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Friars Interviews

john braley
phase2/3 venue operations manager friars people 

friars appearances most of them

John is one of the unsung people in the Friars story and many punters will not realise the important role he played. As Operations Manager of both the Borough Assembly Hall and the Civic Centre, John was at nearly every gig from 1971 onwards in an official capacity. John acted as the conduit between Friars and Aylesbury Borough Council/Aylesbury Vale District Council and has some great memories of Aylesbury and of Friars. John took his well earned retirement in 2008, but was tempted out of retirement to stage manage the Friars 40th Anniversary Party in June 2009 and will be again in October when Stiff Little Fingers come back.

The website interviewed John rather appropriately in the Civic Centre coffee lounge outside the Maxwell Hall. Thanks again John.

 

Friars Aylesbury Website: John, thanks for talking to us. As I mentioned on the website, not everyone will have recognised the significant role you played as the Operations Manager of both the Borough Assembly Hall and the Civic Centre all the way through both Phase Two and Phase Three periods.

 

As for the significance of my role....both venues were local authority controlled and my job was the link between the promoters and the council. I saw my role as trying to keep things smooth. I started in the late 1960s and the guys running the civic theatres back then were generally people who had come, off the boards, been in variety and worked in 'normal' theatres. They had dealt with the early rock and rollers who came via what was known as package tours. Even The Beatles and their contemporaries worked this format; 3 or 4 support acts doing about 10 minutes each, the headliners closing with a twenty to thirty minute set. No PA was carried, vocals generally went through the house system and instrumentation through their own amps.....Vox AC 30s were posh. The whole thing, at least stage side, was easy.

By the time the new wave of civic type theatres came along in the late 1960s/early 1970,  promoters started to emerge from the hippy and festivals era and the package tours had gone. So there were one off bands being promoted which was totally alien to the theatre managers of the time. Typically in Aylesbury, whilst the older managers were OK people... they didn't understand the change. One Entertainments Manager (who cannot be named) couldn't work with Friars. He couldn't understand why they wanted this or that. So it became that I got involved, and did so every gig.

 

What was so different that he couldn't deal with it?

 

As I said, in the old days, they used the house PA. Whether it was Billy Fury, The Shadows or The Beatles. There wasn't a lot of worry. But then as things progressed there were these huge speakers (that got toured) and road crew putting them on tables and theatre managers saying you can't do that! What about the floor! They couldn't relate to what was happening. My experience of working the theatres in Bournemouth helped me see how things were developing and I like to think that I helped by arbitrating some what. David (Stopps) and I had a very good relationship. David would book 26 Saturdays each year and I always encouraged everybody artist wise. If we could have got The Sex Pistols, I would have welcomed it. Every other council was banning them. There was nothing Friars couldn't have handled.

That first punk gig at Friars, with the Stranglers was quite difficult but we went with it.

 

That was a weird gig as they ended up headlining after Deaf School pulled out. Didn't the London punks make their presence known?

 

Certainly. The junior security were on the doors to the Maxwell Hall with the intention of stopping people taking glasses into the hall (it was not permitted back then) and as soon as The Stranglers came on, they all seemed to pogo past security with glasses in hand. We were quite taken aback by that.

 

Nothing like that had happened before?

 

The junior guys would stop people with glasses and usually punters would just say 'sorry, I didn't realise' but this was a little different.

 

So back to the theatre managers - they just couldn't deal with PAs, lights and trucks?

 

It was radically different. The early crews were more 'heavies' than roadies who could pick up a bass speaker and throw it on the stage. There wasn't the technical ability there is now and the attitude was 'we are running that cable there' and I would be 'no you're not, people will trip over it' These days, the crews are telling you what to do, they're all Health and Safety conscious. But if you take a theatre guy towards the end of his career and these big rough Glaswegian roadies stomping on his dancefloor......You couldn't talk to these people in any authoritarian manner as they would just say 'bollocks, who the fuck are you?!'

Back in the Friars days, my role was to make everything friendly, work for Friars but also representing the local authority and I feel I did that bit. It got to the point that the elected councillors were totally supportive of Friars. Initially, as the Civic was being planned, they were wary of young people and could only envisage the place being full of ladies in ball gowns waltzing around the hall.

