Birthplace of the New WavE of British Heavy Metal

History of the Soundhouse

"Let there be rock"

As AC/DC once - almost - sang, “In the beginning, back in 1975...” a walrus-moustached, long-haired DJ brought his collection of rock records to the backroom of the Prince Of Wales pub in Kingsbury, and the Soundhouse was born. Known as ‘The Bandwagon,’ a disco-cum-night club stuck to the side of a less than exotic drinking establishment on the outskirts of North West London, the club opened in the early '70s. But it wasn't until the middle of the decade that the Wagon became known for rock music.

Over time, the resident DJs started throwing in the odd Deep Purple number alongside Rose Royce and The Fatback Band tunes during the regular disco sets. Meanwhile, the club’s resident Sunday night band Bethnal played Led Zeppelin and Who covers alongside their own material. In 1975 realising - cue deep voice - "The Power Of Rock", three DJs John, Paul and Steve decided to host an experimental ‘rock night’. And, as a banner adorning the back bar of the Bandwagon announced, "London's Only Heavy Rock Disco" was born.

Although the Bandwagon's interior was designed to resemble that of a wild west town, complete with barrels as makeshift tables, a mock-up saloon bar and even a cantina, it wasn't until the sheriff Neal Kay rode into town that the real story started.

"Man didn't know about a rock 'n' roll show"

Although the club had been staging rock nights before Neal's arrival, they lacked any presentation or real foresight. One evening in 1975 DJ Steve Bubb put out a plea to anyone wanting to spin a few discs to apply... to the stage. In The Bandwagon that night was West End DJ Neal Kay who offered his services. With his larger-than- life personality, passionate knowledge of rock (gained from working on the Berlin nightclub scene) and humungous moustache, there could be no better choice.

As well as a one-night-a-week slot, Neal took over the coveted Sunday night residency which became the most popular night of the week, with 500 plus attendees and lock-outs becoming common place.

"All across the land every rockin' band was blowin' up a storm"

With its word-of-mouth reputation spreading, "London's Only Heavy Rock Disco" began taking place five times a week, and "The Wagon" was soon pulling a denim-clad crowd from all over London, drawn to the sounds of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Rush and Thin Lizzy. Neal Kay's Heavy Metal Soundhouse became a serious alternative to punk and new wave venues, such as The Roxy. The Wagon also began to stage gigs by newer, allegedly younger hard rock bands, including Samson, Angelwitch, Praying Mantis, Nutz and, er, Saxon (though carbon dating of a hair sample later proved Saxon's lead singer Biff Byford was prehistoric even then).

Iron Maiden, a band who were already gaining a name for themselves playing pubs in their native East End, sent Neal their four-track demo to play. While Neal resembled a relic from the ‘60s, he had his finger on the pulse of heavy metal. Maiden were soon fiercely championed by Neal and the Wagon regulars, and the band even titled their debut EP, The Soundhouse Tapes. The now legendary EP's cover features photos taken while on stage at The Bandwagon preserving another Soundhouse legacy.

"And the guitar man got famous"

"I suppose the most important thing was the demo tape was being played at the Soundhouse by Neal Kay, because that was the thing that started people getting interested in the band. We did a four-track demo and then we gave it to Neal Kay and he started playing it at his Soundhouse and people started voting for it as their favourite tracks or whatever, and we started getting into these Sounds charts which were compiled by requests there, and stuff like that. So that's really what got the ball rolling , we all had a bit of a buzz about us, so that really was the first break... It was with Neal Kay" - Steve Harris (Iron Maiden)

By 1979 the club had attracted TV crews, rounded up regulars to appear in music videos for Judas Priest and Pete Townshend and as extras in the movie Quadrophenia. Meanwhile, Sunday afternoon TV was invaded by an hour-long documentary, 20th Century Box, which tried to explain to a frightened nation, this thing called "heavy metal", leading to a trip down the Wagon, and an interview with Neal and the club's celebrity headbanger, Rob "Loonhouse" Yeatman, along these lines...

Danny Baker (interviewer):  "Do you think that this headbanging thing could be a career for you?"
Rob Loonhouse: "Well, yeah it could be, it's basically what I'm good at." Ask a silly question, etc.

The programme was later reprised in the late '90s on comedian Bob Mills's late-night TV show In Bed With Me Dinner - though perhaps Bob missed the irony.

"The music was good and the music was loud"

Elsewhere, the club was attracting the attention of the music and national press. The former showing up to report on the phenomenon that was taking place on the music scene with The Bandwagon at its epicentre and to witness the, erm, Headbanging Band Of The Year; and the latter, to spread hysteria about the dangers of shaking the head to loud music.

The Soundhouse also went out on the road to spread the word and with Neal leading the charge "The Heavy Metal Crusade" brought the likes of Saxon and Iron Maiden to the masses on tours covering the length and breadth of the country. Meanwhile, Sounds magazine took to regularly printing the Soundhouse's Heavy Metal Chart based on requests at the club. The Chart became a definitive guide. Top tunes of the day: AC/DC - Let There Be Rock, Styx - Queen Of Spades, Montrose Space Station No 5.

