For decades, the Roundhouse has played host to the revelatory and the revolutionary within its dark, Victorian embrace. Writer Zoë Howe reveals how punk exploded in 1976.
Long after it moved on from its initial function (an engine repair shed for trains), the Roundhouse would continue to symbolise new direction, movement, revitalisation – and it’s no surprise that punk is considered by many to have truly exploded fully into life right here. The counter culture found a home here ten years previously, and creativity practically drips down the walls of this cavernous space.
It’s easy to forget, amid the day-glo celebrations of punk’s 40th anniversary, quite what it was like before the Pistols and co first turned the floodlights on. Mid-70s Britain was colourless, anxious, boring. Bored. But there were flashes of innovation amid the monochrome, odd-ball sputters of urgent life. Before Johnny Rotten ever snarled into a microphone, Dr Feelgood – short hair, short songs, short fuses – led the charge, and these sneering Essex boys would terrify audiences of confused hippies at the Roundhouse several times themselves. The game was already afoot.
The thread is easy to follow: the Feelgoods’ 1975 album Down By The Jetty would reach across to the States, grab some key New York players by their willing necks and assist in clearing the way for punk, on both sides of the Atlantic. So it would be in an appropriately circular fashion that Patti Smith – tough, romantic, dressed like a Feelgood – would play the Roundhouse in May 1976 supported by The Stranglers; the audience was already primed for what was to come. No one can really say for sure who ‘started’ punk – the Americans or the Brits – but there was some healthy cross-fertilisation going on.
The fans were as compelling as the characters on stage. Gina Birch and Ana Da Silva, later The Raincoats, were present – utterly transported by the sheer power of Patti’s show – as was Paloma Romero (aka Palmolive), who told me she became distracted by the antics of a stroppy wild child in the crowd. She decided this was ‘an interesting person’ (understatement), walked up to the teenage Ariane Forster – aka Ari Up – and invited her to start a band. The Slits were born, just one of many game-changing groups the Roundhouse has played midwife to.
Two months later, the skinny, belligerent Ramones, fresh from supporting Dr Feelgood in New York, came to the Roundhouse to play on Independence Day, supported by the Flamin’ Groovies. This show would be hailed as ‘the day punk went overground’, according to writer John Robb, and again, the 2000-strong crowd was alive with ‘faces’, such as Strummer, various Adverts and Sniffin’ Glue editor Mark Perry. When the Ramones returned the following year with Talking Heads, Malcolm McLaren was there, on the look-out for would-be punk groups. He homed in on Vic Godard and his deliberately drably-dressed mates. They came to see the show, but they left as a band – Subway Sect – on Malcolm’s insistence. “McLaren told us to form a group at that Ramones Roundhouse gig,” Godard told Robb.
Subway Sect would later play here, supporting Buzzcocks and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The Clash, The Vibrators, Blondie and X Ray Spex would also play this venue in ensuing years, the latter returning in 2008 to celebrate their thirtieth anniversary. Patti Smith marked 40 years of Horses here earlier this year. Chiming with the building’s origins, we look back here as well as forward, and there is real joy in returning.
Punk celebrated the energy of youth, so it is fitting that the Roundhouse encourages young people to pick up an instrument and make use of their studios on site. What could be more thrilling than strapping on a guitar knowing you’re a part of this kind of legacy?