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How iconic London music venue The Windmill made Brixton a mecca for the best new bands

Every week, The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign supports and champions grassroots music venues across the UK. Today, we’re at the legendary south London venue The Windmill Brixton. Birthplace of great bands and a champion of their community, but struggling in the face of skyrocketing bills.

Members of Black Midi and Black Country, New Road in front of the gold curtain at the Windmill Brixton

Black Midi, New Road play at The Windmill Brixton. Photo: Lou Smith

It’s December 2019 and Black Midi have been the buzziest band of the year. The proggy post-rock outfit have released their debut album, Schlagenheim, through Rough Trade to universal acclaim, even bagging a Mercury nomination. Meanwhile, art rockers Black Country, New Road have been gathering momentum since the release of their first single, Athens, France. They’re poised to be the buzziest band of 2020. Both bands (two drummers and all) are crowded on a small, glitter-backed stage in south London. They’ve come together for one night as Black Midi, New Road to celebrate Christmas with The Windmill Brixton.

It was, says the iconic venue’s booker Tim Perry, a perfect moment, and his favourite gig he’s seen at the venue. “That used to be the most difficult question journalists asked me,” he laughs. “I had to answer it very politically. But there is no argument against that night. It was just everything that you want.

“Black Midi were born here [the members of the band had not long turned 18 when they played their first gig at The Windmill]. Black Country, New Road are a Cambridge band, and they needed a London home and adopted us. And the money went to Brixton Soup Kitchen. They’re a proper local, independent, charity and we’re an independent venue. And, you know, they do good work.”

Of course, we now know what was coming in 2020. Within 11 months, following a rolling series of Covid lockdowns, The Windmill would find itself one of 30 places on the Music Venue Trust’s red list – at imminent danger of permanent closure. Unable to apply for the Cultural Recovery Fund, as they’re not a limited company, “We were a bit screwed,” says Perry.

But an amazing thing happened – their musical community rallied round with a series of fundraising live streams. Between their New Music Mondays and the regularly available slots on the bill for “people who are keen and eager”, playing at The Windmill is the first chance for many bands to make the leap between rehearsal space and playing on stage. Many of those who’d taken advantage of that leg-up showed their support. Black Midi; Black Country, New Road; Bristol post-punk band Squid; performance artist and poet Kae Tempest; balaclava-wearing drag-influenced cult act Lynks. They all stepped up.

“The bands that we’d been supporting from an early stage came back and repaid us double, otherwise we probably wouldn’t be here,” Perry says. People all over the world paid to tune in, and to snap up the exclusive merch you could only buy at the events.

As soon as they were able to reopen, they did – even though initially their capacity was cut from their usual 150 down to just 36. Their regulars were delighted to have them back. “Every night,” Perry remembers, “we were guaranteed that crowd no matter what you put on.”

It’s 20 years since Perry, a former music journalist, took the reins at The Windmill. He’d been attracted to the place – a flat-roofed, former council estate pub – because it felt like the great dive bars he’d been to in America. “I think architecturally, British social architecture of the ‘60s and ‘70s lends itself to great spaces.”

The exterior of The Windmill Brixton
The Windmill in Brixton – one of the finest small independent music venues in London

Though the regulars that used to come in from the estate are mostly gone, that down-to-earth ethos and focus on the local community still permeates the place. “The south of London, because it’s not served by public transport as well as the other areas, has never really had the same live music as Camden or more recently, east London,” says Perry. “I think we’ve got a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. We felt a bit isolated. But we’ve built a hub here. If we going to put on a good band, the industry comes to us.”

The numbers coming through The Windmill’s door are almost back to what they were pre-Covid – but all the costs are rising. Energy bills have more than doubled. Though they fought off an attempt by their commercial landlord to double their rent during lockdown, it still went up in line with the RPI rate of more than 12%.

Across the grassroots music venue industry as a whole, profit margins are razor-thin. It’s a tough job to make the sums add up, while continuing to pay bands fairly, and offering value to their punters, says Perry. “I’m trying not to get to the £6 pint. But I think that’s a few weeks away.”

Meanwhile, across the road, new flats are going up – as in so many gentrifying parts of the country. Perry is confident that the ‘agent of change’ principle – which places the responsibility for mitigating impacts from existing noise-generating activities or uses on the proposed new noise-sensitive development – should protect them from complaints, but he knows that the land the Windmill lies on is valuable.

“We’ll see. The lease on this is up in about six years’ time anyway. It’s prime property. So we’ll keep at it. Unless some billionaire comes in and buys it.”

Harking back to his roots, he remains driven by a very journalistic idea – he wants to be the guy that gets the scoop on the best new band. “You want to have a new angle or find something new. Don’t be doing the same old shit as other people are doing. So that’s what I think drives me and continues to drive me after all these years.”

It takes time to build that level of trust with your audience, but The Windmill has earned the love of generations of gig-goers. “We are getting to be one of the older establishments, I guess, because so many of them are now luxury apartments.”

For more information about The Windmill or to book tickets – the best way to support any grassroots music venue – go here

The Windmill Brixton: Venue Watch analysis

The stage of the Windmill with its sparkly backdrop
Inside The Windmill. Photo: Paul Townley

By Phil Ryan – musician, writer and entrepreneur

What makes a community? In a city. The shops. The pubs and bars. The library. The cafes. The park if there is one. Well, I would argue one slightly hard to define cornerstone of any community is culture. And for me, to solidify it, that always means a strong small grassroots music venue. The kind of place that hosts an eclectic mix of local talent and touring artists. The kind of place that doesn’t break the bank if you want a ticket or a drink.

But that utopian vision in the UK is now fast disappearing. The key factors: greed and lack of support. We have energy companies, private landlords and property developers keen to make a short term fast buck at any cost. Destroy the cultural centres? Sure, why not. After all, what can a community do about it? Local cash strapped councils have no budgets. The ignorant government simply doesn’t care about the UK’s cultural grassroots music fabric, as evidenced by their complete disinterest and lack of meaningful support on any level. This, despite constant reminders from various music creative industry leaders about the vast tax revenue they generate, not to mention the thousands of jobs and livelihoods.

Reading about the uncertainty around Brixton’s The Windmill just saddened me. In an age of sleazy political cronies being ennobled why aren’t we knighting people like the magnificent Tim Perry, head honcho at The Windmill? Or maybe even Lord Perry? That sounds about right to me.

Why? Well, think about it, who would you rather have? Someone who has pumped life and vitality into the Brixton area for so long. Breathing joy and entertainment into a community. Enriching so many lives for more than 20 years. Providing entertainment, supporting soup kitchens – the benefits list of his work is too wide to set down here. And at its heart a tiny music venue. As precious as any opera, gallery or public theatre found in our great cities.

Like so many defenders of the faith, he needs our help. The faith you find in a great night out at The Windmill, with an amazing band, some friends, and a pleasant number of drinks. To lose that is simply unthinkable. His sad six-year prediction will likely happen, I’m sad to say. I think we all see how greed has taken hold everywhere. The onward march of the luxury flat brigade parasites. Tim mentioned the £6 pint he’s trying to avoid. Well, imagine if 100,000 of us sent him £6.00 – maybe he wouldn’t have to put the cost up. Just a thought.

Musician Phil Ryan has toured with The Animals and is co-founder of The Big Issue and The 12 Bar Club.

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