September 18, 2008
Edinburgh Rock Gets a New Flavour The Capital Has Long Lagged Behind Glasgow for Music Venues – but a Lovingly Restored Cinema Could Change All That. By Keith Bruce
By Keith Bruce
THE explosion of music venues in Glasgow in recent years, with the Carling Academy, ABC, Oran Mor, Classic Grand and Stereo all joining established favourites such as Barrowland and King Tut's, has left Scotland's capital city looking ever more impoverished. A whole generation of Edinburgh rock fans have become accustomed to shelling out to ScotRail as part of the cost of their addiction, travelling west to see all but the few shows staged at the Liquid Room, Corn Exchange and Queen's Hall.Next Thursday, this situation changes significantly with the opening of The Picture House in Lothian Road. It will transform the map of rock promotion in Scotland, and possibly have repercussions on the Glasgow venues far beyond the effect that they have already had on each other.
Rock fans of a certain vintage will recognise The Picture House easily. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s it was the Caley Palais and, alongside the Odeon in Clerk Street, it was a major Edinburgh venue. Queen, Deep Purple, Hawkwind, Genesis, Mott the Hoople, New Order, and The Smiths are among the classic bands that have played there. Strangely, however, when the lack of a good venue of any decent size in Edinburgh was being discussed in recent years, the abandoned cinema on the south side was mentioned much more often than the smaller picture house-turned-nightclub at the west end of Princes Street.
For the Mama Group, which also has Barfly in Glasgow and Moshulu in Aberdeen, as well as the Hammersmith Apollo and The Forum in Kentish Town in its portfolio, the conversion of The Picture House into the rock venue the city needs has proved a much more viable proposition Edinburgh's music fans are likely to be well pleased with the facility that has suddenly appeared in their midst.
The Picture House began life as a Caledonian Cinema, and still boasts the original stainedglass lion rampant in its B-listed facade. In 1923 it was a bijou 900seater with the screen facing on to Lothian Road, but five years later it doubled in size as the company acquired the site next door and turned the auditorium around so that the screen faced up the hill. It is this configuration that the new venue restores, uncovering the proscenium arch that framed the screen but building an apron stage, 32 metres by seven metres in size, in front of it. This in no way matches the enormous playing area at the ABC in Glasgow, but will be ample for most acts, and concert-goers may feel there are other similarities between the two, particularly in the scale of the auditorium.
The Caley Palais closed its doors in 1984 and re-emerged as a nightclub under various guises, including Century 2000 and Revolution. Some of the interior decoration that was slapped over the original design of the cinema in its clubbing years has been retained - notably the modern wrought-ironwork around the upper level bar - but generally the transformation of the venue into a modern dancehall has been completely reversed. The Mama Group's property director, and clerk of works on the project, Archie McIntosh, was pleased to find that beneath the "improvements" of recent years, the original building was virtually intact.
"Our motto has been 'polish not demolish', " he says. Working from old photographs and replacing wooden panelling next to original timber that was still in place, the renovation work included uncovering carved details on banisters, more stained glass that had been painted over and original deco light fittings.
McIntosh had worked on the Glasgow Carling Academy and the Brixton Academy and says: "You get used to the way these places were built."
The companies that were building cinemas in the first half of the twentieth century had a basic architectural blueprint that they rolled out across the country, and the team that is now re- discovering them as rock venues - and McIntosh has a 10-year partnership with some of the contractors who have been working on the Picture House - had become used to the workings of the minds of the people who built them.
The project director's praise goes to the skills of the local workforce of joiners and other tradesmen. The Picture House is also a real labour of love for McIntosh and group operations manager David Laing, as they are both local themselves.
"This is the most important venue I've worked on, " says McIntosh, who is from Portobello. "I remember coming here in 1974 with my dad to see Paint Your Wagon. I'm very proud to be able to give Edinburgh this."
For all their pride in the venue, however, and in particular details such as the stage curtains, being specially woven in crushed velvet in Italy, the Picture House still looks a bit of a bargain by comparison with many building projects. The Mama Group bought the building for GBP3.5m and are spending, it says, a further million to make it into a rock venue. About GBP500,000 has gone on state-of-theart sound and lighting rigs. Structurally, however, the biggest build has been two metal staircases leading from the lower level to the balcony, where the originally seating platforms were uncovered under more recent renovation.
"It would have cost much more money to rip everything out and start again, rather than restore it, " says McIntosh, flying in the face of much conventional wisdom.
Laing is clear, however, that the economic impact on Scotland's gig scene will be enormous.
"Bands have simply been missing out Edinburgh because there was nowhere for them to play when they stepped up a level from Cabaret Voltaire and King Tut's. The touring pattern has been excluding Edinburgh so that a band might play in Glasgow three times for every single appearance in Edinburgh, " he says.
With the opening of the new hall, however, Laing predicts that bands will choose to play a single gig in each city on tour - typically the ABC in Glasgow along with the Picture House - when they move to concert halls from club venues.
Many thought that the Sauchiehall Street venue was a brave addition to the Glasgow live music portfolio so soon after the opening of the Carling Academy. In fact, there have been enough tours to keep it, Barrowland, the Academy and the SECC in bands. Now the ABC has acquired a partner venue of similar size that might further increase its popularity.
The Picture House will accommodate some 1492 rock fans, with a seated balcony area taking 320 of those. From either those seats looking towards the stage (McIntosh identifies the centre front of the balcony as "the best seat in the house") or, crucially, from the stage looking out into the auditorium, the venue feels very intimate. "I'm convinced it will be charged with atmosphere, " says McIntosh.
With a very diverse first season, including Carl Barat's Dirty Pretty Things, Martha Wainwright, Todd Rundgren, Tangerine Dream and Feeder, the various sonic possibilities of the hall will be tested in the next few months.
Idlewild gave a "preview" show on Saturday and the official opening is a week today when Travis unveil tracks from their new album, Ode to J Smith. Where the Picture House will surely score in the long run, however, is with American artists, who find the pull of the capital with its castle, history and festival associations, particularly attractive.
The possibility of Edinburgh exclusives to which Glasgow audiences will have to learn to travel cannot be ruled out.
Travis open the Picture House on Thursday, September 25. Visit www. edinburgh-picturehouse. co. uk for details
Originally published by Newsquest Media Group.
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