Back in the 50’s there was a well known and well respected Worcester business called Fletcher’s Dance Studio
The main core of the business was teaching all kinds of dance, from ballroom to jitterbug, if it could be danced you could learn that dance at Fletcher’s Dance Studio. A secondary use of the space was when they would erect a temporary stage, put on a really well known jazz band of the time, the likes of George Melly etc, and people would come from miles around to “step out” and experience the joys of jiving on a genuine sprung dance floor. Everyone in Worcester knew where Fletcher’s was and not only because for many many years it’s exterior was a garish pink that leapt out at you.
Fletcher’s Dance Studio was situated at 12, Pierpoint Street Worcester WR1 1TA, and in the 50’s and 60’s it was the place to be.
In 1998 I bought a derelict building.
I knew of the place as a kid, I’m sure my older brother and sister even went there for ballroom lessons. Some friends who knew I’d been toying with the idea of opening a venue told me the building was for sale, so I drove past on my way home one day and saw an A5 notepad page used for a hand written “For Sale” sign in the window – with a mobile telephone number! It was as if someone was selling a battered old Ford Capri with 2 months MOT, dodgy brakes and a bald tyre, and to be fair, that analogy pretty much describes the condition the premises had degenerated into…only without the 2 months MOT. It had been neglected for a number of years, firstly rented out to a multitude of different professions and consortiums, none of whom cared anything about the actual condition of the building and definitely weren’t prepared to spend any hard earned cash on it’s upkeep so, it swiftly became dilapidated and in dire need of some TLC.
I viewed the building one morning with the guy who was selling the place, he’d bought it without viewing it at a commercial property auction just weeks before and he knew he’d screwed up, it was also obvious he had absolutely no intentions of restoring this particular pink elephant. The doors were hanging off, it stunk of despair, damp and piss, cables hanging down, plaster coming off the walls, cheap imitation paneling circa 1976 doing a terrible job of hiding a broken waste pipe. The stereotypical shit hole.
I loved it, I have said many times, the building picked me, it was a bit like that Steven King Novel “Christine”, except a squat rather than a 1958 Plymouth Fury. I just had to have it…
I have been playing guitar since I was a child and have been in some reasonably successful bands, no major album deals or anything, but playing music has allowed me to travel the world. I can empathise with the trials and tribulations of dragging your sorry arse up and down the motorway in the back of a sweaty tour bus, and also the earlier days in the back of a borrowed builders van, but I am an electrician by trade and have renovated a couple of houses in my day.
Somehow I convinced myself that it couldn’t be too much different to renovate an old house, as it was to renovate an old 3 storey Georgian building in a busy city centre – whilst converting it into a live music venue at the same time. Yeah. Dickhead. Working on building sites most of my life a lot of my friends were plumbers, bricklayers, glaziers, plasterers etc.. so for 14 months I worked from 8am until around midnight with a select crew of good friends who also happened to be excellent tradesmen. There was a mahogany sprung dance floor throughout the building which was fitted in 1958 at a cost of £5,000, a huge amount of money back then, so the first thing I did was cover it with old carpets on top of old carpets to protect and preserve it during the renovation works. Now, sometimes when I’m watching bands play here, soaking up the woody texture the room gives, and when you can feel the bass coming up through your boots, then I cast my mind back to the piles of bricks and plaster and scaffolding that was dumped or dragged across that treasured sprung dance floor, and I thank my younger self for being so protective over it.
The original plan was to open on millennium eve, this however was deemed impossible around November 1999 as the project was thrown into jeopardy when the front of the building showed signs of collapsing into the street. You see, years ago it was very common practice to use massive oak beams in buildings, sometimes reclaimed from huge galleon ships that had been broken up and asset stripped after many years of sea faring life. Anyway, that’s what I had holding up about 400 tons of masonry, and it was rotten. I had to instruct a civil engineering company to shore up the façade and pour a 20 metre concrete lintel into place at a total cost of around £20k and delaying the open date by 2 months.
