Inside London’s Wild Brixton Academy: How Gangsters and Kurt Cobain Made It London’s Top Music Venue
To turn the Brixton Academy into a success, Simon Parkes had to face down intimidating thugs—and make capital from Kurt Cobain’s death.
When I was in my early 20s, my friend Rupert got what we all considered to be the coolest job in the world, working at London’s most exciting live music venue, the Brixton Academy.
The Academy was undoubtedly the best thing about Brixton. The predominantly black south London suburb was still synonymous in the popular and tabloid imagination with the crazed riots that had taken place there in 1981 and 1985 (in which a policeman was killed), and even by the early ’90s, when I first started going there, “Brixton” was still a loaded word, redolent of gang culture, drugs and violence.
But, while waiting in the queue and the walk from the tube station could be a bit hairy, once you were inside the Academy you were safe from the gangs and the violence. It was well worth the hassle of traipsing all the way to the outer reaches of South London, and, as a result of his job, my pal Rupert was a mine of backstage gossip—and would sometimes even be able to sneak me into gigs for free.
He was always a self-possessed chap but still, I could only marvel as I often watched him coolly chatting away to the owner of the place—Simon Parkes.
Parkes was famous among music-loving Londoners, not only because he owned and ran the Academy (ably assisted by his Rastafarian second-in-command Johnny Lawes, another London music scene legend I also came to know through Rupert) but because he did so despite having only one arm (as a result of his mother being prescribed and using the scandalously under-tested drug Thalidomide during pregnancy to combat morning sickness).
His hair-raising new memoir, Live at the Brixton Academy, which I inhaled in a two-day binge-read, tackles the issue of his “disability” (I use the quotation marks because he does, writing, “I was certainly never, ever, allowed to consider myself ‘disabled’”) in the first pages. The book begins with a confrontation with a gang of bullies at his new school, one of whom calls him ‘a one-armed spastic’.
“My answer was to head-butt him square in the nose,” Parkes writes, following advice that he must “never let himself be threatened”.
“He fell backwards, and the other three were so shocked that I’d decked two of them before they had even registered what was going on. The last one jumped on me, trying to get me in a headlock, but I wriggled out of it and decked him too.
“One of the lads wore glasses and ended up having to get five stitches, so of course I was hauled in front of the headmaster. It was all a bit dramatic for the first day of the school year.
“They call me a one armed spastic, sir,” I explained.
“What could the guy do? He gave us all a warning and sent us on our way. But the job was done: no one at that school messed with me again, and I earned the nickname Scrapper, which I wore with some pride.”
Parkes was the son of a rich industrial family and went to Gordonstoun, the Scottish public school favored by the Royals, where Prince Andrew “sat a few desks over” from him. He discovered music, and started sneaking off for weekends to London to see gigs, buying tickets from touts (his first live music experience was Chuck Berry, who played “Johnny B. Goode” as an encore).
He had expected to join the family firm, but by the time he came of age, the family firm had disappeared, and after a few character-building years bouncing up and down and getting thrown out of live shows all over London, he bought the Academy, then a dilapidated former cinema in Brixton which was being used to store chairs. He paid the princely sum of 1 pound—its owners were so desperate to get rid of the liability for the extensive repairs that needed to be done that they effectively gave it to him.
There was another reason for the bargain price—the year before he bought the premises, Brixton had been the scene of the worst rioting in UK history.
Trying to run a live music venue in Brixton, Parkes was immediately plunged into a chaotic world of gangsters, drugs, and violence.
Parkes writes that any illegal drugs found on punters as they came in were put in a bin-like receptacle, which was actually a chute connected directly to the box office—and he and his colleagues would share them out at the end of the evening.
Speaking to The Daily Beast from his home (in now-gentrified Brixton, of course) Parkes—who is now married with kids and sold out of the Academy in 1995 for £2.5m—told me that the fact he was a one-armed posh boy probably worked in his favor.
“I didn’t understand the severity of the threats I was facing,” he says. “My naivety in what I was dealing with got me out of a huge amount of difficulty.”
For example, when local gangsters showed up “offering” to take care of security at the venue, he invited them to drop in their CVs. Baffled, they left him alone.
His childhood education in not allowing himself to be pushed around also stood him in good stead, and despite some serious intimidation —CS gas canisters being lobbed into the building, bouncers being “pincushioned” (Brixton slang for being beaten with baseball bats with 9-inch nails driven through them) and numerous death threats—he blustered through with the benefit of charm, determination, and a Kevlar vest.
