Hamburg may now boast a sexy new concert hall but Aidan Smith yearns for Leith Theatre to be re-born
Gigs are incredibly expensive now. In 1973, from Co-op shelf-stacking wages, I paid 80p for a Roxy Music ticket. In 2011 I baulked at the £80 fee for one of my favourite band’s 40th anniversary tour and wasn’t going to go but my dear wife found the funds. Booking fees are one of modern life’s greatest irritations and obviously touts exist to prey on you and your ever-diminishing leisure pound. The other day there was a nasty story about Robbie Williams’ management passing tickets for his shows to resale sites in spite of having criticised the practice.
Then there’s the problem of finding a good hall. A peek at the wonderful Edinburgh Gig Archive will remind you how many venues Scotland’s capital used to boast. For my first show of 2017 – Laura Marling with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on Thursday – I’m having to trek through to Glasgow. What’s that about?
I’m green with envy about Hamburg’s new hall. Have you seen photographs? The Elbphilharmonie has just opened its doors, nine years late. It’s been dubbed “possibly the most expensive venue since Rome built the Colosseum”. The final bill has hit £750 million, 11 times the original costing. But it’s sensational.
From the outside, it looks like a giant version of a crown Liz Taylor might have worn in the over-the-top movie version of Antony and Cleopatra – not the most ostentatious in her wardrobe, maybe one set aside for a fairly lively Tuesday – which has been plonked on top of a red-brick building next to the River Elbe. An old cocoa warehouse has been adorned with a thousand glass panels, heated to 600 degrees centigrade to curve and pucker, and they change colour according to the weather, reflecting Hamburg’s moods. This is teetering, audacious kinetic art and the Elbphilharmonie is just as jaw-dropping on the inside with its honeycomb appearance of many vantage points served by snaking walkways, although no seat is more than 30 metres from the conductor.
Of course it’s a classical music venue. The acts I tend to follow might not be allowed in. But I’d love to see Edinburgh make a big, bold cultural statement like this. The city might have done once – and many’s the story I had to write about the ultimately doomed opera house – but after the ballooning bills and grief of the parliament building and the tram system it’s unlikely to do so again.
So if not Edinburgh then maybe Leith. Irvine Welsh is fronting a campaign to bring Leith Theatre back to life. The Trainspotting author saw Mott the Hoople play the venue at the height of glam-rock in the mid-1970s, although it’s not recorded whether he aped guitarist Mick Ralphs by sporting thigh-high platform boots. Around the same time I saw Cockney Rebel and Dr Feelgood there, and best of all, Slade.
Noddy Holder wore his teetering, audacious kinetic hat – a giant topper with silver panels picked out by the hall’s spotlights as the bouncers picked out the most quarrelsome members of the YLT – Young Leith Team – and ordered them to calm down or they’d be marched across the beautiful art deco foyer and out into Ferry Road.
Memories of such a thrilling night – cost: £1.50 – just as school was deemed over for ever and Burton’s were fitting me for my first work-suit would be reason enough for me to join the campaign but the Leith Theatre is special in other ways. In a second-hand record shop recently I found an LP of a folk night at the venue, featuring the Corries and Archie Fisher and compered by my late father. He was an impresario on the scene during the 1960s, and whenever I like to hear his voice again I pop the record on. Also, it’s where I got married.
How many grooms, I wonder, have nipped into the barber’s across the road from the hall for a quick haircut before their nuptials, the one rejoicing under the name Nut-Hoose? I resisted, but wished I’d asked for a “Dave Hill” – in the style of Slade’s guitarist with the fringe chopped high up the forehead, as if in preparation for frontal lobotomy – for old time’s sake.
Leith Theatre has survived Clockwork Orange-mimicking street-gang kerfuffles, World War Two bombing raids, property-boom acquisitiveness – and a visit from the Wombles. With Edinburgh’s music fans forced to gather in a former abbatoir for long enough, and with city centre halls closing, it is ridiculous the venue has been out of action. “Chronically underutilised,” says Welsh, who was dismayed by the dilapidated state when he visited during the filming of Trainspotting 2. “I feel quite angry and a little sad about it.”
I wish the campaign well, not least because £13m will be needed to make Leith Theatre fit for purpose, but in the meantime maybe a solution to the gig-going dilemmas of the age can be found on the high seas. On 7 February, a ship loaded with prog-rock musicians sets sail round the Gulf of Mexico. Cruise to the Edge – after Close to the Edge, a classic album by Yes, one of the featured acts – might not be your cup of rum but it is mine.
Mexico, Hamburg and hopefully one day again soon, Leith. The Lone Groover keeps on groovin’.