From the first, thrilling bars of a three-minute pop tune, to the celebration of fashion as high art, here are five of our favourite culturally forward-thinking cities.
MUSIC: Liverpool: The birth of pop music
The Beatles didn’t just happen in a vacuum. They simply couldn’t have come from any other city. Back in the 1940’s and 50’s, when John, Paul, George and Ringo were impressionable youngsters and Liverpool’s transatlantic port was at its heyday: crucially transporting those vital shiny black platters etched with the sounds of skiffle, doo-wop, and R&B. The melting pot out of which came the Beatles’ world-dominating recipe – Beat Music. Yes, if you really want to look at the start of the Mersey Sound, you have to trace a line back to the deep south of America, the speakeasies of Chicago and the barn dances of the Appalachian mountains.
Still, it was the Beatles who first brought a pop sheen to all those disparate styles: and their peers, Gerry and The Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer and The Searchers. Beat Music had arrived. And it’s never really left! The city’s transatlantic arrivals also brought with them the first discs to make it to the clubs of the England’s northwest: so seeding the Northern Soul explosion, with classics like Gloria Jones’ ‘Tainted Love’ and Seven Days Too Long by Chuck Wood.
The city is still one of the best UK destinations for music festivals: try the summer shindig of LIMF (20-23 July), always a fun, free, family affair in the city’s parks, with big name acts from across the globe. Sound City brings the new, exciting and hotly tipped acts to a suitably urban festival site along the docks. They’ve an astute eye for picking the Next Big Things (27,28 May) so it’s worth picking up a two day ticket.
Elsewhere, Beatles Week continues to celebrate the fab four for 7 days of brilliant tribute acts from all corners of the globe (Aug 23-29). Outside of the big festivals, head to the pubs of Stanley Street, the tight lattice of streets of the Stanley Quarter or the big warehouses of the Baltic Quarter for music practically from dawn til dusk. Bring your best moves and a decent pair of heels. And spare a couple of hours for the Museum of British Pop (Cunard Building, waterfront), opening in Spring 2017, a one-stop shop celebrating all that is thrilling and brilliant about a small-but-perfectly-formed pop gem.
FASHION: New York: The world’s first Fashion Week
Now, cities from Montreal to Perth have their own spring fashion weeks, celebrating the best of their countries’ aspiring and established couturiers and fashion designers. But there was a time, way back in 1943, when the idea was a novel – even controversial one. Surely Paris was the fashion capital of the world? Well, New York thought it would give it a run for its money, and set up the world’s first ever Fashion Week: a full 30 years before Paris ever got around to it!
The event was the brainchild of artists’ agent, socialite and co-founder of the Museum of Modern Art, Elisabeth Lambert – who also founded the International Best Dressed List, and the Coty Fashion Critics’ Award, and was Press Director for the New York Dress Institute. It was her press experience that gave her the idea. Why not stage an event for the fashion press to see the upcoming seasons’ collections. In fact, what happened was the event offering a real tonic for home grown talent: and eventually led to the dominance of NY-based fashion houses, like Ralph Lauren, Donna Karen and Tommy Hilfiger. A good idea can go a very long way… The city is now firmly ensconced within the ‘big four’ fashion capitals of the world, but still a notch behind Paris!
These days, there are Fashion Week events showcasing Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer collections, bookending every fashion-forward fashionista’s NYC calendar. Next up is the Men’s (Jan 30-Feb 2), and Women’s (Feb 9-17)
Outside of the official weeks, NYC is always a very fashionable destination. We love the shoe floor in Saks (Fifth Ave). It’s a temple to luxury shoes, and is just a gorgeous experience, whether you’re after footware or not. Bloomingdales (1000 Third Ave) is great for on-trend US designers, while Barneys (660 Madison Ave) is the place for edgier, artier pieces you’ll struggle to find elsewhere.
Not shopping? Two museums worth a visit include The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, featuring 50,000 pieces focusing on the industry’s evolution. And don’t miss The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute – the home to the blockbusting Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty show, the Met has earned its stripes as a recognised authority on the history of fashion, and regularly mounts fascinating, crowd-friendly exhibitions.
ART: Venice: The world’s first art fair
It’s still the world’s biggest and most influential arts jamboree, despite fierce competition from the likes of London’s Frieze art fair and Art Basel in Switzerland. But the Venice Biennale is a different beast to these market-based events, because, since a sales ban in 1968, it remains a curated exhibition. Not a high-end bring and buy sale (although it does have ties to Basel’s commercial fair). Held biennially, in odd-numbered years; it’s actually run by the company of the same name, the Venice Biennial, since it was set up in 1895.
