Out with the old and in with the new

Since the university’s establishment in 1965, its union had played a welcoming — and seemingly auspicious — host to some of the most prominent bands in the music hall of fame. We’ve had the weird and the wonderful; bands newly-formed and bands already steeped in the limelight; tantrums on stage and administrational ruckuses off it; and a union which has spent the last forty years being dazzled by a whole treasury of up-and-coming stars. Some of the most noteworthy include the likes of Radiohead, Oasis, The Smiths, U2 and The Cure, all of which have graced the union’s stage with their presence at some point along their illustrious careers.

The first big name to play at the university did so in the summer of 1967, just two years after its establishment, and was later to become one of the most famous prog rock bands in living history: Pink Floyd. The band’s line-up then included the enigmatic Syd Barrett, who was already well-known for his increasingly bizarre behaviour – on and off stage – and who was ejected from the band not seven months later after a number of erratic performances due to repeated drug use. Just two days afterwards the band played at the infamous Dance Hall on Eel Pie Island, a small island located in the Thames, and notorious for its controversial affiliations with sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The turn of the decade brought more bands flooding to the union – and included some names which would one day become esteemed icons of the seventies’ music scene. Thin Lizzy visited the campus in January 1976, and were later pursued by synthpop wizards The Human League three years afterwards. That same year, 1979, the Cure also played at the union, six months following the release of their debut album, Three Imaginary Boys, a record which swiftly propelled them to fame in Britain and across the Atlantic. The musically diverse decade also saw Elvis Costello and Procol Harum drifting in and out of the bubble a number of times.

In the 1980s the union announced another rich line-up, with the most notable bands being The Smiths, R.E.M. and the Stone Roses. U2 also appeared in October 1981, back in the days before Bono only ever ventured outside adorned with his hideous trademark sunglasses. The band played at Warwick six days before they released their second album, October, and as part of their similarly-titled tour. This record, one of U2’s lesser renowned, was strung together with predominantly religious themes due to the three of the band members’ involvement in a Christian group called the “Shalom Fellowship”. Conflicts, arising from spiritual differences across the band, along the theft of a briefcase containing a number of working-progress songs, had threatened the U2’s very being whilst the album was being recorded. The band dispersed very briefly, and their gig at the university’s student union was part of the first tour they played after this major setback.

The Smiths played twice at the union in their five-year-long existence: first in June 1983, a month after releasing their first single ‘Hand In Glove’ which failed to chart, and then in February 1984. The latter was the same month in which they released their debut album, titled The Smiths, which acquired them a loyal fan following and bestowed a much greater significance upon an ordinary English surname. R.E.M. was the next big name to cross campus when they played at the university in 1986, the same month that they released their third album, Fables of the Reconstruction. Like U2, the album was recorded in a miserable atmosphere that reeked of break-up. Having chosen to record the album in England, the band found that the wet and dreary climate depressed them (they should try living here all year, every year), and this apparently quashed all band cohesiveness and sparks of creativity. In the end they managed to pull themselves together, using their melancholy as inspiration for the album itself, and played at the union less than three weeks after the record was released. The Stone Roses also played at Warwick in 1986; as one of the only ten gigs that they played that year.

The nineties saw the union awash with an onslaught of Britpop, with Blur and Oasis both showing their faces on campus during the decade. Blur played in 1990, at the very beginning of their musical career, although their appearance at the university was plagued by controversy and scandal. The union allegedly tried to prevent the band from playing because of the risqué record cover on their first single – ‘She’s So High’ – which featured a painting of a naked woman astride a hippopotamus by a Californian pop artist named Mel Ramos; a sleeve which had caused numerous ruckuses across the country. Despite their best efforts, the union failed in their moral quest, and the performance went ahead, naked ladies and all (only on the posters).

Manic Street Preachers were the next big name to play in March 1992, a month after releasing their debut album, Generation Terrorists. One student, at the gig at the time, remembers James Dean Bradfield diving into the audience to try and start a fight with one of the students. Radiohead played at the union three times in the nineties – if only they would do so again – twice in 1992 and once in 1993, in the same month that Pablo Honey was released. The Gallagher brothers were to strut on stage later that year as well.

A substantial proportion of the bands that have played at Warwick – particularly those that played in the eighties and early nineties – went on to become household names, dominating the radio airwaves and headlining some of the biggest concerts that have ever taken place. Many of them played at the union at pivotal times in their career. Playing at Warwick was hardly the key to the bands’ success, and it is most likely that if any of them were asked about these particular gigs now they would just be foggy memories, indistinguishable from the hundreds – even thousands – of memories of other gigs played. Yet, despite its apparent insignificance, the union gigs remain as part of a line of stepping stones that the bands hopped across in their travels and their journeys towards prominence. Although the old union could not claim to be a monument in music history, it certainly was a immovable feature, however small it may have seemed.

The turn of the millennium allowed for no concessions in terms of the star-studded statuses of the bands whose names were displayed around campus, with British Sea Power, Supergrass and the Kooks playing at Warwick. Then there came the recent unveiling of the Copper Rooms: a multi-million pound refurbishment and the erection of a brand-spanking new venue with a capacity of 2800. But with the old students’ union reduced to a pile of dust and rubble, along with all the remnants of the music that once rang out inside it, the university was in danger of burying this musical history rather than renewing it.

So far, at least, this has not been the case. The recent gigs by Feeder and The Streets have managed to hang onto a legacy which, although not tangible anymore, still lives on within the union’s four walls, despite this being an image which its newly-built concrete facade does not really exude. The announcement that Newton Faulkner is to play on campus later this term is also hopeful, although we’re missing the really big names which used to adorn the union’s exterior and create welcomed chaos inside.

Only time will tell whether it will be out with the old, and in with the new, or whether things will march along as triumphantly as they did before, with Warwick reinventing itself as a hub of musical activity – like it was all those many years ago.


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