Read about the Guildhall and our CEO - Andy Grays - as he relives his musical life through the 1980's
If the 1970’s might be categorised as the decade of long hair, loud music and drugs, for those of us living through the 1980’s it felt more superficial. A decade that in memory was large hair, make up and synths. In reality that’s a tad unfair, the monsters of rock who dominated the 1970’s, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin were no more, whilst the early excitement of Punk Rock saw more cultured bands emerge such as The Stranglers, Siouxsie and the Banshees and of course The Clash. These bands would continue to tour throughout the 1980’s, visiting Portsmouth Guildhall on many occasions.
It’s at this stage I must hold my hands up, I didn’t attend any gigs at the Guildhall in the 1980’s, but I offer some mitigation. A home counties boy who was 15 in 1980, my venue of choice was Hammersmith Odeon. By the mid-1980’s I wanted to enter the industry and was lucky to do so, working for the old Apollo Leisure Group. Between 1986 and 1989 I worked in the management teams at the Manchester Apollo, Oxford Apollo and Liverpool Empire. As with the Guildhall, each venue had its own smell (often beer and cigarettes) and challenges. A common curse across all venues was the challenge of keeping drugs, and to an extent, knives out. I recall a particular occasion in 1988 working on a concert headlined by the The Temptations which resulted in a bloodbath, but that’s another story!
The early 1980’s saw a wave of new metal bands and the emergence of commercial rock. Whilst Motorhead had formed in the mid-70’s their reputation was cemented in the early 80’s with the hit singles the Ace of Spades and the collaboration with Girlschool on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Motorhead toured and performed as hard and lived as fast as any metal band from the era. From their huge lighting rig to over the top sound, they were as loud at their final gig at the Guildhall in 2012 as the early 1980’s ones. They battled with other British new metal acts such as Saxon and Iron Maiden to see who could be the loudest. Astonishingly Saxon played the Guildhall in the early 80’s but didn’t return until 2019!
To witness a metal concert at venues such as the Guildhall in the 80’s was something different. Large crowds would gather hours before a concert, all dressed in denim and leather. The fight to be at the front, in touching distance of the band began in earnest outside the venue. Security would look at the audience in nervous anticipation before opening a few sets of doors. BUT, fans took the music very seriously and there was relatively little trouble. In those days there was no pit barrier, members of the audience could easily jump up on stage. I recall a Whitesnake concert in the late 1980’s where I stood along with the security at the side of the stage, and when punters jumped on the stage we grabbed them and threw them out of the stage door. Ten minutes later the same punter emerged again onto the stage to be thrown out again.
If the early 80’s saw the more cultured punk bands and new metal bands tour, the emergence of New Wave and the synthesiser introduced a very different audience to the Guildhall. By 1981 Depeche Mode were emerging as serious artists along with Ultravox, the latter had a huge hit with Vienna. It wasn’t long before other major artists came good, Annie Lennox moved on from The Tourists to form the Eurythmics with Dave Stewart and played the Guildhall in 1983. Preconceived notions of gender and sexuality were being challenged by artists such as Marc Almond, David Sylvian and even Gary Numan. The audience was changing along whilst the artists pushed the boundaries both visually and with their music. Guitar bands were becoming passe by the mid-80’s.
It might be easy to write this period off as the moment serious musicians were replaced with computerised drum kits and synths, several artists and bands emerged who would become as big as any of the supergroups from the previous decade. The Jam with Paul Weller kicked off the 1980’s with number 1 hit singles and performed regularly at the Guildhall. By the mid-80’s he had formed the Style Council and continued to have hit singles and play our beloved venue. Now whatever happened to him! A group from Ireland emerged from the punk era to write and perform some of the most crowd appealing music and produce one of the great albums of all time in The Joshua Tree. U2 were one of several bands from Ireland whose music made a statement, other bands such as the Undertones and The Pogues. And in the late 1980’s serious music bands such as REM from the USA came to the Guildhall and established their credentials on the UK touring circuit.
It’s interesting to look at the list of artists who appeared at the Guildhall in this decade, alongside the contemporary artists and bands the programme included the likes of Barbara Dickson, Joan Armatrading and Tanita Tikaram. Great female singer songwriters who could sell out a 2,000 seat venue, but there were still far too few sole female artists who could capture the attention of a large audience. Several great bands emerged in the late’80’s with strong and empowered female lead singers such as Debbie Harry in Blondie and Chrissie Hynde in the Pretenders. The latter played the Guildhall on the 26th July’81, following the number 1 hit single Brass in Pocket.
What is noticeable is that black led music features very little at the Guildhall in this decade. The legendary Chuck Berry made an appearance in 1983 and later in the decade reggae group Aswad were there. However, elsewhere in the larger cities, artists such as Run DMC, Public Enemy and LL Cool J were having an impact. Their touring across the UK was limited not least because the perception and sometime the reality that trouble followed them around. I recall doing a gig in Manchester in 1988 where the Beastie Boys visited the Apollo the night before a Johnny Mathis concert. Their reputation proceeded with trouble a few days beforehand in Liverpool. Alongside dozens of police lined outside and inside the venue, we had a maintenance team on hand to fix the seating and repair the toilets so the more gentile audience the night after could enjoy Johnny!
The 1980’s perhaps represented the last decade venues such as the Guildhall, Hammersmith Odeon, Manchester Apollo could truly be classified as ‘tier 1 venues’. By the 1990’s arenas were being built across the UK which would allow artists to perform one night in front of 10,000 people instead of 5 consecutive nights in one location. In today’s currency, artists can earn £1.5m from a single arena gig compared to £50k at the Guildhall and other similar sized venues.
Written by Andy Grays – CEO of the Guildhall Trust
If you’re interested in the history of music and the bands that have visited the Guildhall and the surrounding area, both the Portsmouth Music Experience and Discovering the Guildhall will be open once again as soon as is safe to do so. Visit the pages to find out more.