On the eve of a popular University of Central Lancashire club’s last gig in its current guise – featuring Inspiral Carpets – we bring you an interview with a former 53 Degrees in-house promoter about the passing of this much-loved Preston live venue.
While there’s a good chance that music will return to the setting in the New Year (and there’s the Dark-Cide New Year’s Eve party to come too) it’s the end of an era for a two-level location that cost £6.5 million and attracted an array of big names to Lancashire since 2005.
I’ve missed a fair few, but can count several highlights over that period, many chronicled on this blog. And since seeing Rick Buckler, Bruce Foxton, Russ Hastings and Dave Moore there in an earlier incarnation of From the Jam at the end of 2007, there have been plenty of nights to remember.
This year alone I experienced great sets from Gary Numan, The Stranglers and Miles Kane, packing out the 1,500-capacity main hall, and prior to that John Cooper Clarke headed an impressive performance poets’ bill.
Meanwhile, Preston’s Got Soul enticed into that same setting Northern Soul survivors Eddie Holman and Judy Street this year, plus Motown legend Martha Reeves last Christmas.
Then there were a number of top club nights in a 400-capacity upstairs setting, and I can personally recount memorable appearances from The Blockheads, Evan Dando, From the Jam, Glenn Tilbrook, Hugh Cornwell, Public Service Broadcasting, Reverend & The Makers and The South.
I might have missed a couple – and I certainly did miss Johnny Marr and The Strypes, more’s the pity – but it’s fair to say this is an impressive venue that has attracted a number of great bands.
So why are we losing this fantastic venue? What happens now? And to paraphrase Monty Python’s Life of Brian – just what has 53 Degrees ever done for live music in the North-West? I put a few of those questions to someone in the know, out-going venue events assistant Mark Charlesworth.
First off, a bit about yourself. Where are you from, what was your first gig and how long have you been part of the 53 Degrees story?
“I grew up between Preston and Blackpool, living right next to the end of the BAE runway in Freckleton. You’d get these ear-splitting jets taking off at all hours, which I guess got me used to loud noise – maybe that’s why I ended up working in live music.
“My dad started taking me to gigs when I was a kid; we went to see INXS in Manchester, literally weeks before Michael Hutchence hung himself, so it felt like seeing something magical for the last time.
“The first gig I chose to go to myself was Mansun at Blackburn’s King George’s Hall in 1998. They were touring their fantastic Six album. It’s one of my all-time favourite records – a big, dark, twisty-turny epic with guest vocals from Tom Baker and the best album cover – so it was a pretty breathtaking moment for me.
“Although that might have been heightened by the substances the people next to me and my Mum were smoking!
“I’m 28 now, and I feel a great affinity for the 53 Degrees story. Construction started it when I was at Newman College: the bus would go past this weird structure every day – part spaceship, part giant anchovy tin – and we all wondered what the hell they were building!
“I know some people hated it, but its unique architecture certainly made it stand out in Preston. The venue was up and running by the time I was a student at UCLan and I saw some great gigs there.
“I’ve been working there for the past 3 years, but I’ve been involved with UCLan, first as a student, and then in various jobs, since 2006.
“I work at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall now, so 53’s closure marks the end of an era to me as I’ll be saying goodbye to UCLan for maybe the last time.”
In early June, it was announced: ‘53 Degrees will cease to function as a ‘high street’ live music and student entertainment venue after December 31 this year.’ So what’s happening to the venue as of January 1st, 2015?
“That’s a tricky question at the moment, but the situation has improved slightly since the June closure announcement. As far as I’m aware, the upstairs club room will still get used for overspill events from the Union’s Source Bar.
“The club will also be available to hire for external promoters, which means that the regular DarkCide night will continue there, and Joff Hall – who’s run the venue for the last couple of years – will be putting on some shows.
“So it’s not quite the death knell: 53 won’t be able to have its own staff, but people hiring it will get the space, equipment and, most importantly, the reputation.
“As far as the downstairs room goes, that’s the university’s decision. I suspect it’ll get used for occasional events; it’d be a shame if it was left to mothball.”
Ben Latham, UCLan’s Students’ Union president, said: ‘Times are changing and students’ unions across the country are being faced with the reality that the costs of both running and supporting the investment needed in a venue such as 53 are unsustainable’. So has 53 Degrees been losing money?
“That’s a controversial question, and one I’m not totally at liberty to answer, partly because I’m not au fait with the full financial picture. From our point of view, it’s frustrating as they shows we’ve booked on have mostly made a profit.
