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Four remarkable decades in rock

Features
14 February 2020

As a stalwart independent presence in Nottingham for 40 years, few venues have a history as long, rich or diverse as the 1,900-capacity Rock City, whose owner and management team have remarkably maintained its status as one of the UK’s best-loved and most influential music venues. Christopher Barrett reports

From early shows by acts including Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Smiths and Oasis, to underplays by artistes such as David Bowie, The Cure and INXS, the landmark moments of Rock City’s past are many and varied.

Arguably more so than ever, Rock City is playing a key role in Nottingham’s burgeoning music scene, with its management team always focusing on the future.

“Up until five or six years ago, hardly any Nottingham acts had sold out Rock City,” says owner George Akins Jnr, MD of  multi-venue operator, festival organiser and promoter DHP Family.

“In the past five or six years we have had 10 sold-out shows by headline Nottingham acts, including Jake Bugg, Sleaford Mods, London Grammar and Ferocious Dog.”

The story of Rock City began when Akins’s father George was approached by Sammy Jackson, the owner of Retford’s 400-capacity Porterhouse club, about opening up a new venue in Nottingham. 

The duo took over a Victorian hall known as The Heart of the Midlands and, with Akins Snr funding the venture, set about transforming it into a 1,900-capacity contemporary music venue.

Rock City’s management company, Daybrook House Promotions, led to the acronym that now forms part of the rebranded company’s name. It is a business that now encompasses nine venues, multiple festivals and a promoting arm for artistes including Ed Sheeran.

Rock City’s opening night should have been a show by Iron Maiden, but the venue failed an electrical safety test and so a week later the honour fell to The Undertones. Within a year it had also played host to U2, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk and New Order.

Not much more than a year after Rock City’s unveiling, Jackson departed and Akins Snr was joined by Dave Manson as venue manager. Mason would later be poached by the team at Manchester’s Hacienda (cap. 2,400), where he helped play a part in the venue’s notoriety.

Rock City has provided a platform for many up-and-coming acts over the years but it has also proven to be a launch pad for influential live music industry figures.

“We have had many people who started out working in the bar at Rock City end-up being big players,” says Akins Jnr. “Dan Ealam started off behind the bar before becoming its general manager and is now our director of live, promoting Ed Sheeran for us.”

A Nottingham local, Gigantic Tickets founder Mark Gasson is another executive with experience of working behind Rock City’s bar. The first show he saw there was Echo & the Bunnymen in 1984.

“After having such a long association with the venue on a personal level, it brings immense pride to know that our ticketing software is used by the venue to sell its tickets and our scanning app is used to scan in all customers,” he says.

“When music fans talk about Nottingham, they immediately think of Rock City. By carefully picking the right acts on their way up over the years, the venue has achieved an iconic status, which you cannot simply buy.”

Another key player who launched his career at Rock City is Live Nation president of UK touring Andy Copping. Having answered an advert in NME, Copping began working as a DJ at the venue in 1989. Two years later he became Rock City’s booker and in-house promoter, a role he held for 11 years.

Copping says he will never forget the delight he felt when he was given the opportunity to DJ at the venue.

“I was delirious, it was the Holy Grail for a rock DJ. From the mid-‘80s Rock City’s Friday rock night was legendary throughout the country and beyond. It was the place to go, the atmosphere was incredible, you crossed the threshold and it was like going into another world.”

Among early highlights for Copping as Rock City’s booker was a show by Nirvana in 1991, for who Copping rescheduled an existing booking to make room. Another landmark moment came in 1994 with Oasis.

“Rock City was the biggest venue on the tour, they were playing 600-capacity venues but wanted to test the water to see how popular the band was outside Manchester. We sold it out in a day,” says Copping.

  

Solid foundations

Akins Snr made an indelible impression on Copping. “He was without doubt my absolute mentor, the guy had brilliant business acumen, vision, drive and commitment. I have never seen anything like it in any human being before or since,” he says.

Copping admits that Akins Snr’s relentless work ethic could prove exhausting: “He used to work us very hard. I would close the club at 3am and drive back to Lincoln. At around 6am the fax machine would start up and it would be George sending comments.”

Akins Jnr took over the management of Rock City in 1994, but naturally his association with the venue stretches much further back. He says that key to its longevity is the fact the venue’s doors have always been open to myriad genres.

“Back in 1982 Nottingham was the epicentre of break dancing, the Rock City Crew travelled all over the world to do battle with other crews. As a little kid we had a break dance crew and on Saturday afternoon we would breakdance at Rock City. The venue was very fashionable, even then.”

Room with a view

Akins Jnr says another reason for Rock City’s ongoing appeal for artistes and audiences is the room itself.

“The stage is quite low because the domed ceiling comes down low overhead, it is also quite central and positioned at the side of the room. That means you are close to the stage wherever you are in the venue, and get the impression you are in a 500-capacity room,” he says.

Mike Dewdney, ITB agent for acts including Eels and Five Finger Death Punch, has worked with Rock City for three decades.

“Key to the venue’s success has always been that bands want to go back, even after sweating half their body weights under the low clearance light rig,” he says. “The team is professional and an absolute pleasure to work with.”

Rock City’s management has long received positive feedback about the sound quality in the venue, which Akins attributes partly to the domed roof, but also its sound system.

“For years, bands used to tour with their own systems when playing venues the size of Rock City. We kept seeing the L- Acoustics line array system coming in with bands, so we invested in one. It was designed specifically for the room and it was flown, rather than being stacked on the stage, so you got a better view of the stage.

“We have always prided ourselves on making sure the sound at Rock City is incredible,” he says.

Aside from the auditory experience and intimate feel of the venue, Copping says the regular club nights have long set the venue apart from its competitors.

