The history of rock is written on these walls

February 5, 2023 12:20 pm

The 'wall of fame' at Southampton's Joiners club

There are more than 1,000 local, independent music venues dotted around the UK.

They’re the places where bands cut their teeth, working out how to control a crowd, pace a setlist, and how to cover your tracks when the singer forgets the words.

There’s no money and even less glory. But, even in the era of viral TikTok hits, those small, early gigs are a crucial step for a career in music.

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Filled with gratitude, bands often repay the favour by defacing the venue in a bid for posterity. And over time, those graffitied walls and dog-eared guest books become a potted history of British rock.

To mark Independent Venue Week, we asked five venues to share the scribblings of rock and pop’s biggest stars – and to reflect on the tough situation many of them face during the cost of living crisis.

Ricky Bates, venue owner & booker: “We opened in 1968 but the record of who played back then is very blurry. There’s a story of Jimi Hendrix dropping in and jamming with people on his way to the Isle Of Wight Festival in 1970, but nobody had cameras and whatnot back then.

“These days, we have walls of photos and posters – but before the pandemic we were doing 275 shows a year, so we had to start choosing the ones that had a story behind them.

“Manic Street Preachers is a big one. They played here back in the day when talent scouts actually came to shows, and that night there were all these Rolls Royces parked outside the front door – which is nuts if you know the area. Anyway, the Manics played an incredible gig and they signed their first major label deal in the basement with all the graffiti afterwards.”

“And then there’s the Cranberries. Back in the 1990s, people used to book shows by fax, and they would sometimes sign contracts a year in advance. And in the time that passed between booking the show and playing it, they’d become huge and they were on Top Of The Pops and whatever.

“So they turned up to the venue and they didn’t like the PA system and they cancelled, on the day of the gig. And so all these people turned up, obviously, and the band just sat upstairs refusing to play.”

Emma Mortimore, Marketing & Development Manager: “We started a guestbook in 1979, and the Queen signed it when she opened the venue. That was going until the early 2000s and it has a whole wealth of people in there.

“Nina Simone’s signature just blows me away. She was one of those artists where you were never quite sure who was going to turn up: the happy Nina who wanted to play, or the Nina who was going to be a little bit angry and cross at the audience for even being there.

“But apparently she was a delight to watch – and that’s an effect our auditorium has on a lot of artists I think. I love that she wrote very carefully in the book, ‘Doctor Nina Simone’.”

“A while ago, before my time, they started asking people to draw a picture as well as their signature, which is quite a big ask. The picture by Natasha [Bat for Lashes] for her album The Bride is really top of the range… More often it’s a thank you and an autograph.”