Live At the Brixton Academy: A riotous life in the music business by Simon Parkes and J S Rafaeli

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Live At the Brixton Academy: A riotous life in the music business by Simon Parkes and J S Rafaeli

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Fifteen years of running the Brixton Academy, 1982-97, by the man who purchased an almost derelict former cinema building and placed it firmly at the cutting edge of British pop, rock and dance music.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 419 Date: January 2014
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 9781846689550

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Who on earth would want to buy and run a live music venue in deepest Brixton, and manage to keep it running for fifteen years, transforming it against all the odds into what becomes one of Britain’s most iconic establishments of its kind? Such an undertaking calls for somebody with special managerial skills who can keep one step ahead of the game, walking a precarious tightrope, keeping gangsters, punters, promoters and the local authorities onside. It also requires a good deal of luck.

The answer is Simon Parkes, a former pupil of Gordonstoun and – though he deliberately downplays it – a man with one arm, thanks to the notorious Thalidomide. Forsaking a career in the family business, Boston Deep Sea Fisheries, he found the lure of music strong enough to look elsewhere for his vocation. In 1982 he paid £1 for an almost derelict building in Brixton, the Astoria, an old cinema built in the art deco style. Some sixth sense convinced him that this had major potential as a venue for live music. At the time, Brixton had recently been attracting national headlines for all the wrong reasons, badly scarred by inner city riots during the previous summer. Any real businessman, he believed, would have run a mile from the place, but he had other ideas. With no business experience, only a passionate belief in himself, he knew he could make it happen.

It took a vast amount of hard work, a huge leap of faith, and a remarkable talent for dealing with people from all walks of life. But within months of its opening, the newly-renamed Brixton Academy became the coolest venue in the capital. The Hammersmith Odeon and the Royal Albert Hall were part of the old guard. Brixton was where you had to go to see the more leftfield or cutting edge acts, like U2, Public Enemy, Public Image Ltd, Pavement, and Dennis Brown.

Dealing with promoters and artists from Jamaica who had some rather unorthodox methods, hiring the right security staff, and handling police, council and licensing officials who had to be convinced that this was a vital force of regeneration and not a hotbed of drug-crazed iniquity calls for a particular kind of talent. For example, what happens if you have several thousand reggae fans who have bought tickets to come and see their hero, only to be told by the police that your cooperation is required as your star is about to be arrested for non-payment of alimony? If you’re lucky, you can stay on the winning side most of the time. Just occasionally you get it wrong, although it doesn’t always matter. Even if you ask an elderly-looking roadie leaning against the bar if you can get to meet the legendary Robert Plant – only to find out that the geezer you have just spoken to is actually the Led Zeppelin rock god himself.

Parkes has some astonishing and revealing stories to tell in this book as an insider on the music business. Some are very funny, others are quite startling. In 1984 the Academy rallied to the trade union cause when it gave its premises free of charge to host Arthur Scargill’s Christmas party, a series of benefit gigs to aid the striking miners, with the Clash headlining. A few months later he was taken out to lunch at Mayfair, and amazed to see Scargill and several others whom he recognised from those evenings at the Academy, cheerfully tucking into their £300 per head meals, cigars and brandies. Some years later he pulled off a major coup when he booked Nirvana, at that time the hottest name in rock music, and sold several thousand tickets – only to have it all fall through when one morning he woke up to the news that their leader, Kurt Cobain, had been found dead from a self-inflicted shotgun wound. (Insurance covers such matters in the event of accidental death, but not suicide). But triumph was dragged from the jaws of disaster, once he and his staff found that fans all over the world were now paying astonishing prices for pieces of memorabilia – tickets for the gig at the Academy that Nirvana never played, going at many times their face value. So yes, they sold some more tickets...

By this time, the venue had long since broadened its scope from merely hosting gigs by the more alternative music acts. It was hired out as a rehearsal venue for Eric Clapton and others, hosted all-night raves, and also staged performances from top names and legends such as Diana Ross, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and even the Rolling Stones. Short of resurrecting John Lennon from the dead and bringing the Beatles to Brixton, there was no way of topping that.

All good things have to come to an end. A combination of factors led Parkes to quit while he was ahead and sell the Academy, naturally for considerably more than the £1 he paid out. For years the music industry had been fun, throwing up one exciting trend after another, but by the mid-1990s accountants were taking over the business. How was live music going to compete with the rise of MTV and the conveyor belt of boy bands plus tacky Barbie-doll outfits like the Spice Girls?

But as he swapped the knife-edge responsibility for life as a husband and father, he had fifteen years of a unique career to look back on. This book will tell you plenty about that momentous decade and a half in the history of British music, and in the process just as much about some of the more challenging ways of the business behind it and the people who saw it at its most exciting, and sometimes most threatening. Looking down the barrel of a gun, or being uncomfortably close to a baseball bat, is not exactly one’s idea of fun – but bringing some of the top names in music to your own stage, and experiencing the excitement of live music and a dream come true when those around you initially told you that you must be off your head, is a different thing altogether.

Further reading:

Totally Wired: Post-punk Interviews and Overviews by Simon Reynolds for more on the British music scene at the time

The Hacienda: How Not To Run A Club by Peter Hook for the history of a parallel venue further north

Buy Live At the Brixton Academy: A riotous life in the music business by Simon Parkes and J S Rafaeli at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Live At the Brixton Academy: A riotous life in the music business by Simon Parkes and J S Rafaeli at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Live At the Brixton Academy: A riotous life in the music business by Simon Parkes and J S Rafaeli at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Live At the Brixton Academy: A riotous life in the music business by Simon Parkes and J S Rafaeli at Amazon.com.

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