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A History of Rock City

6 January 20 illustrations: Natalie Owen

If you were a young person growing up in Nottingham in the last forty years, it’s almost a given that you would have spent a staggering amount of time inside the legendary walls of Rock City. Whether that was rocking out to the Ramones, taking to the stage as part of their street-dance crew or cutting shapes on the nightclub floor, the venue has seen thousands of faces over their time. It’s no surprise it’s still thriving as they gear up to celebrate their 40th birthday...

On Thursday 11 December 1980, the day Rock City first opened its doors, ABBA were at number one, John Lennon had just been shot, and Post-It notes went on sale for the first time. But before that, Talbot Street was home to the Alexandra Skating Rink, opened in 1887 by Edward Baker Cox, owner of the Talbot Hotel on Long Row. This indoor, roller-skating paradise was built for much more than a quick ring-around – equipped to hold 2,500 people in the main hall, and a further 700 in the rest of the premises, it quickly became a thriving hub for entertainment. Most commonly the rink would host balls and dances, but also saw a speech by William Gladstone, the four-times Liberal Prime Minister, in 1977; the Poultry, Pigeon and Rabbit Show; and Edward Weston, an American ‘pedestrian’ who spent two solid days in 1884 walking around the hall 650 times to help complete his 5,000 mile walk around Europe. 

The Alexandra then entered what is known as its circus phase, where it would host displays of equestrianism and speciality acts. In September 1903, the hall became the temporary home of a Dahomey village, a troupe of West Africans including the famous ‘Amazon’ warriors who had fought tirelessly against the French. The visitors made money from selling their art and giving displays of arms, dances and songs. The building was sold in the 1920s to a well-known Nottingham grocery company, Burtons of Smithy Row, and used as a storage warehouse. 

In 1973, J. Pullen Enterprises received planning permission for the ‘conversion of warehouse into theatre club’ – something which had been previously denied to businessmen looking to turn the place into a discotech or place of worship, due to concerns about traffic congestion. And so was born The Heart of the Midlands: a club which put on variety acts, comedy and such-like entertainments. It launched in November of that year with a performance by American Singer Gene Pitney, with the intentions of turning the venue into a sophisticated membership-only nightclub, but the declining economy of the seventies instead earned the club a ‘chicken-in-a-basket’ reputation, which was slowly but surely run into the ground by the end of the decade. 

In 1980, the building was taken over by local bookmater, George Akins (Senior) and Sammy Jackson, who ran a club named the Retford Porterhouse where the latter had booked bands such as AC/DC, Motörhead and The Clash. The first band scheduled to play at Rock City was Iron Maiden who, at the time, were on their way to becoming one of the world’s biggest metal bands. Sadly, the electrics weren’t finished and the gig was cancelled; instead, the first band to take to the stage was The Undertones, who finished the show with their rendition of Teenage Kicks

David Bowie requested they decked out the entirety of the backstage area with rugs before his performance in ‘97

During the eighties, Rock City became a sanctuary for music lovers from the East Midlands and beyond. Bucking the trend of venues at the time, they embraced all genres –  the new-romantics flocked in their thousands to see Duran Duran and The Smiths; The Ramones and Guns N’ Roses delighted rockers by releasing live recordings of their RC shows, with BBC Radio 1 also broadcasting an entire REM gig in 1984; and hip-hop heads descended on the place to see performances by LL Cool J and Public Enemy. The decade also saw the height of the B-Boys, Rock City’s own breakdance crew who’d battle groups from all over the UK every Saturday night. 

The nineties saw appearances from grunge and punk royalty such as The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Rage Against The Machine and Green Day, and Nirvana performed a sold-out gig while Smells Like Teen Spirit was still number seven in the UK charts. The intimate nature of the venue was another reason it was such a hit with fans – artists like Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder were spotted having pints at the bar with their fans after they got off stage. Later in the decade Dave Grohl returned with the Foo Fighters the day after they released The Colour and The Shape, and Brit-pop truly had its moment, meaning Nottingham was visited by the likes of Oasis, Blur, Pulp and Ash. Marilyn Manson also popped over for a show, and David Bowie requested they decked out the entirety of the backstage area with rugs before his performance in ‘97. 

Since the turn of the millennium, many of the world’s biggest acts cut their teeth on that famous stage before they made the big time – Arctic Monkeys, Amy Winehouse, Ed Sheeran and The 1975 have all stood centre stage – and many local acts, like Saint Raymond and Amber Run, now fondly call Rock City their home. In fact, in 2015, Worksop punk band Ferocious Dog became the first unsigned act to sell out the venue. 

Although the original floor was ripped up earlier this year – and the sticky, beer soaked panels sold on to 5,000 of you lot – at its heart, Rock City is still the same multi-genre loving, epic party-throwing venue that threw open its doors on a December night in 1980. Its ability to evolve is what has kept it thriving throughout the years, and we’re not the only ones who are excited to see where the next forty years takes it. 

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