Greats in the Hall

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Now primarily an exam room, the Great Hall once housed the likes of Bob Marley, Queen and Pink Floyd. Photo by Sammie Caine.

AC/DC. Black Sabbath. Blondie. Bob Marley. The Clash. Cliff Richard. Dire Straits. Duran Duran. Elton John. Eric Clapton. Iron Maiden. The Jam. The Kinks. Madness. Paul McCartney and Wings. Pink Floyd. Queen. Slade. The Smiths. Supertramp. Status Quo. Tears for Fears. Thin Lizzy. Tina Turner. U2. Ultravox. The Undertones. Van Morrison. The Who.

What have they all got in common? They all played in Lancaster University’s Great Hall. I spoke with Paul Tomlinson, print technician at the Print Unit in County, who was there back in the 70s and 80s when the university was a hotspot for big name acts. Paul is working on a book which chronicles all the artists who played in the Great Hall.

You consider yourself to be the foremost authority on the big names who played in the Great Hall, is that right?

I would say so now, following the research I’ve been doing over the last fourteen months. There is no definitive list of all the bands that have played here, so the only place to look is in the library archives of SCAN newspapers, which had adverts for the upcoming gigs in. There were some in old copies of the Lancaster Guardian too, but hard copies of that are not easy to track down, which makes it difficult for scanning copies of the adverts.

So you’re planning on reproducing old promotional material in your book?

That’s right. It will contain photographs of the artists (only of them on stage in the Great Hall – no other generic photographs), ticket stubs, adverts in SCAN, and we’re also printing the colour posters by graphic designer John Angus. He produced a number of posters for the gigs which are of a superb quality.

Where did you find the posters?

Some time ago John had an exhibition in the Peter Scott Gallery. I think he exhibited about twenty posters – I asked him if he’d like to see them reproduced in the book and he said he would.

What about the photographs?

A lot of them are coming from a photographer called Geoff Campbell, who was a semi-official photographer for the concerts, mainly during the last five years up until ’85. There’s some absolutely excellent pictures in the book of the likes of U2, the Clash and Tina Turner. I’m only looking at artists who played in the Great Hall – not any of the college bars or the Sugarhouse.

How far are you with the project?

We are nearly there really. We’ve been offered a publishing deal, and we’re looking to sell it locally and on campus. I am writing it in collaboration with Barry Lucas, who was the entertainments manager at the university when it was happening.

Was he influential in the thriving campus music scene?

I would say he was solely responsible for it. He was a visionary. He had his finger on the pulse of popular music at the time and he had the contacts and the savviness to wheel and deal with these bands and get them to come here. One of the first bands he booked was The Who. The Great Hall opened in October 1969 and the concerts started almost immediately.

So the building was very multipurpose?

Yes. Obviously when it was exam time that was the university’s priority for the Great Hall, but throughout the year you could see two great bands on a Friday and a Saturday, and then one on the following Wednesday – it really was a full-on schedule. The Great Hall had its own bar which was very popular before the concerts. As time went on through the 70s, the concerts became very popular and were open to the general public, so people as far afield as Barrow, Blackpool – all over the North West – were coming to the Great Hall.

What were you doing at the time – were you a student here?

No, I didn’t study here. The first concert I came to was in 1973 when I was still at school. My mate’s parents drove us up here to watch a band called Mott the Hoople who were in the charts at the time. It was a memorable evening: generally people used to hang around the bar when the support acts played, but on this night, there was a tremendous noise emanating from the Great Hall, and people were coming out saying ‘you must come in and watch – this is unbelievable!’ We went in to see what all the fuss was about, and stood at the back watching this band who were absolutely fantastic. It was Queen. The following year they came back and headlined in their own right and I came up to see them again.

Would you say that was the best gig you ever saw here?

It’s difficult to say what the best was because they were all great. I saw AC/DC here; that was tremendous. Supertramp were brilliant. I don’t think I saw a bad concert – it was just such a great atmosphere up here.

Is there anyone you were surprised didn’t play?

I was surprised Led Zeppelin never played, and I am a big David Bowie fan so I was really disappointed that he never came. The Sex Pistols were booked, but that never happened. There’s a chapter in the book called ‘Why didn’t they play?’ which explains why.

I heard the Rolling Stones nearly came here?

That’s right, Mick Jagger personally requested that they did a warm up gig for a stadium tour they were doing, because Van Morrison had played here a couple of times and said to him how much he loved it. The university said no as it was exam time, and they didn’t want to have to reschedule or moves exams to somewhere else.

Did students ever get to meet the bands personally after the gigs?

