Starting out life as an engine shed for the London and Birmingham Railway, Camden’s The Roundhouse this year celebrates 50 years as one of London’s most iconic performing art centres. Originally constructed in 1846 and today a Grade II listed building, the Roundhouse has become renowned for its decorated history which has seen the venue play home to artistic performances ranging from Andy Warhol’s only play to radical speakers such as Allen Ginsberg and Stokey Carmichael.
The Roundhouse is perhaps best known today for hosting career-defining gigs by some of music’s biggest names, many of which have gone down in musical folklore. This was a tradition that was initiated on the Roundhouse’s first night as an avant-garde performance venue when a then little known psychedelic rock group named Pink Floyd (or “The Pink Floyd” as they were named on the event’s poster) fronted by Syd Barrett headlined an “all night rave to launch [a] new underground newspaper” on 15th October 1966. Throughout the sixties and seventies, the Roundhouse became famous for its club nights. The city’s famous Middle Earth Club relocated to the venue in the late ’60s and saw the Roundhouse welcome the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and The Doors. The Middle Earth Club would also give Led Zeppelin their debut gig in the British capital. The Roundhouse’s weekly Implosion club was also a big success, bringing the likes of The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Black Sabbath and The Who to Camden. During one Implosion night, the late David Bowie thrilled the Roundhouse as the frontman of The Hype in 1970 famously dressed as a superhero, a habit that would become integral to his image later in his career.
The latter end of the seventies saw further international acts venture to the Roundhouse to join the stage alongside local emerging acts. Punk saw a surge of exciting new acts take to the Roundhouse stage, with acts such as London’s own The Clash finding their names alongside the likes of The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and The Police. Towards the end of that decade, Motörhead played at the venue for a charity event organised by Wilko Johnson to raise money for the preservation of William Wordsworth manuscripts. Performing under the name of Iron First and the Hordes from Hell for contractual reasons, the gig would be released as a live album five years’ later.
In 1983 the Roundhouse was forced to close its doors to the public, facing possible dereliction and years of failed revival. The project to redevelop the venue eventually fell into the hands of architects John McAslan & Partners who gave the Roundhouse a £27 million renovation before re-opening its doors on 2006. The Roundhouse swiftly picked up its tradition of hosting memorable one-off gigs in the noughties. Both the late James Brown and Prince both played their final UK gigs in the roundhouse, and this tradition looks set to continue far into the future as the venue consistently draws music’s most revered names to its stage.
Words by Liam Roberts. Header image property of John Williams