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All about the music: 50 years of Friars Aylesbury

18 November 2019
Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd - David Gilmour, Rick Wright, David Stopps, Roger Waters and Nick Mason (CR Luton News, November 1969)

The early Friars Aylesbury team got their kicks from the music and the excitement, with a successful show meaning they could do another one. 50 years ago was also when artistes such as Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Black Sabbath and Genesis were emerging from pubs and colleges, and David Bowie wondered whether he could successfully perform live.

It was just about the music when it started and any profit was a useful by-product for the young friends who organised the shows.

But live music at the time was going through one of those seminal moments when what would become some of the world’s biggest artistes began emerging from the club and college scene.

It was teacher Robin Pike booking Smokey Rice, represented by 21-year-old David Stopps, for a school dance that started the ball rolling. The pair were joined by music enthusiasts Adrian Roach, Jerry Slater, Terry Harms and John Fowler, and began staging Monday night concerts at the 400-capacity New Friarage Hall (since demolished) in Aylesbury.

Their first event on 2 June 1969 featured Mike Cooper and psychedelic band Mandrake Paddle Steamer, and the Friars Aylesbury brand was born.

Throughout 1969 and 1970 the friends booked bands such as Genesis, Black Sabbath, King Crimson, Pretty Things, Hawkwind, Mott the Hoople, Van Der Graaf Generator and the Groundhogs.

“That first summer was magical,” says Stopps. “We all had long hair and wore beads and headbands. It was the dawning of a new age in culture and music.”

Gold in Dunstable

Friars also staged events in nearby towns including Dunstable, where they promoted Pink Floyd at the Queensway Hall (cap. 1,000) in November 1969, just after the release of their Ummagumma album. 

“We paid the band £475 flat, with tickets at 12 shillings and sixpence [equivalent to about £9 today], and we made more money that night than in the whole year’s 50 concerts in Aylesbury,” Stopps remembers.

In August 1970, Friars was told it was no longer welcome at the New Friars Hall, due to neighbours complaining about the noise. “When you’re putting on Black Sabbath … they had a point,”
Stopps accepts.

Friars returned to Aylesbury in April 1971 with a packed show at the Borough Assembly Hall (700) in Market Square, featuring the Groundhogs. Switching  from Mondays to Saturdays, they went on to present artistes such as Fleetwood Mac, Mott the Hoople, Genesis, The Velvet Underground, Barclay James Harvest and Al Kooper, who was key to securing Friars most notable show.

Rise of Ziggy

“David Bowie had played some pretty big shows that hadn’t gone done that well, but Kooper told him at a party that his Friars gig was the best he’d done in England and that the audience were fantastic,” says Stopps. “It was a do or die gig for Bowie, to see whether he would continue to perform live.”

That led to Bowie’s first Friars gig performing the world premiere of his Hunky Dory album on 25 September 1971.

Stopps recalls Bowie in the tiny Friars dressing room saying to his band, comprising Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey, ”This was great tonight, let’s form a band and go out and do it properly.”

Four months later, on 29 January 1972, Bowie returned to Friars with the world premiere of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.

He was so attached to Friars that on his subsequent show in July 1972 Bowie’s team flew in 50 US music journalists just for the show.

“After that, Friars was suddenly on the world map and became an essential date for any major UK tour,” says Stopps.

Shows continued at the Borough Assembly Hall until 1975, featuring artistes such as Focus, Dr Feelgood, Lou Reed and Roxy Music, when the venue was demolished.

After a move to Aylesbury’s new Civic Centre (1,250), a December 1976 show with The Stranglers ushered in the punk era, which led to Friars shows with Iggy Pop (and Bowie on keyboards), The Ramones, The Clash, Blondie, Tom Petty, The Jam and Talking Heads.

By the end of 1984, Friars was struggling to get major bands to play in the relatively small Civic Centre. 

“We decided to call it a day,” says Stopps. “I always hoped that someone else would pick-up the baton in Aylesbury, but it didn’t happen.”

Friars was dormant for 24 years and Stopps was busy managing ‘80s artiste Howard Jones’ global success, until a fan persuaded him to do a 40th anniversary concert, which took place on 1 June 2009 and featured Pretty Things, Edgar Broughton and the Groundhogs – three acts that played Friars in its first year, and were still touring 40 years later.

One led to three more, the last of which was Paul Weller in June 2010, at the Civic Centre, before that too was demolished, to make way for the Waterside Theatre (1,670), which opened in October 2010, with Friars presenting Buzzcocks, Eddie & The Hot Rods and 999.

“I think we were so successful because we were music-driven rather than money-driven and everybody liked that. We were very excitedable about the artistes playing and I was always asking for another encore,” says Stopps.

Now, with Friars presenting shows intermittently, the Friars club (which Stopps says has 93,000 members) is celebrating its 50th anniversary with events featuring The Vaccines, (Pink Floyd co-founder) Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, Steve Hillage, Stiff Little Fingers and (early Genesis member) Steve Hackett.

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