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Koko Camden: Memories of fire-hit theatre

Wide angle shot of crowd inside Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The theatre was built in 1900 and still has many of its original features

A much-loved Camden music venue has been damaged by fire, prompting an outpouring of stories and memories. Here are just some of them.

From Monty Python to Madonna, The Pretenders to Prince, Koko has seen it all.

It was one of the largest playhouses outside of London’s West End when it opened as the Camden Theatre on 26 December 1900 and has had several names since then, including the Hippodrome, Music Machine, Camden Palace and – since 2004 – Koko.

The building’s beauty, full of original features, has been one of the big draws for both acts and audiences, according to Jonathan Simpson.

As a 16-year-old, his first gig was going to see Blur at the venue in 1990.

“I don’t think anyone who experienced walking through those doors and down the steps into the auditorium will ever forget it,” says Mr Simpson, who is now Camden Council’s cabinet member for promoting culture and communities.

“The original seats were gone but there was still so much there that screamed of a bygone era, and it had one of the largest glitter balls I have ever seen.

“It was a very special venue and had a strong sense of history, that’s what attracted people.”

Image caption It was originally called the Camden Theatre and has had several name changes since

BBC journalist Jennifer Scott says it has played a big part in her life. It was the last place she and her friend Mark Strickland saw a gig together before his death, when they saw Alien Ant Farm in 2016, and the first gig she went to with her boyfriend, when they saw Powerwolf two years later.

“We spent most of the gig hidden on one of the balconies talking at each other,” she recalls. “With both gigs, and god knows how many others I’ve been to there, it was hard to keep your eyes on the stage because of how beautiful and old-school the building was.

“It was like a labyrinth with loads of levels and secret staircases. I seemed to find a new bit of it every time I went. And it was really lush, all old velvet and deep reds. It was just a gorgeous theatrical venue that was as much a star as the bands on stage.”

Image copyright Matt Johnson
Image caption Alien Ant Farm played at Koko in 2016

In 1983, the theatre was the first UK venue to host a Madonna gig and the global superstar chose to return there in 2005 to launch her tenth album, Confessions on a Dance Floor.

Prince also chose to perform there in 2014, having previously played there in 1988 and 2007. Mr Simpson was one of the many who queued for hours to get into the 2014 gig.

“This was Prince – he could easily have sold out Wembley but he instead chose Koko, that tells you what a place it was,” he says.

“It’s a gem of a venue and we are very lucky to have it bookmarking one end of Camden High Street.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Madonna launched her tenth album at Koko more than 20 years after she played her first UK gig there

The BBC ran the theatre from 1945 until the 1970s with a number of its most famous shows recorded there, including the first album of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and a reunion of the Goon Show.

Writer Neil Gaiman says he fell in love with his wife, singer Amanda Palmer, at the theatre, and fondly remembers seeing Lou Reed perform there.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Prince performed at the theatre in 1988, 2007 and 2014

Marc Rister recalls how the theatre offered “different vibes” depending on where you were in the building – downstairs was “vey intimate” and the upstairs was larger, giving the “best of both worlds”.

He first went there in 2017 to see Mostack, adding: “It was honestly the best night of my life. It was a massive shame to hear about the fire. It would be very sad if it was gone forever.”

One of Jules Pearson’s first gigs in London was Wild Beasts at Koko in 2010, along with 1,500 other people – a show that gave the co-founder of London on the Inside “goosebumps”.

She became a regular at Club NME which was a “super raucous” club-night held at the venue on Fridays that would “always unfold a different way each week”.

“You’d meet some incredible characters,” she says. “Amy Winehouse, Pete Doherty, Jameel Jamil and many other indie bands and celebs were often in attendance.

“It would be dancing all night, drinking pints and waking up with a fair few stories to tell. Gosh if those walls could only talk.”

Image copyright Getty Images

Source: bbc.co.uk

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