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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Shannon Mahanty

Is it lights out for Brixton Academy?

I’m outside Brixton Academy on a Saturday afternoon. At this time, Astoria Walk should be buzzing with the exuberant chatter of music fans queuing shoulder to shoulder, hours before a concert begins. Instead, it’s ghostly quiet — as it has been ever since the doors closed on 15 December.

That evening ended in tragedy. Afrobeats singer Asake’s set came to an abrupt end after just two songs as a man took to the stage. ‘We have to stop the show,’ he announced. ‘They breached the door. You’ve got 3,000 people who have broken the doors.’ A horrific crush in the foyer killed two people: Rebecca Ikumelo, a 33-year-old concert-goer, and Gaby Hutchinson, a 23-year-old security guard. Two other attendees were seriously injured.

Exactly what happened that night is still being ascertained. Lambeth councillors met days later for an emergency meeting, closing the Academy until further notice. A full hearing took place in January, where the venue’s licence was suspended for a further three months citing ‘the prevention of crime and disorder, the prevention of public nuisance, public safety and the protection of children from harm’. Academy Music Group, which runs the venue, argues that new proposals will ‘enable the venue to reopen safely’, but in a statement released last month, the Met police confirmed they were seeking a full revocation of the venue’s licence.

‘What happened that night was an absolutely terrible tragedy that should never have happened,’ says Mark Davyd, founder of the Music Venue Trust, a charity that seeks to protect grassroots music venues in the UK. ‘We want to see a full inquiry, we want to see lessons learnt. Any failing in venue safety needs to be seriously investigated. The question then is, what happens to this building? Our concern is the way that this is being presented at the moment isn’t recognising Brixton Academy as a very important cultural space. The simple revocation of the licence is not an appropriate response to a terrible tragedy. We should be concerned when an incident like this results in the loss of live music and culture. It’s the most important venue in London of its size — possibly the whole country.

For any band, a headline date at Brixton Academy is a badge of honour. The place is completely steeped in history

The venue’s uncertain fate reflects a broader concern for the status of live music venues in the UK. In London, a slew of iconic music venues have all closed their doors in recent years: the Astoria, Earl’s Court, Hammersmith Palais. Research led by the Mayor’s Music Venues Taskforce found that the city had lost 35 per cent of its grassroots music venues from 2007 to 2015; a statistic that’s been exacerbated by the impact of the pandemic. While the majority of threatened venues face closure due to financial hardship, Brixton Academy is the opposite, playing a vital role in the local economy by driving major footfall to local businesses. The threat to its survival has prompted uproar from musicians, fans and the local community; a petition launched two weeks ago by a Brixton resident has amassed almost 60,000 signatures and been shared by members of Blur and the Chemical Brothers.

‘Clearly there were a lot of problems the night of the crush, but it doesn’t seem like the organisation was solely responsible for it,’ says Jamie McColl, guitarist of Bombay Bicycle Club, who first played at the Academy in 2009. ‘From what I understand, it seems like the Met should take some of the blame. Calling for it to close seems like they’re displacing that blame. When you look at in the broader context of some of the things the Met have done around particular genres of music in London, and generally the sorry state of nightlife and music venues in London over the past years, it feels like a very bleak encapsulation of a lot of things,’ says McColl.

Many have questioned both the police response on the night — a video emerged of an officer appearing to throw a woman down the steps of the venue — and their motives for calling for a revocation of the venue’s licence. ‘I’m fuming because the Met’s reason [to call for the venue’s licence to be revoked] doesn’t seem to make any sense,’ says James Smith, lead singer of Leeds rock band Yard Act, who had to move their show last week to the Troxy.

‘To make a statement of intent like that feels reckless and unfounded. The Met’s profile in the past few years has been under intense scrutiny and I think with the report that came out a couple of weeks ago about how it’s racist to the core… I don’t see how people aren’t going to draw a line between the closure of this venue in a vibrant, multicultural area that’s always celebrated for its diversity and a further attempt to hammer more nails of gentrification into an area. It’s brutal.’

Booking a Brixton Academy show is a pivotal moment in the career of burgeoning artists like Yard Act. South London five-piece Shame were also forced to relocate their first Academy show last month. ‘It felt like we’d reached a career-affirming moment,’ says guitarist Eddie Green. ‘For any band, a headline date at Brixton is a badge of honour. It’s a venue that artists of all genres and levels of fame want to play. My dad often reminisces about going to gigs back when it was called the Fair Deal in the 1980s. Not to mention the countless live albums recorded there by people like New Order, Pixies, Motörhead to name a few. The place is completely steeped in history.’

Bought from a brewery for just £1 in 1983 by a then 23-year-old, Simon Parkes, Brixton Academy has since become one of the UK’s most revered venues. The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Diana Ross and Rihanna have all performed there. Agenda-setting bands The Clash and The Specials performed throughout the years of Thatcherite Britain. As the first venue in the UK to receive a 6am licence, it brought previously illegal rave culture to broader audiences. More recently it’s become a natural home for some of the finest grime, UK rap and Afrobeats artists.

‘I think it’s comfortably the best venue in the UK, both to experience a gig as a fan, and to play at,’ says McColl. ‘The first gig Jack [Steadman, lead singer] and I went to together was there in 2005: the NME tour with Bloc Party and The Futureheads. Four years after that it was us doing the tour.’ Throughout their career, Bombay Bicycle Club continued to return to Brixton, despite being able to fill larger venues. ‘It has a really powerful energy. After we came back from hiatus [in 2019], we did our first London gig there. At one point there was a spontaneous three-minute applause which we all felt incredibly overwhelmed by. That’s probably the single most memorable thing that’s happened to me at a gig that we’ve done. So, just from a personal perspective, it would obviously be terrible to lose it as a venue.’

With the inquiry still ongoing, Brixton Academy’s future remains uncertain. ‘We think the licence review is [scheduled for] 15 May,’ says Davyd. ‘If it is revoked, we are doubtful whether it will ever be able to open.’

‘This situation sadly feels like another stage of the ongoing removal of Brixton’s culture,’ says Green. ‘This time however, I hope that the people’s voice speaks loud enough to stop what would be a true tragedy.’

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