by Alex Coates
Just over a year ago, arguably the most influential and well-renowned small venue in the UK closed their heavy metal mirror doors for good.
Unlike other contemporary venues which have been lost to the economic and musical recession that swept Britain, The Cockpit, under the arches beneath Leeds train station, went quietly into the night, with no warning and barely a journalistic whimper. Whilst 35,000 petitioned Government in Westminster to save London’s fabled Astoria from Cross-Rail, the axe fell on Yorkshire’s premier live rock and indie venue without a protesting voice being uttered.
All music-loving folk nationwide should have been in mourning for a 500 capacity venue in a much maligned northern industrial city. For me, the importance this dingy night-club and celebrated venue cannot be overstated.
When I was 15, I felt like a cultural and musical outsider. I was shunned by the jocks and abhorred by the wealthy intelligentsia of my hometown, some 15 miles north of Leeds. My friends and I didn’t exactly long to fit in, but at the same time, we couldn’t buy in to the graveyard rebellion of the goths that hung around in Leeds Corn Exchange – the closest thing our city had to an alternative space.
Or so we thought…
28th February 2004 was the first time I first stepped under the archways and into The Cockpit. My friends and I liked alternative rock and indie music, and until that day, we were wanderers in search of our promised land.
As we walked through the doorway, my knees shook at the prospect of being turned away (after all, it was printed right there on the ticket: over 18s only). Each one of us couldn’t help but gasp: the walls leading into Room 1 were plastered with tour announcements of demigods past and present. The hum from a well loved and trusted amplifier kicked into life, beneath a DJ spinning an abridged version of Steve Lamacq’s show that week – the sensory profusion resembling that of legendary US venues only glimpsed at in rockumentaries. The bar was crowded with people in the attire of potential band-members – bar staff and all; the smell of beer, sweat, cigarette smoke, bad cologne, blood, and rock & roll oozed from every surface. It was what we had – until now – unknowingly been searching for.
My first memory of the place was spinning in awe like a kid at Disney World, with posters of The Strokes, The White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs littered the walls. The centrepiece was a large frame containing tickets from the venues’ long and illustrious history – at that point, 10 years and counting.
When my feet settled back to the rotation of the world, we pushed our way to the back of the queue, for the nights’ headline show, by NYC’s forgotten troubadours, Stellastarr*. As I turned to retrieve my ticket from my pocket, I knocked a pint-glass clear out of a smartly dressed punter’s hand, spilling the contents over a very tall, long-haired man. As I rushed to apologise (this is Leeds after all, I might as well have burnt a Viduka shirt in-front of them, as far as I knew), the twang of a soft Nevada accent urged me “not to worry about it”.
I would later realise I had spilled Brandon Flowers’ pint, all over Mark Stoermer. The Killers opened for Stellastarr* that night, and they were not only the first band I would see in The Cockpit, but the first band I would see at any gig. The tone was set, we were hooked: gig junkies for life – and our penchant of choice was The Cockpit.
In the 10 years that followed I bore witness to the pulling power the Cockpit had; from local heroes The Kaiser Chiefs’ breakthrough show; the heavily-touted (pun intended) Bloc Party NME secret show; the first throes of Peter Doherty’s life after The Libertines; Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s emphatic pre-festival warm-up; and the infamous night The Cockpit was plunged into darkness mid-Hope of the States set (a no-additional-ambience-required band, if ever there was one), along with the first UK tours of almost every post-2002 UK indie-bands as they changed the musical landscape of the country. It was a fine time to be a fan of live guitar-based music.
But why exactly was The Cockpit so important?
Leeds Cockpit brought music to the heart of an often forgotten city. It brought together a community, both locally and nationally, earning a reputation for booking bands far too big for its capacity; guaranteeing raucous and riotous sold out shows.
The Cockpit embodied the city to which it belonged: a plucky underdog, capable of beating the Brixton Academy and Manchester Apollo at their own game. Without The Cockpit, Leeds was only ever seen musically as the city which hosted the little-sister of Reading festival. With it, Leeds music scene thrived, developing household names and becoming a must-visit city for all touring artists, big or small. From 2002-2014, if you were in a small to mid sized rock or indie band, you played Leeds on every UK tour, and you probably played the Cockpit.
