The Astoria

May 4, 2011

On Wednesday, 14th January 2009, the Astoria at 157 Charing Cross Road closed its doors for the final time.

The whole corner block it stood on was compulsarily purchased for demolition, so Tottenham Court Road station (which is directly underneath it) could be made six times bigger in anticipation of the Crossrail project, a high-speed rail network linking Berkshire to Essex. Such a provincial sounding reason to spell the end of one of the very last (and certainly the largest) of the properly central large music venues.

Proper concert halls are one of the few things that never end up being replaced. Once they go, they’re gone for good, and it’s odd how once an area loses one, they almost never get one back.

Built on the site of an old Crosse and Blackwell pickle factory, the Astoria was designed by Edward A. Stone, who was also responsible for other Astorias in Brixton (now the Brixton Academy), Streatham and Finsbury Park. It opened in 1927 as a cinema, and continued screening films for the next fifty years. The picture below shows in it 1936.

The Astoria became a theatre in 1976, and finally a music venue sometime around 1985. The list of bands that have played there is a Who’s Who of the music industry since: Nirvana, Radiohead, Oasis, Blur, Madonna, U2, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Black Sabbath, David Bowie…an almost endless list. It makes me think that the legend engraved over the stage door of the Palace Theatre – I’m paraphrasing, but it’s along the lines of “the greatest artists in the world have walked through these doors, and will continue to do so” – would have fitted the Astoria.

While working for Xfm in August 2007, I did an on-stage introduction for the Fratellis and had a chance to nose about backstage (unfortunately, I’d left my camera at home.)

It was quite a state backstage – not in terms of being especially tatty (all concert venue backstages invariably are, no matter how plush they look from the outside), but because it was a mass of incredibly narrow tunnels and tiny, low-ceilinged corridors that twisted so often and so sharply, you felt that you weren’t going onstage so much as going caving. It really hits you when you walk out how big the auditorium is, mainly because the balcony is so steep, and it looks like it just goes up and up and up. My voice went too high when I shouted the band’s name, and that high-pitched ‘The Fraaaaatelllllis!” from my one time on the Astoria’s stage must have been played more on XFM than some of the regular station IDs. A proud moment.

Despite a number of spirited campaigns to keep it open, the final gig took place on the 14th January 2009. Appropriately named The Demolition Ball, the concert benefited a number of good causes, but the line-up of Get Cape Wear Cape Fly, The Automatic, My Vitriol and ex-Mansun singer Paul Draper was nowhere near the send-off the venue  deserved.

A week after closing, the demolition job started in tiny increments – the sign for the Metro Club, round the other side of the building in Oxford Street, was taken down, and a few months later, the iconic signage of the Astoria were removed. By October 2009, the site had been levelled.

It’s demolition left just Koko (formerly the Camden Palace) and The Kentish Town Forum as the only similar-sized venues nearby, neither of which have the legitimately dirty, legendary, big-time feel of the Astoria.

It’s just a building that was there to make money, but I feel a bit sad it was knocked down. Maybe it was the amount of pleasure the Astoria brought to so many people (and I’ve been going to concerts there for over fifteen years, which I’m quite shocked to realise) that meant when I used to walk past it, I saw it as a ‘good’ place, a ‘friendly’ building. It was somewhere people looked forward to going inside. It had a sense of history that you felt when you stepped through the doors and started walking up the stairs.

And now it’s gone so we everyone can charge their Oyster cards up without having to queue, and get to Abbey Wood in Essex in much quicker time. Hooray.

Fitting with its iconic ‘big-time’ feel, there’s been a disproportionately large number of live shows recorded here for CD and DVD releases. You can see some of the acts (and hopefully what the venue used to look like in the background and cutaway shots of the DVDs) right here.