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Brighton rock

Brighton is a progressive city, including the constituency of the only Green Party MP in the UK. Under normal circumstances, much less than an hour away from Croydon by train with a regular scheduled service without changes, it boasts good coffee shops, good pubs, countless record stores selling both new and second-hand CDs and vinyl, and some excellent musical instrument shops. The University of Sussex is located just outside Brighton so it’s fitting that there are also a number of venues for live music. The Brighton Centre entertains political parties, record fairs and all sorts of other things including scientific meetings (I was a delegate at the joint British Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics/European Federation for Immunogenetics congress in 1995) but along with the adjacent Kingswest complex, it’s derided for its brutalist architecture which isn’t considered to fit at all with the rest of the town’s seafront streetscape. I think the 60s architectural style is entirely fitting for a venue where I went to see Yes performing on the Yes Symphonic tour in 2001.

The Komedia is an all standing venue not unlike the Electric Ballroom in Camden or the old Astoria in Charing Cross Road, with a high ceiling giving the impression of a large space. My two visits there were both for Steve Hackett gigs, in 2010 and 2012, pre-dating the Genesis Revisited tours and both very enjoyable, featuring a range of material from his repertoire.

Straying outside of the run-of-the-mill progressive rock fare, I’ve also been to see Pat Metheny and the Esbjorn Svensson Trio in Brighton, at the rather impressive Brighton Dome. This Grade I listed building has had a history going back over 200 years during which time it’s been a stable block, a temporary hospital, a roller rink and, in the words of the Dome’s website but a description I’m not going to argue with, it’s now the south coast's leading multi-arts venue. I was last there to see Anderson Rabin Wakeman (ARW) performing ‘an evening of Yes music and more’ in March 2017, preferring the opportunity of an evening out in Brighton to the only-just shorter trek to Hammersmith and would happily choose it in place of west London for any future gigs.

Anderson Rabin Wakeman, Brighton Dome, 15th March 2017

The Dome was commissioned by the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) and built between 1803 and 1808. His taste for flamboyant fashions and outlandish architecture is well documented, as was his predilection for mistresses. He used to stay at a small lodging house on Old Steine but alterations and additions to these lodgings meant that the original stables needed to be replaced so the Prince commissioned architect William Porden to draw up plans for a vast new stable block and riding house. The new stables could be viewed as an Oriental version of the Pantheon in Rome, devoted to George's love of horsemanship; the five-year build incorporated 61 stalls, 38 for hunters and other saddle horses and 23 for coach horses, and cost the not inconsequential sum of £54,783, almost bankrupting the Prince in the process so that his father, the King, had to appeal to Parliament to clear the debt.

The exterior of the Dome was inspired by the great Jami Masjid (Friday Mosque) in Delhi, as there was a widespread interest in all things Indian at the time, whereas the interior was influenced by the design of the Paris Corn Exchange, whose segmented glass ceiling was copied in the original dome construction. The dimensions of the domed roof (24m in diameter, 20m high) made it one of the largest constructions of its type in the world and there were severe doubts about its stability once the scaffolding had been removed, though Porden himself had absolute faith in the engineering. The dimensions of the riding house (54m x 18m), with a 10m high unsupported roof were also ambitious, incurring significant delays searching for sufficiently large single spans of roof timber.

Compared to the new stables and riding house, the Regent’s Marine Pavilion made relatively poor accommodation, so he undertook the task of converting his modest dwelling into the much grander Royal Pavilion. An underground passage, still in existence, was built between the stables and the Royal Pavilion. It was said that the tunnel was built so that the Prince could move undetected between the Palace and the stables in order to meet his mistress Maria Fitzherbert but by the time of its completion, George had fallen out with Mrs Fitzherbert.

