On September 20, 2020, Richard Thomas – owner of the legendary Soho drinking hole The Crobar – posted a statement on social media: “CROBAR SOHO: KILLED BY LANDLORDS JUNE 2020 RIP.”
Blaming “the UK’s “idiot government”, “greedy insurance companies” and “greedy, short-sighted landlords”, Richard announced the bar was closing its famous red doors after 19 years. A month later, he launched a Crowdfunder campaign, announcing his intention to re-open The Cro, along with a new live venue, at a new location.
In January, there was more bad news. Camden pub The Black Heart announced that they too were in “serious trouble” after receiving “zero help from the government or landlords” during the pandemic. After setting their own Crowdfunder target of raising £150,000 by the end of March, not only had they raised £51,000 in less than a week, but bands like Employed To Serve, Elephant Tree and Calligram had stepped in to help, whether through donating merch or announcing their own campaigns.
“The response has been overwhelming,” says Black Heart general manager Mel Doumbos. “The Black Heart is like a church to the community. It’s a destination for all lovers of heavy music.”
Sadly, these aren’t isolated stories. In recent years, London’s Big Red, Oldham’s Whittles and The Ruby Lounge in Manchester have all disappeared, while the added pressure of Covid-19 has left many more of our beloved venues and bars battling for survival.
In response, The Music Venue Trust launched the #SaveOurVenues campaign, setting out the grim reality: worryingly, 556 of our UK venues are at imminent risk of being permanent closure. “It's been a very tough 10 months,” a representative told us. “If an industry is all about planning; about the next great gig, great event, the next big artist, that's a really difficult atmosphere to work in and very frustrating for everyone.”
The Crobar’s plight has been highlighted in a new documentary, Music When The Lights Go Out, directed by filmmakers Lucy Brown and Andrew Wildey. “Metal bars are a home away from home,” says Lucy who, having spent many hours hanging out in the metal bars of Cambridge, recognises that places like The Cro' are the lifeblood of our scene, where friendships are forged and identities discovered. “If I didn’t have that place, maybe I wouldn’t have met this person or have been introduced to this kind of music.”
Over the years, The Crobar earned a reputation for after-hours debauchery, not least due to the number of megastars who passed through the doors. Legends from Lemmy, to Kerry King, to Scott Ian all crammed into the venue’s tiny space, staggered into the same three toilets and drank with the punters. In The Crobar, hierarchy was irrelevant. It was a place where immortals became mortals.
“One night the guys from Slipknot came in,” says Richard. “They found a table, sat with a few mates and had a drink like everyone else. Then there was a night when Dave Grohl, Lars Ulrich and Dave Lombardo ended up there for a lock in. We were like, ‘Finish your drinks, we’ve got to clean up. Just lift your feet off the floor when the guys want to sweep.’” And it’s not just metal icons who have been loyal customers. Lady Gaga has been a regular (“She phoned us up, she wanted to do a thank you party for her crew”), while bizarrely, Justin Bieber made an surprise appearance after The Brit Awards in 2016.
Over the years, The Black Heart has built a similarly ferocious reputation, not only as one of the coolest watering holes in Camden, but as a beloved venue that’s integral to the UK live scene. It was a springboard for upcoming bands to prove their salt, while established names who were used to selling out much larger rooms, from Venom Prison, to Every Time I Die and Crowbar, played rabid shows where they could look their fans right in the whites of their eyes.
We are independently owned and operated and are proud to have retained all our staff, because we’re a family. We are now reaching out to our extended Black Heart family for support as we launch our #savetheblackheart Crowdfunder. https://t.co/FBacCaOpYsJanuary 25, 2021
“It’s what you want from a small, dingy rock bar,” says live booker, ‘Staggerin’ Matt. “You want to walk up a sketchy flight of stairs into a dark room with a band playing. I always think back to the movies I used to watch in the 90s – stuff like Airheads when they go in and Rob Zombie is playing at the Whisky. That’s what The Black Heart offers. You come in and it’s loud, it’s visceral, it’s engulfing.”
There’s no denying that our venues and bars face a tough road ahead, but there is hope. Both The Crobar and The Black Heart are well on their way to achieving their Crowdfunding targets, and both campaigns will remain open until the end of March. So far, The Music Venue Trust has raised over £80 million as a result of the #SaveOurVenues campaign, with £4 million coming from public donations. What’s become perfectly clear, is just how much our venues mean to us, and how much people are willing to fight for them.
“Are we just going to have a million Prets everywhere?” says Lucy. “Hopefully the documentary will inspire someone else to do something for a local bar. Because it’s not just about The Crobar. This is bigger. it’s about everyone.”