But what did the bands think of it?
Viewers of Zane Lowe’s MTV2 show (MTV used to have a music channel!), would do well to remember his interview with Canadian band The Stills, where they were asked to name their favourite UK venue. It was of course The Cockpit, where they co-headlined with The Shins in 2004. Vocalist Tim Fletcher said, “I remember reading the name ‘The Cockpit’ and thinking the tour manager had lined us up a gig at a gay bar – but when we saw the walls backstage, we knew we were in a really cool place”.
The Cockpit’s backstage was probably the most enlightening part of the venue. The arched walls were soundproofed using large plastic squares. Many had been signed by the acts that graced the stage. Hidden away in one corner was Dave Grohl’s scrawl – although the Foo Fighters actually played across the city at the Town & Country. Other cubes had the names of the Libertines, the Strokes, Karen O, the Shins, the Dandy Warhols, Bloc Party, Kasabian, Amy Winehouse, Muse – if you hadn’t signed that wall, you hadn’t made it yet.
In the months since the venue closed, I was amazed by how many bands still talked about it with fondness. Steven Chen from The Airborne Toxic Event noted he “was bummed when he heard the news”, that place “had always been good to them”. This is a band who typified the need for venues like the Cockpit more than almost any other: a self-funded band, indie in every sense of the word, travelling from LA in search of a place to hold and host their core audience. This is probably where the loss will be most keenly felt: The Cockpit hosted anyone who would have a go filling it.
How did the Cockpit position itself to be in the centre of the indie scene?
The key to the venue’s success was two-fold: it was adaptable (it had expanded to three rooms when it closed) – it would host rock shows, indie shows, tribute bands, and club nights. But also, and probably most crucially, it was split between the two most highly regarded promoters in the city: Futuresound & Slam Dunk – the former brokering deals with the likes of See Tickets and Live Nation early on in their respective lives, to ensure the best touring acts visited; the latter pulling the best rock, punk and heavier acts from the region and the country through the doors.
They volunteered to host the overspill of acts from the first Live at Leeds, and continually offered the venue as a Leeds Festival warm up gig-of-choice. Coupled with this, their club nights kept the venue packed throughout the week, although, there was rarely a night off for the sound engineers, with the gig calendar pretty much fully-booked year round.
Where did it all go wrong?
The truth about the closure of the cornerstone of Yorkshire’s music scene will probably remain untold, but the newly installed “National Rail – Property to Let” signs plastered over the fabled entry way really do speak a thousand words. The official reasoning given was the deterioration of the building, with National Rail blaming their tenant (The Cockpit promoters) for exceeding noise limits and damaging the structural integrity of the building, whilst the promoters blamed their landlords for not maintaining the archway to a suitable standard (what with upwards of 30 trains an hour passing over the venue). Either way, the repair bill was reported to be over £1m, and neither party was willing to foot it.
What’s next for Leeds?
Since the demise of the Cockpit, Slam Dunk has moved their base of operations to the newly opened Key Club. Whilst the number of touring artists as a whole has declined, Leeds has fallen off many a tour manager’s radar. But there are glimmers of hope: Leeds’ finest watering hole, the Brudenell Social Club, which was a main source of competition for The Cockpit for almost a decade, has expanded its hosting abilities to two rooms.
Along the same road, on the outskirts of the city centre, The Royal Park has begun to put on shows after a long absence (formerly Royal Park Cellars; legendary for allegedly hosting an Eagles of Death Metal Leeds Festival warm-up show), whilst the likes of the Stylus and the Refectory show the traditional yet still growing trend of universities choosing to expand their spare space into music venues.
But there is a sense that Leeds has lost its soul, its essence, its status as a hub for alternative music culture. The studios are closing, the glorified guitar-shrine that masqueraded as a music shop has downsized. The city is hollow, forgotten once again – and only another austerity-defiant collective, hell bent on bringing rock ‘n roll back to the people of Leeds, will save it.