The Friars story: We look at the history of iconic Aylesbury club in the month it turns 50

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The Friars story started with one man in the spring of 1969 and that man’s name is Robin Pike.

Robin - a chemistry teacher at Aylesbury Grammar School - had visited club nights in London and Birmingham and believed that something similar could work well in Aylesbury.

Responsible for booking concerts for the school, Robin had recently met 20 year-old David Stopps, who was promoting and managing local Princes Risborough band Smokey Rice who Robin had booked for one of the Grammar School/High School dances.

The pair arranged to meet up and Robin suggested that they should start up a music club in Aylesbury.

At the time David was sceptical “Aylesbury? High Wycombe maybe, but I’m not sure about Aylesbury”. But Robin won the day.

Together with fellow music enthusiasts Adrian Roach, Jerry Slater, Terry Harms and John Fowler they set about creating a music club. On Monday, June 2 1969 Friars was born; presenting blues artist Mike Cooper and psychedelic prog band Mandrake Paddle Steamer.

Speaking about his early musical experience before Friars, Jerry said: “My first ever gig was at the Grosvenor in Aylesbury (which was later re-named The Borough Assembly Hall), more popularly known as ‘the flea pit’.

“It must have been in 1967 about the same time as Jimi Hendrix played the same venue . My first ever gig was The Small Faces and it was a fantastic .

“Mind you, everyone’s first gig was probably fantastic. I went with Nigel Ward and the pair of us spent most of the previous day backcombing our hair. That night they were terrific and certainly then nobody left after the support act as they had done for Hendrix earlier that year. It must have been around the time they had their first big hits and number ones.”

During 1969 Friars established itself as a key focal point for home counties hippies, and the now demolished New Friarage Hall in Walton Street was packed every Monday night.

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David said: “The first summer of Friars Aylesbury was magical. We all had long hair and wore beads and headbands. Girls wore long flowing dresses and miniskirts and guys wore bell-bottoms and tie dye T-shirts. It was the dawning of a new age in culture and music.”

Friars stalwart Pete Frame, who founded the Aylesbury-based music paper Zigzag and is also famous for his Rock Family Trees added: “The first time I went to Friars was either Edgar Broughton or King Crimson. The light show was amazing. I walked in and thought ‘blimey, I don’t need to go to the Roundhouse anymore, this is amazing’.

“It was such a warm and friendly atmosphere. Everyone was friendly and happy and I made lifelong friends there.”

Music journalist Kris Needs, who also edited Zigzag and designed the famous Friars membership card added: “I came to the first gig and then about the 6th after that. Andy Dunkley was the thing that attracted me, I had never seen a DJ before.

“To see this guy in velvet trousers and a hoop-necked T-shirt, hair down long, glasses. He was so nice and played the latest imports. What got me was those shrink-wrapped things, the mystique of an import. I ran up to him during a Larry Coryell track and said ‘what’s this?’ he was playing a long track on the first album. He took the time to say what it was.”

At the end of that first year Robin booked Mott The Hoople to play at the Aylesbury Grammar School Christmas dance, a triumphant end to a musical revolutionary year for Aylesbury.

Robin remembers: “They had played at Friars and I thought ‘let’s get them to the Grammar’. I spoke to Andy Dunkley and said can you play he said yes. I asked about the Optic Nerve lightshow - yes.

“The Grammar School had never seen anything like it. Everyone was sat on the floor. Andy Dunkley on on the stage said ‘Robin told me it would be like Friars - it is not anything like Friars!’”

Indeed, despite the success of his musical side project, Robin kept very much in the shadows due to the impact he felt it may have on his teaching career.

He said: “There was an establishment view in town and that is why I remained anonymous - looking back I got away with it!”

By 1970 the club had hosted some of the biggest upcoming bands, including Pretty Things, Free, Blodwyn Pig, Edgar Broughton, Black Sabbath, King Crimson, Hawkwind, Mott The Hoople, Van Der Graaf Generator, Groundhogs and Genesis.

The organisers also presented a few ‘foreign gigs’ in Bedford, Dunstable, High Wycombe, Watford and even Princes Risborough.

David said: “The most memorable of these was probably Pink Floyd at Queensway Hall in Dunstable just after the release of their Ummagumma album.”

Adrian Roach recalls: “I’ve listened to a lot of John Peel shows from 1969 and it’s is amazing how many of the groups were on (at Friars) at the same time. It was interesting hearing on the radio all these bands that had been at Friars.”

David continued: “We had more people for King Crimson than any other gig in that first year I think.”

In August 1970 Friars was closed down, after being told it was no longer welcome at the New Friarage Hall.

This put the operation on a nine month hiatus - until the first show in April 1971 at the Borough Assembly Hall in Aylesbury’s Market Square.

David said: “The place was packed and from there Friars switched from Mondays to Saturdays and presented Fleetwood Mac, Mott The Hoople, Genesis, Arthur Brown, The Velvet Underground, Barclay James Harvest and Al Kooper among many others.”

1971 was also the year David Bowie would first come to play on a Friars stage.

Up until that point Bowie had tried a few live performances, but none of them had gone very well.

Almost ready to follow his main ambition of writing musicals, he decided to give one more gig a try, and that would be the Friars Aylesbury show.

And that break came courtesy of a recommendation by Al Kooper, who told the young Bowie that the club was one of the best and most receptive audiences he had ever played to.

So, on September 25 1971 Bowie performed the world premiere of his Hunky Dory album right here in town.

