THE CHANGING FACE OF BRIXTON ACADEMY
WORDS BY PAUL HICKIN AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE
Gentrification may have affected the iconic Brixton music venue Brixton Academy, but it still retains its edginess.
At a school reunion, a rather lugubrious former classmate interjected into a conversation some of my friends were having about music nostalgia: “I used to be into Rage Against The Machine, but then I grew up.” He was only in his early 20s. I first saw Rage at Brixton Academy back in 1993, with all its anti-establishment energy, moral crusading and metal-hip hop fusion. I still return to their albums today. Brixton Academy is a venue that lends itself to underground music that is on the cusp of some kind of mainstream success, from the Beastie Boys to the annual Pogues Christmas shindig. Rage may have been too noisy and angry to be truly popular, but thanks to PR gurus and a kneejerk reaction to X-Factor Xmas number ones, it succeeded as a protest trend that managed to keep some random celebrity karaoke singer off the top spot for one year at least.
The Academy holds several thousand downstairs where you can mosh, stage-dive, crowd-surf or sit on someone’s shoulders and take a shaky film of your favourite song on your phone. Even the vertically challenged can enjoy a view of the artists with the venue’s unique sloping floor. There’s seating upstairs for those whose punk spirit lives on even if their punk legs don’t. I have been through all these “stages of a gig-goer”, and alas, I now head there after my corporate job and selectively buy a t-shirt that prompts my wife to combine an eye-roll, a sigh and a chortle, then ask in all sincerity, “Where is my tee?”
The question is not only whether Brixton and its iconic music hall have grown up, but have I as well? The gentrification that has affected this once South London hotchpotch is mirrored by its subtle rebranding as the O2 Academy. With PJ Harvey on its schedule, it’s probably safe to say that it still retains at least some of its edginess, even if the walk to and from the Academy and the station has thankfully lost some of its very different kind of edginess.
But those who like it down and dirty and remember Brixton’s good/bad old days – delete as appropriate – will be taking a longish walk away from Brixton’s hub to the Windmill pub and music venue. It’s much smaller and much more informal than the Academy: the bratty baby brother.
The last time I was at the pub, I saw the ex-ex-Ride frontman play a solo gig, shortly before the groundbreaking shoegazers of the 1990s decided to reform and do a host of gigs that included one at the Academy. Just a handful of people, knocking back reasonably priced drinks, were there to watch him perform Ride acoustic numbers well into the early hours. That, compared to the sell-out tours he was about to embark on that would have regimented start and finish times and beer closer to swanky nightclub prices. What happened to the shoegazing music scene? Is this distortion-led rock subgenre just some dodgy fashion mistake: one that I’m still making?
The reunion was a long night, but one that reminded me I was not like that classmate. To quote a line from another band that appeared at Brixton Academy: “What’s my age again?”
02 Academy, 211 Stockwell Road, London SW9 9SL. Phone: 020 7771 3000
The Windmill, 22 Blenheim Gardens, London SW2 5BZ. Phone: 020 8671 0700