As the well known club celebrates its 20th anniversary, we find out some of the reasons why this Ebisu mainstay keeps drawing the fans—and the bands.
By Mike de Jong
Ask any independent musician in Tokyo—or those aspiring to perform—and they will admit you haven’t “made the scene” until you have played at What the Dickens.
“The Dickens is our home turf, as I’m sure it is for many bands,” says Duncan Walsh, of local indie favorites the Watanabes. “The Dickens treats everyone right, and that’s why it is the best venue.”
Many local musicians, and music fans, have similar praise for the iconic British-style pub, which celebrated its 20th anniversary with a massive party on November 30. Located a short walk from Ebisu Station, What the Dickens! draws praise for its home-style food, imported beers and, most importantly, the role it plays in promoting local music.
“The Dickens [management] know how to do things,” says Walsh. “Many venues in Tokyo charge ridiculous entry fees which result in small audiences and musicians footing the bill. In stark contrast, WTD! insists on free entry. This results in a large audience of happy revelers, each with spare change to spend on drinks.”
“Back in ‘95 there were not many places where musicians could play that were not live houses, with all the baggage that goes with them,” says John Coyle, one of four original partners who created What the Dickens. “So after the first month it just took on a life (or LIVE) of its own and has continued to this day.”
“I’m British and it is one of the few British “styled” pubs that isn’t a close approximation of the real thing—it is the bona-fide real deal,” says Julian Peters, of Jimmy Binks and the Shakehorns, another popular local act. “It even smells like a good pub from back home. I’d go there even if it had no live music.”
Peters points out another important feature of the Dickens: there is no noruma, or fee for artists to perform. Musicians can face fees of ¥100–200,000 just to take the stage at other clubs or live houses in the city.
“[No noruma] means that there is often a good turn out and you’ll always see faces you know well,” says Peters.“A large number of [customers] are musicians, so it ends up a great place to discuss upcoming gig ideas and projects in a real environment that isn’t owned by Mark Zuckerberg.”
Aside from being the center for indie music, What the Dickens! is also known for its special events and charity shows. For example, on a recent Sunday in November, musicians gathered to raise money and awareness for the fight against breast cancer. Coyle says charity events are important, but he takes care to ensure that they are for legitimate causes.
“I know almost everyone that puts on a charity show personally, so I know it’s usually a worthwhile cause and that the money will go to where it’s intended,” he says. “Otherwise I would not do [them].”
Live streaming of nightly performances on the Dickens’ website is another benefit for bands and their fans. It means that people can watch their favorite artists, even if they can’t make it to the club on specific night.
The live streaming might be another cool way for bands to promote their music. But for the artists, What the Dickens! is about live audiences, and the chance to play to a full house most nights.
“I think our most memorable night at the Dickens would have to be our video release party in December 2013,” says Selwyn Walsh, of the Watanabes.
“We used the big screen behind the stage to show our latest
and had the place packed to the rafters. It was a particularly special night for me too, [as I] happened to meet my girlfriend under the romantic glow of the stage lights.”
Jimmy Binks and the Shakehorns hold their annual Christmas Party at What the Dickens! on Saturday, December 12. This show will help raise awareness for the Tokyo English Lifeline (TELL), and featured acts include the Watanabes. Doors open at 19:00.
Main Image: Jimmy Binks and the Shakehorns (Photo courtesy of Kyoko Obayashi)