As we got to the latter stages of the job, when the bar itself was being installed and fire alarms were being tested, officialdom were signing off on the final permissions and licences, colours were being picked for the freshly plastered walls and carpets were being laid, I realised I hadn’t given any thought to actually running a venue. I’d never even pulled a pint before in my life but more importantly I was very near to completion and hadn’t booked any bands yet, being so engrossed in the building project and quietly congratulating myself thinking I’ve nearly finished, whereas in fact I was just beginning.
I opened early March 2000 – getting local bands to use it pretty much as a dressed rehearsal space, for us and them. In those first few months I only let friends in with just word of mouth advertising, and instructing them all to please complain. I encouraged them complain about anything they didn’t like, I didn’t want to hear how great this is – and what a great idea that was, or I love how you’ve painted that – I wanted to hear we’ve run out of toilet paper, your lager tastes crap, we’ve run out of ice. Only once they’d stopped finding issues did I eventually open to the general public.
My mate Carl Lewis who now works with Lana Del Ray, was also massively involved in the building stages, often putting in as many hours as myself, he was in a band at the time and also knew some friends were over from The States touring the UK – so we called in another favour from a friend called Rick Bailey who “lent” me a PA system and mixing desk etc. and we were away.
We started contacting music agencies telling them about this cracking new venue smack in the middle of the country, knowing that lots of tours can benefit from a stop off gig en route to or from London to Manchester, Cardiff to Norwich or visa versa, break up the journey and maybe earn a couple of quid extra too. During the build I had given so much consideration to the needs and wants of the artists, so it was no surprise that word of this little “oasis of a venue” spread rapidly throughout the industry and since 2001 we haven’t needed to contact anyone, they all contact us. On the top floor lies the green room, it is a fully contained flat with kitchen and shower facilities and a private flight of stairs leading directly onto stage, and there’s even a vending machine in the bar selling guitar strings, batteries, plectrums, ear plugs and other sundries.
When I started our Sssssssshunday acoustic nights (with the emphasis on Sssssssh) one of the first acts I booked was one certain Amy Wadge who is now a major force in the songwriting world having collaborated with many huge stars. Other artists we had around that time include Newton Faulkner, Scott Matthews, Imelda May, Ellie Goulding to name but a few.
Wednesdays have always been our open mic/jam night and in the early days I used to do the sound engineering, it was my way of keeping an eye on the PA equipment and attending to any faults that had occurred from week to week. One night a couple of lads turned up quite late manhandling a double bass case through the doors, one of them came over to me and asked were they too late to get a slot, I said well seeing as though you’ve lugged that thing through town I’ll squeeze you on. One lad was Luke Concannon and the other was John Parker, otherwise known as Nizlopi. I offered them a gig immediately and we became good friends. When they had their number 1 hit “The JCB Song” announced on the Sunday charts show they played a sell out show for me on the Monday – the very next day. One time they came along and brought a young lad with them who was sat in the green room playing a bit of guitar and I suggested he went on before Nizlopi as support, they all agreed that would be cool. His name was Ed Shearan. Just before Ed made his first Glastonbury appearance he came back to The Marrs Bar and played a warm up show here to around 200 people, I sold that show out by sending out about 5 texts saying “keep this to yourself but I’ve got Ed Shearan playing here on such and such a night”
There was a punk ska band called Uncle Brian who had a gig swap thing going on with an American punk ska band, the idea is you get me some gigs in your country and we’ll get you some gigs in our country, so I book Uncle Brian who I already knew and all they wanted was to be fed and watered and enough money for fuel to get to the next gig. We settled on £50. In the months between me booking them and the day of the show, the American band had a song go from Scuzz TV, to MTV, to main stream radio. They were called Bowling for Soup and “The Girl All The Bad Guys Want” was being played everywhere for weeks before the gig. Needless to say, even though ticket price changed from £3 to £10 it sold out very quickly and the place was rammed, so I gave the bands £400 each and Jarred was quite annoyed as he kept saying a “deal is a deal man, just give us the £50” Their manager at the time was a bit more financially astute and a lot less drunk than Jarred so they took the money and left. Some years later they were booked to play at a large venue in Bristol but the venue having ignored numerous warnings from the local council to get some electrical issues amended, had their licence temporarily revoked until the work was complete. At a loose end and already having being payed for the non gig they called me and asked could they come and do a show at The Marrs Bar in about 6 days time, but they had one condition – we pay them just the £50 they should have had the first time. Amazing.
