For 45 years The Friars, Aylesbury has been a major player in the music scene, putting on an impressive pedigree of Prog and Rock gigs. A major new exhibition has just opened, dedicated to the history of the club and is essential viewing.
Friars is universally acknowledged as having played a role in the careers of many rock acts, almost every big name played in this small market town at some point, and it is well known for being the venue where David Bowie first appeared as Ziggy Stardust.
Incredibly, just before tonight's event, founder David Stopps received a text from the man himself saying: "Memories are everything, apparently. I have only great ones of the fabulous Friars. Have a wonderful night, DB."
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The Friars is not confined to one building however. Over the years there have been four:
New Friarage Hall June 1969-July 1970 (Phase One)
Borough Assembly Hall April 1971-August 1975 (Phase Two)
Civic Centre Sept 1975-June 2010 (Phase Three)
Waterside Theatre Oct 2010 - present day. (Phase Four)
For a short period Friars put on events in other nearby towns including Watford, Bedford, Dunstable and High Wycombe, with some concerts having coaches laid on from Aylesbury. However it was Friars Aylesbury that presented most shows and had the reputation. The placing of Friars as an entity and not a venue may be of some comfort to Soho's The Intrepid Fox which is having to vacate its second premises in a few weeks.
Mike Rutherford's guitar
The rooms are chock full of memorabilia, posters and photos from the 45 years of gigs, with stories and trivia to read on the way round. There is also a film featuring members and artists talking about their experiences. It is a fascinating journey through the story of the evolution of the club. The distinctive psychedelic artwork and logo still looks great today, and it's fun to spot which artist designed the posters by looking for their signature motif incorporated into the design.
To see all this gathered together in one place brings home just what an impact Friars made on the Rock scene, and how important its place in history is. Due to the efforts of the founding fathers Robin Pike, Jerry Slater, David Stopps, Terry Harms, Adrian Roach, and writers Pete Frame and Kris Needs, Friars Aylesbury was established as a major venue, equal in stature to the likes of The 100 Club or The Greyhound, Croydon.
Nick Mason's drums
It is also quite astounding to reflect on the club's longevity in the high risk balls-on-the-line arena of gig promoting, and the personal financial risks that were shouldered – there were never any guarantees of success, the motivation was all about the music.
Friars developed a reputation for putting on bands at the brink of making it big. Black Sabbath played in 1970, three days after the release of their debut album, and were a last minute addition after blues legend Freddie King pulled out. A quick look at the ticket displays shows names including Gillan, UFO, Queen, Hawkwind and Genesis and so many others; a true roll of honour.
Promoter and founder David Stopps had an uncanny knack for recognising talent, and the lists of all of the Friars gigs over the years are very telling as there are very few bands which you won't have heard of, a stellar pedigree.
David said: "In 1980, Genesis came back for a Friars gig. They were much too big for us to ask them, but it was at their request, they wanted to come back to do another one as the earlier gigs were so memorable and part of their history. People queued for three days for tickets, it was like a mini-festival right there in the queue.
"Finally on the Sunday, I came out with my megaphone to speak to the crowd. I told them that the sale was about to start and there was a limit of two each. I then said that at the same time tickets were also on sale for Def Leppard which was the next gig – I was met with jeers and whistles as nobody had heard of them. I think I got the last laugh on that one though!
"Friars works as an entity outside of an attachment to a venue as it is organic. It was and is always about the music fans much more than the business side. The audiences, the atmosphere make it special, people come to hear the best music locally, and that is the basis for its success."
Another major name to be associated with Aylesbury is of course Marillion. The insanely talented, charismatic and inspirational frontman Steve Hogarth (h) was in attendance tonight. Marillion played at the most recent Friars gig, in November 2013, a return after 29 years for the band who played many times in the 80s, but the first for h who has recently celebrated 25 years with the band.
This gig saw the band on absolutely top form, showing exactly why they had won the Band of the Year at 2013's Progressive Music Awards and were nominated in two other categories.
h recalled: "Incredibly, that gig was the first time I had met David Stopps, although he has legendary status in the area and has become a friend now. I never played a Friars gig with (previous band) The Europeans either, although we would have loved to, so that was my first.
"The Aylesbury gig was incredible in so many ways, and very different from the many previous ones in the town. We had travelled down from Manchester the night before and arrived to find flowers in the dressing room and an exceptionally warm welcome. David is a lovely man, he reminds me a lot of Bob Harris, similar vibe. He has so much love, respect and care for the artists and the music and I went on stage feeling incredibly relaxed and happy, it couldn't have been a better environment.
"The Waterside venue is fantastic too - the facilities, the stage, the acoustics, the atmosphere, it was a very happy night.
"Afterwards, David presented the band with a glass award on which all of the dates of each member's past Friars appearances were engraved. The rest of the band had all these dates on and mine only had one! It was such a sweet thing to do and a very special memento. It's definitely the love that makes the difference. I hope we can return for more gigs in the future.
"This is a great exhibition and it's a nice surprise to see Pete's (Trewavas) old 1969 bass guitar here, I didn't know he'd loaned it. I'm always falling over it in the studio so I'm glad it's out of the way for a bit."
I also asked h if he had crossed paths with another Aylesbury legend, John Otway, who was also at the viewing.
"Well, The Europeans were John's backing band on the 'All Balls And No Willy Tour' and we were known as The Band Behind The Curtain and we were literally behind a sheet. I was party to a lot of wreckage on that tour but never personally damaged fortunately. I remember one night seeing John take off his shirt and he had the full imprint of his pedals across his back, where he had done a forward roll over his own equipment."
John Otway stage debris
The wrecking antics of John Otway are resident in this exhibition as John has loaned a suitcase full of smashed up microphones and equipment for the display. He has played 17 Friars gigs in total, and 'Otway – The Movie' was a Phase Four event in July 2013. I caught up with the utterly charming maverick for a chat and to find out his Friars Story:
"Well, Friars made me identify what it was I wanted to do. In the late 60s I was a bit cerebral, a Bob Dylan fan, and there was all of this dance and pop stuff around everywhere else. I was told that if I wanted to get a gig at Friars I would have to be a progressive rock star so that got me thinking about what that could mean.
"I eventually came up with the physical aspect, making up for a lack of talent with shocking antics. Fortunately, by 1977 playing badly and doing shocking antics became the thing to do and I was sorted.
"My life has been an endless run of gigging ever since. I'm never going to stop the antics – I look at the youngsters today, and it's all shoegazing, very static, trying to be cool. I'm never going to stop leaping about all over the place."
"I remember upsetting Lemmy once. We were booked to play on the same bill as Motorhead in West London. Me and Willy were a punk/folk duo at the time and we ended up pulling out of the gig for genuine reasons. That was more of a heavy scene than we were into. Thing is, word got back to Lemmy – wrongly – that it was because I thought they weren't good enough for us. He hasn't spoken to me since... that was 1976... I wonder if he's forgiven me..."
It is abundantly clear that the Friars was indeed a small market town club that punched well above its weight. This exhibition is a wonderful tribute to and celebration of "The Local Music Club That Rocked The World".
The Friars exhibition runs from March 1st to July 5th at the Bucks County Museum. Opening times are:
1st March to 31st March: Tuesday to Saturday 10am - 4pm
1st April to 5th July: Tuesday to Saturday 10am – 5pm
Also on the following Mondays: 7th, 14th, 21st April and 26th May 10am – 5pm
Students/ES40 holders: £2.00
Under 16's: Free
Exhibition Season Ticket: £15.00