Reflecting on one of Liverpool’s finest venues, Getintothis’ Paul Fitzgerald goes back to the future with his first gig in 1981.
An interesting discourse broke out recently on the From Eric’s To Evol Facebook page, about one of Liverpool city centre’s former music glories, one of it’s former great rock venues, the many legendary stories held within its walls, and it’s current state.
Unlike other similar stories, such as the ongoing issue of The Irish Centre however, this tale centres around a venue not abandoned and left to ruin. Far from it, in fact. We speak of a venue that to all the world looked and felt abandoned during its heyday, and now finds itself with a brand new image, a much-needed face lift, a successful new role, and attracting a brand new audience.
Originally built in 1881, then rebuilt after a fire in 1938, The Royal Court Theatre was the height of Art Deco opulence at the time, with its stalls, Grand Circle and balcony styled around a maritime theme in keeping with the city’s traditions. In a city full of theatres, the splendour and grandeur of the Royal Court at the time made it the premier such attraction in the city.
For performers, musicians and technical staff alike, its impressive sight lines and flawless acoustics made it a firm favourite for touring theatre companies of the time. It even boasts the largest revolve stage in the country, outside of the West End, making scene changeovers easier, faster and tighter. Much was made of the theatre’s promising future, and the building certainly lived up to that promise.
Having survived the bombs of WWII, the Royal Court thrived in terms of its work, and its audience. Sell out audiences came time and again to see the biggest names in the business perform. John Gielgud, Lawrence Olivier, Richard Attenborough and Ralph Richardson, were among the brightly shining lights of the day to tread its occasionally revolving boards. And Ken Dodd.
In 1976, the first of a series of commercial operators took ownership of the building from Merseyside County Council, perhaps as a result of the Council realising that the building was not in the best of condition after decades of under investment and neglect. They would’ve been correct in that assumption.
The place was beyond its best years when, in 1980, it was taken on by two enterprising cab drivers, and given over to the business of rock.
Really, for many, that’s where the story starts. Their gigging lives began and flourished in that building over the two decades that followed, lifelong passions fuelled by the experience, long nights of abandon and reckless behaviour, still held close to their hearts years later. Youthful, energised and spirited living at its very best. Era-defining nights.
Hence the debate. If it was a debate. Maybe just a case of differing opinions, maybe just a conversation. Either way, it opened up a galaxy of beautiful memories, Medication promoter Marc Jones, who, its fair to say, broke his teeth working as Artist Liaison at the Court posted…
“…one of my real bugbears about this fine city of ours is…The Royal Court Theatre and why it doesn’t put gigs on anymore!……anybody who went to gigs in 80’s & 90’s saw some brilliant gigs at the Royal Court! Those old theatres were amazing right across the country with great acoustics and they were still intimate & as your favourite bands got more successful….you still felt you… were within touching distance of your band! No shit arenas with no atmosphere…the Royal Court was electric, a place to jump and down and you would go home or back into town drenched in sweat but alive and feeling 10 feet tall because you had seen a brilliant band on top of their game!”
On June 21 1981, as a 14-year-old, I went to my first ever gig, an incredible, life changing, eye opening, and deafening experience. I found something that night that I hadn’t even been aware I’d been looking for. Kraftwerk were in town, and playing the second of two nights at The Royal Court.
As I took my first tentative steps inside, a packed night, people gathered together in the darkness in the faded glory of this crumbling Art Deco palace of delight. I remember the heat and the noise as much as I recall the smell. It hung thick in the air, obnoxious and alluring in equal measure.
A heady, intoxicating blend of dirt, sweat, nicotine, long forgotten beer spills, cheap hairspray and biker jackets. The paint peeled from the walls. In fact, in some places, the walls peeled from the walls.
My memory of the gig, though scant in parts, is primarily of the volume, the monochrome metallic stage set, which was basically the band’s studio taken on the road. I remember their red Man Machine shirts. I remember the almost fluorescent yellow of the Computer World projections hanging over their heads. I remember the band, serious, studious and cold enough to be cool.
The neon name signs, Ralf, Florian, Karl, Wolfgang. The huge industrial analogue sound. Every note, each beat brought a new breathtaking thrill. I remember the simple, magnificent beauty of it all.
DJ and Liverpool music living legend Bernie Connor remembers it well: “I went to both nights of Kraftwerk with Barney Sumner, Peter Hook, Rob Gretton and our partners. It was a revelation, the whole of Kling Klang Studios dismantled and taken on tour. Also, it was very unusual for the time to see and hear music like this performed live before a mass audience.“
Many people carry such memories with them. Nights of jumping around in a dark, sweaty theatre, spilling drinks over each other and themselves, while some of the greatest bands we’ve ever seen (and some dreadful ones) lifted what was left at the time of the Royal Court‘s roof.
The Clash, The Jam, Echo and The Bunnymen, The Cure, REM, Cypress Hill, Gil Scott-Heron, The Smashing Pumpkins, Stereolab, Pavement, The Smiths, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, The Charlatans, Killing Joke, Pixies, The Specials, Blur, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The La’s, and Cocteau Twins are just a few who get a mention in the avalanche of comments on Marc Jones’ thread.
For the counter culture, the 80s were a time of protest and insurrection of course, and the theatre hosted many incredible benefit shows. The first post Hillsborough fundraiser on the April 29, 1989, featured among others, The La’s, Pete Wylie and The Mission. The Red Wedge tour came, an initiative fronted by Billy Bragg, in an attempt to get more young people to engage with the Labour Party.
And of course, the stuff of legend, a fundraiser for the Militant tendency came in the shape of Factory‘s Tony Wilson bringing a one off event, ‘With Love From Manchester’ to the Royal Court. On that night, The Smiths, The Fall, John Cooper Clarke and New Order all played. On the same bill. For £6. Incredible.
That was then. And this is now. Those days are gone, just a faded memory for those lucky enough to have lived and experienced so many splendid moments within its crumbling walls. For so many and for so long, the Royal Court was a place to belong, a place to feel high on the communal experience of live music at its rawest, its loudest and filthiest, it’s most illuminating and exhilarating.
In the context of the times, though, pretty much every city had a similar medium sized venue, so the Royal Court fitted neatly into the bands’ schedules. More bands toured in those years, and audiences were generally bigger. The ticket prices were lower, because bands toured largely to promote products that punters went out and bought. No streaming or downloads. It was a circular scene that fed itself, a very different place to where we find ourselves now.
The Royal Court is a very different place too. Refurbished and rebranded for a new audience of Liverpool theatre goers, with an emphasis on Liverpool based shows, starring local actors, and written by local writers. You can buy food there. Food. In the Royal Court. The auditorium seating redesigned to accommodate this new life. Full-time and part-time employment has been created.
There are new bars, toilets, and full disabled access. The external parts of the building have been cleaned up, and extended. There are theatre tours, and a plan to bring the Penny Farthing into the building, just as The Empire did with the Legs Of Man.
The owners have taken a clear chance on the old place, have created a genre all of its own, and like it or loathe it (and this is Liverpool, there’ll always be two sides of the fence), it works. These shows, self funded, are selling out, and regularly. The building has a new life. A new start.
Mick Bawden works at the Royal Court, and was at many of the gigs mentioned here. Last word from him: “Liverpool’s Royal Court has moved on from the days of it just being an old unloved theatre…and anyway, if it was still a gig venue, who would you be booking? I don’t think The Cramps will play again, or Bowie…We are all older now and would probably break a leg stage diving, so stop being silly!“
The Royal Court Theatre still stands. Because of us, maybe. Despite us, more likely.