The demise of rock venues: Feel the electricity in the room

CBGB, the Marquee, the 2i's coffee bar... Fiona Sturges asks what turns an ordinary club into a rock'n'roll shrine
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The Independent Culture

This past weekend, one of the bastions of punk rock ceased to exist. CBGB, once the epicentre of the New York punk scene, closed after 33 years, marking the end of a long-running dispute between its founder, Hilly Kristal, and the venue's landlords.

This grimy club in the Bowery district, notable for its leaky toilets and warm beer, won its place in rock mythology when it became the stage for the emergence of a generation of era-defining bands that included Television, The Ramones, Blondie and The Patti Smith Group.

CBGB isn't the first hallowed rock venue to bite the dust in recent years, and it won't be the last. The Astoria in London, a stronghold for both up-and-coming and established bands, is facing closure after being bought by property developers. The Queen's Hall in Edinburgh faces a similar fate. Smaller venues, too, are being hit with new restrictions on capacity, resulting in fewer punters and reduced profits.

Few go down without a fight, however, with campaigns, often launched by bands who played there as well as ordinary punters.

You could argue that such nostalgia is misplaced. Music is about people and talent, not bricks and mortar. If The Ramones hadn't set up camp at CBGB, they would have found somewhere else to play and the history of punk would be much as it is. Similarly, had the Cavern Club in Liverpool not existed, it's safe to say that The Beatles would still have made a bob or two.

But association can be a powerful, not to say lucrative, force. The Cavern Club remains a monument to the Fab Four and is now part of guided tours of Liverpool - in spite of the fact that the original club was closed by the council in 1973 and a car park now sits in its place.

The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, a mecca for old-time country and the site where a teenage Elvis played his first gig, is a major tourist draw; it has even spawned a theme park down the road. The New York Apollo continues to cast a spell over music fans; trademarked as the place "where stars are born and legends are made", it launched the careers of black performers from James Brown to Lauryn Hill and remains Harlem's top tourist attraction.

Certainly, there are venues that, through name alone, can bestow a certain kudos on bands. An act is considered to have arrived if it has played Madison Square Garden in New York, for instance. Conversely, an era-defining performance from an artist can elevate a club's status from little known to legendary - think Hendrix at the Fillmore, The Doors at the Whisky a Go-Go, Bob Marley at the Rainbow.

In the city of Newport in Wales, the nicely seedy club TJ's (named for its owners, the late Trilby and her husband John) gained infamy in the Eighties and Nineties, principally because it was where Nirvana's Kurt Cobain proposed to Courtney Love. Underground US bands from the pre-grunge era would eschew London venues to play a UK gig at the down-at-heel venue.

The Manic Street Preachers and most acts from the Welsh alt-rock scene of the Nineties learnt their craft at TJ's. The Stone Roses spent five years ostensibly recording their Second Coming album up the road at Rockfield Studio, but featured cherubs from the bridge a few yards away from the club on the album's cover, a clue to where they'd been hanging out. Iron Maiden once tried to gatecrash a local bands' night there, and an unimpressed Trilby, a woman not to be messed with, flung them out on to the street. The place, many will say, went downhill when the venue was revamped and smartened up.

The 2i's Coffee Bar was the place to go in 1950s Soho and its sign declared it "famous" and "home of the stars", but its role in nurturing Britain's rock'n'roll scene came to be overlooked after The Beatles, Stones and Mod era rose to prominence. Only last month, the site (now a trendy bar/eaterie) was given the recognition it deserved, 50 years on, in the form of a plaque proclaiming it the birthplace of British popular music. In its tiny, sweaty cellar, Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard & The Shadows and a host of other 1950s idols were either discovered or launched their careers in the tiny booze-free basement, in a haze of cigarette smoke, espresso fumes and sheer adolescent excitement, which would contravene every health and safety and licensing law nowadays. Even Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore started out in the 2i's Junior Skiffle Group.

London is littered with buildings, from crumbling cinemas to damp basement dives, which have played host to seminal musical moments. The 100 Club in Oxford Street is one of the most famous venues in the capital, although you wouldn't know it from the outside. In 1976, this innocuous basement hosted the first punk festival, featuring a series of then-unsigned bands including Siouxsie and The Banshees, the Buzzcocks and The Sex Pistols. Such is the venue's cachet that it is now one of the most popular locations for secret gigs, with everyone from the Stones to Paul Weller using it to road-test new material.

But there comes a point, surely, where a venue's history becomes irrelevant. That notorious London temple of rock, the Marquee Club, has shifted location five times since it opened its doors in 1958, making it legendary in name only. After six years in Oxford Street, it moved to Wardour Street where it stayed for 25 years, hosting shows by The Who, David Bowie, Cream, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Bowie called it "the heartbeat in terms of what was happening in the British music scene". But recent efforts to keep the name alive have not met withsuccess. After four inglorious years on Charing Cross Road, it moved to Islington and was relaunched by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. The venue shut just four months after opening. The following year it was back in Leicester Square, this time lasting 14 months before closing down.

Paradoxically, while venues such as the Marquee struggle to keep the legend going, touring has become an increasingly rewarding business for major-league acts. Sales of the Stones' back catalogue barely keep Keith Richards in Jack Daniels, but the band are among the biggest earners on the live circuit. Madonna achieved record profits on her Confessions tour this year, netting more than £100m in ticket sales alone. No wonder, then, that stadiums and arenas now attract the most investment.

But is the quest for bums on seats coming at the expense of individuality and atmosphere? In aping their American counterparts, British arenas are increasingly notable for their bland homogeneity, closer to sports stadiums than old-school rock dives. Meanwhile, middle-capacity venues from Bristol to Glasgow have come to rely on corporate sponsorship to stay afloat.

While the companies that pour money into music events would argue that they are giving a much-needed financial boost to the live scene, musicians and fans complain of lost independence and music being reduced to a mere product. Certainly, preserving atmosphere in a venue festooned with corporate banners and overpriced merchandise can be difficult.

Perhaps this is why artists seem on a permanent quest to find new and interesting environments in which to perform. Lately, gigs have been held in forests, on boats and even on an oil rig. Rather than opt for the traditional secret gig, Badly Drawn Boy has just announced he will be showcasing material for his new album in a fish-and-chips shop.

The demise of our older rock venues could be attributed to a demand for higher standards, of course. It's no accident that many of the UK's more intimate clubs are known as "toilet" venues. Poor or non-existent air conditioning, combined with sticky floors and rubbish sound quality, can make for a mediocre night out. Back in the day, at full capacity, the humidity inside the Cavern Club would cause condensation to gather on the ceiling and drip on the heads of punters, while the heat at the Marquee repeatedly caused Jimi Hendrix's guitar to go out of tune.

On the other hand, music fans might well argue that dripping ceilings and heat are all part of the rock'n'roll ritual, along with crowd surfers (you can't beat a good boot to the head), flying beer bottles and the pervasive odour of sweat and stale beer. After all, who wants to watch the latest rock sensation sitting on a cold plastic seat and clutching a paper cup? If you do, perhaps it's a sign that your gigging days are behind you and it's time for the pipe and slippers.

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