller bands seem to have a tightness and cohesion that some of the larger ensembles lack.

It's not a decision I'd want to make. I mentally list my top three bands, however, and am pretty pleased when it tallies with the judges' decision.

Third goes to The Routes from St Ambrose, second to the Jackanoorys from St Aidan's, a four-piece band whose lead singer worked the stage - and the cameras -like no one else in the competition.

The winning band is another quartet, Bad Day? from St Maurice's High, a group with infectious energy and a catchy composition snappily titled "Na Na Na Na Na". It was, say the judges, the latter that clinched it - clearly another example of how, in this composition, less can be more.

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