Probably like many other gig goers, I occasionally feel like I’ve turned up too late to the party to see legendary live shows. Completely untrue obviously, but with concert footage of any given artist now at your fingertips, a pang of envy sometimes takes hold for that disinterested crowd member in the corner of the screen during a seminal, spine-tingling performance by a band in their prime.
Recently, this feeling was not helped by the Friars Music Club exhibition at Buckinghamshire County Museum, which extensively details the illustrious heyday of Aylesbury’s premier music venue, now 45 years young. During its lifetime the club has had four different phases inhabiting various venues across Aylesbury: Phase one at New Friarage Hall from June 1969 to July 1970; Phase two (“The Golden Era”) at Borough Assembly Hall from April 1971 to August 1975; Phase three at Aylesbury Civic Centre from September 1975 to December 1984, then June 2009 to June 2010; and phase four which currently resides at Waterside Theatre since October 2010. In addition, Friars also hosted “Foreign Gigs” in neighbouring towns and even as far north as Newcastle and Liverpool.
Over the years Friars played host to pretty much any influential group you care to think of between 1969 and 1984. David Bowie? Played Friars. The Velvet Underground? Played Friars. Pink Floyd, Blondie, Talking Heads, The Clash, U2, Grandmaster Flash, Toots & The Maytals, John Martyn, the list seemingly goes on forever. Offering equal chances to underground bands like The Birthday Party and Captain Beefheart or local acts Marillion and Warren Harry, Friars Music Club and its members welcomed everyone with open arms. “I know Mott The Hoople happened in Aylesbury long before anywhere else,” commented Mott frontman Ian Hunter. “Everybody seems to be friendly, and they make you feel good – and whenever I played there, I felt like an old friend being welcomed home”.
The exhibition opened on 1st March, but it has been in gestation for quite a while. “I’ve been wanting to put it on for about ten years and the regime at the county museum wasn’t particularly sympathetic to the idea” says David Stopps, who founded Friars along with other music lovers in 1969 and who masterminded the exhibition. “But, last year the hierarchy changed there and they suddenly became very enthusiastic indeed about hosting our exhibition, so we talked to them about it and managed to get things together at very short notice. We only had it confirmed just at Christmas time and we had to get it open by the end of February, which is a very, very short time. But, we did and it’s been growing organically ever since, we’ve been adding things to it every week since 1st March.”
The exhibition is extensive: captivating concert photographs from Geoffrey Tyrell, Mark Jordan and others, some of which are being displayed for the first time to the public, hang on walls sprawled with gig posters and tickets. Elsewhere, clothes, memorabilia, instruments from Nick Mason, Edgar Broughton, Mark Rutherford and even a box of busted microphones (survivors from performances of ‘Headbutts’ by local hero John Otway) can be found. “We have our own archives, which is mainly tickets, handouts and posters,” reveals Stopps. “Then I contacted Toyah to see if she could lend us some costumes, which she kindly said she would. I contacted Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), who I know quite well, and he kindly lent us his “wave” drum kit, which is actually the same kit which he used at the Friars gig in 1969! It’s going off on Monday morning by courier as soon as the exhibition closes to a Pink Floyd exhibition in Milan which starts next week. Edgar Broughton kindly let us have his guitar, I contacted Stackridge and they let us have some stuff. [Free improvising saxophonist] Lol Coxhill’s wife helped me put together the exhibition booth around him, which I think is one of the highlights personally.”
The dizzying list of Friars alumni and the glowing testimonials many have offered is impressive enough, but more than this the exhibition emphasises the seminal place Friars Music Club holds in music history. Friars quickly gained a reputation as an essential proving ground for bands to hit on tour and for picking up on bands before they broke into popular consciousness. Black Sabbath played just prior to the release of their debut album. Genesis honed their stagecraft there in the early days, with Steve Hackett remembering “there was a warmth and enthusiasm from the crowd that acted as a morale booster when other hearts were harder to conquer”. Even Rob Stringer, current CEO and Chairman of Columbia Records, started off as front of stage security at Friars: “When he was at the local grammar school he started working for us where he got into music really and has ended up going right to the top of the record business in America”.
Most notably, David Bowie premiered material from Hunky Dory during his first appearance at Friars on 25th September 1971. Three months later on 29th January 1972, Bowie returned with The Spiders From Mars and performed as Ziggy Stardust for the first time. The rest is history, and Bowie clearly recognised the pivotal role these shows at Friars played in his career when he texted Stopps hours before the exhibition’s opening night on 28th January. “Memories are everything apparently,” the text read “and I have only great ones of the fabulous Friars”. Remembering receiving the text Stopps says “I didn’t think it would be emotional, but it was and it was fabulous. Just a fabulous thing to get a few hours before we opened. I don’t think he does that for many people so it was particularly special coming from him”.
