A brand new show is this month celebrating the musical heritage of Coventry. 
What’s On chats to the man behind Godiva Rocks, local playwright Alan Pollock...

You’ve heard of Madchester, Merseybeat and the heavy metal movement forged in Birmingham, but would you know how to define the sound of Coventry? 

In his latest show, Godiva Rocks, local playwright Alan Pollock sets out to do just that. In what may well be the world’s first musical based around the songs of a single city, the One Night In November scribe now turns his attention to homegrown hits through the story of a young couple searching for the essence of Coventry music. 

“It’s hard to avoid acknowledging that 2-tone really nailed it,” says Pollock. “With the exception of a few late-’60s bands, that was the first time that black and white united to make music here. That hadn’t really happened at all during the ’70s, but when it came along, it just seemed like such a natural expression of who we are in this melting-pot city, which is a big theme in the play.”

Many locals do feel a sense of ownership over their ska heritage, so it was no surprise when the iconic Ghost Town topped a recent public poll to find our favourite Coventry number one. Yet from the electronic experimentation of Delia Derbyshire to launching what has become Britain’s biggest free music festival, there’s so much more to the Coventry music scene than The Specials. 

“I didn’t actually have to dig very deep to come up with loads of songs from here,” continues Pollock. “I think if Liverpool and Manchester are at the top in terms of musical output, we’re certainly in the top three or four. But the thing I hear people saying a lot in rehearsals is, ‘I didn’t know that was from Coventry’. Lots of people don’t realise, for example, that Funboy Three are basically a Cov band, that The Primitives and Panjabi MC were from Coventry, as was Frank Ifield, who had four number one hits before Elvis Presley had even had one! So there’s a lot more than people think. 

“There are one or two Specials songs in the show, but I felt like The Specials had already been celebrated elsewhere, so I wanted to get people to look at all the other stuff. Nobody’s going to be disappointed - there will be something for everyone, from young people now right back to the ’60s.”

So why is it that this hotbed of musical invention has gone largely unrecognised until now? Well, one reason could be Coventrians’ own self-perception. Unlike in London, Birmingham and powerhouses of the north, in Cov, we’re quite a reticent bunch when it comes to extolling our own virtues. In fact, the biggest Coventry critics are almost always those who live here. To paraphrase Pollock at the Godiva Rocks launch, it feels as though we always wait for outside recognition before we’ll acknowledge the merits of anything made here. 

Trouble is, since the decline of our once-world-famous industry, such external affirmation has become increasingly rare. Nowadays, many people outside the Midlands would be hard-pressed even to say where Coventry is, let alone tell you anything about its cultural life, so if we’re to be in with a chance of taking the City of Culture title, it’s up to us to shout about what makes it special. 

“Part of the point of doing this show about Coventry is getting people to be proud of stuff we’ve done. I’ve been unofficially involved with the City of Culture bid right from the start, and we talk about this a lot - getting people to be actively positive about what we’ve achieved.”

And Pollock has certainly been doing his bit to celebrate Coventry for some years: neither this nor his controversial Coventry Blitz play One Night In November are his first time putting the city centre-stage. 

“I’ve always found it fascinating. I grew up here, and even though I moved away for a while and lived all over the world, I found myself drawn back to the spirit of the place. Its history is so rich, and it’s like a kind of symbol of the country as a whole, with its industrial background and its ups and downs. When my parents arrived in the early ’60s, it had the highest average wage of any town in the country. Then it suffered badly in the ’80s, but now we’re starting to come back from that. So I’ve always seen it as a kind of place of resilience. Some of that is expressed in the music, and it’s part of what I’m trying to extract and distil in this show."

Nor is it his first foray into the local music scene – having played with bands in the late 70s and early 80s, he began his latest project with a decent knowledge base on which to build. But even for him, there was still plenty left to learn.

“There’s a very good book by the local music journalist [and Coventry Music Museum director] Pete Chambers, the title of which I’ve nicked for the show. Pete has quite exhaustively researched the different decades of pop music that’s come out of here, and it’s been a real pleasure to come across little nuggets that I was previously unaware of. My biggest discovery was a singer in the Dusty Springfield mould called Beverley Jones who recorded a couple of great soul songs in the 60s. To me it’s a crime that those weren’t big hits and aren’t on the radio all the time.”

While he and Godiva Rocks director Hamish Glen have opted not to go “down the actor-musician route”, the songs will all be performed by a live onstage band. So does he think there’d be a market for a Godiva Rocks soundtrack album?

“I definitely hope so. The music is terrific – it’s really really good and I’m sure somebody is working on that idea as we speak.”

And if his show is successful in encouraging audiences to stake a claim and take an interest in their musical heritage, how confident is he we’ll claim the City of Culture title when the winner is announced at the end of the year?

“I’m extremely confident. I think if politics doesn’t get in the way, ours is the strongest bid by a mile.”

Godiva Rocks runs at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from Saturday 7 to Saturday 21 October.