I Bought the Brixton Academy for £1
How Simon Parkes prospered despite rave paranoia, Yardie beatings and Kurt Cobain's suicide.
The author (on the right) with colleague Johnny Lawes
During the years I owned and ran the Brixton Academy, I was beaten up, stabbed, attacked with tear gas, received bomb threats from the IRA and had guns stuck in my face more than once. I also put on the best gigs in Britain for a decade and a half, and the wonderful thing is that I originally bought the place for £1.
I was only 23 at the time, but I managed to blag myself a meeting with the brewery that held the lease on the building. They offered to sell it to me for £120,000. I didn’t have £120,000.
"Let me make you another offer," I said quietly, leaning forward in my chair. "I’ll give you a quid for it."
The two older guys across the desk gave me a look of utter incomprehension and disdain, as if I'd just started smearing the walls with my own shit. I pressed my advantage before they had a chance to react: "You sell me the lease to the Astoria Theatre, Brixton for one pound and I’ll sign a deal to sell only your beer for ten years. If I’m putting on upwards of 200 gigs a year, that’s a lot of pints you’re going to shift."
Looking back, I suppose it was a pretty brazen move, but I was young, dumb and impassioned enough not to care. My thought was that these guys were from a brewery, meaning they were in the business of selling beer. And with the venue standing derelict, they weren’t selling any of that beer. Almost to my own amazement, by the end of that meeting we had shaken on it.
So, in 1983, a few weeks shy of my 24th birthday – and having never even put on a gig in a pub before – I was handed the keys to the building that I would rename the Brixton Academy.
It was a huge risk. If this failed I could be liable for millions in repairs to the building. But I just thought, ‘Fuck it – I’m broke anyway. They can’t shake me down if there’s nothing to shake.' Besides, by that point I had been physically thrown out of every major venue in London. I knew what made a good rock ‘n' roll show, and I was certain that if I got my hands on this venue I’d do the best gigs the city had ever seen.
Soul II Soul at the Academy
It took a few months to get the place patched up enough to even think about a concert – in those days it was just my stage manager and me, armed with only a toolbox and a couple of paintbrushes. But screwing floorboards back into place and slapping paint over chipped walls was nothing compared to the problems we ran into when we actually started booking gigs.
Brixton in 1983 was still smouldering from the riots the previous year; the area was pockmarked with burned out buildings and simmered with racial tension. Nobody wanted to know about this violent, poverty-stricken West Indian ghetto, so the conversation with music biz agents usually went like this:
"Hi, this is Simon Parkes, from the Brixton Academy."
"The Brixton Academy – it’s a great new venue on Stockwell Road."
"What, you mean the clapped-out old cinema?"
"Yeah, but it’s re-launched. It’s a fantastic venue with 5,000 capacity."
"Look, mate, I’m not trying to be funny, but there’s no way you’re ever going to get a rock band to play Brixton. It’s just not our demographic."
After numerous interactions like that, we eventually just thought: 'Fuck them. If they can’t see their demographic in Brixton, we’ll serve the demographic that’s already here.' So we started putting on reggae shows with acts like Eek-A-Mouse, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and Yellowman. When we flew Fela Kuti over from Lagos, he brought 30 of his wives with him as backing vocalists.
One of Fela Kuti's backing dancers/wives
The gigs were fantastic, but dealing with reggae acts meant doing business the Jamaican way. It was a messy and violent learning curve. After our second gig, we caught the promoter trying to sneak out a dressing room window with bags of cash. My head of security slammed him against the wall and grabbed his car keys, shouting, "You pay up, you get your car back!" He paid the next day.
Our breakthrough came with The Clash. In 1984, in the midst of the miner’s strike, then-Labour politician, trade unionist and, later, founder of the Socialist Labour Party, Arthur Scargill was looking to do a big benefit show for his followers. The established venues like Hammersmith Odeon wouldn’t touch that kind of thing, but the Academy was made for it. We did three nights of The Clash playing for a full room of pissed-up, angry miners. It was fucking magnificent.