Friars kept its finger on the pulse of contemporary music and moved with the times, repeatedly proving its relevance in staging bands of the moment. As punk rose in the ‘70s Friars played host to MC5 in 1972 and Iggy Pop (with Bowie furtively appearing on keyboards) in early 1977, but it was when The Ramones played in May that year which punk truly arrived in Aylesbury. After a local campaign by Colin Keinch, The Ramones came to Friars on their tour with Talking Heads and delivered a blistering 45 minute set that fully kicked open the doors to the many punk and new wave acts that would play Friars. The Greatest Stiffs live showcase brought Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and Wreckless Eric later that year and the following year would see Friars put on their biggest open-air gig in Aylesbury’s Market Square, which saw local punk acts play to an estimated 20,000 people.
During the nationwide backlash against punk culture during the summer of 1978 when councils around the UK were putting bans on punk shows, Friars again showed their prescience by working with Aylesbury Vale District Council to bring The Clash to Aylesbury in June 1978. A strong relationship was forged with the band, who would return with The Slits in December 1978 and chose Friars for the opening night of the London Calling tour in January 1980. They would go on to play to 2,000 people at Friars biggest indoor event during the Combat Rock tour of 1982.
I asked David Stopps if there any performances which stick out as particularly memorable? “If I had to pick one it would be The Kinks [6th August, 1980, Maxwell Hall], that was just a phenomenal gig. To me they’re like the universal band: they’re a sixties pop group; they’re a punk band in their own sort of way because they’re all pretty edgy’ they’re a rock ’n’ roll band; and a folk group. They were everything, they were the universal band for me. Obviously the Bowie gigs stand out as being incredible and lots of others. The Ramones come to mind, particularly astonishing gigs. Kate and Anna McGarrigle were absolutely magical”.
Sadly in December 1984 Friars closed its doors due to financial difficulties and so 25 years of silence ensued. “When we stopped in 1984 I was surprised that nobody took it on and did their own thing along similar lines,” says Stopps. “But, nobody ever did and the venue was just sitting, it wasn’t like the venue closed or anything. There were a few concerts here and there between 1984 and 2009 that other people put on but, not many and I was quite disappointed that nobody sort of picked it up and ran with it. Now there’s quite a lot of local band activity at the moment which is encouraging and there are a lot of little venues putting on gigs again where a few years ago that wasn’t the case. So I’m reasonably encouraged about that”.
When Friars fan Mike O’Connor started putting together a Friars Music Club website in 2007, David Stopps was astonished by the in-depth charting of the venue’s history and the interest the website generated. Inspired by his enthusiasm, Stopps and co. decided to resurrect Friars for a one-off gig in 2009 to celebrate its 40th birthday, which featured Friars veterans The Pretty Things, Edgar Broughton Band and The Groundhogs. The success of that gig lead to further shows from Stiff Little Fingers and Paul Weller, and Friars has continued ever since.
Since the demolition of Aylesbury Civic Centre in 2010, Friars has entered its fourth phase at the new Waterside Theatre where it lives on as select shows, which have seen the return of Friars veterans such as punk diehards The Buzzcocks, Aylesbury natives Marillion and a sell-out show by The Specials. Compared to previous venues Stopps says, “It’s different, it’s an evolution. The first venue was 400 capacity, the second one was 700, the third one was 1,250 and this one is 1700, so they’ve all gotten bigger as we’ve gone on. The Waterside is a very expensive venue to use and that’s always a big risk to put something on there, but in the old days it wasn’t so much of a risk. It was sort of make £100 or lose £100. But, now it’s very much more expensive and risky, so we don’t do so many shows now, but we are intending to do more in future. This year has been about the exhibition really, but we’re definitely going to be doing more shows.”
Fortunately, the intimacy and atmosphere of old which made Friars Music Club such a legendary venue seems to have survived intact. “That was what I was worried about, to be honest,” says Stopps, “If we’d ever get the old atmosphere back. But, when we came back in 2009 it was just magical, it was exactly the same as it used to be!”
With interest in the club reignited by the exhibition, Friars Music Club are now looking to the future with a mixture of current and new bands to come. “Whilst we’ve been looking back since 2009, although Paul Weller is still pretty current in his own way, we are looking through to the new bands breaking through at the moment,” reveals Stopps. “We were going to put on Bastille last year and they wanted to do it, we wanted to do it, but we just couldn’t find a date. We could see it coming before they had the hit single [Pompeii], it’s just such a shame we didn’t get them. But anyway, we’d like to think we’re still quite good at that but we’ll see!” Friars have lost none of their edge it seems, finger still on the pulse.
The exhibition had been scheduled to close on Saturday 5th July, but to celebrate its success Buckinghamshire County Museum have decided to specially open their doors on Sunday 6th July for a Special Final Day. “There are a lot of people coming, a lot of artists, a lot of music business people,” Stopps explains. “I shall be doing impromptu guided tours all day, get ten people together who are interested in a particular area and talk about that. Hopefully that will work and I’ll still be standing at the end of the day!”
Friars Aylesbury: The Local Music Club That Rocked The World runs until Sunday 6th July at Buckinghamshire County Museum. You can learn more about Friars Music Club here.
Photo credits: Mark Jordan, Martin Percival, Geoffrey Tyrell.