The blues club that can't pay the bills

Everyone from BB King to Hendrix has played there, but soaring rents now threaten the legendary 100 Club, writes Jonathan Brown

Saturday 25 September 2010 00:00

One late afternoon in September 1942, Robert Feldman finished cutting the last garment in his workshop and set out into the streets of wartime London.

En route, a neon sign for Mac's restaurant caught his eye. He descended a steep staircase where, impressed by the palm trees decorating this subterranean bolt hole, he mused over a cup of tea that it would make a fine music club. The address was 100 Oxford Street.

Although it would be more than two decades before the venue bore its now famous name, the 100 Club became the setting for much of the legend of popular music in postwar Britain. From jazz to punk, blues to reggae, indie to Northern soul, all have used its famously sweaty environs to help stamp their mark on the cultural life of the nation and beyond.

But yesterday it was confirmed that the world's longest-surviving live music venue is to close because of the soaring overheads faced by its owner Jeff Horton, whose father gave the club its name when he took over in 1964. Barring last-minute intervention by a wealthy sponsor or new buyer, the lights will be turned off for the last time at Christmas.

Mr Horton says the 100 Club has been racking up losses of £100,000 a year for the past three years. He blames rent increases of 45 per cent, business rates of £1,000 a week and rising VAT and alcohol duty. The club's financial crisis has sent ripples of anxiety throughout the music world, which was already worried about the loss of small live venues. A Facebook campaign to save the club has been launched, with 6,000 people signing up in 24 hours. Offers of help have been received from musicians including Mick Jones of The Clash and the indie band Editors.

"We have been bombarded. There is so much goodwill. People are offering to set up bank accounts and to donate money – it has taken me by surprise," said Mr Horton, 50, who witnessed his first gig at the 100 Club at the age of six.

"I knew people would be up in arms but the last thing I want to do is let my creditors down. I am acutely aware of how tatty the club has become. It always was a sweaty basement but, even by those standards, it is starting to look bad. There are broken chairs, the pictures need replacing and there are holes in the dancefloor. I don't want it to die a lonely painful death. If I have to I want to put it to sleep with dignity, like a faithful old pet."

Depending on which generation you belong to, the 100 Club is either synonymous with jazz, R&B, punk or indie. For older music lovers, the wartime scene created by Robert Feldman downstairs at Mac's remains a cherished memory. Feldman was one of four Jewish brothers who dreamed of swapping the rag trade for a musical career.

The first band ever to perform at what was then the Feldman Swing Club included Robert on clarinet, his brother Monty on accordion and their little brother, the young drumming prodigy Victor, known as "Kid Krupa" after the US drum legend Gene Krupa. The place was an instant hit and adopted a socially liberal door policy which made it a unique melting pot. American GIs stationed in the capital to await D-Day loved the place – not least because it let them dance the jitterbug, which was outlawed in many other venues because it was considered dangerous. In fact, the Feldmans made a virtue of the adverse conditions in those dangerous and entertainment-starved war years, urging them: "Forget the doodlebug – come and jitterbug at the Feldman Club". Robert's niece, Barbara, later recalled: "At a time of rationing and wartime disciplines, Feldman's Swing Club gave the all-clear to jiving, hot jazz and an open-minded atmosphere where there were no class, racial or social distinctions."

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Frank Holder, a vocalist and percussionist who had just arrived from Guyana to serve with the RAF, said: "At Feldman's, a black man would be accepted when you couldn't appear at clubs like the Mayfair or Embassy ... all that mattered to Robert and Monty Feldman was that you were a musician."

Though many doubted the true effectiveness of the venue as a bomb shelter, they were prepared to take the risk for the sake of the music. Among the most celebrated early guests was Glenn Miller. The postwar years saw the 100 Club become both the spiritual home of traditional jazz – a homegrown antidote to be-bop which turned Chris Barber and Kenny Ball into stars – and later as an arrival point for top US blues artists including Muddy Waters, Albert King. On one unforgettable night, BB King strolled into the club with his guitar and climbed on stage for an unscheduled jam session.

Among those to drop into the club down the years have been Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan and David Bowie, while the venue became the place of choice for the super-group "secret gig" – most famously by the Rolling Stones in 1982. Just as the Feldmans founded their jazz club in the midst of strife, so it was that its most celebrated hour came amid the economic rigours of the mid-1970s. On Monday 20 September and Tuesday 21 September 1976, the club played host to the first ever punk festival.

Though still largely the preserve of a few suburban art school students, 600 people queued around the block for tickets. On the first night the audience was treated to the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Siouxsie Sioux reading The Lord's Prayer over ear-splitting feedback. The following night came The Damned, The Vibrators and Buzzcocks. Melody Maker magazine declared the event as "indisputable evidence that a new decade in rock is about to begin".

But the 100 Club had yet another trick up its sleeve and the 1990s were to prove its most prolonged period of success, hailed by a showcase gig from an emerging young Manchester band named Oasis.

Today, the club remains as soaked in perspiration as ever, regularly selling out events such as the 6Ts Rhythm and Soul Society's all-nighters, which have been attracting Northern soul lovers to the 100 Club since 1981. But Mr Horton says he will not go down the corporate route favoured by another long-lived local rival, Ronnie Scott's. "No thanks – I would rather not do it at all," he said.

"The popularity has never diminished, it is just the overheads that are too high and always increasing. Every other shop on Oxford Street is a loss leader for a big corporate. There is a huge amount of love and affection for this place and people say they can feel the ghosts of all the musicians that have ever played here."

My Top Five Gigs

By Jeff Horton

The director of the 100 Club selects his favourite shows (with apologies to anyone he has left out)

Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros (2001)

"They say you should never meet your heroes but with Joe it was different. He was everything I thought he would be and this was the pinnacle of everything that has happened here."

Paul Weller

"I am including all the shows he has ever played here because, like Joe, he is so special to anyone who was a kid growing up in the punk era."

Oasis (1994)

"The club was going through one of its more difficult periods but this changed everything and gave us 10 more years. The place was completely packed – everyone from the record industry had turned up and the place was completely overrun. We were lucky we didn't get closed down. This was voted gig of the year by NME."

The Specials (2009)

"I hadn't seen them since 1981 but they still had that raw power and incredible energy then, despite all that time that had passed. They were fantastic."

Queens of the Stone Age (2007)

"I am a huge fan and [lead singer] Josh Homme is a brilliant guy. That night they were totally incredible."

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