 

Funny you mention that as one of the cuttings on the website from before the Civic opened suggested that the council would run the shows put on at the venue and didn't intend giving the likes of David or the wrestling promoter a chance.

 

My view was that we were a multi purpose venue that needed to accommodate everyone. It's not a normal theatre. It started to move that way and it had to. Friars was such an earner on the bars. All three bars at full tilt all night.

 

And money in to the council's coffers...

 

Yes, there was no percentage going to Friars. We knew the bars would work from the way Friars worked at the Assembly Hall. The Civic bars were bigger but we still always got complaints. But the bar in the corner at the Assembly Hall was horrendous. Trying to get barrels in...once you were behind the bar, you were penned in by hundreds of people.

 

The bars at the Civic always took a kicking in the annual Friars poll!

 

Even the Farmers Ball people would complain. It was not to do with a lack of staff - if you had too many, they would fall over each other and couldn't get to the tills. The bars would have better shaped differently from the start. Long or L shaped so that you might only be two from the front rather than sixteen deep. But it compares well to many theatres such as the Oxford New Theatre which has an horrendous bar.

 

I have to say I made good use of the bar facilities on June 1st which made going up on stage four times less of an ordeal! God bless Stella Artois!

 

I've never liked going up on stage and when I did, it was after a brandy or two! I'm glad David always went on stage. I did go up on stage in 1976 when we presented Sailor with a bottle of champagne to commemorate the Glass of Champagne hit single (picture on that gig page)

 

You'll have seen the Geoffrey Tyrell pictures from some classic gigs and there will be some more going up soon. It's great we can preserve these for the future. You're doing a similar thing aren't you - you're a world authority on Gene Vincent.

 

When it comes to box sets, CDs etc, people come to me for material and advice. But there's people out there with loads of stuff on Gene and they won't give access to any of it. Some of these people are even older than me and what are they going to do with it? Gene Vincent is a small market now so what's to gain by hanging on to it? I have a collective of Gene Vincent mates and we share anything new between us. It's like the Friars website, this stuff should be available to all and be there after our lifetimes, as part of rock n roll heritage.

It would be nice ultimately if we had some museum of rock to safeguard all this stuff after we have gone.

Mind you, the (Friars) website is getting me into a lot of trouble. I intend spending a couple of minutes on it and then.....

 

You're not the only one to say that! Jake Burns commented recently that it was a trip down memory lane!

So tell us a bit more about your role at Friars...

 

It wasn't so much about stage managing (like June 1st this year), but to smooth over any difficulties. My input wasn't that great. David did the work but there were occasions when... shall we say ...people had to be asked to do what they were paid to do.....

 

I am aware of two occasions certainly regards artists.....! I know you had to step in and for legal reasons it's probably best we don't name the artists concerned....You had words with one artist after they appeared to allow people onto the stage when you had expressly told them not to...

 

Yes, words were had. We had all warned them not to do it because they had a reputation for it. They said they wouldn't do it and they did. I went to the dressing room and was stopped by a huge security guy from physically entering but I barged through and I told them they would never play Aylesbury again. I was told to fuck off, but they never forgot about it!

 

There was also another act, the singer was verbally abused in the Market Square and he allegedly refused to go on stage. I remember that gig and seem to remember the doors opening late and a delay...the reasons were never known at the time..

 

He didn't want to go on because of these 'bad vibes in the town' and David needed to move the position from where he might go on to where he will go on. He was trying to do this gently and I eventually went to the dressing rooms....

I grabbed him and advised him that he had chosen his career and downstairs there were 1250 people waiting for him, how about doing the job that he had chosen to do.

I don't think David knows that bit.....so hopefully he won't be offended!

 

I have it on good authority you pinned him to the wall!

 

Ha ha! I was younger then! I'm not sure if it was even me that ultimately persuaded him but David was saying, 'He's going to go on' and I was (in a surprised tone), 'Oh, is he really?'!!

There was a third occasion and that was The Damned who I know won't mind me mentioning them. They thought Friars was this old hippy venue and they would drag their feet about going on. I got on well with Ratty (Scabies) and I would say, 'For goodness sake, you're an hour late...and we're getting a bit peed off!' 'Oh alright as it's you!'  Having a reputation as a hippy venue was rubbish as we moved with the times. By the time The Damned played there was a real variety.

