The legacy London institution The Wag Club is been celebrated with a new, just released, 35th Anniversary 50-track song box set. In a guest column, Chris Sullivan, one of the brains behind the soul club, recalls the fun and games of putting of staging "The Wag" and booking bands.
On paper, putting on live music at a venue is always a good move. A good band will enthuse and re-invigorates the club’s regular patrons while introducing new customers who, previously, might not have given a jot. This is especially true if one’s booking policy is somewhat elastic or, as some might consider, rather vague. In truth, its hard for me to explain what my booking policy was for, The Wag Club, but, as a rule, we looked for acts who delivered something that our regulars would appreciate, that was fresh and would pull a good crowd as often, fielding an act isn’t cheap and there is always a risk. And often said gamble works and then sometimes not but, not always because of an ill advised decision on behalf of the booker, but due to prevailing circumstances.
We once booked Bobby Womack to play the Wag, paid the fee, flights, hotel and expenses for him and his seven piece band and sold out the tickets to some 300 people only for the Police to find an IRA bomb in a waste bin in nearby Leicester Square and shut the whole area down. The result was: expenditure £3000, income zero and we had to refund all the ticket monies.
Another equally expensive sell out was, Gil Scott Heron, who was nabbed at Heathrow with a rather impressive amount of Grade A Bolivian marching powder concealed in his keyboard and was refused entry. Again, we’d paid he and his 8 piece bands flights and accommodation and had to refund all the tickets but, at least we were reimbursed the 50 per-cent fee we’d shelled out. As Gil was an all time favourite artist of mine. I don’t know what disappointed me most: the fact they I didn’t see a veritable legend play our bijou venue, that we lost a landmark event, that we had to painfully reimburse the monies and still pay the extra staff, DJs and promotion costs or that my erstwhile hero was stupid enough to hide his nose bag in the most obvious place known to mankind. Of course, such costly acts were not booked to make money they were hired to give the venue and our regulars both a shot in the arm and a treat – a self indulgent bit of promotion if you like- so to lose, not only one’s shirt, but also the rest of your wardrobe, was like being kicked in the nuts by a bull… twice. Still, much to the chagrin of my older business partners chagrin, I kept on booking beyond our means every few months but, according to Sod’s unimpeachable law, as a rule something would always go wrong with those we paid the most for. Another example was Lee Perry.
We turned down a Prince after party/jam session because of the booking and were expecting greatness. At first I couldn’t get him to sound check then later that night the club filled up really early but I couldn’t get the tiny toaster on the stage for love nor money. He demanded cocaine. A gram was found. He did it all in one go and rubbed it all over his face. He then performed his new single 15 times on the run each time announcing it "this is me new single, ya know." I’d put the backing band on and they were mystified. By the time he’d finished at midnight the club was empty and we still had three hours of opening time to go.
Another combo to sell out was were the universally acknowledged Godfathers of Rap, The Last Poets, who having been leaders of a radical Black Power movement akin to The Black Panthers and former bank robbers were not easily allowed into the UK but, we got them in and they performed a thoroughly awe inspiring set only for their leader, Jalal Nuriddin, to take umbrage with one of our regular patrons and performers, jazz legend Slim Gaillard whom he called an "Uncle Tom". Understandably, a shouting match ensued and the enraged former pugilist Gaillard even though now easily aged 70, was livid. For me this was a disaster. Here we had one of my favourite acts, The Last Poets warring with one of my favourite people, Slim, in front of 300 people. I almost had a nervous breakdown!
Of course Slim, who’d had huge hits in the US since the 1930s, has three pages devoted to him in Kerouac’s On The Road and played with Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Tito Puente, was a true Wag regular as both performer and patron attending as regularly as one of the bar stools. I’d quite literally bumped into him one afternoon in Bond Street, invited him top play The Wag, we married him off to one of our staff to get him a work permit and then gave him a well-paid monthly residency for the rest of his life. He was of course a huge asset but known for his unpredictability on stage we never ever knew what would happen. On once occasion he bounded on stage dressed as a boxer, naked except for shorts and boots and preceded to play the piano with his boxing gloves on. On another occasion he performed one song to a packed audience but, was so in his cups, he told them he needed some McLager McVoutie refreshmentosa sandwiches (in the 40s he created his own language known as Vout) retired to the bar for a few and promptly fell asleep on it and stayed asleep for well over 2 hours resisting each and every attempt to wake him. When He woke up he was all ready to finish his set the club was half full and his band had long gone home. But whatever Slim did still endeared him to audience and staff. Others were not so charming.
