Hope you’re having a good Christmas – it’s an exceedingly quiet one here at 853 Mansions; not only have my upstairs and downstairs neighbours headed away for the festive season, but so has everybody who lives next door. So, since Christmas Day, it’s been incredibly peaceful, and I’ve been able to lounge around and do nothing completely undisturbed. It’s been bliss. Sunday brings work, though, so I need to bring my brain back into commission…
One piece of news that has been snuck out quietly over Christmas has been the closure date for the Astoria on the Charing Cross Road, which is going out in rather crappy fashion on 15 January with, er, a special night hosted by Ibiza’s Manumission club. A bit of an odd choice for a venue which has become synonymous with loud rock music and sticky, beer-soaked floors; but then again the Astoria’s many nooks and crannies must have seen a few debauched happenings in their time, so perhaps Manumission isn’t such a bad farewell after all.
While it’s sad to see a London venue go, I won’t shed any tears for the Astoria; from my first visit there (Morrissey, 20 December 1992) to my last (Maximo Park, 21 February 2007), I thought the place was a tip; a testament to the contempt that gig-goers are too often held in, especially in London. Dark, gloomy, awkwardly-shaped and with steps and obstacles in the way, it may have had atmosphere but it rarely felt comfortable. Downstairs in the Astoria 2 was a bit better, but my own memories of it are soured by being beaten up by a bouncer there in the mid-1990s.
With its site earmarked for demolition for almost two decades, nobody ever had the incentive to improve the Astoria, so the place just stumbled on for decades, like an old relic, waiting for someone to finally give Crossrail the go-ahead so it could be put out of its misery.
The two Astorias are joined on the closure list by Oxford Street’s Metro club, and another club in the same block has already upped sticks. Metro is a funny old venue, and the last of the old shoe-box sized places that hid underneath the shopping street’s tattier end, like the 73 Club and Plastic People. The venerable 100 Club is probably the last one left. I’d actually argue that the loss of Metro, which played host to countless up and coming bands (the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Kings of Leon and Kaiser Chiefs played early shows there), will be more keenly felt than the loss of the Astoria, whose more lucrative acts will find willing venues elsewhere. I liked Metro as a gig venue, although it was a claustrophobic home for Blow Up, which moved there when the Wag shut in 2001. Blow Up will hopefully be able to breathe again when it moves to the larger Bar Rumba on Shaftesbury Avenue.
While none of these three venues were perfect, it’s incredible there’s been no real discussion as to what would replace them. Indeed, Metro’s owners say they were given less than two months to pack up their stuff. Okay, finding a venue the size of the Astoria is going to be difficult, but surely one of the West End’s theatres or cinemas could be better used as a gig venue? As for the others, the tiny Fly venue on New Oxford Street could come into its own, but that, the 100 Club and Great Portland Street’s 229, aside, where else is there?
Maybe things move on – the West End club scene feels like it’s been fading away for many years now. A decade ago, you wouldn’t have expected half of London’s music scene to have decamped from the Camden area to Shoreditch, but it has. Who would have expected one of the most talked-about clubs of 2008 to be situated on top of the Blackwall Tunnel? (Speaking of which, the Dome’s Indigo venue is still punching well below its weight, with consistently poor line-ups for what could be an amazing venue.) Maybe we’re going to have to get used to travelling a bit further for gigs in the future. But the West End is, and always will be, more or less on all our doorsteps.
In March, Ken Livingstone said he was trying to develop a strategy to protect venues in London and that there would be a replacement for the Astoria – wonder if Boris has picked that one up? Festival Republic’s Melvin Benn says a replacement is on the way too.
But all this could be some years off – Crossrail’s not due to be finished until 2017, a whole generation of bands and fans away. Hopefully, by the time a new Astoria appears, there’ll still be a music scene left in the West End for it to fit into.