 

I know someone who was at that gig and didn't the house lights come on at midnight when they were still playing?

 

Yes, that is true. But great fun and great memories.

 

What about the Borough Assembly Hall?

 

I had more problems with the bar and revellers than the bands. It was much different when we moved here to the Civic.

 

So when you started working here in Aylesbury, the Borough Assembly Hall must still have been The Grosvenor?

 

It was before it got renamed when the council took it over. I moved up here from Bournemouth Winter Gardens and got a job in the bar and then the position of Entertainments Manager came up and I got that. I had been odd jobbing in London theatres prior to landing this job. It had been the Market Theatre, then the Grosvenor, then the Borough Assembly Hall.

 

One of the reasons for the change of name was that the Grosvenor had a bad reputation?

 

Saturday night was fight night!

 

The walkway to the front of the Assembly Hall is still there!

 

As a venue it wasn't too bad as the load in was at the back of the hall, straight on to centre stage from some huge double doors in Long Lionel. It is said that on a summer's night a drummer leant back and went through the doors into the street! It's partly still there - the walkway where the Post Office is.

When I moved to Aylesbury, there was a vibrant scene at the BAH, these American blues acts on Tuesdays. Little Walter, John Lee Hooker. On Saturday, the promoter Eddie Friday would put on the likes of Johnny Kidd, The Swinging Blue Jeans and even my hero Gene Vincent. Another promoter would put on the likes of Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Lee Dorsey...so many great bands for a small market town. Cream....that was when Clapton had just got an afro haircut, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker spent the whole gig staring at him and laughing. They nailed Ginger's kit to the stage! Them with Van Morrison as well. I was just a punter then though.

 

Would you agree that as Friars came to the Borough Assembly Hall and onwards and upwards, that people saw Friars as an event and not a gig?

 

Yes, there must have been 300-400 who would go regardless of who was on. The product had to be there, but there was a hardcore. I also remember some Americans coming from an air base and turning up one evening thinking there must be something on at Friars, they had heard so much about it, they thought it was like the Marquee where there was always something on. They were surprised to be turned away and told that it was every other Saturday night!

 

But then with people coming to every gig regardless you saw people you wouldn't expect to see....like punks at Kate and Anna McGarrigle!

 

Yes!

 

What about the Iggy Pop gig in 1977 and the return of Bowie. He was quite anonymous wasn't he?

 

Very anonymous. He was sitting where we are now and chatting to me, David and Needsy. He was a nice guy. We weren't allowed to announce he was on.

 

David Stopps has said that the crowd started to shift across the hall when they realised who was on keyboards...

 

Yes they did, I remember that. It was an amazing gig. During the sound check, Iggy came and sat next to me on a flight case and had a natter. What a memory that is!

 

Were there ever occasions where you had to cause to recommend to the council that an act didn't play?

 

No, but if David had ever mentioned about one of the acts we talked about earlier playing again, I would have said no. There is a book about that band and they mention Friars and the promoter having a go at them. But that was me, not David! But I was really really angry as someone could have been injured at that gig. The speaker stacks started wobbling.

 

I was at that gig and I was truly disappointed. They were not fun.

 

There was a problem when Sham 69 played and there was a bit of a punch up and Jimmy Pursey was so upset. But they had this terrible reputation which seemed to grow.

 

I know it gave David a sleepless night beforehand...

 

It was a worry, but nobody had his finger on the pulse like David. I remember the last year (of Friars) when in the age of video coming, bands weren't playing as much and he put his hands up and said he couldn't do it any more. Some people have suggested that (the success of) Howard (Jones) was the reason but that's not true. It simply that the product wasn't there for a venue of this size and times were changing. No-one tried harder than David to keep Friars going. He still booked the 26 Saturdays and we still had to charge him whether anybody played or not as we often couldn't re-hire it out. If he could have got the bands, he would have done.

 

It was a tragedy. 1983-1984 had seen bigger gaps with the gigs but that last five or six in 1984 sold out. Seems the last straw came when a band pulled out (the gig hadn't been announced) to earn more money elsewhere.

 

After Friars, there were still some gigs. I put Steve Harley on and I put Dr Feelgood on every year. Also the original Drifters, a soul night with Junior Walker, Arthur Lee, Canned Heat....