“Even the poorly attended ones have made money if we’ve kept staffing and costs down. My cynical side would say it’s some of the big Freshers events that haemorrhage the cash, but – to be fair – I guess there are substantial opening, operating and licensing costs I’m not totally aware of.”
That Students’ Union statement added something about ‘the challenge of changing leisure habits and student demographics, developments in the music industry and the recent recession’. Can you shed light on that?
“It’s certainly true that things are tough for music venues at the moment (as they are for things across the music industry as a whole) and there are going to be casualties.
“We’re at an interesting position right now where small venues are under threat unless they have a loyal audience and a good relationship with their community.
“Arena size venues are struggling unless they can get acts like Take That and Coldplay in every night. Whereas mid-level venues, like Manchester’s recently re-opened Albert Hall, are doing really well.
“I guess that’s reflective of the state of music as a whole; if things are tougher financially, and a lot of young people have grown up thinking of recorded music as free, people still seem more willing to pay for an experience that seems more personal, intimate and that offers something a little bit special for them.
“If you go and watch the Manic Street Preachers at the Ritz or Apollo in Manchester, you feel a lot closer to the band than somewhere like the Arena, which essentially feels like a big garage!”
It seems to me that the kind of events 53 Degrees were putting on were attracting students and kudos to the city itself. Was that not the case?
“I think 53 Degrees has attracted a lot of kudos to Preston, bringing names to the area that just wouldn’t have come here before. It seems lunatic that the Frog & Bucket, 53 Degrees and (if current stories are to be believed) Blitz could all go without anyone from the council defending them or at least making a comment.
“Do they not realise what a blow this is in terms of getting people into the city centre? At least we still have The Guild Hall and The Harris Museum. But is that enough? To certain parts of the Preston public, this will be a big loss.
“Students, unfortunately, are a different story. People say ‘students get the train from Preston and queue up for gigs outside the Manchester Academy; why don’t they come to a venue that’s right on their doorstep?’ And it’s a tough one.
“I guess if students don’t have much disposable income, when they do go to a gig, they want it to seem more like a full entertainment package, and going to the venue next door isn’t quite as exciting as going on a night out in a bigger city, having a laugh on the train, seeing a band at a new, packed out venue and then maybe going to a club or staying over.
“That’s been one of the problems from the university’s point of view: although a lot of our gigs were busy, there weren’t necessarily that many students there, and unfortunately that means it doesn’t really fit in with the university’s mission statement.
“This has been a big part in prompting the university’s decision on all this, and I can see both sides of it. I imagine, from their point of view, times are hard in education, they’re getting less funding, and student numbers across the UK have taken a knock since the fees went up.
“To carry on operating, they’re strengthening their core values so they don’t spread themselves too thinly, focusing on the things that they’re really good at and trying to offer a student-centric experience.
“If this means that some of the less student-orientated activities have to go and they have to cut down the volume of courses and staff – at the risk of making it a slightly less exciting and dynamic place to be – that’s a sacrifice they’ve chosen to make.
“It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out in the long-term, whether UCLan loses some of its vibrancy and energy, and if they come to regret it.”
Is there a danger now that the city of Preston won’t be attracting the kind of names it has in recent years through 53 Degrees?
“I think so. Preston’s quite a frustrating place to be at the moment. After a long burst of enthusiasm and development, from UCLan’s huge growth in the 1990s to Preston getting city status and right up to the 2012 Guild, things have suddenly run out of steam.
“It’s like the plug’s been pulled on all these exciting ventures, which people have invested huge amounts of time and effort in, before they’ve had time to properly establish themselves and get off the ground.
“It felt like Preston was making a valiant effort to become a city in more than name – with a vibrant culture, more venues, more galleries, trams in the centre – and none of it’s really worked out.
“Yes, there’ve been huge improvements to the high street in the centre, but where’s the culture? Where are the initiatives to get people travelling in?
“The Guild Hall seems to attract a different clientele and, fantastic news that it is that Simon Rigby’s stepped in to save the iconic building, his plans for the venue seem more centred around comedy, variety and theatre shows.
“Let’s hope that The Ferret and The Continental can pull in some of the smaller shows that would have traditionally come to 53, and that 53’s club room gets hired out enough to keep a decent live music presence in the city.”
You’re bowing out with a good one though, gig-wise, with Inspiral Carpets on December 21, and I believe they chose the venue for that very reason for their own tour finale.
