Oxfordshire rock gods Radiohead return to their humble beginnings for Independent Venue Week.
A few years back, Thom Yorke’s band were voted as Glastonbury’s greatest headliners of all-time, in a BBC poll.
It’s easy to forget the experimental rock giants were once just another small young band on the indie circuit.
Drummer Philip Selway has been revisiting some of those early venues for his new film The Long & Winding Road.
The feature, commissioned for Independent Venue Week (IVW), sees Selway travel the length and breadth of the country in search of the pubs and clubs that help to break such artists and the people who dedicate their lives to making that dream possible.
Fittingly, the idea for the road trip came about during an interview in the very venue where his fledgling band were first signed in 1991.
“Over the course of about five years, we played about six shows and probably four of those would have been at the Jericho Tavern in Oxford,” recalls Selway.
“So it was a venue that saw us go from doing our very first tentative steps – those initial uncertain, very shaky performances, then actually a couple of years later to something that gives you the opportunity to get a contract.
“That’s the kind of big leap you can make in these venues.”
The 52-year-old recalls having being “inspired” by gigs he saw there by acts such as Dinosaur Jr and “a very nascent” Pulp.
At the time, his band – who were initially called On a Friday, as it was the day they practiced at school in Abingdon – had a set-list containing early versions of songs like You and Stop Whispering, which would make it on to their debut album.
There was no sign of their first indie anthem, Creep, on that life-changing night sadly, but there was plenty of buzz.
“So we’d done a show in the September and [it was] the classic thing, you know – a couple of friends and supportive family members were there.
“The next time we played there, which was only about a month and a half later, it seemed that we had a lot of the A&R departments around the country there.
“I think to have actually had that happen in our local venue probably made things seem much less intimidating and very exciting.”
They didn’t actually put pen to paper after the gig, but “conversations” were had with industry bigwigs, along with a few pats on the back.
Maybe even a gentleman’s agreement?
“Yeah, ’cause it’s a very gentlemanly industry!” Selway sniggers.
His new documentary shows how 17 years later, a by-then stadium-filling Radiohead had to abandon their attempts to play a Rough Trade record shop gig in East London, as nearly 1,500 people turned up.
The not-so-secret but ultimately “fantastic” concert had to be moved to 93 Feet East – a slightly bigger independent venue nearby.
Selway remembers how much he loved “reconnecting” with the more “immediate” surroundings of a smaller venue, where close-up fan reaction can throw-off even rock royalty.
He therefore jumped at the chance of getting a broader understanding of the “dedication and energy” that goes into making venues like the featured Moles Club Bath, Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club and the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket work.
“They’re very big personalities in these places and there need to be because it’s a big responsibility running one of these venues,” he says.
“Just so much goodwill and creativity and just love of music.
“I think you have a sense of that when you’re going around as a band, but you’re very focused on your own performance. So to actually talk with the venue owners, the technical crew and the people who run the venue, just to get a real idea of the day-to-day input and the communities that grew up around them, was incredible.”
‘Insane with blandness’
In 2018 it was estimated by industry body UK Music that 35% of the country’s venues had closed down in the last decade.
Since then the new Music Venues Alliance has helped to ensure the number of closures has not gone up, by better equipping venues to defend themselves from planning, development and licensing threats. However, there hasn’t been an upsurge in new venues opening either.
On the eve of the annual week-long celebration though, there was a victory for small and medium-sized “grassroots music venues” as the government announced details of a 50% reduction in their business rates.
“One in six of the UK’s venues will come under threat of closure in any given year,” Music Venue Trust boss Mark Davyd confirmed to the BBC, ahead of the news.
Selway’s travels took him to one such venue in central London which almost became a statistic, but for the intervention of another rock ‘n’ roll great.
Ten years ago, word got out that the 100 Club was officially at risk of closure after more than 70 years, due to financial pressures. On reading the news, Sir Paul McCartney offered to play an intimate lunchtime gig.
“That was the first time in all the years I’ve been here I realised how important the club was,” owner Jeff Horton is heard saying in the film.
Since then the club has gone from strength to strength and attracted new sponsorship deals to help pay the bills, staff and bands.
“I just think for the health and sanity of future generations you need stuff like this or else everyone will go insane with blandness if it carries on.”
Other contributors to the film include Mercury Prize nominees Novelist, Idles and Nadine Shah, as well as Fatboy Slim and Adrian Utley from Portishead. Uttley gets nostalgic over the smell of “bleach and vom'” he associates fondly with the early days of his trip-hop band in Bristol.
The Radiohead sticksman and narrator worked closely on the production with IVW founder Sybil Bell and director Pip Piper.
Bell again enjoyed meeting local characters “who have a relationship” with certain venues, which may not all have celebrity stars on speed dial, but do act as a “focal point for the local community”.
“Whether it’s young people, excluded people, older people with dementia,” she says. “I think when you look at the infrastructure around the country, Independent Venue Week is very much a national project with a local feel.”
Piper, whose previous film Last Shop Standing looked at “another part of the ecosystem” – record shops, had his “mind blown” by the “fantastic entrepreneurialism that’s going on in these spaces”, as older venues adapt themselves for the demands of the modern world.
For its seventh year, the event will see more than 800 gigs – by the likes of Anna Calvi, Gruff Rhys and Frank Turner – take place across 230 venues in the UK’s cities, towns and villages.
Including The Cellar, “The one venue in Oxford that Radiohead have never played at!” jokes Selway.
“There’s still time…” responds manager Tim Hopkins, with a smile.
Independent Venue Week runs from 27 January to 2 February, and The Long & Winding Road will be out in independent cinemas in Spring 2020.