Thursday, 17 September 2009

A Place to Play

You just can’t hold a good thing down, can you? Back in the mists of time when rock ‘n’ roll was the spawn of the devil, those in authority did all they could to protect the nation’s youth by suppressing it wherever possible. Often, acts were barred from the usual dance hall and theatre venues but like a tenacious weed, rock flourished in basements (famously, the Cavern Club) and increasingly stranger and stranger places.

One such location was the Chislehurst Caves. This is a 22 mile long series of man-made tunnels in Chislehurst, in the south eastern suburbs of Greater London. The caves were worked for chalk and flints up to the 1830s and then became a popular tourist attraction. During World War II they were used as an air raid shelter but shortly after VE Day the shelter was officially closed. However, in the 1960s, the caves were re-opened and used as a music venue. David Bowie, Status Quo, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd all performed there and in October 1974 a media party was held within its chalky walls to celebrate the launch of Led Zeppelin’s new record company, Swan Song Records.

There have been other odd venues, too. The Roundhouse, situated near Camden in north London was originally a railway engine shed (hence the shape) and it was where I saw The Stranglers play in 1977 although they were late on stage (probably leaves on the line), causing me a mad dash to Paddington for the last train home.

Churches are another unlikely venue for popular music (we all know about the devil and tunes) and I’m not talking about the ‘born again’ evangelists with their guitars and tambourines. Bjork has been known to sing completely un-amplified in a church (can’t remember where) and gave a stunning performance at the Riverside Church in New York a few days before the tragedy of 9/11. Many others including All About Eve have also used the atmospherics of old churches to good effect. In fact, the Union Chapel in Islington, London has been converted to a permanent venue for folk and rock acts alike.

I was present in the late 1980s when Siouxsie and the Banshees headlined in a Circus Big Top pitched in Finsbury Park, north London. Even in recent times, rock has infiltrated some of the unlikeliest venues. Cliff Richard once entertained the crowd at a rain-drenched Wimbledon whilst play was suspended and Brian May made a bit of a racket with his famous home-made guitar on the roof of Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations.

It seems as though the bad boys of rock have finally become socially acceptable, although I don’t recall any gigs taking place in the hallowed halls of some of London’s Gentlemen’s clubs. Perhaps time will tell.


Adrian said...

I'd estimate that some 25% or more of the concerts featuring the artist whom I serve as manager are presented in churches - some converted into cultural centres or music conservatories, most still active in their traditional roles.

There are two primary reasons for this: 1) churches are great locations for finding good pianos; and 2) churches also, usually, offer fine acoustics (designed, as they were, for voices and music to be heard well).

We've also discovered, as many concert venues, in North America at least, are entering into exclusive arrangements with concert promoters - making them off-limits to truly independent artists, churches have not sold-out to corporate interests, and remain open to a range of community activities.

Should the day ever come when the monopolistic agencies or the bureaucrats in the performing rights orgs find ways to stop churches being welcome venues to indie artists, perhaps then we shall have to start moving pianos into caves...

musicobsessive said...

Hi Adrian, Interesting. So where once artists were debarred for fear of youth culture, they are now excluded by corporate business!

Better start checking out those cave acoustics. Actually there's a particularly good one near me at High Wycombe...