The Funhouse, Keighley
Part One: Getting Started
Between December 1979 and the summer of 1981, I produced, published and distributed fourteen issues of my northern music zine, The Wool City Rocker. It had been exhausting work. I was burnt out. And then I simply ran out of the necessary money to keep it going. By then, it had become the most influential music paper in the north of England.
One of the things I’d learned while editing and publishing the mag was that punk, skinhead and post-punk bands were struggling to find good gigs and connect with their audiences. For punks and skinheads it was simply a matter of them being unwelcome at most venues. For all bands, it was problematic letting people know where and when they were performing. Police and councils were cracking down on flyposting. There were no mobile phones, no social networks and, hell, the worldwide web wouldn’t come into being for another twelve years.
Once the zine folded, I decided that running gigs might be both rewarding and useful. I started talking with people I’d met via the magazine. One of those was Garth Cawood who’d fronted a moderately successful sixties pop-rock band called Funhouse. By the early eighties he and two business partners were running three fairly successful West Yorkshire venues. One of these was Funnies which was a popular central Bradford disco-cum-club at the bottom of Leeds Road close to Forster Square. He understood bands. Perhaps more importantly he was struggling to get audiences into his venues on weekdays. And he was particularly keen to make their Keighley venue, The Funhouse, into a better business proposition.
To save money, rather than have the publicity typeset, I began designing the flyers by hand, as I had done with many of the pages of The Wool City Rocker. This made these publicity sheets both intriguing and distinctive. I printed five thousand flyers and distributed them everywhere… on shop counters, handing them out at gigs, getting everyone I knew to take and distribute copies, etc. And I got each event listed in the gig guides of local papers and the national music press – particularly Sounds, New Musical Express and Melody Maker.
We needed bouncers to ensure that there was no trouble, but I wanted people who’d also treat the bands and audiences with respect, regardless of what they looked like. Len had bouncers who knew all the local kids and who liked punks, skinheads, hippies, whatever. Would people come? There was an excellent cheap bus and train network linking Keighley to the rest of West Yorkshire, including Bradford and Leeds. All I had to do was book the bands that people wanted to see.
The Funhouse was on North Street, close to the centre of Keighley which was, in those days, a very tough and impoverished town with a reputation for hard drinking and violence. Funnies was cool and trendy, but The Funhouse wasn’t. It was run by Len Fox, the uncool one in the business partnership who’d drawn the short straw in being landed with The Funhouse. On Garth’s bidding, I went to meet him and liked him immediately. He wasn’t sharp or go-getting, but he was honest and a kind and caring man. He knew the club was struggling and was more than keen to accommodate me. The problem was that he wanted me to run gigs on a Monday night. My advantage was that many of the fans I wanted to attract were unemployed and so what day of the week I used didn’t really matter. I wanted a name more punchy that The Funhouse and so called the gigs Gory Details (GD being the initials of Gaynor Doherty – then my girlfriend, now my wife).
With bands to pay, a p.a. to hire, publicity to print and distribute, etc. there would be considerable overheads. However, I needed to keep the admission price low. I decided to charge a quid in for the unwaged (which included the jobless, students and schoolkids) and one pound fifty for those in work, hoping that people would come in sufficient numbers to make it work financially.
I was on good terms with a local music journalist, John Liddle, who worked for The Keighley News. This was a paper read by virtually everyone in Keighley. The town’s musical claim-to-fame in those days was that, on 19 December 1977, The Sex Pistols – then banned from venues throughout the UK – had actually performed in Keighley at a venue called Nikkers. John felt that what I was bringing to Keighley could prove to be as sensational. He therefore readily agreed to give the gigs prominent coverage. I’d no idea whether I could get it right, but was determined to give it my best shot.
I wanted to confront racism. In the early eighties many skinheads were seen as racist. Indeed, many were. One headline-grabbing incident was a gig on 3 July 1981 at the Hambrough Tavern, a pub in the predominantly Asian London borough of Southall. Three skinhead Oi! band, all associated with the far right National Front, played there that night. They were The Four Skins, The Last Resort and The Business. The gig drew crowds of openly racist skinheads who intimidated and attacked members of the local community on their way to the gig. During the gig, Asian youths responded by surrounding and attacking the pub. A full riot ensued with the pub being set on fire.
After this, few skinhead bands could find gigs. Six months later I phoned Laurie Pryor who managed The Business and then spoke to band members. They’d actually been the first band on and had left the venue before the trouble started. While their singer supported the National Front, the rest of the band varied from ambivalent to left-wing. I told them that I wanted to book them on condition that they’d say nothing remotely racist and that they’d help me to ensure that none of their fans behaved in any way that could be construed as racist… no Nazi salutes, no swastikas, no chanting, no expressions of racism or hatred of any kind. They agreed. What drew me to the band was the fact that, unlike The Four Skins or The Last Resort, they’d no songs that could be seen as racist. They were just a really good punkish rock band with street-credible anti-establishment lyrics. And, of course, I wanted my gigs to attract attention.
The first gig at The Funhouse was on 22 March 1982. The Business headlined with Keighley’s most popular band, a punk-rock outfit called Teenage and The Wildlife as their support. Two weeks before the gig Britain’s most popular music weekly, Sounds, featured The Business on their front cover. They’d had a hit with their debut single, ‘Harry May’, had released a hugely popular EP called ‘Smash The Discos’ and were about to release their debut LP ‘Loud, Proud & Punk’. I’d got it right. Everyone wanted to see them. The gig was rammed. There was no racism. It was an amazing first gig.
For the next few gigs I needed to try a variety of styles in order to find out what worked. Again, by judgement or chance, I hit lucky. Gig two was a package from Leeds, my aim being to keep the Keighley crowd and bring in an outside one. Fellow performer-poet and New Musical Express journalist Seething Wells was a friend who’d later become a lodger in my house and with whom I’d do a whole bunch of gigs as part of The Intolerance Tour. He was living in Leeds at this time and was keen on a new band I’d featured in Wool City Rocker. They were The Sisters of Mercy. For just eighty quid I booked The Sisters of Mercy supported by another up-and-coming band, The March Violets, and Seething Wells. The Sisters, a seminal growly goth crew, were riveting… and by far the loudest band I’d ever heard. Once again, the venue was full.
Week three featured another performance poet, Attila The Stockbroker along with a great political band, The Newtown Neurotics. The turnout was slightly down, but both acts would later gig for me more successfully.
Week four platformed two more solidly mainstream local rock bands – Legal Aid (fresh from serving as backing band for legendary guitarist, Gordon Giltrap) and The Xhilaratorz – and brought the poorest attendance yet. Win some, lose some.
Not to worry, week five featured two Bradford bands I’d interviewed for Wool City Rocker. Southern Death Cult supported by Requiem brought the biggest crowd yet. Knowing they’d be really popular, I’d originally booked SDC to appear two weeks earlier, but they’d had to postpone their appearance in order to go down south that week to record their debut single. This only built expectations and brought along even more people. I’ve no idea what the fire limit was, but we must’ve been way over that. You could hardly move. SDC were phenomenal and I’d established a successful venue!
Nick Toczek, July 2018