Nottinghams Rock City: Glastonbury-like venue turns 40

Nottinghams Rock City: Glastonbury-like venue turns 40

The roll-call of loud and intimate gigs that have taken place within Rock City’s blackened walls contains some of music’s biggest names.

Nirvana, Madness, Def Leppard, David Bowie, Public Enemy, The Ramones, Guns N’ Roses, Pulp, The Cure, Rage Against the Machine and Manic Street Preachers, to name just a few, have graced the stage over recent decades.

“For groups like us, it feels like home,” said Justin Sullivan, lead singer of rock band New Model Army.

The group, regulars at the venue, said Rock City was, “one of the last of its kind”.

“[It’s] still independent from the meddling hands of big corporate rock. You can feel the history and all the countless great bands that have played there,” Sullivan added.

Now in its 40th year, the Nottingham venue – one of the country’s best-loved clubs – would, under normal circumstances, have been planning for its birthday party.

But with the majority of the country under the strictest tier restrictions, the venue has instead been sharing people’s memories online, with hundreds of fans paying tribute on social media.

Michael Wilson called Rock City the best music venue in the country “by far”, adding: “Great views wherever you are and… a great atmosphere.”

Mark Gribby described it as “the most important building in Nottingham… listed status required”, while Jason Newman said: ” I was so impressed with the venue that it was the reason I decided to come to Trent poly.”

He added: “I’ve never left the area, and still manage a few gigs a year (in normal times), so it’s fair to say that you influenced my entire life.”

The venue has been an intrinsic part of Nottingham’s cultural and social history since it opened in December 1980.

Singer-songwriter Frank Turner, who chose Rock City as the place to stage his 2,000th show in 2016, said it was “almost the platonic ideal of a rock ‘n’ roll venue” and the highlight of any tour.

The Levellers, who have been putting on shows at the venue since 1990, said it holds a special place in their “collective heart”.

“The place is a bit like Glastonbury,” said bassist Jeremy Cunningham. “If you get it right there, you can always come back. If you don’t, prob[ably] best avoid in future.”

Over the past months, as rules have changed, Rock City has managed to adapt.

It has organised ticketed indoor “Sitdown Sessions” and created a large beer garden outside. It also ran live shows in a city park in August.

But the blow of the city entering tier three restrictions, just days before the announcement of a second national lockdown, has halted such events.

The venue has promised to return for “one hell of a party” as soon as they are allowed to open again.

Certainly their regulars would expect nothing less.

In Rock City’s four decades, it has become a place where friendships and memories are made.

Anton Lockwood, director of live music at DHP which runs the venue, said he chose to study in Nottingham in the 1980s because of Rock City.

“When it started, it was pretty much unique in what it did,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme.

He pointed to “the sheer variety of music that’s come through its doors over the years, through the funk and soul all-dayers and the early days of house music and, of course, all the rock bands it’s famous for”.

“Then there’s the club nights and social scene around that. So many people met at Rock City, whether that’s romantically or just as friends,” he said.

Music lover and Nottingham writer Rich Fisher has been visiting Rock City since the mid-1990s.

“The club nights were a huge part of my formative years,” he said.

“It was always a friendly atmosphere and if you were the sort of teenager like I was, who sometimes struggled to fit in, the sense of community you got from Rock City was quite powerful.”

“[It’s] the feeling of euphoria that slowly builds as you make the walk up the stairs,” said Ian Barker, from Clifton, who started going to Rock City in the mid-1980s.

“Then the rush as the music hits you, as you enter the main room, is such a great emotion.”

Richard Selby, whose late aunt Pat Selby managed the club from the late 1980s to early 1990s, used to feel “like a celebrity” when he was allowed in ahead of everyone else.

This apparent status led to him getting together with his then-partner Carla, who remains a friend.

“I was working at Bankrupt Clothing [in Nottingham] and she came up to me and said, ‘You go to Rock City and don’t have to queue’,” he said.

He described the venue as being, “the epicentre” of his social life.

“There were people I became friends with because I saw them every week,” he said.

“Rock City was life-changing for me in lots of ways: the music, the clothes I wore.

“I’d love to say it was like [Manchester’s] Hacienda and, from a Nottingham point of view, it probably was.”

Barry Spooner has been going to the venue for four decades and was there on the opening night when punk band The Undertones headlined.

“We didn’t really know what to expect. It was word of mouth that they were playing,” he said.

“I just remember being pressed against the drum kit while [lead singer] Feargal Sharkey was stepping over people on the stage to continue with the gig.”

Everyone remembers their first gig at Rock City and, as a Nottingham lad, I’m no different.

Pulp headlined Glastonbury in the summer of 1995, a performance widely regarded as one of the best in the festival’s history. I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to see them in Nottingham that October.

Dressed in a dark suit and tie, front-man Jarvis Cocker strode on to the stage and one of the first things he said was that Robin Hood was actually from Sheffield.

While he was doing his thing, jumping around, jerking his shoulders, flicking his fringe, pointing at people in the crowd, there was a power cut, the music went dead and we were plunged into darkness.

While we waited for their return, everyone started signing Common People. It was a wonderful moment but, thankfully, they came back on to do it properly.

Rock City stories are not only about the amazing artists you have seen, but the ones you have met there too.

Samantha Sibley was a student at Nottingham Trent in 1991 when she bumped into the biggest band in the world at the time.

“There on the steps [of Rock City] were Nirvana,” she said.

“I sat next to Kurt [Cobain] who was really friendly and quite shy. I told him I’d been to see the band five times on the [Nevermind] tour and he asked me for my autograph.

“Tucked away at home I have a little piece of paper which says ‘I, Kurt Cobain, was in the presence of Sam’.”

Nichola Doherty travelled from Rugby to see Michael Hutchence and INXS at Rock City in 1993 and even met the mercurial rock star afterwards.

“He was so lovely to everyone, as we had waited for a very long time after the gig finished,” she said.

“It was amazing seeing them in such a small venue. We were right up by the stage, next to some truly enormous speakers.

“Rock City had such a great atmosphere, as everyone was crammed in together on the sticky dance floor, although I always seemed to be stood behind the tallest person there.”

But what is it like to be from Nottingham and to perform on the main stage?

Andy Bullock, guitarist with Lorna, got to do that in 2012 when the band supported The Psychedelic Furs.

“As a local lad, it was fantastic to play to a supportive crowd on a stage I’d seen many of my favourite bands perform on,” said Mr Bullock, a charity worker.

“Music isn’t my profession, but that maybe why I feel an almost embarrassing pride if a conversation turns to venues and I’m able to say, ‘I’ve played Rock City’.

“It means a lot to me to have a connection to this legendary local venue.”

DHP Family, which owns Rock City, said it “had loads of exciting stuff planned” to mark the club’s birthday.

“As an independent venue, we’re really proud to have had such longevity and wanted to celebrate accordingly,” a spokeswoman said.

“Unfortunately Covid-19 has meant we’ve had to put a lot of these plans on hold.”

Plans are being prepared for 40+1 celebrations in December 2021.

Leave a Reply