THERE are plenty of venues in Manchester that are bigger than the Band on the Wall, and there may even be a few with a higher profile – but none of them can boast the same kind of musical pedigree.
A tavern, pub and venue which, in one form or another has been entertaining successive generations of Mancunians for the best part of 200 years, singing, dancing, drinking and carousing are part of the very fabric of the Band on the Wall.
Indeed, the interior of the newly-refurbished and expanded venue, situated on Swan Street in the city centre, was for much of its life darkly lacquered with nicotine stains, spilled drinks, more than a little shoe-leather and the sweat from the brows of a thousand dancers, lovingly reapplied over the course of decades.
For some, this only enhanced the gritty authenticity of the venue. For others, attracted by a uniquely visionary and diverse live music programme, it was a case of holding your nose and tiptoeing around the Band on the Wall’s flooded nether regions. Either way, the building’s deficiencies were beginning to get in the way of the entertainment it offered and it finally closed its doors in 2005, with a promise to return bigger and better at some undefined point in the future.
Four years later, the gleaming venue is preparing to open its doors once again.
Now (aside from the balcony) fully accessible, the Band on the Wall also boasts a fully-integrated AV studio as well as a more conventional recording studio, and a series of artistic interventions from Cafe Pop founder and erstwhile Antiques Roadshow pundit Michael Trainor – including a giant graphic equaliser on the outside of the building.
Somehow, a 19th century building now contains all the bells and whistles we’d expect from a 21st century entertainment venue whilst still retaining the feel – and as many of the original fixtures and fittings as could be salvaged – of the original venue.
Ian Croal, a softly-spoken Scot who was the chief executive and main music programmer of Band on the Wall from 1981 to its current re-opening season, says that he is “delighted” with the transformation.
“It’s a building with a very long history and I think a lot of the music can reflect and perhaps feed off that legacy,” he tells me with the air of a man who is very relieved that the end – or should that be the beginning? – is in sight. “This is why we resisted a lot of pressure to build new. It would’ve been easier but it would have been very unfortunate to lose what we already had.”
The re-development also includes a new bar, the Picturehouse, in an old listed cinema adjacent to the existing building, adding another couple of hundred bodies to the venue proper’s 350 capacity. Crucially, it also extends the life of the building beyond the usual 8pm to 2am.
“I’d always envisaged two very different kinds of atmosphere in the Band on the Wall and the Picturehouse,” Croal reveals. “One very dark and intense, with that sense of being close to the stage, that whole atmosphere that the old Band on the Wall had. We’ve improved on it and we’ve extended the balcony, so we’ve got more people in but it actually seems more intimate.”
“In here,” he says, gesturing to the Picturehouse’s glass roof, “the idea was always to have it light and airy, but also to introduce the moving image side of what we do.”
Croal has had plenty of time to think about his plans for the Band on the Wall in the years when the venue was closed and he was trying to raise almost £5million. Despite contributions from Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Manchester City Council, Croal says the process was both long and arduous.
He candidly admits that at times the only thing sustaining him was the “colossal” amount of external support, “from people that love the place, whether they’re attenders, or musicians or former staff. There’s been a real groundswell of support from people who really believe that it’s terribly important that this place reopens.”
Quite apart from the who’s who of musicians who have appeared on its stage – everyone from Joy Division, Bjork and Courtney Pine to Curtis Mayfield, Ali Farka Toure and Norma Waterson – and no doubt due in no small part to its charitable, non-profit status, there always seemed to be a genuinely warm welcome to be found in the Band on the Wall.
“We’ll certainly be working very hard to maintain that tradition,” nods Croal. “Again, in a sense, it comes from the music. The local, national and international approach to the music, the diversity of the content, to me all that implies a certain openness, accessibility and friendliness.
“So fingers crossed. After all, music is partly a social activity. And if you have a Cuban dance band or an African hi-life band, to me it’s not right that they’re in a static hall, with people sitting down. People should be able to move about, to dance, socialise and do what they want to do.”
In addition to a more integrated education programme (“learning and participation events, we’re calling them now,” chuckles Croal), the Band on the Wall now houses an ever-expanding archive of live recordings. The archive will “take time to develop but I think it’s an important part of what we do. If you think about all the music that’s gone on here, it’s lost in the mists of time. There are not many recordings from those performances.
“Most of the music we have here is not notated,” explains Croal. “It seems to me that if you’ve not got a proper record of music, you’ve not got any notation which illustrates what the music was about. The stuff that gets notated is the music that becomes dominant – hence the dominance of European classical music.”