The childhood lesson of his one arm—not to allow himself to be pushed around or show weakness—also came in handy when he headbutted a gang leader who was “disrespecting” him in front of other local faces.
In the early days, the only performers who would dare to come to Brixton to perform were black reggae and dancehall stars like Eek-A-Mouse and Dennis Brown. Dealing with the reggae stars was always a fraught affair for Parkes, with an ever-present undertone of double dealing and street politics.
Bunny Wailer was no exception. “We were forced to operate as if we were running some Kingston sound system clash,” recalls Parkes. One Love notwithstanding, on the night of the gig, Bunny demanded his £10,000 fee in cash before he would take to the stage.
This being a Sunday night, Parkes was forced to wait for the punters to spend the 10 grand at the bar to lay his hands on the cash, but when he finally delivered it backstage Bunny’s heavies were displeased.
“One of the guys at the table sprang up and shouted, ‘What the fuck is this? This money is short!’” recalls Parkes.
They quickly had Parkes against the wall. They grabbed him by his throat and lifted him off his feet.
Parkes managed to gasp through the choking, “Is there something wrong with the money?”
“Your count be ten pounds short,” the heavy replied. “There only be nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety pound here.”
Luckily, Parkes had a tenner in his wallet.
As the 5,000-capacity Academy became better known, it attracted ever-bigger acts including Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Leonard Cohen. One of those who came was Ozzy Osbourne.
Before he played, his wife, Sharon contacted Simon and told him that her husband was recently out of rehab. She demanded that not only should the backstage area be completely dry, but that no alcohol be sold anywhere in the venue.
“"Even if they were willing to cover the £50,000 I stood to lose by putting on a dry show, which I seriously doubted, no amount of money was worth having to go out and tell 5000 Sabbath fans they were not allowed to buy beer at a gig they had paid to get into,” says Parkes.
In the end, a compromise was reached. Backstage was completely dry, with no booze at all. The punters were allowed to buy drinks, however, but all the brightly lit displays and beer company logos were turned off.
“I guess Sharon was convinced that just seeing those glowing icons from the stage would be too much temptation for Ozzy in his fragile psychological state.”
A potentially fatal blow to the Academy, which indirectly led to Simon’s decision to sell it, was the death of Kurt Cobain.
Parkes swiftly realized that his box office money for a run of four forthcoming gigs—some £250,000—was insured in the event of a murder, but if it was suicide they were totally exposed.
“I was a big fan of both Hole and Nirvana,” says Parkes, “So even I was a little shocked to catch myself praying, ‘Oh dear God, please say Courtney did it.’ Showbiz does funny things to us all.”
Parkes found an ingenious way to stop the Academy going into liquidation as a result of Cobain’s death. He was doing an interview on the BBC’s Radio One, commiserating with a DJ on the death of Cobain, when he found himself saying, completely off-the-cuff, “It’s absolutely extraordinary, we’ve had people from all over the world frantically calling trying to buy tickets for these concerts. People from America and Japan are offering over 100 pounds for Nirvana tickets, as a piece of history.”
Parkes’ wild claim that the unused tickets for the last gig that Cobain never played were hot was picked up by the newswires and went global. Over the next few days, Parkes and his deputy Johnny Lawes stoked the bubble by putting adverts in the music press offering to purchase unused Nirvana tickets for massively inflated prices.
“We were inventing a market,” says Parkes, “I don’t know how we did it but in the end fewer than 20% of ticket holders demanded a refund. To those that did, we were happy to refund the tickets at £13.50 and then immediately sell them on for £100.”
Not only did the Academy not go under because of Cobain’s death, but remarkably, the wily Parkes winded up turning a profit on four gigs that never happened.
In the end, however, Parkes says Cobain’s death was responsible for his decision to leave the music biz.
Faced with a poptastic music scene that failed to interest him, and after more than a decade of late nights, one can’t blame Parkes for taking a £2.5 million payout.
Parkes took to consultancy and freelance promotion. He decided to write his book four years ago, after he was hospitalized with a near-fatal lung condition.
“I’ve spent the last few years just doing the school run, and working on the book,” he says while being sure to credit his co-writer, JS Rafaeli.
The book is proving to be a big word-of-mouth hit in the UK, and now the production company Working Title have bought the rights with the intention of turning it into a TV series.
Parkes, meanwhile, is enjoying his book tour.
“I’d like to be able to do the kind of speaking events Howard Marks does,” he says. “My dream is to sell enough tickets to fill the Brixton Academy. That really would be something.”