A Few months ago I reviewed a book by Paul Talling which heralded London’s Lost Music Venues.
An exercise in nostalgia, Talling’s work also underlined the vulnerability of a grass roots live music sector facing decline, even before the spectre of the global pandemic threatened to sweep it away for good.
Now, from the other end of the country, comes a book which celebrates the life of a small club, which for a few short years brought a cultural oasis to the heart of Carlisle.
Live At The Front Page is written by the journalist Martin Lawson – a friend and former colleague.
But this is not the Martin I knew from work, the no-nonsense news editor with an eye for a story and a sense of humour as dry as the Kalahari.
I was aware he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and an enviable collection of rare records.
But it came as a complete revelation that he had once been Carlisle’s answer to Tony Wilson – serious news man by day, rock promoter and club impresario by night.
Live At The Front Page – is the story of Martin’s rollercoaster few years, running the club he founded with some close friends.
But it’s not just about him, or the club, or the musicians – famous and not so famous – who played there; it’s about the electifying, addictive and rejuvenative power of live performance.
Martin’s journalistic skills are to the fore in the quality of the writing and rigorous research, but this is not a piece of cold, dispassionate reportage.
While he’s careful to set the club’s origins in context during a time of great upheaval under the Thatcher government of the 1980s, the tone of this book is warm, conversational and chock-full of choice anecdotes.
There are stories about Bowie and The Beatles, strange visits from police officers and a late night drive home which ended with the author’s Porsche marooned in a farmer’s field.
But it’s the artists and the performances that drive the narrative – jazz icon Ronnie Scott played the Front Page, along with folk guitar virtuoso Bert Jansch of Pentangle.
Steve Marriott, of Small Faces and Humble Pie, was another stylish big name headliner, even bringing along his own special tool to keep over eager fans at bay.
But while most of the major acts were charming and genial, Cream‘s Jack Bruce was a different kettle of fish.
A bigger venue was laid on for the performance, but the Glaswegian baited the crowd from the outset and was equally rude and obstreporous off stage as he was on.
Martin wryly noting that being a living legend does not necessarily grant you licence to behave ‘like a complete arsehole’. Not in Carlisle at any rate.
Acts like Xero Slingsby, The Daisychain Connection and You Slosh may be less well known, but are written about with such enthusiasm that you may find yourself checking them out on youtube.
Starting out as a predominantly jazz venue, The Front Page became progressively more eclectic, as its reputation grew for offering an alternative to mainstream pop and traditional club hits.
World music pioneers and John Peel faves The Bhundu Boys made their English debut there and Blues, Ska, Funk, Acid Jazz, Rock and Indie acts all made their mark.
While Martin is brutally honest about the constant battle to keep the Front Page afloat and the taxman off his back, he also writes vividly about what a blast it all was when the place was full and both punters and bands were having it large.
He’s good too on the Bacchanalian bubble that exists around nightclubs and the temptations that running such an establishment occasionally put in his path.
But at the root of it all is his love of music and live music in particular, together with an over-arching desire to offer the people of Carlisle something different.
Ultimately, Martin’s burgeoning journalistic career would lead him down South and the Front Page adventure would end with the sale of the club.
Those who remember the place will inevitably find much to enjoy in this book, but anyone who’s ever dreamt of booking their favourite bands, or even drawing up their own club playlist should get a lot out it too.
I know I did.
- Live at the Front Page is out now and available online at www.bookscumbria.com
- For more about the club and the book visit @thefrontpageclub on Facebook