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Liverpool's Royal Court rock years - reflections on a beloved music venue


The Clash's Joe Strummer entering Liverpool's Royal Court (photo credit: David Hynes)


 

Having celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2018, Liverpool’s Royal Court has long been one of the most important theatres in the North-West of England. Established in the 1930s, the Grade II listed building with its striking Art Deco architecture has seen the likes of Fred Astaire, Lawrence Olivier, and Dame Judi Dench grace its stage.


After extensive refurbishment since 2012, the Royal Court stages eight long running plays each year as well as a wealth of other events in any given month, including stand-up comedy, community choir events and film clubs. They also have a range of music theatre events, including their famous Christmas show, which features a live band. It also has several avenues of support for new writers such as their Stage Write Playwright Development Programme.


Yet, for certain generations, the Royal Court was far more than a theatre. Between 1980 and 2005 it was arguably the preeminent Liverpool gig venue, hosting a multitude of rock and pop greats. From David Bowie to the Foo Fighters to New Order, an astounding array of artists took to the stage.


New Order onstage at Liverpool's Royal Court (photo credit: David Hynes)


This relatively brief period in the Royal Court’s history has remained largely undocumented and younger generations could be forgiven for being oblivious to this aspect of the theatre’s heritage. Sarah O’Hara, a freelance music and entertainment journalist who has conducted research into the history of the venue’s rock and pop gigs, admitted in a recent interview with Metal on Merseyside that she “always thought the Royal Court was a theatre and all the big rock bands played in the stadiums”. It wasn’t until she saw a tweet mentioning that one of her favourite bands, Def Leppard, had performed at the Royal Court in the 1980s that she realized the theatre had been a gig venue.


Having had her curiosity piqued, O’Hara set out to find out more. Working with the Royal Court Trust and recruiting key interviewees such as blogger and long-time rock fan, Ronnie Soo, as well as crowdsourcing information on Twitter (now X), she began to piece together the rich backstory of a much-loved music venue.


With Liverpool's Royal Court publicizing her project and facilitating the research via a meet-and-greet event, O’Hara was struck by the sheer volume of material she received. “People […] really flooded me with their memories, which I think really showed how much affection people have for the venue.” As well as their recollections of the acts that they had seen, people shared images of treasured artefacts such as ticket stubs and backstage passes to help provide insights into the concerts and what they meant.


As a venue for heavy rock and metal music, O’Hara emphasized how important the Royal Court was: “Literally everyone and anyone to do with rock music played there, you know, Ozzy Osbourne, massive, massive rock icon, he played there. Meatloaf, he was another one who performed there. Bon Jovi, their only Liverpool date at that point came in 1986, and that was at the Royal Court. They then didn't do another gig in Liverpool until Anfield [in 2019].”


Modern day rock giants, the Foo Fighters, made their one and, so far, only appearance in Liverpool at the Royal Court in 1997. Ronnie Soo recounted to O’Hara how this was his “favourite gig I’ve ever seen anywhere” and how the hairs on his neck stood on end when he heard them perform the song ‘Walking After You’ from The Colour and the Shape album.


Aside from the actual musical performances, O’Hara was struck by how significant the community aspect of these concerts was. As she put it:  “speaking to all these different people just really gave me such an insight into not only the bands who played there, but also the community feel. You know, people would regularly go to these gigs and see the same people.” She also gained insights into the importance of subcultures and fashion in that it was explained to her how: “people would go to such an effort as to get different outfits made for each gig that they went to”. Furthermore, she relayed how many peoples’ “greatest memories was […] dancing in the aisles and things like that”.


Stagehand at Liverpool's Royal Court (photo credit: David Hynes)


We ended our interview by discussing how this kind of project has so much more potential. Indeed, as the Metal on Merseyside book made clear, there are still partially hidden histories of events at the Royal Court that need exploring further. Not least the few stories that we have unearthed about more extreme metal acts such as Brutal Truth and Fear Factory playing in the Royal Court’s basement, which was known as ‘The World Downstairs’.


At Metal on Merseyside we are keen to continue to examine these hidden histories about rock and metal music venues both past and present, so watch this space!

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