Queen Victoria, the Prince’s niece, disliked Brighton and the Royal Pavilion Estate so the town bought the stable building in 1850 and used it as a cavalry barracks up until 1864. Its interior was remodelled by architect Philip Lockwood before reopening in 1867 as a concert and assembly hall, holding 2500 people. The riding house was also restored and opened as the new Corn Exchange in 1868; a market was held every Thursday until December 1914 when the building was repurposed as a military hospital. Between December 1914 and February 1916 over 4000 wounded Indian soldiers were nursed at the makeshift hospitals set up inside the buildings of the Royal Pavilion estate, which included three operating theatres, one installed inside Brighton Dome itself. The India Gate, on the south side of the Pavilion Gardens, added in 1921, was a gift from the people of India to commemorate their fallen soldiers.

Royal Pavilion, Brighton

The concert hall and Corn Exchange both underwent further alteration between 1934 and 1935. The Concert Hall was transformed into the venue that exists today by architect Robert Atkinson, including the period art deco styling. A new period of renovation began in 1999 using a combination of Lottery funding, the support of Brighton & Hove City Council and a host of individual, corporate and trust and foundation supporters. Reopened in 2002, the Concert Hall now has a seating capacity of 1800, much improved sight lines, and upgraded acoustics. Looking down on the stalls from the circle reminds me of some of the seating at the Royal Albert Hall, where rows become oddly truncated due to the curvature of the auditorium; looking up at the ceiling also reveals some fine architectural detail and overall, I’d rate it as a fantastic venue.

The bright red and yellow Guitar, Amp and Keyboard Centre (GAK) is less than a five minute stroll from the Dome and close by at 44 Sydney Street is another musical instrument shop, Brighton Guitars where I tried out and bought a second-hand vintage style Flange pedal, and chatted to helpful sales person/singer-songwriter Jack Pout about prog. He professed to admiring Long Distance Runaround and suggested I should listen to the band If. Post-Covid, the Brighton Guitars website and Facebook page are inaccessible, which I hope doesn’t indicate that the store has closed down permanently. Within this network of streets are a couple of excellent second-hand record stores, Across the Tracks (110 Gloucester Road) which has a dedicated prog section and some records I’ve not seen for a long, long time, and the labyrinthine Wax Factor (24 Trafalgar Street), which also sells books and appears to have a diner-style café in a back room. Wax Factor’s selection is immense but its arrangement, though logical, means you have to surf through the mundane to find the extraordinary, so you should ensure you set aside sufficient time for a good browse. Resident Music (28 Kensington Gardens) has a good range of new vinyl and this is roughly opposite Snoopers Paradise (7-8 Kensington Gardens), a sprawling indoor flea market with a number of stalls selling second-hand vinyl, some immaculately curated, some a little more rough and ready. This is considered a must-visit on any ProgBlog trip to Brighton and invariably involves me parting with some cash in return for an LP or two. I found copies of Zygoat (1974) by Burt Alcantara recording under the name of Zygoat, an electronica album I’d remembered but never seen other than in a 1975-era Virgin Records store catalogue, and an original pressing of Tubular Bells, discernible for its white label, etched stampers without matrix numbers, a laminated sleeve with the spine pinched at the top and bottom, and the back cover stating "Printed in England by Robor Limited" in the bottom right corner (later sleeves were printed by E J Day). I paid £15 for the Zygoat album but just £5 for the Tubular Bells in excellent condition.

ProgBlog trips are family-balanced, so along with the record stores I help out with searching for sea glass on the beach and tread the Lanes for objets d’art. Brighton Architectural Salvage (34 Gloucester Road), a shop and yard frequented by hipsters for their Kemptown renovations is a family favourite, though during a period of diversification it also included some vinyl and I snapped up a pristine copy of Tomita’s Snowflakes Are Dancing for £1. I’d recommend avoiding Brighton at weekends any time from late spring to the autumn when tourists swell the local population, but the city has so much to offer – even to those not interested in music or those ostensibly only interested in music: the cafés and boutiques are full of very nice things to eat or to kit yourself out, though I’d encourage anyone to spend some serious time in the record stores.

This article was modified from two original blogs: Searching for gold (posted 14th June 2015) and Brighton rock (posted 19th March 2017)

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