70s Programme: Lunchtime Theatre and Comedy

Steve Morris was a music man but, when it came to the bookings at Band on the Wall, he was open to suggestions for other programme content. Thus there were occasional lunchtime theatre performances and comedy gigs by then unknown local drama students, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson. In March 1976 the venue advertised ‘Lunchtime Theatre: The Mattress Theatre Group’ and in August of that year, ‘The Erotic Hansel & Gretel.’

In 2010, Rik Mayall described the start of his and Edmondson’s careers in comedy in the 70s: (1)

We formed a group called 20th Century Coyote, and the first thing we did was an improvised affair called ‘Dead Funny’…. we would perform lunchtimes at the Band on the Wall and Monday evenings at the Studio Theatre at the University… we used to go and watch jazz.

20th Century Coyote went on to acknowledged success at The Comedy Store, London.

Over 30 years later Ade Edmondson returned to Band on the Wall, not in a comedy role, but as musician and vocalist fronting his band The Bad Shepherds on 30 September 2009. An excerpt of their performance can be viewed on the venue’s YouTube channel, http://www.youtube.com/user/thebandonthewall

Personnel

At the end of the 70s, Band on the Wall had only one full-time member of staff and the NJCS just two. Steve Morris continued to manage the venue alone after he bought out his business partner Frank Cusick in early 1979. The Cusicks then vacated the apartment on the first floor of Band on the Wall. The venue had a pool of part-time staff – bar, catering, box-office, cleaning and maintenance. The NJCS was staffed by Ian Croal and Andy Dodd, who had been persuaded by Ian in 1978 to switch from his job as Promotions Manager at Chester Art Centre. For the next 5 years,  Andy would be a vital part of the NJCS/Band on the Wall team. After leaving the venue, he became manager of Simply Red and a successful businessman; and on a number of occasions in future years he would intervene to save the venue and its 21st century development plans. In 1980, the NJCS appointed an assistant administrator, Geneta Gibson, who, in the early 80s, would inherit property in Kingston, Jamaica, where she now lives.

The NJCS committee was chaired in the 70s by Peter Bevan, Director of Merseyside Arts Association, and a knowledgeable jazz fan and broadcaster with a regular radio programme on Radio Merseyside. He went on to be Director of Darlington Arts Centre that was closed in early 2012, the result of local authority cuts. The Centre had an outstanding reputation across the art forms – and a notable jazz programme.

70s Overview

A great deal of music, as well as occasional theatre and comedy, went on at Band on the Wall in the second half of the 1970s. The jazz-with-occasional-blues policy, established by ex professional musician Steve Morris in 1975, was given an injection of fresh blood by the Northern Jazz Centre Society’s promotions from October 1976 that brought a succession of the UK’s finest modern jazz groups to the venue for the first time, and would continue for many years.  In the following year, 1977, youthful programme initiatives arrived via the New Manchester Review’s Rock Night and the DIY promotions of the newly-formed Manchester Musicians Collective. Together they introduced entirely new elements to the programme, local bands and aspiring musicians, many of whom chimed with the times of Punk Rock or New Wave, some with early experiments in electronica. They included bands and individual players who would be regarded as important influences on the so-called emerging Manchester music scene. There were the angry but witty Buzzcocks, the abrasive but long-lasting The Fall and the strangely musicianly The Passage; and also bands that later would be signed by Manchester’s Factory Records: A Certain Ratio, The Distractions and Joy Division. It was a spawning ground for new talent: where poet John Cooper Clarke got his first paid gig and where singer Mick Hucknall would brave the stage with his Frantic Elevators, later morphing into Just Red, then on to massive commercial success with his Simply Red, all of which played Band on the Wall.

These new programme strands at Band on the Wall began over a year before the launch of Factory nights at the Russell Club, Hulme, and the creation of Factory Records that so often are seen as the catalysts of the Manchester music scene. Perhaps the real catalyst was “the true downbeat musicianly heart of Manchester, Band on the Wall”?

The story that emerges from the pages of Band on the Wall’s archives in these years is quite different from what has become the standard version of the evolution of the Manchester music scene. There is a much more diverse picture, with big bands and trad bands, jazz-funk and jazz-rock bands; blues and folk music, punk and progressive, experimental and free improvisers…. It is clear that there was no, single Manchester music scene.

The sheer number of local bands performing at Band on the Wall is staggering: certainly in excess of 200 individual bands between 1975 & 1979, and this excludes the numerous pick-up groups, jazz jams or soloists-with-rhythm-section. How puzzling, therefore, that Joy Division’s Manager, the late Rob Gretton, should have said of the late 70s/early 80s:

I often think back to the early Factory days and think how lucky we were. If we happened along in the nineties, even with Joy Division, we probably would never have got it off the ground. There was only a tiny few bands so all you had to do to get known was climb on to a stage a couple of times and you’d be an important part of the scene. (1)

Of course, sheers numbers – and there were more than 1500 live performances at The Band in the second half of the 70s – are a crude measure of most things and, by the end of the decade, there were worrying signs at the venue:

·       The Musicians Collective gigs had moved elsewhere.

·       New Manchester Review had ceased publication, so for how long would the NMR Rock Nights continue?

·       Staff exhaustion and over-extension. Steve Morris, now without a business partner and with growing concerns about the finances of the venue, was not in the best of health but commonly worked a 15-hour day, 6 days a week. Ian Croal and Andy Dodd, of the NJCS, had committed themselves to an intense programme — of direct promotions, tours, festivals and to producing a jazz what’s on publication — the totality of which seemed to be expanding exponentially and inevitably.

·       Uncertainties about future funding, including for the London capital project, the planned National Jazz Centre in Covent Garden, that, if unsuccessful, could destabilise the Jazz Centre Society, including its Northern branch.

·       The deteriorating physical condition of the venue.

Also the UK economy was in poor shape, with rising inflation and unemployment rising almost three-fold in the 70s. The Winter of Discontent of 1978/79 reflected the mood of the times — and Manchester felt the pinch. In the second half of the decade, the gloom had begun to affect attendances at music and entertainment events. In 1977, one critic noted a shrinkage in the number of jazz gigs and the size of the audiences in the city, though he added:

The outstanding exception to the general pattern of decline and fall is the weekly JCS promotion at Band on the Wall. (2)

For the venue, the question for the next decade would be whether this “outstanding exception” would hold the key to its sustainable future.

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