The fall of Fairfield

By - Friday 18th December, 2015

Critics of the proposed two years’ closure of the Fairfield Halls claim the plan jeopardises its future. The halls would be mourned, says Paul Dennis, but largely by people who didn’t go

Artwork by Matt Bannister for the Croydon Citizen.

I recently visited my solicitors in my home town of Burton on Trent to tie up a bit of business. As soon as I mentioned Croydon he said: “Ah, the Fairfield Halls“. His is a surprisingly common reaction, especially amongst people of a certain age (as he is). The Fairfield was one of the venues that any band of note would want to play. If you played the Fairfield, you had made it. The acoustics were great, the crowd was enthusiastic and knowledgeable – a gig at the Fairfield was a big gig.

Obviously the Fairfield was, and is, more than just a rock venue – but it’s that heritage that I am most interested in, thanks to the Fairfield being the setting for some rather iconic albums.

The venue really came to my attention for the first time with the 1971 release of the live album by the band Free, imaginatively titled Free Live, which was recorded in Sunderland and at the Fairfield. The album was rushed out as the band had split, and the record sleeve had a rather hurried look about it. (Bear in mind that in those days, record sleeves were discussed with almost as much enthusiasm as the recordings themselves.) On the reverse of the sleeve was the information on where the tracks were recorded – Croydon! For the first time I became conscious of Croydon as a musical centre.

Fairfield was a byword for live recording excellence

That was not a lone live recording. Traffic, Family, Wishbone Ash, Caravan, blues legend BB King, all at the height of their powers, made well-received live recordings at the halls. The venue was a byword for live recording excellence, and it was no surprise when The Nice recorded their Five Bridges album there. The work was commissioned by the Newcastle Arts Festival in celebration of the city’s five bridges. It premiered in Newcastle on 10th October 1969, but the album was recorded live at the Fairfield seven days later.

Now it is proposed to close the halls for two full years, with the loss of 100 jobs. The proposed new site would include housing and form part of Croydon’s expanding cultural quarter, with its entrance facing across College Green towards East Croydon station rather than out into the traffic. But two years of closure means two years without revenue, then large start-up costs, and the success of the plan depends on continuing profits for its developers.

Should the halls close down, never to rise again (and that is a real fear for many) there would be a fine memorial to Fairfield’s history in rock and by extension, in popular culture. The place would certainly be mourned, even if largely by people who didn’t visit it.

Rock venues are vanishing all over the country. Why should this one be different?

It is a huge shame that there were not more live recordings made there. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the Who – who debuted a live performance of their concept album Tommy there – David Bowie, Elton John, the Supremes and many more all performed on its stage. Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes also failed to record a live set, but the same line up, plus George Harrison, features on Delaney and Bonnie On Tour which was recorded at the Fairfield.

And it’s especially worth remembering that at the time that the halls were attracting star names there was no shortage of rival venues, not just in London, but in and around Croydon itself: Fairfield really had something. Still, looking at things dispassionately, rock venues are vanishing all over the country, so why should this one be any different?

Too small for a major modern outfit, too big to be intimate

Well, those fabulous acoustics are important, and it is one of the most easily accessible venues, not just in the south east, but in the country as a whole. Its transport links could hardly be better.

But in the debit column there is its size. Fairfield is neither one thing nor another for bums on seats: neither big enough to host a modern major rock outfit nor small enough to create the atmosphere of an intimate performance. Making a profit from a gig there becomes tricky. Another big cross against Fairfield is its neglected state: perhaps locals are used to its beat-up exterior, but visitors most certainly are not. It needs work far in excess of ‘a lick of paint’ to spruce it up.

So if, as has been mooted, we do get a replacement, how good will it be? Will it be the same size? Will the acoustic excellence be there? Will it even bear the same name?

We have yet to find out.

What work would be done during the proposed two years of closure? How big a re-structure are we talking about? A lot of work is apparently needed backstage, to equip the halls to load and unload the requirements of modern staging, but what kind of performance space is planned if (and that’s surely a big if) it re-opens? Some serious thought needs to go into what sort of acts would make it both an artistic and commercial success. That could be tricky, in this day and age, but surely it can’t be impossible to strike a good balance?

Build it and they will come? I really, really hope so.

A petition has now been started to keep the Fairfield Halls open during its planned redevelopment. Click here to find out more.

Paul Dennis

Paul Dennis

An award-winning journalist, Paul has worked on angling titles for much of his career, including 16 years as deputy editor of Angler's Mail and 4 years as editor of Total Sea Fishing magazine. He is a regular freelance contributor for a wide array of non-angling-related titles, author of two books on angling and a widely-followed authority on the subject.

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  • David Smith

    Nice article Paul – I worked at Fairfield 1982-85 and there was another issue, which was a prevailing ‘snooty’ attitude to rock and pop music, as the Concert Hall was still trading on its reputation for being a great space for classical music. It wouldn’t surprise me if that still prevails to a degree.

    Also, its interesting that the plan is to have the new entrance facing across College Green, when rumours are about that Croydon College are considering a re-development that involves building over College Green. That’ll go down well!

    • Stephen Giles

      It’s sometimes difficult to hear dialogue from the Fairfield stage above squeeks from the most uncomfortable seats!

    • Anne Giles

      I find classical music exceptionally boring. We are folk fans mainly.

  • Robert Ward

    Thanks for this, I learned a lot about some of my favourite albums, esp Free live.

    Unfortunately times have changed. In the 1960s I saw the Rolling Stones and other big name groups in venues a fraction the size of the Fairfield. We can’t go back to that. What we do need is a venue fit for the 21st Century hosting a 21st Century line up.

    In the last couple of years I have seen Status Quo, Jimmy Carr, Russian State ballet and others live as well as direct broadcast of Hamlet. Theatre was near full. Apparently there are too few nights when this happens, not least because top class acts don’t want to come to a down-at-heel venue.

    A complete closure means it will be very hard to get acts in both now and when the theatre restarts. There will be greater lost revenue at these times which will be much less of a problem if the theatre is kept partly open. There are also the knock on effects on the night-time economy. If I don’t go to the theatre I don’t eat out beforehand, pay for parking, etc. This is without mentioning redundancy costs now and rehiring and training later.

    When defending their decision Councillors do not address the central issue, which is that I cannot see a proper business decision has been made and compared with the alternative of keeping part of the venue working. I do not know what is the right decision but my impression is that the Council doesn’t either.

    The complete closure option minimises capital expenditure which seems to be the Council priority, but they are paid to make a decision for the whole of Croydon.

    • Anne Giles

      We could never afford to eat out before going to the theatre. We would eat early at home before going out.