Muse lighting up Wembley, Radiohead’s defining Glastonbury appearance, and Manic Street Preachers’ legendary Astoria show are amongst the gigs immortalised in the pages of rock ‘n’ roll history - but these giants all had to start somewhere. And with NME's hunt for Britain’s best small venue underway we thought what better way to celebrate the well-trodden toilet circuit than with a run-down of some small shows that packed a big punch.
Before financial struggles threatened to close its doors, The 100 Club was a regular first stop for US artists heading across the pond and so it was with The White Stripes, who played their debut UK live show there in 2001. Still presumed to be husband and wife or brother and sister, Jack and Meg White ripped through a set of stripped-back garage rock that made their importance instantly clear.
Ahh yes the infamous night that Kurt Cobain is said to have proposed to Courtney Love under a plastic tree. What is rock ‘n’ roll without a little mystery and romance? Enter ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, years of drama, and a passionate relationship that would inform both their creative lives.
The inspiration behind their early ‘Beneath The Boardwalk’ demo, Arctic Monkeys were no strangers to this legendary Sheffield haunt by the time 2005 came around, but this packed show, taking place as it did just four days before their debut single dropped, famously marked the moment they were no longer Sheffield’s best kept secret.
Without this early show Matt Bellamy and co may never have made it beyond Devon’s pastoral borders. According to Chris Wolstenholme, Bellamy mumbled the words to their songs while barely making eye contact with the crowd, prompting Rick Wolkers, the venue’s sound engineer who later went on to work with the band, to suggest they get a new singer. The criticism had a profound effect. Wolstenholme, speaking to Q magazine, remembered: “The next gig Matt opened his mouth and we could not believe the sound he made. He had this powerful, clear voice. It was like he’d gone home and thought, 'Right you bastards, I’ll show you'.”
An unforgettable, dark intensity filled the air in Birmingham’s High Hall on the night Joy Division played in 1980. Ian Curtis’ epilepsy was increasingly uncontrollable and he stumbled offstage early, leaving the band to play without him before returning for the final throws of ‘Digital.’ This would be the band’s last show and rather poignantly it included the recently composed ‘Ceremony’, which would go on to be New Order’s debut single.
At the height of their ferocious punk period, with ‘Motown Junk’ recently under their belts, Manic Street Preachers played to a crowd that included Steve Lamacq, whose interview with the band afterwards famously lead to guitarist Richie Edwards calving ‘4 Real’ into his arm. The ensuing media storm drove a frenzied crowd to their later London Marquee show and saw the band signed to Columbia Records.
Famously ignoring the opinion of Slowdive’s Neil Halstead, whose album he was producing at the time, Chris Hufford went to see a little known Oxonian band called On A Friday in 1991. Instead of finding a very dodgy version of U2, as Halstead had suggested, Hufford found an enthralling band whose rough, almost punk sensibilities were captivating. He ended up recording a demo with the five-piece entitled ‘Manic Hedgehog’ and put everything he had into them. They soon signed to EMI and changed their name to Radiohead.
Having been crowned the victor in last year’s hunt for Britain’s Best Small Venue, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut finds itself inexorably tied up in Britpop history: for it was there in 1993 that Oasis rocked up uninvited, played for 20 minutes to a sparse early evening crowd, piqued the interest of Creation Records boss Alan McGee and left with a record contract. McGee later revealed he thought he could take them and maybe sell 200,000 copies worldwide… how very wrong he was.
Hundreds of people claim to have been at ‘The Gig That Changed Everything’ when in reality only a handful of people turned out to see The Sex Pistols in 1976. But when that small handful of captivated and inspired gig-goers includes founding members of The Fall, The Buzzcocks, Joy Division and The Smiths you really have one of the most pivotal moments in music history.
The Cavern Club has seen more Beatles performances than anywhere else but it was here in November 1961, after shaking off the shackles of being The Quarrymen, that a small lunchtime show caught the attention of Brian Epstein. After the show he went backstage to meet the Fab-Four-to-be in their broom cupboard of a dressing room and they forged a partnership that would kick-start the British Invasion and change the face of pop music forever.
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