One time we had Jim Capaldi play here and on the night of the show I’m behind the bar and there’s a pint of Guinness that had been settling for a while, so I asked a member of staff which customer was waiting for it as it’s ready to top up and serve. She pointed to a guy and I just looked at him and told her, “it’s ok I’ll sort this one,” I take the drink over to him and he thanked me. I asked him, “ are you Stevie Winwood?” he says “yes I am,” so I introduced myself as the owner and left him to it – desperately trying to not get star struck or tongue tied. Within 4 or 5 minutes I notice there’s a lot more people starting to notice him so I slipped up beside him and ask “do you think you’re going to get mobbed?” he says “yes, I may do” So I take him through the artists staircase and lead him onto the balcony which overlooks the stage. On the way up the stairs I asked him was he planning on getting up and playing any songs with Jim tonight and he told me he wasn’t, he simply wanted Jim to acknowledge he was there as he was having dinner with him the following day. I sat him down and said I’ll be back up in around 10 minutes with a fresh Guinness. As soon as I got downstairs I found one of the roadies and told him Stevie Winwood is on the balcony and he want’s to play a few tunes, the roadie scribbled down a note and passed it to Jim in between songs who read it, and announced “ladies and gentleman there is a very good friend of mine in the audience tonight, please put your hands together……”
Stevie Winwood never left the stage that night.
The Dead Men Walking Tour first came to Marrs Bar in it’s original line up of Pete Wylie, Mike Peters, Glen Matlock and Kirk Brandon and it was the first time they all appeared on stage at the same time, until then they had previously come out and done their spot followed by the next and the next. After the gig they enjoyed the venue so much they each booked their own band in for a return gig.
We also have a policy that we prefer to have bar staff who also play an instrument or sing or are performers of some sort. In our very early days my bar manager called me and said you need to come in… When I arrived there was a young girl waiting to see me enquiring about a job, I asked if she played an instrument and she said she was a singer, “OK” I said, “sing me something” Without hesitation or nerves of any kind she just started belting out old soul classics, like Aretha and Ella and Nina Simone. You’ve got the job I said. Over the next couple of years while she worked behind the bar we would get up on stage together and I’d play guitar and she would sing. The punters loved her and it was a pleasure to be able to accompany such a naturally beautiful voice. She later left, moved back to London pursuing her singing career and then one day I see her on Later with Jools Holland. Her name was Andreya Triana
Recently another ex member of staff who I call my spare daughter has been gaining a lot of interest, particularly on BBC Radio 6, especially since Steve Lamacq amongst others has been championing the band she is in. Both Anya Pulver and Tina Maynard from the band Souer have played here many times in many different evolutions of different bands. Like Andreya Triana, Anya used to regularly get up on stage and sing with me accompanying her on guitar. I’ve also sent them over to play as a duo in Norway a number of times where my friends over there taught them both to ski, and just before Anya made the move to Bristol she was having trouble finding short term accommodation so she came to stay with me at the bar for a few weeks.
There are many more stars of past and present who have graced our stage, Paul Young, Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook, the Lennon and McCartney of Squeeze, The Blockheads with Phil Jupitus taking the role of Ian Dury, The Damned, The Beat The Selector, Bad Manners, Steve Craddock, Wheatus, Dreadzone, Skindred….
…and don’t even get me started on the famous comedians we’ve had here…