The music-lovers’ guide to British rock and pop venues

As the UK hosts Eurovision 2023 in Liverpool, native Brit Matt Brace takes us on a whistlestop tour of British rock and pop music.

The 10.39 TransPennine Express train from Manchester Oxford Road takes just 15 minutes to reach Stockport. In that brief time, you can tick off a seriously impressive list of British music history locations as they fly past your window.

A journey through British music history

About 150 metres down Whitworth Street West from Oxford Road station is the site of the Haçienda nightclub, which played a key role in the careers of numerous bands. Among them were the Happy Mondays, Oasis, The Stone Roses and New Order (who largely bankrolled the place). US import Madonna made her UK live debut there in 1984.

The train click clacks south past Ardwick Green, childhood home of guitarist Johnny Marr of The Smiths. At Heaton Chapel station, look west and about one kilometre away is Burnage where Noel Gallagher grew up and got his first inspirations for songs. Look east and you can scan the rooftops to Denton, where Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall spent his early years.

Before you know it, you’re pulling in to Stockport where, just a five-minute walk from the station are the (now closed) Strawberry Studios. The complex was owned by local lads 10CC and it was where they recorded most of their albums. It also played host to The Smiths, Cliff Richard, The Ramones, Paul McCartney and plenty more. It was here that Unknown Pleasures was recorded, the debut album by Joy Division, who achieved worldwide stardom after reincarnating themselves as New Order.

All that in less than half-an-hour. There are heaps more examples of musical odysseys in Manchester and that’s before we get on to Liverpool – which is playing surrogate Eurovision host this year on behalf of Ukraine – or Birmingham, Sheffield, Bristol, London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So, which British musicians, bands and scenes are from which places and where you can see live music in those places today?

Liverpool

Musical roots

The Beatles need no introduction. Following them was a flood of bands including fellow Merseybeat swingers Gerry and the Pacemakers and – later – Elvis Costello. Then came synth-pop originals Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, abundantly hair-sprayed Flock of Seagulls, UK funk pioneers The Real Thing, indie rockers Echo and the Bunnymen, the outrageous Frankie Goes to Hollywood and girl-band Atomic Kitten. No surprise Liverpool is one of the UK’s three UNESCO Cities of Music.

Today’s venues

The is Cavern Club where The Beatles played in 1961 at the start of their career, with original drummer Pete Best. More than 60 years on, the place (in a new venue a few doors down from the original) is a legendary live music haunt. Visit to catch original artists and plenty of modern-day Beatlemania.

Music buffs might also like The British Music Experience at Pier Head on the River Mersey waterfront. It charts the beginnings, rise and influence of British pop from 1945 to the present day. There are tonnes more places to catch live music including the famous Zanzibar Club (or the ‘Zanzi’) and a multi-purpose arts space in a converted turbine plant called the Invisible Wind Factory. Here’s a good guide to the city’s current venues.

The Cavern Club in Liverpool, where the Beatles music group started their music career
The Beatles began their career at Liverpool’s The Cavern Club © VisitBritain / Rod Edwards

Birmingham

Musical roots

England’s second largest city has nurtured important rock, soul and reggae scenes over the years. The result? Bands including ELO, Led Zeppelin (through local boys Robert Plant and John Bonham), The Moody Blues, Black Sabbath, UB40, Steel Pulse and the indefatigable Beverley Knight. There’s also been a fabulous national bhangra festival for the past few years.

The Birmingham musical honour roll also includes New Romantic poster boys Duran Duran and chart-topping Dexys Midnight Runners. In neighbouring city Coventry, a ska revival produced The Specials, Fun Boy Three, The Selecter and more.

Today’s venues

The Jam House is a live music venue conceived in part by British music legend Jools Holland. The Nightingale Club is the city’s oldest and largest LGBT venue. The larger Utilita Arena is where to catch Hollywood Vampires (Alice Cooper, Johnny Dep and the gang), Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Scottish band Deacon Blue and more in 2023.

In the city’s southern suburb of Kings Heath is the Hare and Hounds pub, where UB40 played their first gig. The place is still rocking today with live bands, DJ sets and a Blues Club on Saturday afternoons. Read more about what music you can experience in Birmingham here

The streets of Birmingham inspired countless British musicians
The streets of Birmingham were the inspiration for countless musicians © L: Christian Mackie | R: Tom W / Unsplash

Manchester

Musical roots

There is quite the band roll call from the industrial capital of the north. The Smiths, Joy Division (later New Order), The Hollies, Magazine, Simply Red, 10CC, Take That, Oasis, Chemical Brothers, M People… the list goes on. From roughly 1988 to 1992, the city was famous for its Madchester scene where bands such as the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets made their name and innovative musician and producer A Guy Called Gerald invented a UK version of Chicago’s Acid House music in his bedroom.

A few decades before that The Bee Gees lived for three years in Chorlton-cum-Hardy in south Manchester before emigrating to Australia. Despite being just kids, they formed two bands in those three years: The Rattlesnakes and Wee Johnny Hayes and The Blue Cats.

Today’s venues

New Century Hall is a legendary music venue which hosted Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones back in the day. It re-opened in late 2022 in the NOMA area of the city centre.

Band on the Wall is the city’s oldest music venue and was one of the first in the UK to embrace world music. And yes, many years ago bands did actually play on a stage built halfway up the wall.

Co-op Live Arena will open in December 2023 and will be the UK’s largest new live music venue. It is claiming it will be the most sustainable too. The annual Sounds of the City festival is on in June 2023 near the Science and Industry Museum. Read more about Manchester’s music scene here.