After that we became the spot for every right-on political cause, or band wanting to prove themselves a bit edgy and anti-establishment. We had Style Council play for Nicaragua, Edwyn Collins announced Orange Juice’s break-up at another miners benefit and The Smiths’ final gig was at the Academy with Artists Against Apartheid.
We were also the only London venue that would go near hip-hop, which was just coming over from the States. We put on chaotic, brilliant shows with all the early rap stars, from Schooly D and NWA to Run DMC and Public Enemy.
Jesse Jackson and Flavor Flav outside the Academy
It was great to finally be making some headway, but our newfound success didn’t just bring us to the attention of music fans; the heavy Jamaican gangsters who ran Brixton's streets saw there was money to be made and came on strong.
Their usual manoeuvre was the classic protection racket stunt of staging a fight and beating up a few fans, then sending a couple of big guys after the show who would offer to "take care of our security". I held them at bay, but did incur various beatings, shootings and tear gas attacks in the process.
I was twice put under official police protection, once when some local Yardie put out a contract on me, the other when I received death threats from hardcore neo-Nazis for putting on anti-apartheid gigs.
One of the Academy's early legal raves
In 1989, it seemed like the entire UK went crazy for acid house. All through the second summer of love, the police looked like chumps as they failed to keep up with the kids taking pills, wearing oversized T-shirts and dancing in fields. Which gave me an idea.
I made the police an offer: "You have a problem with illegal raves; I have the solution: make them legal. Give me an all-night licence and you can stop the ravers from panicking the Daily Mail readers of Middle England."
Once again, I was slightly amazed when they bought it.
I was given the UK’s first 6AM license, and the very first legal raves took off at the Academy. They were an immediate, smashing success, and it was an incredible feeling to be at the forefront of the most exciting musical movement for decades.
But, once again, our success brought us all the wrong kind of attention. Ecstasy at the Academy became a million pound per weekend business, so of course the big UK crime syndicates wanted control. These weren’t local Brixton Yardies, they were serious, ruthless, heavily armed organised criminals. I won't go into all the details here, but as you can probably imagine, there were plenty of moments at the doing of those guys that I wouldn't want to relive.
Sonic Youth live on stage
Amid all the excitement of the rave years, we also became the central UK venue for all the grunge and alternative bands pouring over from the States. In fact, some of my all-time favourite Academy gigs were during this era – bands like Pixies, Sonic Youth and Pavement. However, it was also around that same time that Kurt Cobain almost ran me into bankruptcy.
We had Nirvana booked for four sold-out nights in April of 1994, the first gigs of their European tour. On the 8th of April, I almost had a heart attack while reading the morning's headlines – Kurt had been found dead of a gunshot wound to the head. Not only was I huge Nirvana fan, but four cancelled shows meant refunding £250,000 – a number that could realistically send us under.
In the midst of the ensuing panic, that afternoon I was interviewed by Zoe Ball on Radio 1. Totally off the cuff I found myself saying, "It’s absolutely extraordinary – we’ve had Nirvana fans from all over the world calling us, trying to buy tickets for these concerts. People from America and Japan are offering us over £100 for Nirvana tickets, as a piece of history."
I have no idea where that came from, but my bullshit story got picked up on the newswires. Suddenly we actually did have people phoning up from all over the world, looking to buy tickets to "the gig that Kurt would never play". We had to hire extra staff to handle the phone traffic. In the end, only about 20 percent of people returned their tickets, which we promptly sold on for upwards of £200.
My spur of the moment scam saved us from immediate bankruptcy, but Kurt’s death had other knock-on effects that would eventually lead me to sell up and leave the Academy altogether.
But to learn those gory details, you’re just going to have to buy the book.
Live At the Brixton Academy by Simon Parkes and JS Rafaeli, published by Serpent's Tail, is available now.
See more of Justin's photos at justinthomasphotography.co.uk
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