These days, it’s a lot more fun, and free-thinking, than it was – celebrating the avant-garde, promoting new artistic movements and encouraging multi-disciplinary, installation pieces and the so-called ‘ready mades’ (the most famous of which include Damien Hirst’s shark and Tracey Emin’s Bed). Today 370,000 visitors attend the art show (one of many strands, including film, architecture and dance) – but the first exhibition was staged to celebrate the silver anniversary of Italian King Umberto I. It wasn’t until the next edition that the council adopted its ‘by invitation’ system to artists, and from 1907 entire countries installed national pavilions: still the model employed today.
For the 57th Exhibition – May 13th to November 26th 2017 – 57 countries have been invited to take part, with national pavilions in the Giardini parkland and the former shipyards and armories of the Arsenale and in various other venues across the city. Curator, Christine Macel explains, the theme – VIVA ARTE VIVA – couldn’t be more prescient:
“In a world full of conflicts and jolts, in which humanism is being seriously jeopardized, art is the most precious part of the human being. It is the ideal place for reflection, individual expression, freedom and fundamental questions.”
La Biennale di Venice: May 13th to November 26th 2017
MUSIC: Monterey: The world’s first long-weekend rock festival
Two years before Woodstock, the real Summer of Love exploded into life along the Californian coast, thanks to a hastily put together celebration of the counterculture movement of hippies, psychedelics and anti-establishment thinking. The Monterey Festival was world’s first large-scale music festival curated by Mama’s and Pappa’s guitarist John Phillips as a way to showcase artists who, despite their huge popularity, failed to gain airplay on US Media.
Acts like The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who and Ravi Shankar enjoyed their first ever large-scale public performance, and the festival also witnessed seminal sets by Janis Joplin and Otis Redding over the three days of the festival (June 16-18, 1967), held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, in Monterey, California. An estimated 90,000 people attended – although it really is just a finger-in-the-air figure, as the grounds only had an approved capacity of 7,000. The Beach Boys were scheduled to appear, but pulled out because Brian Wilson was ‘depressed’ after recording sessions for ‘Smile’ – their infamous follow up to Pet Sounds – had been aborted in a fog of acrimony and recriminations. The Beatles, too, pulled out, citing that their newer music was ‘too complex’ to be performed live. The Rolling Stones, also invited, couldn’t travel to the US because of a drugs bust. Tickets for the festival were priced between $3 and $6 (no more than around $40 in today’s prices).
Today, Monterey is rightly regarded as a seminal event in the history of live music. It was also the first ever festival performance where the new ‘Moog’ synthesizer was used, and – thanks to the fact that many of the ‘big names’ couldn’t play – the festival really ushered in a new wave of musicians, still touring today.
These days the city is a bustling seaside resort: with a great aquarium (complete with oh-so-cute sea otters!), a boardwalk crammed with gift shops and beach bars and great bars and restaurants in the chic Lighthouse District. Or you can go whale watching on a boat trip from Fisherman’s Wharf: Whalefest (Jan 27-28, 2017) celebrates all things cetacean, if that sort of thing floats your boat!
ARCHITECTURE: Brussels: The world’s Art Nouveau architecture capital
The flourishes, nature-inspired twirls and curves of Art Nouveau’s origins were a direct reaction to what many artists considered the ugly, brutish march of industrialization that swept across Europe in the late 19th century. Mass-made homewares, belching chimney stacks and conveyor-belt production techniques began to saturate the market. Before long a like minded movement of artists railed against it. They were the ‘new artists’ – the Art Nouveau, and they stood as much against the old arts (such as Neoclassicism) as they did against the inexorable rise of industry.
And they made a big splash in Brussels – a city, as the 19th century morphed into the 20th, enjoying an economic boom – and its middle classes and merchants paraded their new-found wealth by opting to have their homes and business headquarters in the new Art Nouveau style. The result transformed the city’s skyline, and decorated its inner parlours, atriums and public spaces. Think expressive, flowing, organic touches – inspired by nature, the orient, the human form, evoking a sensual, spiritual and highly ornate vision of a world in touch with its spiritual side.
No branch of art was exempt, from Alphonse Mucha’s theatre posters, the street furniture of the Parisian metro or the lalique glass of the Orient Express carriages. But, perhaps because of its super-sized scale, it was the architecture of Art Nouveau that made the most lasting impression. And its legacy lives on in Belgium, especially in the well-heeled Ixelles and Saint-Gilles quarters of Brussels: now a hive of coffee shops, delis and cool boutiques. The country’s best known architect, Victor Horta, fell in love with the movement’s stylings and created a plethora of what he called New Flemish townhouses – all spiralling staircases evoking the curved shells of crustacea, windows edged in flowing, vine-line frames, pediments, columns and walls curving and arching in beautiful, organic flourished. His house is now a museum. It’s a museum in itself, with its in-numerous decorative details, from woodcuts to door handles to its riotous, wrought iron balustrades.
Brussels, today, is recognised as the capital of Art Nouveau – its remaining structures recognized with UNESCO World Heritage status. You can take a tour, courtesy of a useful roll call of the best ones, on the Visit Belgium site here: www.visitbelgium.com/art-nouveau-brussels