My Independent review of Simon Parkes’ account of how he turned a dismal, disused cinema into the rock venue of his dreams:
One minute he was a humble punter trying to peek up Debbie Harry’s skirt at a Hammersmith Odeon gig, the next he was the owner of the venue which was to steal the Odeon’s crown. If Simon Parkes’ autobiography – full of raucous tales and Geezer-speak – is ever made into a film, it will be fun trying to find an actor who can do him justice. When he wants to sound hard, he can sometimes come across like Ray Winstone. But would Ray Winstone ever have banked at Coutts?
Born into a well-to-do family from Lincolnshire which had made its money in deep-sea fishing, Parkes was an insider who turned himself into an outsider. A Thalidomide baby who was born with half his left arm missing, he went to school at Gordonstoun, haunt of princes, but soon discovered he was happiest bunking off to concerts down south. In 1982, deciding to strike out on his own, the 23 year-old stumbled into a deal which handed him the Brixton Astoria – once Britain’s biggest cinema, but by then a vacant, decaying art deco colossus – for a mere one pound.
The brewery which held the lease was glad to get a burden off its hands. And as far as the music industry was concerned, Brixton was a place which had riots rather than rock star appeal. Yet over the next decade and a half Parkes transformed the Academy – a name he chose on a whim – into one of the hippest establishments in the country. In the process, he also helped revitalise the entire neighbourhood.
Rock fans will, of course, buy this book for its picaresque account of backstage encounters with the likes of Robert Plant, Eric Clapton and a monumentally capricious Grace Jones. Parkes and his co-writer, musician JS Rafaeli, have no end of yarns to tell. They are, you could say, the very British equivalent of the memoirs of legendary Fillmore promoter, Bill Graham. Yet the narrative works equally well as a non-fiction version of a Colin MacInnes novel, the quick-witted interloper learning how to stay afloat while fending off yardies and drug dealers who assume the cheerful, unassuming white boy is going to be a soft touch.
But Parkes, in the end, is his own man. Even if he has rebelled against his upbringing, he is happy to confess that his public school education gave him the “understated self-assurance” which carries him over one hurdle after another. No Thatcherite, he nevertheless finds himself admiring the Iron Lady’s charisma when he comes face-to-face with her at a community entrepreneurs’ gathering. And he recoils when he sees left-wing activists and council leaders cynically using Brixton’s unemployed youths as pawns in their ideological battles.
Starting off with reggae gigs, he eventually turned the Academy’s huge stage into a place where indie bands pulled in crowds at night and rock’s aristocracy rehearsed stadium shows by day. He even acquired a taste for rave culture. Somehow he kept his idealism intact, more or less, until the moment in the mid-90s when, tired of dealing with the suits and the bean counters of a sleeker, more corporate-driven industry, he decided to sell up. Life was becoming too routine for a man who loved the sound of an audience letting rip.