People make places.It's only when you look back that you realise. You sail along with your crew, deep in the moment. You deal with hassles, fix problems, file away a bit of quiet satisfaction when it goes well, and savour the moments when things really click. But you don't get the perspective until later.
Say you were in a band, and you check back on those recordings of a 25 years back, when you were young and smoking hot... Or you played in a particularly sharp football team. Or you sang, you really sang.
It's amazing what you can do when everything comes together. Those brick walls in your way? You didn't even notice busting through them. And you took it all for granted at the time.
Last week, I wrote about Independent Venue week, which starts at the end of this month. A week of celebrating small venues run by people who care about the music and the vibe. But it's the people make the places. And the place I'm thinking about right now is one of the original guvnor venues: JB's, in Dudley. A most unlikely location for a club that launched careers, and provided a place where a ridiculously wide mix of people could hang out.
The JB's book. An impossible task, achievedJB's wrote the book on Indie venues. And Geoff Tristram wrote the book on JB's.
It wasn't easy. One of the problems Geoff faced was to bring the flavour of something totally unique but long gone, back to life. A long list of gigs is a starter – and Geoff had access to all that – but that's not particularly exciting. That's for geeks and trainspotters. But what's really exciting is what happened, and when, and who did what and how, and did they get away with it, and, and, and... And Geoff managed to break that down.
Geoff: With this book, there's so many strands to it. There was a committee of people, seven people, including Roy Williams, who is with me today, and they all have different memories and different perspectives. And the there are all the musicians, all the punters, and all the different eras over 40 years.How do you capture a vibe?
Roy: The JB's thing was a social experience. It wasn't a place where you went, saw the band and left. It became a social club.
Geoff: People would go in spite of the band that was on that night, not because of it.
Roy: Yup. Pay the money, go in and then say 'who's on tonight?'
Metallica's sound man started out at JB's. One of the regular engineers now works for the likes of Slipknot. There was the much-loved Little Acre, who sprang from JB's. And the club itself took its name from Johnny Bryant, one of the club's DJs...who sang with Little Acre... and who were managed by Roy.
When Blur played JB's; it was their first paid gig, ever. And to this day they still have the same road crew they met that night at the club. This is getting complicated, and I've only scratched the surface.
Geoff: You can't come up with a formula for why anything's a success. There were plenty of bands who came though on their way to being successful: Dire Straits, U2, all that. But there were also bands who used the hothouse atmosphere of JB's to develop: Pop Will Eat Itself, Ned's Atomic Dustbin, The Mighty Lemon Drops, The Wonder Stuff. They were JB's bands. I can say we played our part there.
Roy: for many years, nobody who ran the place got paid. Most of us had reasonable jobs. I was working as a design draughtsman at the time. All those people volunteered. People would help behind the bar if they were around on the night. But if their mates came in they could come out. When we moved from our first venue, we had all these plumbers and electricians who helped out, and helped build their club all over again.Word of mouth was a great thing back in the days before social media. I remember being told about free concerts in the 60s – someone you'd cross in the street would simply tip you the wink, and off you'd go.
Roy Yes. We'd run coach trips in the early days. We'd simply put the word out: 7.30, Stanton's record show in Dudley, and people would just turn up.
Geoff: But it wasn't just hippies. You'd get punks, mods and skinheads.
Roy: You could be in there some nights, and you'd know the guys from the Drug Squad had finished their shift, and they'd come up for a drink. And there's three or four of the Wolverhampton Hell's Angels sitting up the other end, and they'd go 'Alright, Mont?'. Blokes in pinstripe suits... Really. There was a charity parachute jump once, organised through the club. Two drug squad guys and two Hells Angels. Once of the coppers bust his leg too.Given that there was such a classic hippy vibe to start with, how did you handle people smoking dope?
Roy. People knew that if they were busted in there, it would be bad for us. So they behaved. In the club, at least. Can't speak for what went on outside.
The six week booking cycleJB's played a very useful music business function on top of all the social vibe. A band might come in to play, for not much money; but the JB's team were happy to take a few risks. And if they band was great, even if they'd only played to a few dozen punters, the policy was to get them back pretty soon, and let word of mouth work its magic in the meantime.
Roy, I'd seen stuff about the Average White Band. So we took a punt on them. And the first time they came, there wasn't that many in there. We paid them £85 or whatever it was, and booked them back. They packed the place out six weeks later.
Geoff: JB's did the same with John Cougar Mellencamp. He was amazing. Wet Wednesday, thirty people. He was red-hot. Six weeks later, the place was packed, and six weeks later he was a superstar.
The JB's book is a goldmine of stories and anecdotes, lovingly detailed by Geoff. Some stories, clearly, can't be told. I wish they could. But the genesis of the place – a group of pals setting stuff in the Black Country for the fun of it, for something to do, and almost by accident creating one of the most significant clubs that ever prospered in the West Midlands – that's something else. That it ran for over forty years is extraordinary, and the range of music from the seventies to the end of noughties is stunning.
Roy: Steve Gibbons got offered a Top of the Pops slot, round the time he had a hit with Tulane. He passed, because he had a booking to honour. At JB's.
All good thingsThe end of JB's was sad but predictable: prices went up, cover bands – acts that covered the bands that broke through at JB's, were on offer for twenty times more than the original booking commanded. Bands stopped coming being readily available for that useful that six week repeat cycle. And times changed. The club moved to a bigger venue at exactly the wrong time, when the recession started to bite.
Geoff: Wheatus turned up to an empty room – nobody believed they were the real thing, as opposed to a Wheatus cover band. And it cost the club seven grand.
And so it went – more and more pear-shaped, until it fell over. The promoters started putting muscle on acts who wanted to play outside the established venues that they were used to working with. So smaller places got elbowed out.
And so JB's passed into history. But the stories – oh the stories. And that's before you get to Jimmy, who did security...
Read the book, marvel, and laugh.
LinksFor more, and to get a copy, check the JBS book website
See also this profile on Jim Hickman from Little Acre
And check the Redbeards from Texas post - the video above was shot at JB's