Last night a venue saved my life
Everywhere is closed. It’s freezing and dark – really dark, there’s been a massive power outage and there’s not a flickering light bulb to be seen. There’s no way of cooking anything, the cash machines are all dead, and there’s nowhere to spend money anyway. The streets are coated in a thick black gloop, somewhere between silt and sewage, and complete carnage stretches from the town centre into residential areas, with towering piles of destroyed records, teddy bears, books, armchairs, clothes, computers, paintings, fridges and sodden Christmas presents cluttering the pavements. Narrow boats are strewn like discarded toys along the canal and a yellow camper van is lodged under a bridge in the river. There’s no food, heat or water at home and I’m caked from head to toe in toxic slurry after attempting to clean up.
Not what I had in mind for Boxing Day really. Normally it’s the bloated slumber of over indulgence and the toasty embrace of the sofa with festive telly. But the last gasp of 2015 brought biblical scale floods to many towns and cities in the North, with the Calder Valley region and the popular market town of Hebden Bridge particularly hard hit. Thousands of shops and homes took in over five feet of raging river water. For my part that meant kissing goodbye to the entire ground floor of my house, including a sizable chunk of my cherished vinyl collection, and all uninsured thanks to blanket refusal from insurance providers.
Like many other local residents, I was cold, hungry, filthy, exhausted and in shock. There was only one place to go: The Trades Club – the town’s treasured live music venue. Here you could find warmth, freshly made curry, a few pints, and the weary camaraderie of being collectively up shit creek.
Over the course of the New Year and indeed through to the present, this 200-capacity grassroots music venue was a lifeline for some of the 3,000 households and 1,250 businesses affected by the unprecedented disaster that had befallen the town. The Trades Club became many things – a soup kitchen serving thousands of donated meals, a flood relief hub distributing vital safety gear and cleaning products, a warm haven where people could talk things through and commiserate, and a fundraising venue hosting events to help bring the town back from the brink.
The club also took a hit in the flood but the first floor was operational and it played a crucial role in the aftermath – just as it has been fulfilling a crucial role in the community since it opened its doors in 1984.
Mal Campbell, Head of Promotions at the Trades and the man responsible for booking an extraordinary roll-call of artists to play there, recalls: the dark days at the end of the year, “Hebden was quite a lawless place for a few days because there was no infrastructure, no police and there was no cash. This happened at Christmas time so if people had stuff in their fridges it was ruined and they had no electricity and you couldn’t buy things. And being in a valley you were stuck here – the train lines weren’t working and the roads were flooded and blocked, so we were stuck in this bubble for a while and money became meaningless.”
On the whole there was very little crime, defying the occasional nefarious reporter scuttling about looking for some bad news to sensationalise. In fact, the period was defined by its spirit of unity and solidarity. Campbell says: “It’s interesting how quickly people organise themselves and I think because there is a sense of community in Hebden Bridge, we all kind of know our neighbours here and there are lines of communication that are already quite open, it felt like friendly anarchy. People think if the structures disappear it will just be bedlam but actually it was quite a calm and friendly atmosphere of people just helping each other, but I think that says a lot about Hebden Bridge anyway.”
Campbell has a long history in the music industry having been a professional musician signed to major labels in the UK and US and sharing stages with the likes of Nick Cave, The Stone Roses and Spiritualized. Unsurprisingly he has a bulging contacts book, which he brought to bear in getting support from the great and the good. As he explains: “Well Tim Burgess was already booked to do something, but then he expanded his event and was saying ‘what if I did this and what if I did that’, so we ended up doing an audience with Tim with donations on the door. Also Mark Thomas and Johnny from I am Kloot, who are really good friends of the club, offered their services. Phill Jupitus also came and that probably raised another £3,500. Field Music donated all their proceeds and Hookworms from Leeds, they’re great and they did a fundraiser, and Edwyn Collins donated a big chunk of his fee to the flood funds as well”.
The Trades Club and a long list of rock stars and record companies also played a key role in saving Hebden’s much loved independent record store, Muse Music & Love Café. Sid Jones has been supplying the town with a fine selection of music for 20 years but the 2012 floods wiped out some £30,000 of stock. As with many vulnerable businesses and householders, insurance is impossible to secure and the government has been more than three years late in devising a solution. So when the Boxing Day floods smashed through all of Sid and his wife Valeen’s extensive flood protection measures and they suffered another hit of £50,000 this time, they feared their livelihood was over. Step in Mal Campbell, local author Ben Myers and poet Adelle Stripe to hatch a plan. They set about seeking music industry support and before long boxes of rare and valuable vinyl were arriving from labels like Heavenly, Domino and One Little Indian. Former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce sent a cache of mint early Smiths collectibles and Bjork sent a stack of records with a handwritten note. The Trades collated all the donations and a record fair was held in the club, which drew a huge number of buyers and saved Muse from going under. The shop is set to reopen in time for Record Store Day 2016.
