Everyone remembers going to their first big gig. For me that memory is from 1973 when I saw Led Zeppelin at the Liverpool Empire, a £1 ticket earned by queuing up most of the night to be one of the lucky few at the box office when it opened next morning. Thirty-five years later I saw the band again at the 2008 Ahmet Ertegün Tribute Concert at the O2 Arena, London. This time instead of queuing I asked everyone I knew who wasn’t interested in going to register for tickets online and I was lucky enough to win a slot. The similarities between the two gigs were me and the band – the differences were 35 years and the radically different venues. In those intervening years I have seen many, many… many live performances by many different acts in many different types and sizes of venues.
Like most gig goers I have acquired favourite places to see and hear live music, and the reasons for them being favourites are sometimes wholly pragmatic – good acoustics, good view, easy to get to, maybe even reasonably priced beer. Sometimes it’s more emotional – the connection with a particularly good performance from the past (The Handsome Family’s gig a few weeks ago at Leaf in Liverpool falls into this category), or the venue’s own special place in history as a place were something musically important happened (the 100 Club in London, for example).
Popular music venues are an intrinsic part of the history and development of styles, genres and scenes, and yet when I began, as an architect, to think about what made certain venues special and important, it was not easy to quantify a specific set of criteria. Music performance is an ephemeral event, which nevertheless has to take place somewhere, and as I investigated the topic more I discovered that this was increasingly in places specifically designed for popular music. The music industry is now labelled a ‘creative economy’ and with that relatively recent epithet has come investment leading to sometimes spectacular new and more or less dedicated venues (such as the O2 Greenwich) but also to very real threats to a considerable number of old ones (such as the 100 Club, on the brink of economic unviability and closure for several years). My research for the past few years has primarily focused on the newer ones, finding out who the clients are, what their design briefs are and who shapes them, as well as how well the new buildings meet their expectations. Are these new shiny designs, besides being more comfortable, cleaner and safer, still capable of creating the resilient memories for thousands of punters like me for whom popular music is such an important part of our life?
That work became my book Live Architecture, for me, an introduction to the topic with case studies of representative buildings, some refurbished and some specially designed, but all still in use for the purpose for which they were intended. Now I’m working backwards on a longer term project that investigates how the music venues of the past came into existence – the juke joints and honky tonks, the music halls and adapted cinemas, the temporarily purloined concert halls and hastily erected outdoor stages. The aim of the research is to create an architectural history of popular music performance space. As Lou Reed said – it’s the ‘beginning of a great adventure’. And by the way, for me at least, Zeppelin at the O2 was as good as it was at the Empire, but then again I was standing 20 metres from the front in a sweaty crowd of fans. The 20,000 others around and mostly behind and above me added spectacle to my experience of the event – had I been at the back I may well have thought very differently.
(This blog first appeared on the Live Music Exchange website http://livemusicexchange.org)