A superb opening season includes performances from the likes of improvisational wizards the Bays, the heavyweight dub scientist Mad Professor and Factory funkers A Certain Ratio, as well as the Oysterband, Lamb chanteuse Lou Rhodes and UK soul maestro Kaidi Tatham. What is Croal looking forward to most?
“I’m really looking forward to hearing Julian Joseph play our new piano, which he and I selected after trying out a number of Steinway grands in Hamburg. It’s going to be great to hear that played properly for the first time.
“And,” says this ever-surprising middle-aged Scotsman, “another hero of mine was [legendarily lewd Jamaican dancehall DJ]Yellowman. I’m intrigued to see what he’s like these days.”
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Martin Moscrop of A Certain Ratio
“The gig that we’re playing is actually 32 years to the day since we played our third gig at the Band on the Wall. We’re 33 years old next year and we’re going to try to do a 33 and a third birthday at Band on the Wall.
“The Band on the Wall is really important to us because that’s where we started, at the musicians collective there on Monday nights. You played about once every two months. There were only a few bands in the collective, there was the Fall, Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, Frantic Elevators, Dick Witts’ band, the Passage. There weren’t that many bands. So you’d play and before you knew it your turn had come around again.
“It was always a great sound in there, the stage was in a really good position, it was the right sort of height for the audience, you didn’t even need a particularly good PA system, though the last one they had before it closed down was good.
“But probably the most important gigs there for me were gigs that I went to see, people like Azymuth and Nana Vasconselos, people’s whose records I’d bought and listened to when I was learning my musical trade. And then to see them in my home town somewhere like that was very important.
“You used to get some quite big acts at the Band on the Wall, even though it only held 300 people. The people who played there were into a more personal type of gig and were interested in connecting with their audience.”
Graham Massey of Biting Tongues, 808 State, Toolshed, Homelife and Sisters of Transistors
“I did my first gig at the Band on the Wall in 1978, and it was considered very much a punk venue back then. And the fact that the punk was there alongside the jazz made those worlds kind of collide. That was really interesting for me because I enjoyed both those forms of music. And indeed that’s what we were doing with Biting Tongues, fusing jazz with punk, so it was almost the natural home for us.
“We had a monthly residency with Toolshed as well, so we were there for quite a long time.
“I had some really fabulous nights of music there. And a lot of it was to do with its ability to attract international jazz artists. In those times, in the late Seventies and through the Eighties, the Band on the Wall was the only place outside London that could do that. But the world has changed a lot since then.
“It always had a good sound, that was the core thing about the Band on the Wall and I hope they haven’t messed with that. It was always music first and venue second. Whereas a lot of modern venues are like brewery first and music second. I’ve not seen what it looks like yet but I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ve done with the place.
“It’s very hard to sum up what makes a venue like the Band on the Wall so special, it’s just got that comfortable vibe. There’s a genuine tradition of putting music on for the love of music. It was always run by and the gigs were always attended by people who were real music freaks, so you all feel like you’re on the same wavelength.
“When a place is run properly, you don’t have the inappropriate psychopathic growlers on the door, the bands get looked after and there’s a decent sound. And it had that old Victorian music hall vibe, it had that kind of resonance. There was a great sound in there and a great vibe, in fact we actually recorded part of an album at a gig there. You knew you could take it a little bit further out and people would stay with it. There were always a lot of musicians in the audience.
“Like everywhere else, Manchester has lost a lot of good venues over the years. I always liked the International club, it was probably my second favourite. It was chicken-in-a-basket luxury. Which was fantastic. Now, with a lot of club venues, there’s an Eighties kind of vibe, it’s owned by some corporate company, there’s geezers in penguin suits at the front door, and it’s all very removed from anything real.
“You almost expect to hear that venues like the Band on the Wall have been turned into, I dunno, a pound shop or something. So it’s good to hear it’s back. It was always everyone’s favourite venue. In a year or two when I’m got stuff coming out, I’ll turn up there again, no doubt about it.
“I’ve been up north for over 10 years now and when I first come up, that bit of Ancoats that leads down to the top of Oldham Street is where I felt most comfortable. I guess it reminded me a bit of the East End, Docklands and that. It’s ye olde post-industrial landscape I suppose.
“Somehow – I dunno why it is – in a creepy kinda way that seems like a natural home for me. I do feel very at home in those kind of landscapes.”
The Band on the Wall reopens on Friday 25 September with Mica Paris and Julian Joseph. For more information, visit http://www.bandonthewall.org
[This piece first ran in the Big Issue in the North in September 2009]