The iconic venue’s had its last gig – but when the wrecking ball comes, what will be lost? Asks Red Bull’s Leonie Cooper.
So farewell, Earls Court. You were an art deco diamond in the rough. A shifting symbol that at times stood for everything from Britain’s Age of Empire to the epicenter of ’70s Psychedelic Rock. You were also the London landmark that helped us deliver the biggest sound system stand-off in history.
Yet this weekend gone by, 77 years after first opening, Earls Court has had its doors closed, its arms tied and a blindfold wrapped round its head. Due to be demolished, making way for new, ‘luxury’ flats and retail spaces, its impending disappearance into the archives of Britain’s historical memory marks the end of an era.
As we lapped up the venue’s final curtain call and imagined the identikit buy-to-lets soon to be traded by Asian property investors on this patch of land, we thought about Britain – and how Earls Court itself unwittingly tells its story.
There’s some (very) minor satisfaction to be had by the fact it was Bombay Bicycle Club playing the venue’s last ever show – an indie band staffed by incredibly polite public school boys, whose name finds its comfort in its vaguely imperial overtone (Bombay was the colonial era name for contemporary Mumbai). Start with empire, end with (the grandsons of) empire
The current Earls Court was built on the scrubland which hosted the first UK visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in the 1890s. A huge ferris wheel went up in 1896 and the open arena saw lavish Victorian events, including the Empire of India Exhibition, the Paris in London Exhibition and Venice by Night. It was a symbol of the joy, abandonment and leisurely spoils of a nation getting drunk on the fruits of its expansive overseas territories.
So while most of us may think of it principally as a music venue, music only tells half the story. Earls Court’s history is as diverse and chequered as the city it’s a part of. Take two of its first jobs, for example: when it opened in 1937 – late and over budget – the new venue hosted a Chocolate and Confectionary exhibition, followed by Oswald Mosley delivering an address to the British Union Of Fascists. If the initial event was sweet, the contrast of the second could not have been more sour.
Commissioned in 1935 and opened in 1937, the extravagant building was basically a massive exercise in showing off. Designed to be the biggest exhibition centre the world had ever seen, it was a totem of British wealth and power, with smooth lines classy enough to suggest an ocean liner run aground between Warwick Road and West Brompton station. The vast interior, meanwhile, was supposed to outdo the nearby Kensington Olympia by nearly doubling that venue’s capacity. That it eventually grew to be a special kind of white elephant makes its closure all the more poignant.
Many of Earls Court’s proudest memories come from the 1970s and 1980s, when the venue played host to the dad rock greats, with Slade, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Queen and Pink Floyd all playing to 19,000 capacity crowds. Since then Wembley Arena and then the superslick 02 have stolen its thunder, most notably when the BRiTs decamped to the latter in 2011, ending a 10-year association.
As for that original colonial spirit – perhaps it lingered a little too long in Earls Court’s frame of reference. As the rest of the world was experiencing the anti-institutional impulse taking over the mainstream, in everything from sexual liberalization to punk and even the mass social upheavals that took place during the Thatcher era, Earls Court was still busying itself with pampered pooches at Crufts, yacht shows and the stuffy, old-time fun of the Royal Tournament.
Back to the rockers though – Earls Court’s golden era was paid tribute to on its final night as Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour ambled onstage midway through Bombay Bicycle Club’s set– a guitarist who’s an authentic symbol of its heyday as a music venue.
Sat in the venue’s now rickety upper tier on Saturday night, trying to enjoy our near-vertical view of David Gilmour’s hairless bonce, there’s a sense that the demolition might be starting early.
Bombay Bicycle Club are cranking up the volume, and though that’s hardly a sentence to get your juices going, it does bring with it a unique sense of danger. Up here, there are rows of wooden seats with red leather cushions, which are unconvincingly bolted to the benches beneath. Like your grandpa’s hand-me-down Meccano that’s a bit loose around the edges, the seats rattle worryingly. I’m not being paranoid, the risk is real – in 1994 on the first night of a Pink Floyd residency, one of these seating blocks, which contain 1,200 people a piece, collapsed. 100s of fans fell 20 feet. 96 people were injured. Amazingly no-one died.
Despite this awful memory, David Gilmour is still here. That alone must say something of his fondness for this big, drafty old building. Moreso when he chooses a song to play on his acoustic guitar – it’s Wish You Were Here. Let’s hope that sentiment will be sustained, and the memory of Earls Court will be a happy, nostalgic one, long after the venue itself is gone.