The Skinny guide to Edinburgh's Music History

From Nirvana playing a pub open mic night, to award-winning grassroots venues, we look at just some of Edinburgh's live music highlights from the 1960s to now

Feature by Tallah Brash | 16 Aug 2021
  • Jack White live at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 21 Oct

In Edinburgh we’ve always been overshadowed by our friends in the west when it comes to our music scene; in 2008 Glasgow was even named a UNESCO City of Music. So while it’s hard to argue a case for Edinburgh over Glasgow, Edinburgh’s music scene is still worth celebrating. And despite the MANY venue closures over the years, the memories live on; Edinburgh has a great deal of fight in her and there’s always something new on the horizon.

The recent expansion of the Fruitmarket (45 Market St) was once the site of live music venue Electric Circus, where artists like Emeli Sandé, Michael Kiwanuka, The 1975 and CHVRCHES – who played their first ever show there under the moniker Shark Week – cut their teeth. Before that, as Buster Browns, in 1983 The Fall played for only a £3 cover charge.

Under its Cavendish Ballroom guise, ATIK (3 West Tollcross) – recently featured in T2 Trainspotting – hosted bands such as Pink Floyd, The Clash, Patti Smith and Souixsie and the Banshees in the 60s and 70s. And when the nearby Odeon (118 Lothian Rd) was the ABC Cinema, it welcomed Beatlemania to the city as the Liverpool band played there in 1964, while two years later Davie Jones and the Manish Boys (aka David Bowie) and Bob Dylan graced its stage.

Bowie also played the old Empire Theatre – now the Festival Theatre (13-29 Nicolson St) – in the 70s following a short stint actually living round the corner on Drummond Street. The 2,900 capacity Usher Hall also welcomed Bowie in the late 60s, and over the last six decades has hosted everyone from The Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry to The xx and Jon Hopkins.

But it’s in the city’s more underground and grassroots scene where the stories come to life. The old Calton Studios venue (Studio 24 in its final years before demolition) hosted Nirvana in 1990 and 1991. However, the most famous Nirvana/Edinburgh story has to be when frontman Kurt Cobain and drummer Dave Grohl (whose band Foo Fighters have since headlined Murrayfield Stadium) played an open mic night in The Southern Bar (22-26 South Clerk St), still there today if you want to pop in for a pint.

Best known for its theatre, since the mid-70s the Edinburgh Playhouse has hosted everyone from Queen and Tina Turner to St. Vincent. But in the 80s, deep within its walls you’d find Nite Club, with wild programming that included everyone from Orange Juice and the Eurythmics to Suicide, Simple Minds, Bauhaus and The Damned. Skip forward a few decades and in 2019 the 100 capacity Sneaky Pete’s (73 Cowgate) won the UK-wide award for best Grassroots Music Venue: Spirit of the Scene, the miniscule sweatbox having hosted everyone from Future Islands to Edinburgh’s own Young Fathers (before they won the Mercury Prize for their 2014 record Dead) over the years. See, we told you Edinburgh was good!

As restrictions start to ease, venues across the city are gearing up to welcome back bands, fans and promoters alike, from grassroots venues like Sneaky Pete's, Henry’s Cellar Bar (16A Morrison St) and Leith Depot (138-140 Leith Walk), to midsized venues like Summerhall (1 Summerhall), The Mash House (37 Guthrie St), La Belle Angele (11 Hastie’s Close), The Liquid Room (9C Victoria St), The Bongo Club (66 Cowgate), The Caves (8-10 Niddry St), The Voodoo Rooms (19a West Register St), and auditoriums like Usher Hall, The Queen's Hall (85-89 Clerk St) and Leith Theatre (28-30 Ferry Rd). 

The past year and a half has been a gut punch to the music industry, but Edinburgh venues have worked tirelessly throughout to ensure they remain in a post-pandemic world. Visit them if you can. Who knows, you might even see the next big thing. There's more to Edinburgh than The Proclaimers' Sunshine on Leith, so check out our playlist of local bands, past and present in the Spotify player below...