For a small town we sure had a lot of punk rockers!
The Phoenix Club was a small, seedy music venue located in the Orangery at the Mount Pleasant Hotel in Malvern, Worcestershire. It was a short-lived affair, open for a brief time in the late seventies and early eighties. It was always busy and played host to countless local and not so local bands. It was an era of punk rock, experimental music and new wave exuberance. If you can remember it, you probably weren’t there! This blog celebrates the music, place and times of the Phoenix.
What is it with Malvern and its unrelenting love-hate relationship with music? In this inspirational hillside oasis, you can’t walk ten yards down the street without meeting a singer or guitarist or djembe-wielding new-age warrior. Yet for some reason, most people in the town treat their creative co-inhabitants like a slightly mad relative; a bit embarrassing, best kept hidden and certainly not encouraged. However, Malvern has an enviable musical history, and it’s not just Elgar and Nigel Kennedy. The Winter Gardens has hosted bands that read like a Who’s Who of rock ‘n’ roll including The Who, The Velvet Underground, Hawkwind, Stiff Little Fingers, The Jam, Motorhead, Mott the Hoople, T-Rex, Geno Washington, AC/DC, The Undertones, The Specials, Madness, Joy Division, Happy Mondays . . . I could go on.
The Gardens were on the national touring circuit from the mid 60s through to the late 90s. A musical legacy spanning nearly forty years, all in a small, sleepy, rural backwater. But like all good things it ended. The capacity limits on the venue made it less profitable to put on big name acts and the redeveloped Malvern Theatres lost its main ballroom to house a seated only New Space. And where there once was a bar, a nice restaurant appeared to cater for the out of town theatre audiences.
But the Malvern music scene wasn’t just centred around the Winter Gardens. In 1979, the orangery, upstairs at the Mount Pleasant Hotel became the Phoenix Club, an exclusive venue packed with punk rockers and new romantics. Bristol punks Vice Squad played there led by the fabulous Beki Bondage. As did the Dancing Did, the Dangerous Girls and Subject Pigfish. And of course there was a host of groups from Malvern and Worcester ready to take to the stage to amaze audiences with their mendacious style and avant-garde feats. Witness the celebrated Asterix and the Gauls strumming a single chord for ten minutes sitting on an Afghan coat. Or yet the bizarro Experiments on Steel who ripped the heads off blood-filled dolls in a half-naked frenzy. Even my first band, fresh-faced punks Troy played the Phoenix, spitting and spluttering our way through Teenage Boredom and Shit Out! Ah, happy days! The venue was legendary of which it has been said that if you can remember it you weren’t there.
There were few other places around the town where the seeming endless supply of local talent could perform; The Nags Tail and the Herefordshire House being the main contenders, providing a stage for the likes of Bandito Bandecko, Virgin Star, Cynic and The Geat Ethnics. Unfortunately, the constant struggle against small town nimby-ism inevitably took its toll. The Nags Tail, where once The Tights thrashed and Dance Naked in the Sun threshed has become a restaurant. The short-lived Don Pedros mysteriously burned down then became a restaurant. The amusingly named Fringe Theatre (aka the Youth Centre) was fine with the right acts such as the fabulous Blessed Ethel, but was like playing in a cavern with fewer than two hundred people in the crowd. At least there are no plans to turn it into a restaurant. Ironically, it was the tiny cafe known as Frogs which for a while took over as the venue of choice before it changed hands and . . . became a restaurant.
Fortunately, late last millennium, some members of Easy Tiger approached the landlord at Malvern’s Conservative Club to ask for a gig and a new era was born. The Con Club was the perfect venue for Malvern. Big enough for a raging party, small enough for a local band, and fortunate enough to be sited next to a graveyard. Despite many attempts there, no one ever managed to actually wake the dead. The irony of having to join a Tory club, with pictures of Thatcher and the queen on the wall, was lost on most but not all of the punters as the Con Club became Malvern’s supremo venue. Some people are still getting unsolicited blue propaganda through the post as a result of that membership. Bad Habits, Nigel Kennedy, Slack Granny, Mr Hedge, Dubmerge and the Funky Junky Monkeys played to packed houses. But once again, the sight of young (and now not so young) people enjoying themselves proved too much for some and the venue closed six years ago.
That was a bad time for Malvern. A musical tumbleweed period. But there was hope.
For more than thirty years, one Malvern pub had been quietly (and not so quietly) giving a stage to performers and musicians from around the region. The Lamb Inn sits on the Northern slopes of those poetic Hills and with the closure of the Con Club soon took on the mantle of Malvern’s most popular music venue.
The smoking ban in 2007 had a big impact on audiences and while few would like to return to the smoke filled haze that came before it’s obvious that pubs are less full than before the ban. And that includes the Lamb. Also, the music loving audience became spread thin. Lots of pubs began to realise that having live music actually brought in the punters. All around Malvern unlikely music venues sprung up. Places like the impossibly small Retired Soldier booked acoustic trios while the Express, the Wyche Inn, the Mount Pleasant and the Swan all started having regular music nights. After the loss of the Con Club it was a bit of a musical renaissance for the town.
Everyone has played at the Lamb. From the Pewke Band to the Zebedy Rays, Strange Machine to Rhondda, the Black Acid Band to Mike Mann, Skewhiff to Mouse Police. Open Mic nights made Thursdays as busy as the weekend and two three-day Pyramid Weekends filled the pub to bursting point with more than forty-five bands and performers playing on the two Pyramid stages or in the DJ room.
Yet it wasn’t enough. The traditional Malvern disparagement of people having fun combined with dwindling audiences has claimed its latest victim. The Lamb ceased to be a music venue in the New Year; the latest in a long line of renowned Malvern venues to close its doors.
It’s difficult to know if this malaise is widespread or if it just affects us who live in the Hills. Shrill nimbys will always have their say. Maybe they have a point. Maybe it is too much to expect an artistic and musical scene in a small town like Malvern. But I don’t think it is. In fact I believe it’s integral to a healthy, outgoing, all-inclusive community.
So what’s next for the town? Malvern’s musicians will find an outlet for their muse. The Wyche Inn or the Mount Pleasant or the Great Malvern Hotel or some as yet undiscovered gem. Something will come up. It always does. Maybe we’ll come around to your house, you know, before they turn it into a restaurant.
This article was first published in Slap Magazine February 2011