 

From an organisational view, there must have been a few interesting situations, for example having to remove bits of the ceiling to accommodate The Police's rig at the surprise gig in 1982?

 

Well, I was told what was required, so we dealt with it, including getting the trucks in.

 

That always fascinated me as the side of the Civic is narrow to reverse and get a truck round.

 

We've had trucks take the pub sign off of The Six Grapes. The Genesis truck managed to lean as it reversed the corner and hit the wall, removing some bricks. Yet the Iggy Pop truck driver had a trailer as well and reversed down at such speed, I was amazed. The tour buses often parked adjacent to the kitchens. I recall The Ramones getting off the bus and straight into the kitchen area, I found them sitting on the floor, carving ham off the bone with the chef's knife!

 

The Genesis one must have been fun with all the stage extensions....

 

Yes, at they were all built on the day. Could be a pain sometimes.

 

I remember before The Pretty Things gig, David, myself and others were given a tour backstage and we saw these door either side of what is now a dance class area and were gobsmacked to discover the led to an orchestra pit we didn't know existed!

 

It was used once! But using it left the dance floor uneven afterwards and having to prop things up with wood. It eventually became a storage area until the Fire Officer intervened.....

 

I never knew it existed!

 

It was a huge pit.

 

If push comes to shove, what are your best gigs at Friars?

 

Ian Dury with the Clash doing Sweet Gene Vincent, Motorhead and their Bomber rig...

 

I was injured by that! I was hit by shrapnel from pyrotechnics and had a huge lump on the side of my head!

 

Commander Cody.....Widowmaker...Steve Ellis has such a great voice. Procol Harum did two encores before doing 'Whiter Shade Of Pale', the place erupted

 

I found the key to you answering my emails was to put Steve Ellis in the title like the time he did Tracks of My Years on Radio 2!!!

 

Asylum, I used to enjoy them, a great act. Like Sailor had a harbour/quayside backdrop and set, they had a living room kind of set up.

Ian Dury and I always got on because of the Gene Vincent connection. But way back when he played Friars with Kilburn and The High Roads, I thought there's a bit of Gene Vincent here and in Upminster Kid he mentions Gene Vincent Craddock which was Gene's real name. So I asked him if he was a Gene Vincent fan and we got on. I was a huge Clash fan as well. We used to have Country music nights here. There was a great country band called Tom Gribben and the Saltwater Cowboys and they did a cover of 'Guns of Brixton' on one of their albums. It was round tables and a cabaret type set up and The Clash turned up to see them, it was brilliant, they were stood at the back. We were all backstage afterwards and it was great, Gribben was knocked out. He was one of the first country acts to bridge rock and country!

The Clash at Stoke Mandeville Stadium was fun, but I had nothing to do with that.

 

One of my favourite gigs ever, but a logistical nightmare.

 

Apart from the Friars stage going up there, that was nothing to do with me! I just enjoyed it!

 

I saw you talking on the Bucks TV documentary about being able to relax with a pint at Friars on June 1st, something you couldn't do in the old days!

 

You couldn't really, in the very early days David and I could have bought each other a drink at the bar, but this became not the thing to do as you were at work .

That June 1st gig, I couldn't' believe how the atmosphere came back, it was like it never went away.

Everyone wanted to make it work. It was nothing to do with us, it was the people. Only problem from my point of view is that all the bands were supposed to share a drum kit but they all brought their own kits, but they all got miked up properly and no-one noticed the joins!

 

I really enjoyed that gig and after the gig the Pretty Things were really great.

 

I remember Kid Creole and The Coconuts first appearance and they had such an amazing after show party, that I won't forget it. There was never any standoffishness after gigs. Backstage was great. The rider was always met and Robin (Pike) would put flowers in the dressing rooms. It was part of the reputation and the bands were always made so welcome.

 

Artists have said to me about the flowers and the difference it made.

 

It's not that luxurious backstage, but bands were made so welcome and at the June 1st gig, Robin did the flowers again.

 

It was a great night and to be involved in it not as a punter was incredible.

 

You're one of the people now!

 

Scary! John, I really appreciate your time. Pleased you're enjoying your well earned retirement.

 

Pleasure!

 

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