Monday 10 February 2020

Live at Leeds 50 years old

This story originally appeared in Leeds magazine. Words by Phil Sutcliffe

Roger Waters, Pink Floyd, 28 Feb 1970
Roger Waters, Pink Floyd at the University of Leeds 28 February 1970

“It was heaven.” Leeds, that is. “It seemed that life consisted of staggering from one gig to another.” Circa 1970, that is. When the student world, through the eyes of 15 graduates this magazine interviewed, looked like this.

In a time changing quickly, a city changing less quickly... thousands of girls with long hair drifting in maxi-skirts and mini-skirts and flowing frocks and PVC macs, and thousands of boys with long hair strolling in reefer jackets and navy surplus winter coats and superflared loon pants... and engineers wearing proper shirts with collars and ties... and living in dodgy digs and grotty flats and huge halls of residence... and going down the Union and buying pints of Tetley’s or scrumpy and black, or wandering down to the Fenton, if you were a lefty, or the Eldon, if you weren’t, or Yates’s where they did “docks” of sherry (a quarter pint!)... and then off to the six or seven parties on the list in your back pocket and a lot more Tetley’s, but probably nothing narcotic even though sometimes the cigarettes smelt weird and the cakes tasted strange... and talking about the latest Vietnam or South Africa demonstration and deciding not to join them... and reconvening the next morning in the MJ coffee bar, bleary-eyed, and trying to crank yourself up to do some work... and then doing it all over again...

Until Saturday night. Because Saturday night meant the Refec, the greatest bands in the country at the greatest venue in the country. It wasn’t just The Who and the Live at Leeds legend, it was Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Free, Leonard Cohen, Yes, Derek and the Dominoes, The Moody Blues, Elton John, all of them in 1970-1 alone.

Yeah. Heaven was the place to be and it was called the Refec.

Of course, everyone has their own all-time favourite memory, but The Rolling Stones in March 1971, playing four days after Led Zeppelin, set one enduring benchmark. The Stones turned down most student gigs because they usually meant chaotic organisation. But, by then, everyone knew Leeds was different.

David Gilmour, Pink Floyd, 28 Feb 1970 Copyright John Rettie

David Gilmour, Pink Floyd play Leeds 28 February 1970 

The build-up began seven days earlier with a remarkable display of fan fervour. Nigel Abbott (Geography 1972) wanted to beat the preceding-Sunday rush for tickets: “We saw John Mayall the previous evening (March 6), then went to some parties and came back to queue outside the Refec in the middle of the night. By then it was snowing.”

When Union staff, working in the small post-gigs hours, looked out to see a stoic row of 850 snowmen, they ushered everyone in and offered hot tea. The students slept on the floor until the box office opened. On the night of the show itself, Peter Robinson (English 1974), joined the massed ranks of the ticketless gathered in the courtyard outside the Refec (others found their way on to the roof). “I couldn’t get a ticket, but it was great,” recalls Peter, now author of the Inspector Banks mysteries. “You could hear perfectly and dance and sing. I got a look into the dressing-room, down below the Refec. Mick Jagger was holding back until the crowd noise built up and he gave us a wave.”

Inside, John Uren (Civil Engineering 1971, PhD 1974) was growing impatient: “They did keep us waiting. But then this American voice said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, The Rolling Stones!’ and Jagger leapt into a single spotlight beam and went into Jumping Jack Flash. The roof nearly came off.”

For the next hour Uren witnessed “the greatest gig I’d ever seen”. But really that’s how most ex-Leeds students talk about their Number One night at the Refec.

Nick Mason, Pink Floyd, 28 Feb 1970 Copyright John Rettie

Nick Mason, Pink Floyd in Leeds Refectory 28 February 1970

Quite simply it was a magic venue. Everybody loved it - well, bar those vying for a bridge championship whilst enduring the racket of a Led Zeppelin concert next door. Or others who mourned the transition from ‘hops’, where a boy and a girl might dance together, to de facto concerts with a lot of hippie sitting on the floor. Nonetheless, with 2,000 crammed together, intimacy abounded perforce.

In fact, Les Buck (Civil Engineering 1972) recalls it as a pungently olfactory experience: “Students wore a lot of second-hand fur coats and trench-coats and we all lived in damp, horrible places too - so after a couple of hours this really rank smell hung in the air...”