Bristol

Musical roots

Bristol often gets overlooked in British music round-ups but its edgy, underground and mainly trip hop sound made a major contribution to British and international music. The bands Massive Attack and Portishead are at the head of a long list. The city has also had a strong reggae and dub scene with Jamaican sound systems competing on the streets and in the clubs. It even has its own Reggae Orchestra, which will be front and centre on Jamaican Independence Day in late July.

Today’s venues

Bristol Beacon will open in November 2023 and will be a major new venue for Bristol and south west England. It was previously known as the Colston Hall and for decades hosted music royalty. Think The Beatles, David Bowie, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong and hundreds more.

The Trinity Centre is one venue where the ‘Bristol Sound’ evolved in the late eighties. It’s still pumping today with a wide range of events in a historic former church complete with stained glass windows. If jazz is your thing, check out The Old Duke pub, which has live music every night.

Glastonbury Festival has grown from a small, mud-infested happening to the global brand it is today. The site, at Pilton in Somerset, is about 45km south of Bristol. Read more about Bristol’s music scene here.

Glastonbury Festival © James Genchi / Unsplash

Scotland

Musical roots

With music, as with most other things, the Scots punch above their weight. The nation has given the world everyone from Big Country, The Skids and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions to Simple Minds, Primal Scream, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Orange Juice, Texas, Aztec Camera and the infuriatingly catchy Proclaimer twins. While not all of them are from Glasgow, it is a designated UNESCO City of Music.

Today’s venues

Glasgow’s King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut is a notorious music venue, not just in Scotland but across the UK. Countless now-famous bands played here early in their careers – Coldplay, Oasis, Blur, Crowded House and the White Stripes are just a few.

For a sustainable gig or club head to SWG3. This Glasgow multi-arts venue that has committed to go net zero by 2025. One of its many actions is capturing and converting human heat from club and gig revellers into a renewable energy source for the venue to use. Also in Glasgow, the Barrowland Ballroom is another famous spot. Local band Simple Minds filmed part of the video for their 1983 hit single ‘Waterfront’ here.

In Edinburgh, Sandy Bell’s Pub has held music sessions since World War II. The music is more folk and traditional Scottish tunes and is the perfect acoustic backdrop to a night out in the capital. Along with a wee dram from the pub’s mind-blowing whisky selection, of course. Read more about Scotland’s music scene here, including a range of festivals throughout the year.

TRNSMT Music festival in Glasgow
TRNSMT music festival in Glasgow © DF Concerts & Events

Wales

Musical roots

The principality to the west of England spawned Dame Shirley Bassey and Sir Tom Jones. Plus The Alarm, the Manic St Preachers, Stereophonics, Super Furry Animals, Catfish and the Bottlemen, and one of the co-founders of the US band Velvet Underground, John Cale.

Today’s venues

The big game in town is Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, formerly the ‘Millennium Stadium’. Rugby fans will know it well but it’s also Wales’s biggest music venue. Coldplay, Beyonce and Harry Styles are all playing in 2023. Find a range of other capital city venues here.

Hard rock fans should make at date with a tent in a field at Hafod-y-Dafal Farm in the Brecon Beacons for the annual summer Steelhouse festival of rock in July.

In August the Woodstock-meets-Glastonbury Green Gathering lights up near Chepstow, calling itself the “Original Off-grid Festival”. In the early winter days of November, the Tenby Blues Festival comes along to brighten up the mood. Read more about today’s Welsh music scene here and at the official Visit Wales site.

The Green Man music festival in Brecon Beacons, Wales
The Green Man Festival in Brecon Beacons © Nici Eberl

Belfast

Musical roots

From across the Irish Sea in Belfast emerged the moody and magnificent Van Morrison (originally with the band Them) and – in complete contrast – punk band Stiff Little Fingers. From a little further west in Derry (or Londonderry), came the post-punk Undertones. Belfast was named a UNESCO City of Music in 2021.

Today’s venues

Filthy McNasty’s pub has live music every night; it’s worth a look, if for no other reason than the name. Voodoo favours punk and psychobilly bands. If it’s worldwide acts and tribute bands you’re after, you’ll find them at the SSE Arena and the Waterfront Hall. Read more about Northern Ireland’s music scene here.

London

Musical roots

A much larger population and therefore larger pool of potential talent has given the UK capital an unfair advantage over its provincial rivals. The south London contingent includes David Bowie (Brixton), Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (Dartford), Fat Boy Slim (Bromley), Siouxsie Sioux (Southwark), Stormzy (Croydon) and Lianne La Havas (Tooting). Over the Thames in north London, we find Elton John (Pinner), Adele (Tottenham), George Michael (Bushey, near Pinner), Queen’s Freddie Mercury and Brian May (both from near Heathrow Airport), Rod Stewart (Highgate) and UK reggae gods Aswad (Ladbroke Grove).

Today’s venues

Brixton Academy has 2023 gigs by Avril Lavigne, Fat Boy Slim, Suede and Sydney’s very own DMA’s. Ronnie Scott’s was formerly a purely jazz venue but has since also embraced the great and the good from rock, funk, pop and world music.

O2 Arena is possibly the UK’s grandest stadium venue. In 2023 it’s where to see Kool and The Gang, The Robert Cray Band and – what for it – Jason Donovan. Shepherd’s Bush Empire is a veteran venue in west London which has survived numerous mosh-pit riots and even a World War II bomb. Read more about London’s music scene here.

Inside Brixton Academy, London
Brixton Academy © Samuel Regan-Asante / Unsplash


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