When Adele, Bowie, Hendrix and Radiohead played the smallest Kent venues8 min read
As this year’s Independent Venues Week celebrates the small stages across the country putting on live music, we decide to look into Kent’s past and reveal the biggest names who have graced some of the smallest stages.
From 60s rock legends to 90s indie darlings, some of the most acclaimed musicians have performed gigs in our county’s towns – how many were you at?
Nestled in the Northgate part of the historic city, a trip to the refurbished Penny Theatre these days will reward you with clean decor, craft beers, cocktails and live sport.
But back in the 90s, this 300 capacity venue was a sweaty and claustrophobic place that hosted some of the most exciting up-and-comers in the music industry.
January 1993 saw a performance from Oxford’s art rock stadium band Radiohead, who have since headlined Glastonbury and released a slew of critically adored records.
This Canterbury performance was way before all of that global success, although reports at the time suggest the five-piece performed their future 90’s rock playlist favourite ‘Creep’ to the punters.
They weren’t the only big names to appear there, either.
Jamiroquai and The Cranberries both performed in October 1992, and a few years later Supergrass and Skunk Anansie also played sets.
The stage at the Penny was the site of a post-gig tragedy in 1998.
Reggae star Judge Dread died after collapsing onstage at the end of a performance.
As reported by Rolling Stone at the time, the singer, famous for 70s hit s ‘Je’T’aime’ and ‘ Big Seven’ was thanking the band as he keeled over and suffered a heart attack.
The 53-year-old died at Kent and Canterbury hospital later that evening.
The Penny Theatre had a mural painted on the wall after the fateful gig, but was removed when the venue was refurbished ten years ago.
Fast-forwarding a few years, the Farmhouse bar on Dover Street hosted a few popular acts of the mid-noughties.
Banjo-botherers Mumford & Sons put on a show there in February 2009, as did the indie chart-topping Two Door Cinema Club in November the same year.
Regarded by many music aficionados as the most important guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix died of alcohol and drug abuse in a London hotel in 1970.
Four years prior, on New Year’s Eve of 1966, he performed with Noel Redding at the Hillside Social Club, which once stood on Folkestone’s Rendezvous Street.
It is thought the gig was impromptu, as it had not been advertised at all beforehand.
It’s even believed that Noel Redding brought the band to his mother’s house after the concert, and Hendrix was annoyed because the family dog was hogging the spot in front of the fireplace.
This is supposedly the inspiration for the song Fire and the line “Move over Rover/Let Jimi take over.”
There’s now a commemorative plaque on the spot the Hillside Social Club used to sit, after a group of music enthusiasts raised funds to have it made and installed.
By far the buzziest Folkestone venue in the early 90s was Metronome.
Before Britpop exploded onto the scene and became the dominant sound of the decade, future stadium bands played to enthusiastic crowds at this now closed venue.
From Suede to PJ Harvey and The Manic Street Preachers, you would have struggled to find another small venue in Kent at the time hosting such talented bands.
Folk-blues master John Martyn even performed there, a musician whose 1973 record Solid Air is widely regarded as a defining record of its time.
Our business editor Chris Britcher fondly remembers the days when Metronome was the only place a music obsessive would want to be: “It was a wonderful little old theatre-style venue, small but just how gigs should be – you could enter the moshpit or stand on the balcony and enjoy the show from above.
“Tickets were easy to come by, bars easily accessed, and a good time had by all.
“I remember watching the Manic Street Preachers in 1992 there – touring their debut album Generation Terrorists. I can remember seeing Richey Edwards’ arm where you could see the ‘4 Real’ he had carved into it in front of a disturbed NME journalist a year before.
“He went missing three years later and was never seen again.
“But the venue gave you a chance to see the likes of Suede, PJ Harvey and a host of others without having to trawl up to London. And when they started getting big, it was satisfying to know they had not only won over a Kent audience, but you’d had a chance to be part of it.”
‘It was a wonderful little old theatre-style venue, small but just how gigs should be…’
He added: “They remain, all these years later, some of my fondest music-going memories – primarily because they didn’t involve the hassle of racing for the last train home or paying London prices.”
Boasting such a short train journey to London – arguably the music capital of the world – the Medway Towns are mostly forgotten by touring bands these days.
But back in the 60s, one of the biggest groups in rock ‘n’ roll history stopped off in Rochester for a handful of performances.
The Rolling Stones played two shows at the town’s Odeon Theatre in 1963 and 1964, the latter just months before their released their debut self-titled album.