Aromatic or otherwise, the atmosphere grabbed people and inspired them. For long-time rock fans like Peter Robinson, a Leeds native, the Refec exercised a tidal pull: “I was completely carried along by it,” he says. But Susi Abbott (Geography 1973), now married to Nigel, had rarely watched a live band before her Freshers’ Week. The Pretty Things “opened my eyes, I’d never seen anything like it” and she became a Refec regular. The same for John Standerline (Physics 1970); he reckoned himself “a quiet person” before Leeds, then he saw Traffic and “I never looked back”.

Students respecting the security rope at Live at Leeds Copyright John Rettie

Naturally, the place fizzed with the “wow” factor of sweaty proximity to stars/heroes/admired artists. Yet this audience proved so knowledgeable and warm that an old rope suspended from two posts was all that stood between stage and crowd. Nobody ever crossed it.

Respected, the artists would then act just like ordinary, friendly human beings rather than prickly art-gods: John Mayall and Fairport Convention slept on students’ floors when they couldn’t get hotel rooms; Roger Daltrey chatted with student “roadies” after a Who show - then they gave his “600 quid” Jensen Interceptor a push when it wouldn’t start; Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood cadged a lift to the airport in the Union’s Commer van one foggy night and stood on a seat with their heads stuck through a roof window yelling “We’ll help you navigate!”

At the end of his concert on May 16, 1970, Leonard Cohen - never as glum as he looks - found the right words to express what the Refec was all about. “Nobody wanted him to go,” says Robert Epstone (Textile Management 1970). “So he said, ‘Just peel the atmosphere off the walls and take it home with you’. Somehow I met him afterwards and he was just normal and chatty. And that wasn’t a surprise. The ‘stars’ were approachable. You liked them but without that adoration. Everybody was the same. It was a beautiful thing about that period, gone forever I fear.”

Richard Wright, Pink Floyd at the University of Leeds, 28 February 1970 Copyright John Rettie

Roger Wright, Pink Floyd at the University of Leeds, 28 February 1970

The Refec was a beautiful thing itself, although its uplifting qualities as a venue seem barely explicable - unless you look at the mundane side of the magic: inexperienced, student volunteers doing their best in a hazard-strewn business.

Simon Brogan (Economics and History 1971) presided over the Refec’s apotheosis, booking Pink Floyd (four times), Led Zeppelin (twice), The Who (twice), Leonard Cohen and The Rolling Stones as ents sec from March 1969 to March 1971. He took a straightforward view of how the Refec concerts clicked: “Although Leeds was not a grand gig in any sense at all, I believed my job - with the committee members John Standerline and Pete Hart - was to get musicians on stage untroubled and in a good state of mind.”

Standerline and Hart would shepherd bands and equipment into the building: “We made sure the set-up and sound check went smoothly and stayed in the background so the bands could get on with their work. We just thought it was the way to behave - not in awe, but in what we later realised was a professional manner. And this created the reputation.”

“Group shots of me and the ents guys with the stars would have been nice,” says Brogan. “But organising it would have so irritated the bands. I thought it was important to respect their privacy. They go on stage for us, what more do you want? Then the nature of the audience, the energy of their reaction, their rapport, willed the artists on to give of their best.”

The development of (unpaid) professional standards began under Brogan’s immediate ents sec predecessors including Phil Rawkins (Sociology 1968) and Martyn Cox (Psychology and Statistics). They weathered the initial onslaught of music business hype as the student market grew and the Refec’s showcase potential emerged. “Phil and I were everybody’s best friends for a while,” laughs Cox.

But, working from a chair beside the Union telephonist (who also “sorted out” the contracts!), they began to book a hipper class of artist. Crucially, they worked out how to expand the Refec’s legal capacity - meaning more audience, more income and ultimately the legendary names Brogan lined up.

This involved something of a flanker on the safety front. They wanted Riley Smith Hall, on the other side of the Union building, to be counted as part of the venue. Once the fire officers had accepted their arguments, they could sell 2,000 tickets; the Riley Smith housed Cox’s Gosh! disco and offered a second stage, allowing quick turnaround between support band and headliner.

Less imposing but more flexible than the theatre and City Hall circuit, the Refec proved perfectly practical. Even so, when Brogan became ents sec he “always felt nervous about it”. But he tackled it with a true fan’s passion (and diligent study of John Peel’s Perfumed Garden on Radio One) filtered through an expert’s commercial objectivity. His “office” was by then a telephone booth in the Union lobby. He monopolised it every lunchtime and became a familiar figure in his grey, ankle-length gabardine raincoat, green woollen muffler and blue denim suit (he had two, one always clean for Saturday night).

