With Block T closed this week, the importance of grassroots spaces as alternative places to create and explore our selves again comes to light. There’s been a lot written already on this so I don’t think there’s much point going into it again. But, I found Dave Haslam’s book (which I’ve been flicking through rather than outright reading) an insightful study of the connection between venues and surrounding cultures. For anybody interested in a historical study on Britain’s music scene that takes into account the society, the bands, the venues, the audience, the clothes, the media and how these are stitched together against an ambivalent state Life After Dark is the perfect start. Some pull-quotes below to give you an idea of his study that also hopefully have some relevance to the problems of living under a neo-liberal city today.
“Youth culture was near the beginning of a phase that would soon develop into dozens of dressed-up or dressed-down tribes. Pushed by Bowie, then embraced by punk, the use of dress for self-definition, even for protest, would become ubiquitous by the end of the 1970s. In the late 1960s, writer Angela Carter described clothes as ‘our weapons, our challenges, our visible insults’.
London soon had its own alternative publication, International Times, launched in October 1966. The magazine in its early months carried very little music content until Mick Farren intervened, concentrating instead on the bigger concerns of the cultural underground at that time – coverage and information about drugs and politics, and a listing service. John Hopkins (always known as Hoppy) was a member of the International Times editorial board and became a prime mover in the organising of the launch party for the magazine, for which he secured the use of the Roundhouse on Chalk Farm Road, just north of Camden Town, a former railway repair shed (built in 1847)… Playwright Arnold Wesker ran an arts scheme called Centre 42, which had started to use the Roundhouse in their search for ‘a cultural hub’, as Wesker described it. He said the Centre would ‘by its approach and working destroy the mystique and snobbery associated with the arts’… Even though the place was a rusting ruin, the event locked into something new, something full of potential, and was mind-expanding in several ways. It was built on the likes of the Spontaneous Underground but to an audience of thousands, presenting more than conventional gigs. There was body painting, a light show, and Soft Machine with their motorbike. It attracted a druggy crowd, a loose community, freaks, artists, anarchists, dandies, fops and fashion victims, with dope appearing to be a uniting factor.
In an issue of International Times in May 1968, a correspondent called David Stringer sketched out the problems the underground was having building any networks or finding any focus in Manchester. Stringer suspends judgement on the Magic Village but despairs at the sense of imprisonment and inertia in the city: ‘Everybody has been waiting for a mysterious someone to lay the “golden egg” for them – which is natural in a society where the entertainer-entertained, boss-exploited, ruler-ruled, landlord-tenant relationships etc are taken for granted’. For Roger a club wasn’t a venue where random live acts played and random audiences gathered. He liked to create a community.” (p178-180)
“During the 1980’s, venues were a valuable means for alternative communities to build… The Leadmill’s varied programming incorporating all kinds of cultural interests was a reflection of the tendency in the mid-1980’s to connect interest in music with other art, and the world. Post-punk music fans were often culturally and politically engaged, they shared the interest of Ian Curtis’s of being outside the system somehow, and were interested in alternative culture and ideas. It was an era when NME would run a column called ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer’ where the likes of Tracey Thorn, Morrissey or Pete Wylie would list their favourite books and films..and other favourite things… In the same era Mark E. Smith worked with dancer Michael Clark.
There were a number of other venues around the country that nurtured this sense of an alternative culture wider than music, including the ‘Zap’ in Brighton, launched by a team that hosted events at various venues including the Brighton Belle on Oriental Place and the upstairs of a pub called the Richmond. From November 1984 the Zap had its own building, two converted seafront arches on King’s Road in Brighton, with a programme including live music, cabaret, comedy and club nights, and a mission statement declaring itself to be a ‘club for artists, run by artists who understand performers and their needs’. Zap club events always had variety, with an avant-garde edge.” (305-306)
“In the context of anxieties about who runs our cities, and debates about how our cities should be, closed or under-threat venues of this kind have become a symbol of maverick, independent activity at loggerheads with the moneymen aiming to rinse every penny out of every site, and those powerful commercial forces in our society that are putting a squeeze on the counter-culture in a drive towards conformity. Alan McGee of Creation Records proclaimed, ‘We’re facing a war on culture, fuelled by consumerism’.
Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs & Music Venues by Dave Haslam.