City spaces and popular music

The Guardian this week headlined a feature about London-band The Maccabees “bands can’t afford to live in London anymore“, and that connected with something I’ve been thinking about for a while: what material infrastructure do bands need to get off the ground?  The most obvious ones are places to live and venues to perform at, but for traditional rock with drums and amplification, somewhere to rehearse is also pretty crucial.

In their early years — 1977 and 1978 — the post-glam/ pre-punk/ new-wave band Ultravox often used publicity shots of themselves posing with shop-window mannequins, and this was a hidden clue as to how they had made a distinctive sound for themselves, though by 1977 it probably looked like a nod to Kraftwerk’s “Showroom Dummies.”

Ultravox Mannequins1

The band was put together by John Foxx in 1974, initially under the name Tiger Lily; Foxx at that time was a graduate student at the Royal College of Art.  They rehearsed initially in the dining room of the Royal College, but soon Foxx found a better space.  To supplement his grant, he had been painting faces on shop-window dummies, and through this learned of the warehouse space of the firm Modreno, at Albion Yard, Balfe Street, just round the corner from King’s Cross.  He persuaded the manager, Ronnie Kirkland, to allow the band to rehearse there in the evenings.  Having a free rehearsal space allowed the band to experiment with their songwriting and their sound without the financial pressure that comes with hiring a rehearsal space. Ronnie Kirkland was apparently the proprietor of Modreno, and was able to do what he liked with it; but if such a factory / warehouse exists at the present-day, would the manager be allowed to do what he liked with it, if he/she had to answer to property owners who were anxious about their investment and their insurance? Similarly, around 1976, when the band came to producing an early demo tape, they were able to do so cheaply because Steve Lilywhite, then a tape-op (a trainee engineer) allowed them to use a studio during down time.  Would it be possible to sneak a band into a high-end recording studio today?  The very idea of “down time” is becoming alien.

It’s also notable how squats enabled the popular music scene in the mid 1970s: in a recent interview with Martin Smith, Paul Simon — not the one who recorded with Art Garfunkel, but the brother of Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon — mentions the brothers’ move to London being simplified by the availability of a squat in Vauxhall [*]; Foxx himself was living in one, and some of the band’s early gigs were in one on Regent’s Parade.

What became of Modreno?  In 1985 there were notices in the London Gazette implying that it had ceased trading.  If you look up Albion Yard on the internet now, you find advertisements for one- and two-bed flats, leasehold.

AlbionYard2015

A two-bed flat there will set you back £925,000.  Nice if you’re a property owner, but what happens to musicians when every last piece of space has a by-the-hour charge attached to it?  True, you can now make music on a laptop in a bedroom in a way that was scarcely imaginable in the mid-1970s, but one kind of musical creativity involves reacting to the unexpected things that other musicians throw into a piece; that kind of creativity needs live rehearsals, and rehearsals need spaces.

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5 thoughts on “City spaces and popular music

  1. foxxmetamatic

    Hi Michael. Interesting piece. Kirkland (manager at Modreno) was a friend of a friend of Dennis Leigh up in Chorley. He modelled his running of the band on Kirkland, for whom he had a lot of respect.

    Adi Newton (Cabaret Voltaire) worked at the same place at the same time.

    Lots of interesting stories about life in squats during this period. Mick Jones, Glen Matlock etc – most of London SS and the emergent punks.

    Thanks for the link.

    Reply
  2. foxxmetamatic

    I’d be interested to find out more – almost coming to the end of a first draft biography of Foxx, then I will be seeking interviews. Had a very interesting exchange with Adi Newton about Modreno.

    Your piece sounds very interesting _ I think the London squat scene spawned a lot of cultural phenomena

    Reply
  3. Sue Pearson

    Wow! Interesting article about John, and Ronnie. I was browsing, looking for old friends and contacts. I knew the whole crowd and the Moreno wharehouse.
    Time moves on, here I am reminiscing about the good old days.

    Reply
  4. foxxmetamatic

    Hi Sue

    Interesting. I have spoken recently online to a fashion designer who worked at Modreno, but left before Foxx arrived there. It’s part of the research I am doing into John Foxx for a biography, which truly is the most fascinating story. Michael here has played his part and articles like this are fascinating – he has been very supportive and informative 😀

    Would you mind expanding on your place in it all, reminiscing at greater length? I’d love to indulge you in a trip down memory lane.

    For instance, I have recently uncovered footage of The Sweeney, where an scene was recorded in the doll’s house at Modreno! If I can find the link I will pass it on

    Anyway – it would be great to hear more form you. Thanks

    Reply

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