Despite his eccentric Dr Who air, the Union council frequently expressed their trust by succumbing to his ground-breaking proposals. Given proper democratic restraints, his pleas ranged from a couple of quid to buy the musicians one drink each to the go-ahead for his first £1,000 bookings, The Who and Led Zeppelin. “It seemed a colossal amount of money,” he says. “But you only needed to charge 10/6 (52.5p). I knew I could sell out. The other costs were only about £50. So 2,000 people at 10/- equalled £1,000.”

With a financial imperative to break even, his bookings achieved a prodigious average of 95 per cent capacity and, on one financial year where the records have survived, a profit of £10 on a turnover of many thousands - the ultimate fair deal for student punters.

Meanwhile, working front-of-house during the shows, Standerline had an easy time of it, he reckons. Plenty of booze consumed but hardly a fight worth the name and little conspicuous drug use: “We didn’t want to get raided, so if we saw someone smoking pot we’d have a word, ‘Not in here, mate’. And they’d stop.”

Standerline’s only problem was people getting in without paying. He just knew some slipped through, but he could never find out how they did it. (Peter Robinson’s reminiscences offer a clue here, related to the local sport of “roof-running”: “Just once, for Family, I did sneak into the Refec by climbing up to the roof of one building, then crossing over to another one, down through a deserted kitchen and in through a door near the Refec stage.”)

Nobody really minded. Good vibes. Amazing.

“Leeds moulded my life,” says documentary filmmaker Sandy Perrins (Fine Art 1971), who danced with abandon on the Refec roof as the Who played below. “It was a fantastic time to be at university because of the hippie era, the music, women’s lib - and being 18 and away from home and feeling complete freedom, including huge freedom of creativity in my work.”

Nearly all the Leeds alumni this magazine spoke to, like Perrins, would place music right in the middle of their university life picture - on the radio, on the Dansette record player, and overwhelmingly live every Refec Saturday night.

In light of these encomia for the enduring value of ‘60s and early ‘70s rock and pop, it’s odd to note how, at the time, many students looked down on the Refec scene.

Rawkins says that when he ran Refec gigs pre-Brogan, some of his Sociology department classmates “thought I was selling out - because ents dealt with filthy lucre, you know”. Post-Brogan, Pete Smith (Sociology 1974), the last of the part-time amateur ents secs before sabbaticals came in, says that during his term “the Union council hated the fact that the University was known for ents because they saw promoting gigs as a right-wing business” .

Betweenwhiles, in Brogan’s time, ents came under fire from Union arts festival organisers calling for more diverse events, less dominance by Saturday night at the Refec. Brogan dismissed these arguments in a Union News head-to-head interview back then - “What irritates me is that arts festival runs at a calculated loss” - and he still does today. While never political in the parties and demos sense, he argues, “Subsidised arts are for the posh middle classes it seems, unsubsidised arts are for the masses. Ents got no grants. We had to pay our way. Experimental theatre and film didn’t, so they had to be subsidised. But if you could book Led Zeppelin, a superior example of popular culture, why wouldn’t you?”

Loving music, after Leeds Brogan tried working in a rock agency and road-managing bands. But he soon found the touring life too non-stop stressful. For the past 32 years, he has lived on a small Orkney island with his family and the 450 sheep they farm. Yet he remains convinced of music’s profound value: “If you are a thinking person then it’s about trying to find meaning in life. Booking bands, I particularly looked for intelligent lyrics and passionate commitment. When I come across that even now - in Ray Lamontagne or Arcade Fire, say - I’m immediately bowled over. They have a conscience, they think and produce songs of real relevance. .

“In a highly pressured, claustrophobic society, music is still a form of freedom. It means a lot to many people. It’s food for the mind and spirit.”

With thanks to all Leeds alumni who contributed to the kaleidoscope of reminiscence, whether or not they are quoted by name in this feature: Nigel Abbott, Susi Abbott, Simon Brogan, Les Buck, Martyn Cox, Richard Denyer (a Poly graduate), Pete Dickinson (Civil Engineering 1969), Robert Epstone, Melvin Hurst (Civil Engineering 1970), Sandy Perrins, Phil Rawkins, Peter Robinson, Pete Smith, John Standerline, John Uren.

“I actually went to the Led Zeppelin and Who concerts, but was as far away from the front as possible, because even then the music was too loud for me - boring or what!”

Too loud for one student!