“There would always be a club night going on after a gig, so the night would carry on until 2am and often the bands would hang out with fans,” he says.

Says Dewdney, “The memory of the legendary pre-Monsters of Rock discos, with 1,900 rock folk on their knees dancing to Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off To Work We Go, is burned into my brain.

“I have a piece of that dance floor on my desk right now.”

Big in Japan

The venue’s reputation as a rock mecca has long stretched far beyond the UK but Akins was nonetheless surprised to find himself selling a chunk of carpet for £400 when one of the most successful Japanese rock acts of the ‘90s, The Yellow Monkey, played the venue.

“The Yellow Monkey were a stadium band in Japan at the time. They flew 400 fans over to play a show here because they had heard about the venue. I think they had read in Kerrang! about the venue’s old sticky carpet, and were trying to buy pieces of it,” recalls Akins.

The lure of Rock City was so strong for a young Anton Lockwood that it led him to move to Nottingham in 1984. Now DHP Family’s head of live, Lockwood says the venue was a decisive factor in his choice of university.

Just weeks after arriving in Nottingham as a student, Lockwood was distributing flyers and posters around the university campus in exchange for guest passes at Rock City.

“At the time there were very few proper rock venues. Rock City was the alternative music mecca and still is. There was always cutting-edge new music being played there, from reggae to rock,” he says.

After working as an independent promoter for many years, Lockwood joined DHP Family in 2002 and oversaw the opening of next door venue the Rescue Rooms (450). He was instrumental in the launch of  multi-venue festival Dot to Dot, which takes place in Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham, and in a typical year promotes around 1,500 shows in DHP venues and beyond.

Lockwood says he will always have a great affection for Rock City. Among the many highlights of his time promoting shows there have been sold-out dates by Jake Bugg, Ed Sheeran and Frank Turner.

“We got Frank to play his 2,000th concert at Rock City, which was recorded and recently released as an album and DVD. We had 10,000 people try to get tickets, it was an astonishing show,” he says.


Independent spirit

According to Lockwood, Rock City is Turner’s favourite venue, not least because it is one of the few truly independent venue of its size in the UK.

“Music is about creativity and individuality,” says Lockwood. “The corporatisation of venues is widespread. I call it the Premier Inn factor; when you wake-up you can’t tell which city you are in. We want all our venues to have an individual feel and identity, and being independent means we can be more creative with programming.”

“There are very few independent venues of Rock City’s size left,” agrees Akins. “Bands enjoy coming to a venue that is not homogenised and doesn’t have a huge corporate brand over the door.

“The brand is Rock City and I cannot see how we could fit another brand into that, it is something we have turned down on many occasions.”

Martin Fitzgerald, chief commercial officer at Nottingham-based See Tickets, which has operations across Europe and in the US, says Rock City has always been a major local asset.

“We are incredibly lucky to have such a prestigious venue in Nottingham,” he says. “People come to Rock City as much because they want to visit the venue as see the band. It’s great that it has remained independent and maintained the same name since the outset — it is one of the constant things about Nottingham.”

Says Copping, “The fact Rock City has remained independent bares testament to George Snr – he made everyone involved in the venue very driven and he instilled that in George Jnr.

“Rock City will be around for at least another 40 years. It has always moved with the times and continues to do so.”

Crosstown Concerts co-founder Paul Hutton, who has promoted shows there since the 1990s, says, “It’s a good venue; one of the few remaining that I would call a proper old-style venue.”

Going underground

Aside from the main room, Rock City includes a 300-capacity basement space and the recently refurbished Black Cherry Lounge (700), which opened in 2011 and was previously known as The Rig. 

The Black Cherry Lounge is used for anything from hip hop, R&B and grime club nights to burlesque shows. Meanwhile, the basement was fully refurbishment in 2018, with a new stage, sound system, lighting rig, bar and seating area. It was also given a new name, Beta!.

With three rooms on offer, concerts at Rock City can be upgraded to meet unexpected demand.

“In 1992, we booked Pearl Jam in the basement room and it sold out so quickly that we moved them to the main hall,” says Akins. “It was an incredible night. Eddie Vedder crowd surfed and the audience started chasing him.

“He ended up in the old food bar where he grabbed a load of burger buns and started handing them to the audience, in order to distract them while he tried to get back on stage.”

Another chaotic night that Akins will never forget was the in 1988 when Ozzy Osbourne was due to play Rock City.

“He refused to leave his hotel room and when fans were told he wasn’t going to come on stage, a riot broke out, a speaker stack was pulled over and police with dogs were called in,” says Aikens.

“In 1995 Ozzy came back and did a secret show at as an apology.”

Thankfully, the vast majority of events at Rock City go off without a hiccup and the level of professionalism and facilities at the venue have never been better.

Amy Lawson, who is the programmer and has been with Rock City for almost 20 years, says that while the majority of shows at the venue are still rock, she has seen a sharp increase in urban and pop acts coming through in the past three to four years.

“The great sound and production in the venue mean it’s a popular choice for promoters of all genres, and we’ve seen huge movements in the diversity of our crowds,” she says. “There will always be a demand for rock acts, but it’s great to be able to showcase a breadth of music and appeal to new audiences.”

SJM Concerts promoter v Wooliscroft’s relationship with the venue goes back more than 25 years during which time he has put acts on there including The Killers, Maximo Park, Pendulum, Kooks, and Chase & Status.

“I have done so many shows at Rock City over the years it’s hard to remember the first,” he says.  “I recall going to see Blur play what I think was the first date of the Parklife Tour in 1994 and I saw Rage Against the Machine play the basement venue in 1993.

“The venue is run by people who care about live music in a city that cares about live music, it’s hard to see it not being there.

“Rock City will endure as long as live music endures.”

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