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A city under spotlights


It was 9th February 1963 when The Beatles arrived in Sunderland as part of their first nationwide tour.

Performing in front of a sell-out crowd at the Empire Theatre, the group performed hits such as Please, Please Me and Love Me Do, as well as a cover of Bing Crosby's American smash hit Beautiful Dreamer.

Fast-forward 12 months to 20th February 1964 and the city was again illuminated by stage lights as The Rolling Stones, fronted by Mick Jagger, rolled into town to perform at the Rank and Odeon Cinema in Holmeside.

The show, their first in the city, was such a hit that they went on to perform two more Sunderland gigs the following year. By the time they returned on 9th March, 1965, they had snagged two UK number ones and had become one of the world's most famous bands. 

Over 50 years have passed since and the city has gone on to establish an enviable reputation for hosting world-renowned musicians, from intimate gigs for the likes of The Clash through to sell-out stadium performances for David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Oasis and Rihanna.

Such spectacles have also helped inspire generations of budding musicians from across the city, spurring on what is now a fertile music scene spawning the likes of The Futureheads, Frankie & The Heartstrings, Lauren Laverne, and many, many more.

At the heart of this success is The Bunker, a community interest company situated on Stockton Road, which was set up in 1980 as a youth project to help the city's youngsters practice music. After the collapse of the coal mines and the shipyards, youth unemployment was at an all-time high and the city's youths were desperate to forge a new identity for themselves.

Amongst them were the founding members of punk rock band Leatherface, Frankie Stubbs and the late Dickie Hammond, who were once hailed by The Guardian as 'the greatest British punk band of the modern era.'

Founded in 1988, the band often practiced at The Bunker and went on to reach a worldwide audience, storming alternative charts throughout the late 80s and early 90s. Still hugely influential today, the band has helped inspire the city's budding musicians ever since.

This has included artists and bands such as Frankie and the Heartstrings, The Futureheads, Hyde & Beast and many others who site Leatherface and The Bunker as major influences in their successful careers and, as the hub approaches its 40th year in the city, director Kenny Sanger is looking forward to seeing in the next generation of Sunderland's musical talent over the coming decades.

He said: "Sunderland has produced such a long list of successful bands or artists over the years, with just about every one of them, coming through our doors at some point in their career.

"The local music community continues to be very healthy with many young bands working their way through the grass roots scene, ready to follow in the footsteps of those illustrious names that have come before them. We have been there for anyone who loves music and happens to pick up an instrument and look forward to another 40 years of more success."

Another institution acting as a beacon for local musicians is Independant, a live music venue and nightclub opposite the former Odeon Cinema in the heart of the city, where the Rolling Stones famously performed back in '64.


The club, which is operated by local entrepreneur and music advocate Ben Wall, relocated to a new, 600-capacity venue in 2013 and has played host to artists and DJs from the likes of Kasabian to Mike Skinner & The Streets and The Maccabees since it originally opened its doors in 2006.  Like The Bunker, it has also helped showcase local talent, with weekly nights bringing in local performers from Haze Records through to local punk bands such as Dead Wet Things, another band which sites Leatherface as a major influence.


The success of Independent has also been so grand that not only has it helped nurture the city's musical talent, but it has also inspired others to come forward with a plan for how music and the arts can help breathe a new lease of life into the city. 

Across the city centre, in the city's culture quarter, a whole new addition to the city skyline is starting to take shape. 

Standing in the shadow of the city's historic Sunderland Empire, which has proudly welcomed some of the largest West End shows from Miss Saigon to War Horse, the £14 million Auditorium is now rising from the ground, bringing a new artistic and cultural hub to the city and providing a world-class stage for the region's artists to perform and showcase their talents.

The Auditorium is part of the wider Fire Station development, supported by Sunderland City Council, Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which has transformed the former Edwardian fire station in High Street West into a contemporary live performance venue and also housing The Engine Room bar and bistro, drama studio, dance studio, as well as a heritage exhibition space.

Tamsin Austin, venue director at The Fire Station, said: "In the wake of the pandemic, the world is champing at the bit to get back to live music and we are so very excited that the Fire Station will be opening later this year to welcome audiences, adding to the already rich seam of live music in Sunderland.

"Thanks to the vision, passion and determination of Paul Callaghan and Sunderland's MAC Trust, with the support of Arts Council England and Sunderland City Council we are delighted to be able to deliver a bespoke new home for artists and a community hub for audiences in the heart of the city.

"Our ambition is for a multi-genre programme of music and performing arts to give audiences a great night out and bring some of the world's finest musicians to Sunderland, as well as providing a platform for the outstanding community of established artists and rising talent on our doorstep in Sunderland.

"A midscale venue like the Fire Station provides the perfect companion to the thriving grass roots music scene in Sunderland and the long-established institutions like The Empire to create a range of scale for performances which a music city like Sunderland so deserves."

Between them, the Empire and Auditorium will draw crowds from across the North East and beyond, putting Sunderland on the map as a destination for music, arts and culture. 

Boasting such a rich musical heritage and with new spaces and places taking shape that will provide a literal and figurative stage for new talent, it's no surprise that the city has a reputation as a melting pot of musical talent.  The city sings on and the spotlight is firmly on it. 

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