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Last Updated: Monday, 19 May, 2003, 12:47 GMT 13:47 UK
The new sound of the Underground

By Ian Youngs
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Busker Hanger Lane at Canary Wharf station
The scheme was launched at Canary Wharf Tube station
Travellers on the London Underground heard the network's first official buskers when a 16-week trial began on Monday.

No more cat-strangling noises coming from the bottom of an escalator.

No more trying to avoid eye contact with overly cheerful musicians walking through carriages.

Just sweet music and a smile from the first brigade of official buskers that was deployed across the Tube network on Monday.

And the rest, who do not meet London Underground's standards, will face a crack-down.

That is the plan, at least.

London Underground says the public wants high quality musicians who are guaranteed not to be confrontational.

I know where I can go and play, and there won't be any arguments from anybody
Justin Manser
Official busker
Complete with blue busking licences - after auditions, police background checks and a refundable registration fee - the first official buskers are among 256 approved performers who will occupy 25 pitches at 12 stations.

To mark the launch at Canary Wharf station, three approved performers were enlisted as the faces of acceptable subterranean performance.

Eclipsing a top five rock band, Turin Brakes, who were also on hand to play at the launch, the buskers were in high demand for rounds of media interviews.

Although they are the crème de la crème of the tunnel tunesmiths, it was the closest are likely to come to rock stardom.

Busking licence
Keyboardist Joe Evans said most buskers now had licences
"I like singing, and there are no real places where you can go and perform without being exploited," one acoustic guitarist, who named himself Hanger Lane after the Tube station, said.

"There are real people out there who want to hear music performed well."

Bass player Justin Manser, 30, had never busked in the Tube before - but decided to apply for a licence to save the hassle that busking usually brings.

"I didn't want to come up here and fight people over the pitch," he said.

"I know where I can go and play, and there won't be any arguments from anybody - shopkeepers, environmental health, beggars."

Keyboardist Joe Evans, 38, said that despite fears that some talented musicians would get denied the chance to perform, most other buskers he knew had been given licences.

It might improve the situation overall - a bit of quality and less aggressive
Dennis Allan
"This is just a continuation of what I've been doing," he said.

As for their audience, thousands of people walk past buskers every day - some not registering them while others stop, chat and donate freely.

Hanger Lane said his hourly takings could range from 50p to £15.

Commuters at Canary Wharf gave the scheme a thumbs-up - but when asked whether buskers were a nuisance, most said no.

"They are quite nice," said Assunta Cicalese, 35, a business manager.

"There are some that are a nuisance when they come into the carriages, but if they play in the stations, it's normally OK.

Rock group Turin Brakes at Canary Wharf station
Rock group Turin Brakes played an acoustic set at the launch
"There are some very good ones but some are very bad."

Another commuter, railway manager Dennis Allan, 45, said buskers could be "a pain".

"It might improve the situation overall, I suppose," he said. "A bit of quality and less aggressive, maybe."

Turin Brakes performed a short acoustic set at Canary Wharf to mark the launch - but, surrounded by photographers and journalists, it could hardly be described as busking.

The duo are "committed supporters of legalised busking", according to organisers.

Guitarist Gale Paridjanian said: "The more music there is in the city's underground, the more vitality the city has. Everyone enjoys busking."

Bond Street
Canary Wharf
Charing Cross
Green Park
Leicester Square
London Bridge
Oxford Circus
Piccadilly Circus
South Kensington
Tottenham Court Road
"We did try it a few times. It's not as easy as it looks. We used to harass people to give us money."

Singer Olly Knights said they had been "blown away" by the standard of buskers in New York - another city that forces performers to apply for licences.

"There's nothing better than coming home on a really horrible day than hearing someone singing a really beautiful song," he said.

The duo denied they were at the launch because one critic said they "would do well to busk on the Tube for a few months until they learn what you can really do with an acoustic guitar".

But playing in the Tube was a welcome reality check after getting used to big stages and audiences, Knights said. "It's like getting slapped in the face."

With their licences around their necks and quality-assured cover versions, official buskers are hoping that fate will not befall them.

Busker Hanger Lane
singing The Verve's The Drugs Don't Work

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14 May 01  |  Entertainment

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