The Oxford music scene has punched well above its weight for the past 30 years. Whilst Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and Sheffield are often hailed as the epicentres of modern British music history, Oxford has every right to be held in the same esteemed company. The city gave birth to one of the defining bands of the last 20 years in the form of Radiohead whilst the legacies of Ride and Supergrass continue to leave their imprint on the British music scene today. But for every Radiohead, there are hundreds more like Dustball and The Nubiles that fail to make it. Narrated by Stewart Lee, an aficionado of the scene as a student in the 1980s, Anyone Can Play Guitar is a well executed documentary by director Jon Spira. It realises that the heart of the Oxford story, and thus the film, is with the almost-made-its as well as the cult local heroes that continue to champion local bands.
Told in chronological order, Spira couples effective use of interviews, live footage and music videos with an unsurprisingly excellent soundtrack as he coherently traces the musical lineage of Oxford from Here Comes Everybody to Foals. The journey through this time is as funny as it is tragic. There are stories of the local record label, Shifty Disco, dismissing signing Coldplay as there is no need “for another Radiohead”. Whilst Andy Yorke, younger brother of Radiohead’s Thom, is forced with his band Unbelievable Truth into the shadow of his sibling’s success. However, none can count themselves more unlucky than The Candyskins. Continually on the verge of fame for the best part of 10 years, their crowd-pleasing single ‘Car Crash’, which seemed destined to launch them to new heights, was pulled from release following the death of Princess Diana.
The focus is intermittently moved by Spira to those outside the limelight who devote their entire lives to the benefit of the Oxford scene. Local linchpins, such as the journalist Ronan Munro and Shifty Disco’s Dave Newton, are interviewed. These conversations, coupled with anecdotes of local promoter Mac, highlight the people and energy that are continually needed to keep Oxford as a leading light in British music. The history of The Zodiac (now a Carling Academy), whose main stage was once the greatest aspiration a local band aimed for, is used to stress the need for modern identikit commercial venues to allow access for local bands to play on their stages.
The scene is clearly one close to the heart of Jon Spira. The film was funded by online donations and sponsorship from Fender and at times the tiny budget is evident in the finished product. The sound quality in interviews, particularly with Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Foals’ Yannis Philippakis, is rarely consistent. Yet it seems harsh to criticise a film for failures that result from a restrictive budget when it is clearly made with the most honourable of intentions and a vast amount of love. Anyone Can Play Guitar more than fulfils its objective of providing an entertaining account of the history behind a city now intrinsic to British music.
Anyone Can Play Guitar is currently on a UK-wide tour of cinemas. It is also available now on DVD.