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The People’s Palace

roundhouse-1The last few things I’ve seen at the Roundhouse —  Willie Colón on his farewell tour, Bob Dylan on good form, a wonderful performance on authentic instruments of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the reformed Television, and John Cale — seem pretty typical of the musical variety the circular brick building at Chalk Farm has been offering London since Arnold Wesker had the idea of repurposing the old engine shed as a centre for the arts in 1966. Earlier first-hand memories of the place include Nico’s first London concert, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Ramones, a Company week featuring Derek Bailey with assorted friends, Gil Evans’s British band, and a Fairport Convention night with Fotheringay and Matthews’ Southern Comfort.

Tomorrow night an excellent BBC4 Arena documentary titled The Roundhouse: The People’s Palace tells the building’s story, starting in 1847, when it began 10 years of service to the railway before being sold to Gilbey’s for use as a gin warehouse, a function it maintained for 100 years. Anthony Wall, the programme’s director, assembles some marvellous archive film, both performance and interview, including footage of the Dialectics of Liberation conference in 1967, with a platform featuring Stokely Carmichael, Allen Ginsberg, Emmett Grogan and a sinister-looking R. D. Laing. Others who flash past through the years include Gyorgy Ligeti, James Brown, Peter Brook and the Clash.

The Roundhouse has struggled to survive at various times during its half-century as a home for arts, but the purchase of the building by the toy manufacturer Sir Torquil Norman began a process that led to the reopening in 2006 and seems to have guaranteed it a future. The film’s climax comes with Vanessa Kisuule reading “Identity Jenga”, the stirring poem with which she won first prize at the Roundhouse’s Poetry Slam competition in 2014. Its impact ensures that the programme does not fade away into nostalgia but properly reflects the role the building plays in the cultural life of contemporary London.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Adam Glasser #

    Thanks again Richard for another treasure of precious details about a sacred London venue which first caught my imagination in the ’70s when I saw George Gruntz’s Piano Conclave (in an 8 man lineup that included Jasper Van ‘t Hof, Gordon Beck & Martial Solal each on his own Fender Rhodes in a semi – circle).

    Another memorable concert – mixed bill – included a trio set with Albert Manglesdorff, Steve Lacey & Mischa Mengleberg whose solo on one item developed from fingers flying over the piano keys to tapping rhythmically and percussively over the closed piano lid, to eliciting the quietest sounds from empty plastic water cup he had brought with him to drink from … and ending with him scraping the cup up and down on the black backdrop curtain…! A completely coherent thematic sequence which imprinted the joy of improvised music in my young imagination.. indelibly associated with the Round House.

    My last visit was to accompany Hugh Masekela briefly for a charity event which saw the vast space set with dozens of dinner tables. At the centre of each table was a multicore of credit card machines – one per seated guest – for the after dinner fund raising session.

    October 22, 2016
  2. Paul Crowe #

    Thanks for the reminder of BBC programme, Richard. Living in Dublin and never having attended the Roundhouse, my memories of the venue are confined to Melody Maker gig reviews.

    October 22, 2016
  3. Philip Putnam #

    Saw Norman Mailer at the Roundhouse. He talked, then we watched his film Maidenhead.
    After the showing Mailer invited questions. A young guy down the front stood up and embarked on a long critique. When he finished Mailer indicated that a spotlight be shone on his critic, advanced to the edge of the stage and enquired, ‘what makes you so great, motherfucker?’

    October 22, 2016
  4. And then there was the unforgettable Stax roadshow. The whole roundhouse was jumping. I was only 23 and lived 10 minutes walk away.

    October 22, 2016
  5. I think it’s the best venue in London. Seen so many great concerts there, including in recent times, Augustines, Nils Frahm, Prince and Radiohead.

    October 22, 2016
  6. Wow! Even I’d heard of The Roundhouse.

    I shall look out for that BBC4 Special on Youtube.

    Thanks for posting, Richard!

    October 23, 2016
  7. Richard, many thanks for the heads up on this. It was a sweet little documentary with some remarkable archive footage. The (probably staged) encounter between the late Thelma Holt and the late Anthony Field, to talk about funding, was a gem. And who’d have thought that theatre impresario Thelma Holt’s response to a financial crisis would be to bolster the London rock (and possibly the emerging punk scene) by booking 18 rock bands into the venue. My recollections of concerts there mainly surround the wonderful Camden Jazz Weeks. I saw the premiere of Mike Westbrook’s Citadel/Room 315, to my mind his most satisfying work, and the relentlessly churning saxophone trio SOS – (Surman, Osborne, Skidmore – with Skidmore on drums for part of it). But possibly the most memorable show was the London debut of Wynton Marsalis as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Jaws were dropping all over the hall that night and the band was one of Blakey’s best, with Charles Famborough, Jimmy Williams, Billy Pierce and Bobby Watson. Fiery swing like only Blakey knew how. Wish I’d been at the Roundhouse in its early psychedelic phase though.

    October 28, 2016
  8. As a frequent flier at the Roundhouse between 1969 and 1971 I’ve nothing but fond (semi) memories: of the ‘Four Sail’ edition of Love; of seemingly endless appearances by Ivor Cutler, High Tide and Hawkwind; of nodding out propped against Overend Watts’ bass cabinet when Mott the Hoople played support to Love; of the appalling America busking on the little platform outside the main entrance; of Peter Maxwell Davies and Fires of London playing ‘difficult’ modern classical music before a typical Sunday stoner audience; of Gong, Nico, If, Floyd, Caravan, Kevin Ayers, Gentle Giant and those dodgy concessions flogging chillums and Esmerelda skins… Happy daze indeed.

    November 2, 2016

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