Via my old friend and the band’s manager, Frank Murray, we were also one of the first to put on The Pogues (then called Pogue Mahone which is Kiss my arse in Gaelic) even though I’d known of Shane McGowan’s antics of old since he’d been in The Nipps. They played a few times until Shane had an argument with bassist Cait O’Riordan on stage. “I remember when The Pogues played their last gig with us,” recalls Wag manager Alan Campbell. “Shane [MacGowan] had an argument on stage with his female bass player Cait O’Riordan and took a swing at her with his guitar on stage and bashed a huge hole in the wall. He was as drunk as a skunk. I was surprised he could stand up, never mind perform.”
Another fiery performer was jazz bebop drummer, Tommy Chase, who ruled his quartet with an iron hand. On one occasion, Chase was so pissed of that his sax player continued soloing even though he’d preformed the statutory drum roll for him to stop some three times he jumped up from his kit and head butted the poor guy right off the stage. He was a superb drummer though.
And then there was the time when obese cross dressing Divine – star of John Waters' Pink Flamingoes – played to a backing tape that sped up and down as he /she tried to sing along. Not good. We also had a band whose singer got a little too excited after a rather impressive cocktail of drink and drugs and projectile vomited over the audience. Rock'n'roll !
But, without doubt that act that caused us the greatest and most long lasting grief was the New York rap artist KRS 1. The man turned up with his gang of four or five huge shell-suited minders and a few lady friends, just as there was total pandemonium at our tiny front door. So, our Jamaican security team asked him to wait for a minute while they sorted the scrum of customers out. Of course, the man himself was not amused and got all prima donna on yo ass and derisively called one of our guys an ‘Island n***er.’ I could not believe my ears. Now it might be okay to say that in NYC but not here so a barney erupted, our guys refused to let him the New Yorkers in and, to the last man threatened to walk off into the night and never return if he came in. A mutiny no less. Thus, the man and his motley crew left, we again refunded the ticket money to fans and, along with our black security were branded racist!
Of course, not all of our live acts were so combustible and crowds started turning up no matter the act. By the time we opened the second floor in 1985, the club’s reputation was global, a constant in the groovy press and it was always packed. As a result we fielded among many, many others, A Certain Ratio, The Tom Tom Club and Was (Not Was), James Taylor Quartet, Brand New Heavies and Oasis (acoustic) while The JBs pulled in Van Morrison to guest accompanied by timbalero Tito Puente.
Since, many of the acts were as mad as a bag of spoons there are more funny stories than one might shake a ferret at but I think you’ve got the message now. Unfortunately though, The Wag was one of the first clubs to suffer at the hands of big companies and their insatiable and unchecked ever increasing rent demands so, that by the time we closed in 2001, the venue became unviable as a business and we closed.
Undeniably, we’ve lost a lot of great venues late due to local councils ever ascending Draconian rules, conglomerates buying up venues and turning them into homogenized high street stores and developers creating more and more luxury flats that, bought by investors are left empty, and suck the community dry, so the future looks bleak. But, there might be some light at the end of the murky tunnel as, of late politicians have realized that we are not only losing our great musical heritage and future but, also a billion pound industry as, one lux flat employs one person – a cleaner – a club employs about 50 people at least and is a proper business the loss of which is an economic disaster.
Let’s hope they do something to preserve such. They do it with opera so why not nightclubs? By all accounts London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan wants to save and preserve our nighttime industries and is looking for a Night Mayor (as they have in Amsterdam) to assist him. And you know what ? I might be just the man for a job. Nudge blooming nudge. Chris Sullivan @cjpsullivan
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