Britain's best music venues
THE 100 CLUB, LONDON
A grubby orange awning and a plastic sign in Oxford Street are all that announce what one music journalist described as “the Tower of London of rock venues”. With a capacity of 350, the 100 Club is one of the few surviving smaller music venues in the city centre (others, such as the Marquee in Wardour Street, have long since disappeared).
Inside is what looks like a working men’s club with orange plastic chairs. But make no mistake—being in the same room as this stage is enough to give grown men chills. The roll call of bands who have performed here over six decades includes The Who, Muddy Waters, The Rolling Stones and The White Stripes. It’s also, of course, where the Sex Pistols became the Sex Pistols.
Surviving a near-closure in 2010, when the Crossrail project meant astronomical rent hikes (it was saved by a deal with Converse, the trainer company), it lives to see another day. It’s, as they say, still “a venue for serious music heads”.
Visit the100club.co.uk for details.
THE CHAPEL OF KING’S COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE
One of the stars of late-Gothic architecture (it has the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world), King’s is an astonishing space in which to hear choral music. “The acoustic is breathtaking,” says Martin Cullingford, editor of Gramophone magazine. “It almost feels as if the sound is all around you.”
The choir, regarded as one the world’s finest, is probably most famous for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which each year kick-starts Christmas for millions around the world. But King’s has a year-round programme of events that includes organ recitals and concerts, as well as the choir performing free services daily during term-time (check the website just in case).
The other remarkable religious-space-cum-music-venue is the parish church of Buckingham Palace, St Martin-in-the-Fields, which regularly holds candlelit concerts of Mozart and Vivaldi, and free lunchtime concerts three times a week.
SNAPE MALTINGS CONCERT HALL, SUFFOLK
Rising out of the ironing-board-flat fields of Suffolk, next to the River Alde and surrounded by reed beds, Snape is possibly the only concert venue to share a permanent base with the RSPB. It’s here because composer and local boy Benjamin Britten was wildly ahead of the festival curve and founded his own: the Aldeburgh Festival.
The tastefully converted Victorian malting house in the hamlet of Snape became the festival’s concert hall and first permanent home. Opened in 1967, it’s ballooned to become an entire campus and artist retreat. Picturesque verging on the twee (with no shortage of gift shops), it’s a beautiful place to mill about, even for those with cloth ears. There’s a year-round programme covering all genres—not just opera, but everything from Burt Bacharach to jazz and the visual arts (there are sculptures by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth in the grounds).
Visit aldeburgh.co.uk for details.
BRIDGEWATER HALL, MANCHESTER
The capital of the north and the city with “everything except a beach”, according to Ian Brown of the Stone Roses. Yes, of course Manchester has had a thriving club and music scene for decades (current favourite is the supercool, mirrorballed Deaf Institute), and in the Eighties there was “Madchester”, of course. But it’s easy to overlook the fact it’s been a centre for classical music for aeons.
The Bridgewater, home to three resident orchestras, is the jewel of northern concert halls. Completed in 1996, the one thing people know about it is that it was built on giant springs to deaden the noise of local traffic. That, and it’s home to the Hallé Orchestra, founded in 1858 by Sir Charles Hallé, such a giant in Manchester that his funeral brought the city to a standstill. Modern but not soulless, and intimate in spite of its size (it holds 2,400), the venue has excellent acoustics and ambience. It’s also beautiful when lit at night, lying as it does next to the Rochdale Canal.
The repertoire isn’t just classical—upcoming events include Irish folk singer Christy Moore, and last year’s hit was Elbow playing with the Hallé. But, says Martin Cullingford, “The Hallé and Sir Mark Elder are an orchestra and conductor on absolutely top form at the moment.”
Visit bridgewater-hall.co.uk for details.
Built in Germany in 1959, the former cargo ship Thekla was rescued from rusting in Sunderland’s docks by novelist Ki Longfellow-Stanshall (wife of Viv Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band). In the 1980s, it was brought to Bristol’s Floating Harbour and turned into the Old Profanity Showboat to host theatrical productions. Later, it reverted to its original name and became mainly a floating music venue featuring the kinds of bands you might read about in the NME (if you read the NME, that is).
What makes this so special, says music journalist Nige Tassell, is the atmospheric main room down in the hull (where the walls slope inwards), the lovely top bar for more intimate performances (from which sunsets over the Bristol skyline never look better), and a Banksy stencil of a skeleton in a rowing boat that adorns the waterline on its exterior. Once described as a “floating toilet” by the NME, it’s since had a makeover and was subsequently nominated for their Best Small Venue award.
Visit theklabristol.co.uk for details.
Possibly the most eccentric classical music venue, and certainly in one of the more attractive settings. Glyndebourne stands next to the old manor house on the Sussex Downs that once housed the festival. Held during the summer months when opera-goers eat picnics on the lawns, they now watch performances in a purpose-built modern auditorium (built in 1992) next door to the house, which is supposed to blend in to the countryside (but doesn’t quite).
Originally established as a vehicle for owner John Christie to delight his new wife, the soprano Audrey Mildmay, it grew out of their amateur opera productions. From the get-go in 1934, Glyndebourne has had a reputation for attracting and nurturing world-class talent and productions, and is today the leading exponent of “country house” opera. If the sun shines, you’re in for a memorable experience.
The Glyndebourne Festival Opera takes place from May to August. Visit glyndebourne.com for details.
BARROWLANDS BALLROOM, GLASGOW
This city has always had notoriously tough audiences—as comedian Ken Dodd put it, “The trouble with Freud is that he never played the Glasgow Empire on a Saturday night.” The Barrowlands is no exception. In the east end of the city, in a rundown street of money shops and Irish pubs, it’s not the swankiest of venues. But the daytime seediness melts into the evening when the famous neon sign lights up. Inside the floor bounces, the ceiling (studded with faded stars) lifts, and it’s claimed you can see the whites of the performers’ eyes even from the back. Just about everyone has played there, from David Bowie (who narrowly missed being hit by a porcelain star that fell from the ceiling) to Robbie Williams, Stiff Little Fingers, Paul Weller, Nick Cave and even the Michael Clark Ballet Company.
Opened in the 1930s by Margaret McIver, a Glaswegian entrepreneur who founded both the market next door and the music venue, it became infamous in the late Sixties for its own serial killer, known as Bible John and never caught. Whispers are that many bands have been lured away to other venues of late. Let’s hope not.
Visit glasgow-barrowland.com for details.
How many venues can boast that they had a rockumentary based on their existence? Admittedly, Eric’s the Musical never quite made it to Broadway, but still. Eric’s star burned bright, but, in the way of these things, for an exceedingly short time. Opening in 1976, it shut just four years later after a drug raid (though in reality it was a financial mess). Once the epicentre of punk and post-punk, this venue invented or cemented the careers of such bands as include Echo and the Bunnymen, Dead or Alive and The Teardrop Explodes.
After closure the site lay vacant in Mathew Street, opposite the original Cavern Club, until it reopened as Eric’s Live, to much local debate. The Liverpool Echo was scathing on the venue; what was once, it said, “a hub for creativity….is now the home for piss-ups, punch-ups and hen parties”.
Visit ericsliveliverpool.com for details.