Our future rock’n’roll stars could be in serious jeopardy if we don’t look after, cherish and support the UK’s smallest, rapidly closing venues
I cried a little tear of nostalgia when Manchester’s twin titan toilet venues, the Music Box and Jilly’s Rockworld, closed their doors in April. True, my abiding memories of them were from the early noughties, going nuts to drum’n’bass DJs in one and bouncing around at the seminal metal discos at the other.
It had been a long time since either had laid a serious claim to being the continuation of the city’s music legend, but a piece of history was lost all the same; Jilly’s, then called Rafters, was the venue where Tony Wilson first saw Joy Division. And no, of course rock’n’roll should not be a museum; things move on. But those closures are indicative of a wider trend, with no one great villain but the same awful consequence.
Newport TJ’s remains under threat following the death of iconic club owner John Sicolo in March, the man who had poured so much energy into keeping the club’s financial difficulties at bay. The equally seminal Leicester Charlotte closed in March, with both venues likely to be sold and turned into more profitable flats.
Business is one thing, but council support for live music seems thin on the ground; promises for the development of venues in London to replace the compulsory purchases of the Astoria and LA2 now seem unlikely with the change of government. And unbelievably, Brighton’s profitable Freebutt looks to be fighting a losing battle against closure thanks to the ongoing noise complaints of a single resident, with the council giving little support.
There may be no single Big Bad here, but it’s a crisis all the same. British music doesn’t operate on a top-down celebrity model. Our small size is our advantage; real talent can be harnessed from any of our nowhere towns, and anybody can become a star. But they need somewhere to start out. And these places need to be independently owned and conscientiously managed.
How many kids would not have formed bands, how many lives would not have been changed and – yes – how many tax pounds would not have been generated had the UK’s cottage network of small venues not been allowed to thrive? Don Letts’ Strummerville movie shows how effective that organisation has been in giving a leg-up to new talent, but that task shouldn’t be left to charitable foundations.
This, by the way, cuts wider than just the wailing of music fans, so easily passed off by the right-wing media as inconsequential aesthetic fripperies, especially in an age of swingeing government cuts. There’s a song on the new Manics album called ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’, about how, after the decimation of the mines and the car plants, the only thing this country really manufactures anymore is brilliant music, drama and comedy.
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And with the consequences of the digital age, even that’s being thrown away. Whether the record industry survives depends on whether we can re-learn the value of culture, and that we need to pay for it. But if we don’t and it doesn’t, we’re going to need our toilet venues more than ever. They could just be last line of defence for British rock’n’roll.
This article originally appeared in the July 10 issue of NME
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