Working Men's Clubs - can this British institution rise from the ashes of Phoenix Nights?

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Not-for-profit private members' clubs still have traction argues April Welsh. How? As trendy gig venues

Ray Von – the fluoro clad disc jockey in Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights – pumps out an old school 90s club mix to a crowd of bemused octogenarians as he urges them to step up to the decks with their song requests.

Elsewhere, a giant inflatable phallus acquired from an insalubrious Dutch festival is disguised as a children's bouncy castle and renamed 'Sammy The Snake' and Jerry 'The Saint' St. Clair enters a state of herbal induced apoplexy during his weekly Free and Easy night. The anecdotes flow and the good times roll.

Set in a fictional working men's club in Greater Manchester, Phoenix Nights parodied and immortalised a quintessentially British institution - following in the grand tradition of the sitcom - but at the same time championed the unwavering spirit of community woven tightly into the fabric of the working men's club.

These not-for-profit private members' clubs were built by Reverend Henry Solly in the late 19th century as a place for working men and their families to go to partake in educational, recreational and charitable pursuits.

The Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (WMCIU), established in 1862, celebrated its 150th anniversary this year and currently has 2,000 clubs – all with their own sets of rules - registered under The Friendly Societies Act, with over 3 million members.

The clubs still serve their original function but have evolved, to an extent, and thanks to the Equality Bill, women are now granted full membership status, as well as the opportunity to hold official positions (although the gender specific namesake is of course still palpably out of date).

But they have been in decline since the 1970s and have fallen on hard times in recent years as a result of the smoking ban and the proliferation of low-cost booze. Eighty clubs in total have been forced to shut down since the ban in 2007, but all over the country, dedicated groups and individuals are doing all they can to secure their future, casting their nets further and embracing diversity and new beginnings.

A number of these have taken their lead from The Brudenell Social Club in Leeds and reinvented themselves as gig venues, where established, popular and hype acts bring in different crowds and generate the revenue required for the club to cheat death.

Nathan Clark, who has been managing The Brudenell for over ten years, talks of the charm and intimacy of these clubs, as well as extolling their practical virtues. “The great thing about social clubs is that when they were originally constructed they were built with a room specifically made for entertainment. This of course means that they’re better laid out then a lot of other venues and as well as the undeniable character and history, it’s a major draw for a gig-goer.”

Mal Campbell, entertainment manager of the now thriving Trades Club in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire also explains their allure. “What attracts people to what we’re doing and I think to social clubs in general is that whereas people will go to a particular venue maybe as a one-off to see a particular band and not come back for a few years, with social clubs there’s an ongoing support and people are making the choice to go and see that band here rather than a 500 capacity venue. In the age of VIP packages people like places like The Trades because everyone gets a good view and everyone gets to meet the band.”

The Brudenell is one of Leeds' most revered live music venues and has been steadily building up its reputation since the mid-90s, in the past played host to the likes of The Fall, Animal Collective, Franz Ferdinand, Girls and Hot Chip.

However, it is important to recognise that it differs from other clubs in terms of surrounding neighbourhood. Owing to the rapid growth of students in the Hyde Park area and a change in licensing laws, The Brudenell had to relinquish some of its social club rights in order to make way for the area’s new transient population.

This meant changing its status from an exclusive members-only club to an inclusive non-members venue. However, Nathan Clark is adamant that the ethos remains exactly the same and that the change has not forced longstanding members out of the club.

“We’ve still got people like Neville who have been coming in every Tuesday night for the past 60 years and who sits happily among the students. We’ve got a big Asian and Spanish community too and therefore try and tick as many boxes we can in terms of inclusivity, for example, by offering Spanish lagers on tap. We never set out to change on purpose, it was simply a case of evolve or die.”

In London’s east end – another area which has seen the population change substantially over the past few decades – Bethnal Green Working Men's Club has flourished since having outside promoter Warren Dent come on board nearly a decade ago to run a separately licensed club.

He has transformed the venue into a go-to destination for bands as well as holding other events, like infamous cabaret nights and the annual Tranny Olympics, where regulars mix freely in the bar with the event’s attendees. Elsewhere, the Oakford Social Club in Reading is home to monthly BBC Introducing showcases - DZ Death Rays played last month - and up north, the Queens Social Club in Sheffield played host to Foals and The Raveonettes in November, with The Eccentronic Research Council booked for January as part of Delia Derbyshire Day 2013.

The Westgarth Social Club in Middlesbrough celebrated its centenary last year, but has accepted the tide of change over the past four years by also taking on outside promoters like The Kids Are Solid Gold, COSMOS, Pay For The Piano, and Peg Powler Gallery. It has managed to retain its status as a social club, offering annual membership of just £2.50 a year, and spearheaded by steward Steve Callaghan, with the help of his daughter Siobhan and Aaron Gray, has seen the likes of The Crookes, The Vaccines and Stornoway take to the stage, among many more. It stands up as a shining example of how best to achieve a balance between preserving the traditional and embracing the progressive.

In February, legendary Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore plays The Trades Club in Hebden Bridge – resting place of Sylvia Plath and birthplace of Ted Hughes – for a sold-out gig at the same venue which this September saw the one and only Patti Smith play a benefit show for the flood relief fund, after learning of the damage to the area. 

“Fortunately The Trades is on the first floor so the damage we experienced at the hands of the floods was by no means as serious as it could have been,” explains Mal Campbell, who has been club entertainment manager for a year and a half. “Practically all the pubs in Hebden Bridge were closed so we were the last place standing. Our cellar got flooded – a few grand’s worth of damage – and we lost electricity for a bit but we’re still feeling the after effects now because a lot of people think we’re not in business and it also seems like every time it rains news crews flock to the area. We want to get the message out that Hebden is doing great!”

The Trades was originally built in 1923 as a joint enterprise by local trade unions, where people could pay a penny a week for membership. But when the town became financially depressed as a result of the decline of the cotton industry, the building stood empty for years, until it was taken over again in the early 80s and reborn as a venue.

As it’s a socialist members' club, there’s a members’ bar, as well as the live music aspect to it, and these two sides ostensibly sit side by side. “I imagine that if a venue goes through a big up-swell as we’re having at the moment then the members can feel a bit disenfranchised, but in our case the long-term members are thrilled that the place is flourishing again. In the past we’ve had people like Bert Jansch and Nico play so everyone is very proud of the heritage of the place. People have been volunteering here for thirty years and are desperate to keep it thriving and there are people that have been members for thirty years who come all the time and who sit in the bar talking to people who have come  here for the first time, which is fantastic.”

Campbell continues: “People have taken risks with us; when Patti Smith agreed to play that changed things forever. But I’m not saying it’s been easy – we don’t get a bean in funding because the building’s owned by The Labour Party so it’s under the auspices of a political organisation, although we’re not really political. Anything that we’ve done – new lights, new PA, new stage – in the last year, we have to do it all off our own back. So it has been a real struggle, but we still feel really positive about the future.”

It would appear some clubs are choosing avoid their impending fate by branching out. As Clark says, if these venues keep their private members' status and work within the remits of a temporary events license – which allows 12 a year – it only takes one successful show or one Saturday night a month to be their saviour. With different sociological groups seemingly co-existing and integrating under one roof, maybe this isn’t the end of the working men’s club, but the start of a new beginning?

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