Help was swiftly offered because the reputation and appeal of the Trades Club travels far and wide and spans the decades. Patti Smith played a benefit gig after the 2012 floods and last year Laura Marling chose the Trades to perform her album ‘Short Movie’ live for the first time. Reflecting on why, she says, “I didn’t know what the Trades Club was going to be like but we’d heard a lot about it and my agent loved this place. She was talking up a storm about it and we wanted it to be a special and intimate venue. Because this is my ideal gig, this is where I play best and this is where I am best received I think”.
“The first time I came here I felt like it was really special and it reminded me of a lot of communities that I’ve seen in America that are really united and full of left of centre people, and I really relate to those communities and I’ve spent a lot of time in them, and I hadn’t ever seen one in the UK. So I found it really reassuring that there was a community like this in the UK and that I’d got it wrong”.
Following the news of the floods, Marling’s management contacted Campbell and explained that she’d like to do something. In mid-February she drove four hours from London to play a rare solo acoustic show which raised over £4,000 for the flood fund.
Before, during and after the floods the Trades Club has been a fulcrum for the town, just like hundreds of similar grassroots venues across the UK fulfil an indispensable role for people of all ages in a community – bringing emerging artists and revered legends to play for a few hundred people people at a reasonable price, rather than an anonymous mass of thousands gathering under an extortionate corporate banner.
These unpretentious places are part of our social fabric and essential for performers and audiences alike – gig goers have a space where they can express themselves and musicians learn how to be in a band. No one goes from playing in a garage to a festival main stage or a big-seater stadium without first earning their chops on the small venue circuit. And some cavernous convention centre where the band members are distant matchstick figures just can’t compete with the gritty intimacy and sweaty rush of excitement that small venues deliver.
Many established performers also prefer the experience of playing small venues. John Bramwell, lead singer of I Am Kloot and solo artist, says about small venues: “Well for me that’s what it’s all about… for the last two and half years that’s more or less all I’ve done: found great small music venues like the Trades. It still feels like a proper event, in fact you feel more like, ‘Wow this is the proper heat of a gig’. I’ve been lucky enough to play some really big ones but actually you feel a bit divorced as a performer, and I think audiences do too on the whole. My favourite gigs have never been at GMEX.”
And yet small venues are disappearing. Industry reports estimate that an alarming 40 per cent of music venues have shut down in London in the last decade, with a similar sad story being played out nationwide. The UK music industry is estimated to be worth £3.8 billion, but take away small venues and how will talent be incubated and helped on the way to the big time?
The shutting of iconic clubs is worrying and Campbell certainly feels the pressure. “Every month there are more venues closing and more get swallowed up by the chains,” he says, adding, “So these are places that should be cherished. I’m aware of the responsibility I have in this role. There’s a few plates to keep spinning… I want to bring really gobsmacking artists here but I also want to have community events and for it to be a social hub. Primarily it’s a socialist venue that has ethics and ideas, so even if we have a sold out show, but there’s somebody that’s being overtly racist at the bar, that’s not a successful event to us. Whereas for large venues that might be negligible, it’s a major incident to us. We don’t want people who are sexist, racist or homophobic in the club, so actually what we term a success might be completely different – its not all about bums on seats.”
It’s cheering to know that venues like the Trades aren’t alone in fighting their corner. The Music Venue Trust is a UK charity committed to protecting and developing the future of grassroots live music venues and in early April the trust secured an encouraging victory in the struggle against the untrammelled influence of property developers in closing treasured performance spaces. Local planning authorities will now have to consider noise impacts on new residents from existing businesses, essentially meaning developers can’t just throw up a block of flats next to an iconic venue, then have new residents complain about the noise and close it down.
Mark Davyd, Founder & CEO of the Music Venue Trust, says, “We warmly welcome this breakthrough for the UK’s grassroots music venues. This common sense move by the government provides an opportunity for local authorities to use their powers to ensure that live music continues to play a vital economic, cultural and social role in our towns and cities.”
The values small venues support are to be lauded, and each time they disappear an important chunk of cultural heritage vanishes. The Trades Club is proudly not for profit and nobody owns the club. It is owned by its members and run by a committee, with an unofficial motto of ‘By the people for the people’. Above all, community is central to its ethos. “Everyone who works at the Trades could get a lot more money if they worked somewhere else,” Campbell states. “The big thing that’s built-in here is that nobody is really doing it for the money in the first place.”
By Nick Rice