That record went to number 1 in the UK charts, and the Stones were a global sensation by the end of the decade.
A book released in 2015 recalls memories of those who were there witnessing history being made.
Angela Batty, who was 13 when she saw the band perform in February 1964, said: “Oh but what a night! The atmosphere and excitement were just something you had to be there to experience.”
Kent born Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met in 1961 at Dartford train station as teenagers, with a blue plaque put up in 2015 marking the spot.
Believe it or not, they weren’t the only rock juggernauts to have put in an appearance at the theatre, either.
The Who also put on a double show in April 1966 to adoring Kent fans.
In December of that year they would release second record A Quick One, which featured the high-charting song ‘Happy Jack’.
The county town has had its fair share of big names performing in places like Mote Park and nearby Leeds Castle, but many forget the places where big names appeared way before they broke into the mainstream.
Back in December 1981, fans were able to witness a show from from psychedelic space rock band Hawkwind.
The group were in part inspired by bands coming out of the Canterbury progressive rock scene in the late 60s, like Caravan, Soft Machine and Gong.
Having released a staggering 34 studio records to date, their music legacy across the world is huge.
Years later, the now-defunct Union Bar on Pudding Lane was a place to catch some relatively big names.
Nineties Northern Irish indie-rockers Ash performed in January 2000, winning an Ivor Novello two years later for their song ‘Shining Light.’
Love or loathe their particular brand of piano-led pop, Keane also performed there in November of the same year.
Their 2004 record Hopes and Fears has since been certified 9x platinum in the UK, and bought the band international acclaim.
It’s even believed Coldplay may have played a set there once upon a time, before being catapulted into stardom in the early-2000s.
It’s difficult to get much bigger than the Starman himself – one David Bowie.
But before taking on that particular moniker, Davey Jones played regularly with his band The Lower Thirds at the Cliftonville Hall.
In 1965 the band started a residency in the small community hall, playing to crowds between June and August of that year.
It’s not a venue that sees too much action these days – although popular art rock band Squid played a socially-distanced show there last year.
It wasn’t the only play you could catch Bowie either – prior to joining The Lower Thirds as lead singer, he played in The Manish Boys in 1964 close to the Royal Star Shopping Arcade in Maidstone.
One tiny basement in Margate was host to a string of cult favourites, too.
The West Coast Bar, opposite where the Turner Art Gallery now sits, was one of the few places in Kent you could see bands big on the American metal and hardcore scene.
There in the late noughties, if you were so inclined you could catch the now-retired Brighton hardcore punks The Ghost of a Thousand, who would regularly whip up a moshpit so fierce that injuries were aplenty.
Midlands two-piece Sleaford Mods appeared in 2009, and three years later the Ohio doom metal darlings Skeletonwitch played in the sweaty basement.
Even San Franciso death metal act Deafheaven played a set there, a couple of years before releasing their acclaimed record Sunbather.
Now the bar has been refurbished as Olby’s Soul Cafe and still puts on music nights, but hasn’t attracted any big names from the US metal world.
Just up the road, Elsewhere Record Store in The Centre has become one of the hottest spots for buzzy artists visiting the county.
Since opening in 2018, Sammy Clarke and the team have hosted acts like Self Esteem, Sports Team and the improbably named Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs.
If that wasn’t enough, five miles away on Ramsgate’s Turner Street you’ll find The Ramsgate Music Hall.
Run by Andre Dack, since 2013 the venue has hosted former Public Image Limited bassist Jah Wobble, Japanese math-rockers Melt Banana, and French art-pop band Stereolab.
As part of Independent Venues Week, the Ramsgate Music Hall are putting on a handful of shows celebrating small venues.
On Saturday, January 29, The K’s will be performing, and on Wednesday, February 2, will see sets from Deep Tan, Priestgate and Deadletter.
One venue still going strong nearly three decades later is The Forum, in Tunbridge Wells.
Making use of an old public toilet building, the 250-capacity space opened in 1993 and soon became a regular stop for bands on the UK gigging circuit.
It has hosted a wealth of household names from Britain and beyond – from synth nerd super-group Muse in May 1993, to Blur guitarist Graham Coxon in 2009.
BBC Radio 1 favourites Biffy Clyro played there four times between 2001 and 2003, and even Adele put in an appearance as a support act before becoming a global sensation.
In 2021 the venue was named Britain’s best small venue by NME, and is still putting on sweaty shows to this day.