"It was just f***ing great - it was the best place in the world to be at the time," says Carl Bevan, the drummer from 60 Ft. Dolls, as he reminisces over Newport's "golden age of music" in the mid-90s.

In stark contrast, live music came crashing to a halt in 2020, and 2021, for now, isn't looking much brighter.

Sure, there have been video shows and zoom events but nothing compares to that sweaty, sticky atmosphere of seeing an incredible live band in a room of strangers that'll soon become friends, united by a love of music. It's something that brings whole communities together and forms lifelong bonds with like-minded people.

In a city that was once hailed as "the new Seattle", Newport is no stranger to this effect.

Just a few decades ago, it had everything. In the 1990s, it had a legendary venue, bands people loved and a city intertwined with its rich musical offerings.

The place was - now infamously - dubbed ‘the new Seattle’, by US music journalist Neill Strauss in the New York Times. It's reputation had gone global.

So iconic was the music scene, that on October 28, 1996 former Newport MP, the late Paul Flynn, tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons to applaud that label - with 35 MPs supporting it.

Even the late Paul Flynn recognised the strong scene

Seattle was famed at the time for its edgy grunge scene, with bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden, and being the home of Sub Pop Records.

Newport filmmaker Nathan Jennings is currently working on a project looking at the Newport music scene back in its heyday called The Rock of Newport. He's spoken to all sorts of bands and people who were big players on the scene.

"With bands similar to Nirvana and Mudhoney - it was labelled the New Seattle. But it's not just the bands - it was people like [TJs owner] John Sicolo who gave people a stage to play and people like [promoter] Simon Phillips."

The scene also saw rock myths borne from it - everyone's heard the story of the night Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love came to Newport, when he allegedly proposed to her under Town Bridge (you can read that story, here).

60 Ft. Dolls rehearsing on stage in TJ's nightclub on February 27, 1997
Steve Evans from Novacaine, talking with Nathan Jennings for the Rock of Newport

Nathan said: "The new Seattle thing was Neil Strauss from the New York Times. He came down in the late 1990s and gave it that title.

"The whole Cool Cymru thing blew up, that was Wales, but the New Seattle thing was Newport.

"It's bands like 60ft Dolls, it's Novacaine. When Strauss called it the New Seattle, it was like all eyes were on Newport."

"Some of these bands - for example 60ft Dolls and Darling Buds - were already so prolific. So on a night out in TJs in the '90s, you'd have all these big music labels trying to sign bands."

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Describing the scene, 60 Ft. Dolls drummer Carl said: "When we started playing gigs, things came together quickly. Really quickly."

The now-47-year-old was just 19 when then started out but it didn't take long for them to get noticed.

Carl, who's quit music and is now an artist, said: "Our first two gigs; we'd play six songs, ridiculous 20-minute sets with songs that weren't even finished and we started getting phone calls from labels really quickly. And it escalated fast.

"At the time, the other band in Newport at a similar stage was Dub War, and then there was a lot of stuff bubbling under around the place that all seemed to surface at the same time.

"I think this was about '93 at some point. It's a bit hazy," he laughs, adding: "It was a long time ago.

"It was f***ing brilliant. It was just so exciting.

"The feeling in Newport at the time was just amazing."

Ian Brown of Stone Roses - who famously played TJs in Newport - gets a kiss on the cheek from the club's late owner John Sicolo

He explained that things just sort of came together. The right people doing the right things, at the right time.

"Dean Poole opened up a recording studio at exactly the right time, people were always back and forth over there," Carl explained.

"That became a bit of a hub, there were a lot of bands that used to rehearse there.

"The main elements were TJs, to state the obvious, Le Pub, Riverside Tavern.

"I think the comradery among the bands was great. We were all very happy for each other when good things happened. That's a component of a true scene. We all used to hang out together, watch each other play, take the p*ss out of each other and have a laugh.

