In a hectic, rather unprepossessing part of West London dominated by the A4, a visit to which means a guaranteed traffic jam, morning, noon or night, Hammersmith is not really a place for idling or enjoying the finer things in life. But it does boast a top quality venue that has hosted some of the biggest names – and most memorable gigs – in rock history.
Originally opened as an art deco-style cinema, the Gaumont Palace, in 1932, it was renamed the Hammersmith Odeon in 1962. Since the early Sixties, anyone who’s anyone has played this modestly-sized, but nevertheless thrilling and influential venue. Here’s a few of the stories.
In July 1973, the morning after David Bowie’s July 3 gig at the Odeon, the newspapers declared ‘Rock n Roll Suicide’ and ‘Bowie Kills Concert Career’. Why? Performing as Ziggy Stardust, Bowie had thanked the audience towards the end of the gig and declared:
“Of all the shows on this tour, this one will live with us the longest. Because not only is it the last show of the tour, it’s the last show we’ll ever do!”
The crowd howled in disappointment. Surely it couldn’t be true? Whether a result of the exhaustion that Bowie must have been suffering after an incredibly hectic schedule, or a cynical business move to whip up interest by threatening to quit, or simply an artistic decision to move on from Ziggy, it represented the end of that Bowie incarnation. He was as good as his word, and thus the Hammersmith Odeon show marked the end of Ziggy – and of the high period of glam rock.
In 1975, Bruce Springsteen arrived. Critical acclaim and a relentless touring schedule had not yet translated into sales for the young tyro from New Jersey. He was under pressure from the record company and there was talk that Columbia might drop him. He responded with one of the finest, most impassioned performances the venue, anywhere, had seen. The exquisitely simple and heartfelt version of ‘Thunder Road’ at Hammersmith is rightly considered one of the great live recordings – if you haven’t heard the album, Hammersmith Odeon London 1975, that it comes from, you gotta get it.
Neil Young’s performance there in the same year was famous for setting part of the venue on fire, a fate that also befell thrash metallers Venom in 1982.They were banned from playing at the venue for a year after burning the ceiling. The much-derided band – after touring with Venom, Henry Rollins compared them to Spinal Tap – also used a Hammy Odeon 1984 date to hit back at their critics who reckoned they couldn’t play their instruments. Guitarist Mantas shouted between songs: “A lot of bands are out there tonight, waiting for Venom to make a mistake. Well, we are the fucking mistake!” Yeah! That’s told ‘em!
And of course, Motörhead’s most successful, and probably best, album, No Sleep Til Hammersmith cemented the venue’s reputation on the rock circuit, the title a reference to the fact that as it was often the last date on a tour. Lemmy and co have a longstanding affiliation with the place – one of their breakthrough bookings was as support for The Blue Oyster Cult there in the early days (1975) and then, in 1985 the band celebrated their ten-year anniversary with a two-night spot at Hammersmith. In 2004, Motörhead were even filmed playing at the (by now) Hammersmith Apollo for Gene Simmons’ TV show Rock School!
Johnny Cash was here in 1966, The Beatles did dozens of dates here, often supported by the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton, Randy Rhoads and Ozzy played one of their first gigs together on the Blizzard of Ozz tour. Bob Marley did Hammersmith on his 1976 Rastaman Vibration Tour. The excellent Live And Dangerous by Thin Lizzy was from shows at Hammersmith, while the opening cut of the massively influential Public Enemy LP It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was recorded here too.
Not a bad history for a smallish place in an unfashionable bit of London!