“Inspiral Carpets are the perfect band to close the venue. They know it’s got a state-of-the-art sound system and that it always pulls a good bunch of people, Clint Boon’s become a 53 favourite with his legendary DJ sets, and they’re Northerners so they’ll understand a bit about hardship, haha. You could call them ‘spiritual partners in crime’.
“After that, we’ve got the DarkCide New Year’s Eve party to bring down the curtain. It’s the end of an era for 53 Degrees in its current state and definitely the end for its staff, but at least things like DarkCide will still be able to hire out and make use of the space.”
I believe the first 53 Degrees event was in 2005. Who was on the bill?
“Our first show was actually an AC/DC tribute. Incidentally, I’ve always wanted to see an Obsessive Compulsive support group tribute band called OC/DC, but sadly it wasn’t them.
“Our first proper show was a few days later, when The Subways rocked out the main room. They came back and played a packed out gig at 53 recently, so there’s a nice synchronicity there.”
What’s been your favourite moment (on or off duty) with regard to band or club nights at the venue?
“Seeing Orbital at the venue a few years ago was incredible. Weirdly enough, I’ve loved their brand of glitchy, intelligent, soundtrack inspired electronica since I was 9 years old, and have become friends with Paul Hartnoll over the last few years, so it was nice to catch up.
“But what I remember most is when they were sound checking – I was walking down a corridor in the next building and the whole thing was shaking from the sheer force of the bass. I’ve never known any other band feeling like they could quite literally bring the house down!”
Who was best to work with, artist-wise?
“I spent a lovely hour chatting to ex-Stranglers man Hugh Cornwell. He has this reputation in the press of being difficult, and his management had been a pain when we were working on the lead-up to the show, so we were expecting this real ogre. Well, what a surprise it was to meet this well-mannered, intelligent and thoughtful gentleman who was as passionate about his northern chip shops as he was about his music.”
Tell me some funny stories about artists who played 53 Degrees and what was going on behind the scenes.
“Oddly enough, the funny stories all seem to take place in the laundry room. I remember Ian McCulloch from Echo & The Bunnymen asking a colleague of mine to wash his underpants – she was braver than me!
“We had a German band in once who stole a load of our towels, so maybe the stories about Germans marking their territory with beach towels isn’t so exaggerated after all.
“And we once had our washing machine repaired by Teenage Dirtbag hit makers Wheatus. It’s good to know that, if their loyal live following drops off, there’s an alternative career in waiting for them.”
Are there examples where ticket sales didn’t go as well as envisaged? Any disaster stories behind the scenes, late arrivals, power problems etc
“We had the rapper Tinchy Stryder on a couple of years ago, and it was disastrous. It was when the student market was starting to go elsewhere and we thought spending money on a bigger name would pull them back in, but he hadn’t had a hit in about a year and it only sold about 100 tickets in our 1500 capacity venue. Nightmare!
“I guess it shows how quickly audiences can change and how difficult it is to predict a trend. I hope, for Tinchy’s sake, that his stock will rise again following his recent appearance on I’m A Celebrity and, erm, his duet with The Chuckle Brothers.
“To be honest, the last couple of years have been very difficult for the venue: we’ve been down to an absolute skeleton staff, there’ve been no full time contracts, a tiny budget for marketing and no budget whatsoever to book shows.
“There was an article online a little while ago complaining about the Preston music scene which referenced 53 quite heavily, but I don’t think people appreciate how tricky its been: having to put more tribute shows in to pay for the bigger names, having to put on big touring acts with so few resources, taking on jobs way beyond the remit of our contracts to make things work.
“That doesn’t just go for me: it goes for all the staff who’ve worked for, or been associated with the venue, past and present, who’ve given their all and, sometimes, gone a long way beyond the call of duty.
“In the circumstances, I’m amazingly proud of what we’ve achieved, and I think some people will really miss the place when it’s gone.”
As mentioned, 53 Degrees’ final concert in its current guise is on Sunday, December 21, 2014, featuring Inspiral Carpets – recently interviewed for this blog, with a link here – supported by Blossoms and Brown Brogues (£18 plus booking fee).
Then there’s December 31st’s Dark-Cide New Year’s Eve Party (£6.50 earlybird deal, with on the door prices still to be confirmed), running from 10pm until 3am. For more details try here.
And remember, this is not necessarily the end for 53 Degrees, with promoter Joff Hall hoping to bring acts to the venue in the New Year. So watch this space!