Flicking through the myriad of TV channels, I noticed old BBC footage of concerts covering music across time and genres. My eyes were drawn to one utterly unhip, unlikely to be reborn as a 70’s icon, Gilbert O’Sullivan In Concert. It was the venue that really grabbed my attention, The Golders Green Empire.
In the 70s, UK touring bands, apart from then huge superstars and the losers on the way up or down, played 2,000-seat venues. The Superstars, Deep Purple, Rod, Doobies, may have played baseball, football, and university stadia stateside. Here in the UK, few huge shed venues like Empire Pool Wembley, existed, instead, home towns’ huge mega cinemas sufficed. Golders Green Empire was one, and West London had the still iconic Hammersmith Odeon, (Bruce Springsteen’s first UK gig), and there was the ‘Rainbow Theatre’ in Finsbury Park - all long loved, lauded, and applauded as great, great venues by bands and fans alike.
Sadly The Rainbow, like the Golders Green Empire is long, long, gone, not demolished, as happened to the Coventry Theatre where I saw my first gig, or the Birmingham Odeon, where many teenage heroes - Santana, Weather Report, Roxy Music, Rod Stewart played, but now a multi-screened, low-rent multiplex unavailable for those who wish to Rock (and Roll). The Rainbow Theatre? Now a Spiritualist Church, at least there’s passion and song there, and the Golders Green Empire is starting down the same path, having failed to gain approval to become an Islamic Centre in North London, it’s being converted into a large spiritual church.
This is not one of those misty eyes, tear-stained reminisces of a well/misspent youth and adulthood, well not completely, more a reflection on change, preservation, and what needs to be protected and preserved in music more generally. This notion came as I reflected on the Golders Green Empire, and remembered seeing The Kinks play the venue. It was sad to think that that huge venue will no longer throb to the stamping, pounding feet of fans yelling their devotion, singing along with ‘Rod’ or pogoing to Stiff Little Fingers. But objecting to theatre and rock venue change of use, as some are doing, that’s an altogether more complex problem, especially when there’s a drift into spurious heritage and preservation of boomer rock.
Here in Newcastle, we had from the 60’s and 70’s three iconic venues, The Mayfair, The Odeon, and The City Hall. The Mayfair made way for a huge fun palace, The Gate, with bars, restaurants, a casino, and multi-screen cinema. City Hall remains a great live venue for sleazy, down and dirty, mean and ramous rock, soul, pop, and roll. The Newcastle Odeon lay vacant in the heart of the city, a boarded up, falling down scar on the face of the city centre, in one of the UK’s most deprived areas, attempting and failing to reinvent itself, for at least two decades. When plans were announced to redevelop and bring 8,000 jobs to the site there was an outcry “The Rolling Stones played there in 1965”, “it needs to be preserved”, “it’s Iconic”. Thankfully there is a forest of venues across Newcastle… pubs, clubs, bars, and purpose-built venues, I know others are a hell of a lot less fortunate. What in ‘Rock’ do we preserve, and why, and what is ‘preservation’ anyway?
Here is the UK there is an entrenched ‘heritage culture industry’ that is by now deeply embedded in rock, and popular music. I look at the calls for various rock venues to be preserved, and wonder what the purpose is? I mean, the legendary Cavern Club in Liverpool was demolished to make way for an improved transport system for hundreds of thousands of people. There was an outcry, but why? Not too sure if bands came out of The Cavern in the 70s and 80s. Eric’s seemed to have the pulse of the city then. The Cavern we visit now is a reconstruction, think the Bootleg Beatles, The Counterfeit Stones, or The Illegal Eagles, respectful copies but not the original. So too, with the preservation of Rock’s historical physical locations.
Of course, sometimes it works, a visit to Sun Studios in Memphis is a shocking revelation. Just to see how small, basic and primitive the facilities were. Imagine people writing the history of music with, when compared to modern studio complexes, tin cans and rubber bands. ‘The Stuff’ that helped create the sound is there, in the room.
The lost venues of the UK, and their metamorphosis into something else, has led to questions of value and meaning for me (and probably a coffee table book out by Christmas, kids of boomers looking for dad gifts!)
The restaurant that was The Ruskin Arms in East Ham, (Iron Maiden started there), or the truly legendary Marquee in London’s Wardour Street - one time home of maximum Rn’B but now restaurants and flats, are a testimony to a life that’s passed. As things change, there’s more to preserving Rock n Roll, Blues and Soul Jazz and Funk, than some a few pubs, clubs, and theatres, most of which have been gutted, repainted, refitted, and renewed, with all traces of past performers either in the landfill, or ‘preserved’ as simulacrum on the walls. Think Hard Rock Cafe, without the mass-produced beer, expensive burgers, and a guitar and cymbal wall hung for atmosphere, and memories.
Demolished venues are sometimes notarized with a Blue cultural heritage Plaque. What does that tell us? Do people really want to see where the Sex Pistols played the last of their original UK gigs, what do they expect to gain, see, feel? Ivanhoes in Huddersfield still seems to be standing, but what would it tell, buildings do not usually talk. Next time I’m there will have to check for a blue plaque for the Sex Pistols
I’m sure we all have our best, first, worst gig memories, but these exist in our heads, and outside the buildings, it’s the memories that matter, not the sign above the door, the place on the floor, the part of the circle, or the bar that matters. It was the event that mattered, the people that were there, lovers, friends, strangers, fans and the band that made the memories, NOT the colour of the walls, the stickiness of the carpet, or the broken seat in the row in front. Buildings are only a small part of music’s memories.
For me, the disused, dilapidated venues, let them go, music and its environs have to change, and we should embrace and celebrate these changes. Meanwhile, already another generation is setting about preserving their set of musical memories, their iconography, and their culture. Clubs and DJ spins, Ibiza sunrise sets, Goa beats, 80’s lights and wrist bands, 90’s foam, balloons and chill rooms, soon to be re-lived with a babysitter serviced all-weekender at a Butlins.
With preservation culture, all past music is starting to sound like a religion with pilgrimages, and veneration, sites of miracles and almost holy relics, 6Music legacy chants all day long, music replicating religion - think of the sales of sections of the “true cross” at Europe’s holy sites. Some of the biggest hotels in France? They’re at Lourdes. The way Jesus goes, music will go too, it seems, risking collapse under the weight of its sanitised, monetised memories, and that’s not what I want to see, or feel.
If this all means that some baby boomer venues (that’s right, my memories) have to be erased, then so be it, the only reason to visit a music venue is to hear music live. Not to see a place where live music lived. I’ve done the Camp Nou tour in Barcelona, and a football stadium is like, well, er like the BB King Blues Club without music, just formal memories, and promises of what’s to come. So let the venues go, let the venues die, the change we need will be made by the next generation.
There’s still the vinyl, tapes, CDs, and streams, and it’s the music and its memories, that waft, pulse, pound, stream and download, to the places that matter, our own hearts and souls where our versions of the sounds exist.