David said: “That night all the stars aligned and the Friars audience took David Bowie to their hearts, which resulted in a standing ovation when he did The Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ as an encore which he would later say was ‘Friars’ song’.

“After the gig I was with him in the tiny Friars dressing room when he said to Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey ‘this was great tonight...Let’s form a band and go out and do it properly’.

“That was the moment that the Spiders from Mars were formed.”

And four months later Bowie and the Spiders returned, on January 29 1972. In the interim the Hunky Dory album had been released and peaked at 77 in the national album chart but came straight in at No 1 in Aylesbury.

Everyone was excited and expecting a repeat performance of the Hunky Dory album they’d enjoyed so much.

But what was to greet them was both extraordinary and ground breaking.

Bowie did perform tracks from Hunky Dory, but he would also debut a stunning repertoire of new material which became The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.

He returned again in the July of that year with the Ziggy character fully developed. He loved Friars so much that he flew in 50 of the top music journalists from the USA especially for the Friars show. This put Friars Aylesbury on the world stage and ensured that Friars was a firm stop

on any band’s UK touring calendar.

From 1972 to 1975, Friars continued to present Saturday nights at the Borough Assembley Hall.

Many consider this to be the golden era of the club and acts included Lou Reed, Roxy Music, Queen, Camel, Ronnie Lane, Cockney Rebel, Can, The MC5, Dr Feelgood and Genesis.

In 1975 the Borough Assembly Hall was closed down, and the club moved to the new Civic Centre, which had a larger capacity of 1250.

In 1975/76 the era’s great touring bands including Tangerine Dream, Captain Beefheart, Manfred Mann’s Earthband, The MC5, Steve Hillage, Dr Feelgood, Eddie and the Hot Rods and Procol Harum would grace the Friars stage.

And then it was time for punk rock, which was kicked off by The Stranglers in December 1976, after that came Iggy Pop with David Bowie on keyboards and a string of the scene’s finest acts including The Ramones, The Clash, The Jam, Motorhead, Blondie, Talking Heads, Buzzcocks and The Slits.

Mixed in with this were the British ska giants Madness, The Beat and The Specials as well as some of the Jamaican reggae legends including Denis Brown, Gregory Isaacs and Toots and The Maytals.

Kris, who was editor of music magazine Zigzag during the punk years, remembers: “Friars was essentially a hippy club so had to ease into punk’s full-throttle revolution on its own terms, immediately up for welcoming pub-rock names like Dr Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods (themselves considered ‘punk’ at first’), along with US pioneers the Flamin’ Groovies in November 1976.

“Unfortunately, a few numbskulls at the following month’s Stranglers show kept Friars shy of punk’s initial 1977 rise, preferring to book Steve Hillage rather than The Clash’s White Riot tour.

“However, after a petition raised by local guitarist Colin Keinch, the Ramones made their highly-successful Friars debut that May and the gates were open, though not fully stampeded until November’s appearance by the (quite safe) Jam.

“As 1978 continued, punk became part of music’s fabric, Colin and I’s ludicrously enthusiastic Vice Creems supporting the Adverts (getting gobbed on, which I always hated).

“The big breakthrough was the long-awaited debut of The Clash in June.

“Like the Ramones, they were adopted by the club and loved the crowd, returning in December and again in January 1980 (when they charged me at the last minute with forming a band to support that night!).

“Now Friars would host immortal nights with Stiff Little Fingers, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Buzzcocks, Ruts, Undertones, Slits, Damned and anyone hot who was now called new wave.

“All the bands loved playing Friars and we loved having them. It could even be seen as symbolic that Stiff Little Fingers were booked to play Friars 50th birthday party.”

By the end of 1984 Friars was outgrowing the 1250 capacity venue, and was struggling to get bigger bands to play. David Stopps also had found a new career as manager for Marillion, and later Howard Jones.

He said: “We decided to call it a day. I always hoped that someone else would pick up the baton and carry on presenting bands in Aylesbury but it never happened.”

“The headline on The Bucks Advertiser when the club closed was ‘The Day the Music Died’.”

So that was supposedly it - and 24 years passed by with no Friars events, and no hope of the club ever being resurrected.

But then Friars superfan Mike O’Connor got in touch with David, asking if it would be OK if he could create a Friars website, not only that - but could Friars come back for a 40th birthday celebration?

David said: “The result is an astonishing website which is used as a world reference for the evolution of music since 1969. The 40th anniversary gig was indeed organised on June 1 2009 with Pretty Things, Edgar Broughton and The Groundhogs all three of which had played Friars in its first year 40 years earlier..”

The show was a huge success and three more Friars shows followed at the Civic Centre in the shape of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Stiff Little Fingers and Paul Weller. The latter being the final show at Aylesbury’s beloved Civic Centre.

Soon after the Civic Centre was completely demolished, construction was completed to make way for the new Waterside Theatre, and in October 2010 the theatre opened with Friars presenting Buzzcocks, Eddie and the Hot Rods and 999. Although the shows are now less frequent, recent Friars events at The Waterside have included Hawkwind, Wilko Johnson, The Specials, Steve Hackett, Holy Holy, The Vaccines, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, and Camel and Marillion.

To celebrate 50 years of Friars Stiff Little Fingers and Eddie and the Hot Rods returned to Friars last month for a rambunctious and fitting 50th birthday performance.

With over 90,000 members Friars Aylesbury is the largest music club in Europe and long may it reign.

From us all at The Bucks Herald - Happy birthday!