"It was the best place to be in the world at the time. TJs was open almost every night with bands playing. There was never any grief because John [Sicolo, owner of TJs] would give you the hammerfist. People just respected the place....or feared John," he added

The 90s was known for its wild nature and with all good scenes come great stories. But Carl kept tight lipped on this occasion.

"All I can tell you is that I'm really glad the internet didn't exist then - and certainly not smart phones," he laughed.

The legendary TJ's club in Newport

Simon Phillips was a promoter - running Cheap Sweaty Fun - during the height of the golden age of Newport's music scene. He also ran Rockaway Records in the market; another key component of the thriving music community in the town.

"It had many well springs," said Simon, discussing the scene's origins. "There were lots of people involved, it just sprung up organically.

"If people involved in the music scene in Newport wanted something to happen they just did it themselves. That was the great lesson. And that's what made it such a good thing for the people of Newport at the time.

"We had a really good music scene - a product of all the people who were actively in it, of which there were hundreds. Bands started coming up, TJ's was always at the forefront of it. And along with that people started writing fanzines and opening practice rooms - eventually a whole self-supporting scene sprang up."

A 'laughable' comparison?

However, not everyone - Simon included - is a fan of the Seattle comparison.

"That whole thing about "new Seattle" was just laughable - then and now," said the former promoter. It's obviously not Seattle, what does that mean? There were many places that had bustling music scenes, not just Newport. They couldn't all be termed the New Seattle.

"Everyone involved was conscious of what we had going here which was, for a good number of years, a very good thing. I don't think anybody involved in it looked to have it labelled as being like anything else. It was what it was.

"[The comparison] was ridiculous and it's no less ridiculous now."

An extract from a feature in The Telegraph from the 90s, which ran with the 'new Seattle' label
Newport's 60ft Dolls supported Oasis at TJ's

Nathan added that the comparison wasn't everyone's cup of tea. Some people didn't like it, in the most Newport way, there was an element of rejection of that label, as the scene was very much its own thing.

Nathan said: "The new Seattle was one moment and lot of Newport bands don't agree with it. There's a mentality in Newport of 'it's a sh*thole, but it's our sh*thole. We're very proud of what we've done. We don't need that outside validation'.

"There's a difference of opinion there," he adds.

Weighing in on the new Seattle debate, 60 Ft. Dolls' Carl added: ""We hung out with Neil [Strauss] a lot in America. When he was over here we hosted him.

"While he was down we actually drove him down to watch Twin Town in Swansea because that was in the cinema.

"He didn't crown it the new Seattle. He said there was a lot exciting things going on, all these bands are here and they're all really good. It's a proper scene. It feels like it felt in Seattle when Nirvana broke.

"Of course it stuck, it's an easy tag.

"He's a well respected journo, so it's a cool thing. You can see why people started repeating that."

"It's cyclical"

Sam Dabb runs music venue Le Pub in the city centre now. Back in the 90s, she was in a band called Disco, and was heavily immersed in the scene.

"I was 17 in 1993 and for me that was when I realised something special was brewing in Newport," she said.

"Every pub had a gig on. There wasn’t a day of the week you couldn’t find original live music somewhere. Le Pub, The Riverside, Grooves and, of course, TJs being the main four venues.

"Touring artists were coming to Newport weekly thanks to the amazing work of Simon at Cheap Sweaty Fun and Connal Dodds. I think a lot of the time when we talk about the scene we don’t really give credit to the promoters that brought the bands to Newport and put the work in to make sure the events were well attended.

"They were the real orchestrators behind it all."

Sam Dabb in Le Pub

It's obviously been a tough time for live music. But looking back with fond memories brings up hopes for the future. Le Pub was still the place to go in Newport for live music, pre-pandemic, and hopefully that'll continue when things get back to normal.

Sam adds: "I think everything is cyclical and all scenes will see a fall and a rise but the mid-90s scene in Newport was something really special and attracted press and attention from all over the world.

"Being in a band back then was absolutely crazy. As soon as you mentioned Newport people wanted to book you for a gig or interview for a magazine."