Simon Parkes: How I bought Brixton Academy for £1

Simon Parkes: How I bought Brixton Academy for £1

Former Brixton Academy owner Simon Parkes has recounted the story of how he transformed the venue into one of the best in the country after buying it for £1 in the 1980s.

Parkes, who released a book about his experiences - Live At The Brixton Academy: A Riotous Life In The Music Business - in 2014, spoke at this week's AIF Festival Congress in Cardiff. 

"Aged 23, I decided that I could take this venue and turn it into the best music venue in town," said Parkes. "It belonged to a brewery so I rang the brewery and I could tell that they were excited that someone was showing any interest in this building at all.

"They wanted £120,000 for a 15-year lease. Back then - 1983 - that was a considerable amount of money, it still is today. I didn't have £120,000, but by the time I finished the meeting I said to them, I'll give you £1 and I'll sell your beer for 10 years - and that's how I got the venue for £1."

Parkes, who is originally from Lincolnshire, was unaware of Brixton's reputation at the time. "I soon found that out when I started to ring agents," he admitted. "[They said], You will never get a band to play Brixton Academy. They were right, I didn't get a band. I even tried the agents for the R&B and soul and they said, The area's too rough for our audience.

"We did start to get the odd reggae band and very quickly we cornered the reggae market, but the reggae market back then was probably one or two gigs a month. Having done a deal with the brewery about selling beer, we weren't selling a lot of beer on reggae concerts. In fact everyone was just getting stoned."

After being largely shunned in the UK, Parkes' breakthrough came when he flew to LA to speak to US agents. "They didn't realise Brixton in those days was considered very dangerous and I came away my first band - Red Hot Chili Peppers - and that sent a message to the agents that I wasn't going to go away easily.

"But probably the big breakthrough moment was the politics at the time when Mrs Thatcher was taking on the miners and we got this gig - Arthur Scargill's Christmas Party with The Clash. We sold out five nights and it was absolutely outstanding and that was a turning point for the venue and me because I could see from the feedback and the way the crowd behaved that we were on the right track but it also made some of the agents sit up.

"Not long after that we started to get bands like The Ramones, The Band, The Cult and lots more politically motivated events or causes. The Smiths last ever gig was at Brixton Academy."

However, the venue's burgeoning success did not go unnoticed by local gangsters, who soon demanded a piece of the pie. "I had death threats on me. I turned to the police and Scotland Yard Criminal Intelligence Unit and thankfully they protected me.

"In the meantime, we were making great headway with the bands and there were emerging promoters back in the day - the young Simon Moran at SJM, young Bob Angus with his Metropolis Music and so on - and these were risk takers."

As the rave scene took off in the '90s, Parkes eventually decided he'd had enough. "I very specifically remember: 4am, my 10th cup of coffee, second packet of cigarettes, on a rave thinking, I can't do this anymore," he said. "That was when I decided I was going to sell - and I sold it. Now some people ask me do I regret it? Sometimes my bank balance tells me that I do regret it. Some people ask me, Would it be possible to do the same again today? And I think on that scale... it would be a miracle, I don't think you could possibly do it."

Parkes went on to reveal astounding details on the venue's rental rates. 'When I bought the building I then bought the head lease out as well. "I bought it for a £1 off the brewery but the head lease cost a little bit more," said Parkes. "But the rate back then was from a 1929 year lease pre-the Wall Street crash… so the rent on the Brixton Academy right now, until 2029, is £50 a week."

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