Yeah they did – at the end of the concerts fans would hang around round the back of the Great Hall and try to get autographs. Sometimes you’d be able to get into the dressing room. I’ve got a great memory from after the Supertramp concert: we’d missed the last bus home, and me and my mate were walking down to the A6, and put our thumb out to try and hitchhike back to Morecambe. A coach stopped, and said ‘come on lads, we’ll give you a lift!’ – Supertramp’s tour bus! I’ll never forget that night.

Is that story going in the book?

Yeah. I’ve had emails from all over the world with little anecdotes. The book came about as a result of conversations with lots of different people – even though I came to a lot of shows, I would be continually gobsmacked by some of the names the Great Hall had seen when people casually said things like ‘yeah, I saw Tina Turner in there.’ I thought ‘I’m going to decide who exactly did play here’, and that’s what set it off. I’ve tried to compile a definitive list of all the bands, the dates they came and the support acts. All in all there’s 200 main concerts, and they usually had at least one support act – so that’s 400 acts. A lot of writing to be done!

Do you think you might be missing any, or have you got it locked down now?

I am 99% sure I’ve got the lot. I’m missing a few dates and a couple of support acts who are proving difficult to pin down – a lot of people didn’t take much notice of them, so a lot of the time they weren’t even on the posters. Sometimes SCAN would print who the support act was going to be, but then they might not turn up, so a Lancaster band would be drafted in. The support act for King Crimson had proven to be particularly illusive for over a year, but I finally nailed it when a lady posted a picture of a cutting on Facebook saying ‘did anybody go to this concert?’

So without the internet, you wouldn’t have been able to do this?

Utterly impossible. A lot of bands’ websites have all their historic tour dates on. I’ve been helped by Jane Silvester who is in charge of alumni and development here at the university – she’s been very good at finding ex-students on the internet who’ve emailed back with memories. No, without the internet I couldn’t have even come close to a comprehensive list.

Do you need any more photos, or is that covered?

The more the merrier really – if anyone comes forward with some, that’s great. I’m sure that once the book’s out there, I’ll get people saying ‘I’ve got a photograph of this!’ and ‘no, you got that date wrong because I remember it being my birthday!’ So you know… I’m just trying to make it as accurate as I possibly can.

An excuse for a second print!

That’s right! I’m also hoping to get some quotes from artists. My fingers are crossed that I could be getting one from Sir Bob Geldof. The Boomtown Rats played here on four occasions, and a friend of mine’s nephew is their current keyboard player. I’ve been in touch with him and he says he’s going to ask Bob what he remembers. A real coup would be getting a quote from Sir Paul McCartney – that would be just brilliant.

What happened when Sir Paul came?

He was on a tour of universities, and decided when he was coming down the M6 that he’d just turn up with Wings. It was just fortunate that we could accommodate them; there were a lot of chairs set out for something the next day, but the Great Hall porter was more than willing to get them moved!

Why did these gigs in the Great Hall stop happening?

The concerts came to an end following the departure of Barry Lucas, and the placing of a crowd capacity limit of 1300 due to fire regulations. Subsequently in Autumn 1985, the concerts started to lose money. The Sugarhouse then came into its own as the primary student venue, welcoming the likes of the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays.

Who was the last big name in the Great Hall then?

The last gig was from the Fall, whose frontman is called Mark E. Smith – not to be confused with our Vice Chancellor!

Can you see the Great Hall ever being used in the same way again?

I don’t think so. It’s still used as a music venue for classical concerts, and whenever I come in here it really does make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, knowing who some of the students have shared a stage with. But no, I doubt we’ll ever see the calibre of acts that used to appear here. I don’t think bands would really want to come here nowadays; big names want to be at large stadiums.

So why was that not the case back in the 70s/80s?

In the days before the internet, bands would get their music out to people on the radio and by playing live gigs. Performing to students was a great way of increasing their profile and album sales. Lancaster University was ideally situated geographically as well: on the way up to Scotland from Manchester.

How would you describe the music scene in Lancaster today?

I think there’s a tremendous music scene in Lancaster. The Lancaster Music Festival in October is proof that there’s lots of exciting new bands around here – it’s very vibrant and great to walk round.

Who did you see there this time that you thought was good?

I particularly like Get Carter. I think Molly Warburton is very good as well – she’s got a good future in front of her. And the Lovely Eggs too.

When can you see the book being completed?

We are hoping to release it this summer. If not, certainly in time for Christmas this year.

Have you thought of a title?

I think we’ve settled on “When Rock Went to College”.