Soundhouse fashion accessories of the day: Three-button T-shirt and flared jeans slung low enough for the ragged cuffs to soak up any spilled puddles of Worthington E.

"There were fifteen million fingers learnin' how to play"

Who can forget the Wagon's great cast of characters? AC/DC fanatic "Superloon", complete with schoolboy uniform going berserk to Highway To Hell, and then showing his hairy arse as a finale; Rob Loonhouse, whose carefully crafted cardboard (Sorry Rob - hardboard) guitar became the country's most famous headbanger when asked to join Iron Maiden on tour becoming their unofficial sixth member. Alex "Quo" Laney beating Neal into submission just to play Caroline... and the many other characters that made up what Neal described as “the Soundhouse Nation”.

A heavy metal Mecca (the place of worship, not the bingo hall), no self-respecting hard rock band could play a gig in London without enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of Kingsbury.

Celebrity visitors included... Motorhead, Ted Nugent, Sammy Hagar, April Wine, Rainbow and Judas Priest (whose singer Rob Halford once gamely walked into the Prince Of Wales's public bar, clad head to toe in leather, and ordered a large orange juice).

In 1979, Neal helped compile Metal For Muthas, a compilation of new metal bands (now seen as a cult - I think that's spelt right- classic), and was soon warming up the crowds as metal-DJ-in-residence at The Music Machine, where, on one of the Soundhouse band nights, the term "New Wave Of British Heavy Metal" was coined by the music press.

There was no escaping Neal. The White Hart (Now The Redback Tavern, until it burned down last year) in Acton also housed the Soundhouse for a time, including its most bizarre evening: The Soundhouse Christmas Party... in May.

"Celebrity visitors included... Motorhead, Ted Nugent, Sammy Hagar, April Wine, Rainbow and Judas Priest (whose singer Rob Halford once gamely walked into the Prince Of Wales's public bar, clad head to toe in leather, and ordered a large orange juice)."

And it came to pass...

What could possibly go wrong? Only a bust-up with the brewery in 1980, which put the future of the Soundhouse in severe doubt. The row became as bitter as the Wagon's infamous ale, with Landlord Malcolm Tate and Neal Kay locked in a war of words that even spread to the music press. A rival heavy metal disco convinced the club’s owners they were better known and could raise attendance (which they failed to do), and Neal was made "redundant". Despite a spirited protest outside and inside the club (witness: a young David Cassidy... sorry Gerry Kelly holding a placard), the Wagon was no more and the Soundhouse was homeless. The Bandwagon itself closed its doors for the last time less than a year later.

The punks at the time had the Roxy, and later the Indie shoe gazers had the Hacienda. But The Bandwagon/Soundhouse was just as innovative and as important as these clubs. How else would British rock fans have heard the likes of Van Halen, AC/DC, Rush etc without a heavy rock disco? In the dark ages before the electric interweb, there was no way to hear this stuff without shelling out for a record. These were groups rarely seen on TV and rarely played on the radio.

Back in black...

It may have been a decrepit ballroom covered in flock wallpaper tacked on to the side of an equally decrepit pub in North Harrow, but it was, ahem, home.

The Headstone pub agreed to take Neal on for Friday and Sunday night slots, leaving him free to spread the word in East London venues - The Royal Standard, Walthamstow, Oscars in Leyton and East Ham's The Ruskin Arms - during the rest of the week. Attracting a fresh intake of 16-year-old "nuggets" (© Sounds writer Chris Collingwood) with bum-fluff moustaches, trying to get past doorman Ray Dellaselle, the Soundhouse thrived in its new environment.

A new generation were also now being introduced to the Soundhouse, hearing about The Bandwagon only as legend. And what a cast of nutters it attracted: the god-bothering punter - known only as The Vicar - who once stripped off and marched, stark bollock-naked, around the club to the sounds of Black Widow's Come To The Sabbath; and the welcome return of Bandwagon regular The Whale, whose party piece involved rolling around on the floor, air-guitaring furiously to Ted Nugent's Motorcity Madhouse.

While the national press's interest may have waned, Neal still had a knack for attracting publicity, with the just-launched Kerrang! magazine running an article on his plans to lecture about rock music in London schools and colleges. The scheme never came to fruition, but Neal always found time to help out a passing schoolgirl.

Top tunes of the day: Status Quo - Hold You Back, Asia - Heat Of The Moment, AC/DC - Whole Lotta Rosie (cue: a new generation incurring degenerative spinal injuries after hoisting their fattest mate onto their shoulders), plus Rush's interminable 2112, during which you could take a piss, order a pint, smoke a joint and still find there was another 10 minutes to go.

Fashion accessories of the day: for the blokes - denim, leather and band T-shirts from Wembley Market; for the girls - denim, leather and, ahem, band T-shirts from Wembley Market.

Sadly, the fun couldn't last and with the Headstone pub going to rack and ruin, property developers move in and by summer 1982, the Soundhouse was out on its ear. Again!

One night in a club called 'The Shaking Hand'...

(Ok, the 'Clay') What the hell! As one out-of-the-way West London boozer closes its doors, another two open. Without missing a beat, Neal moved his operation to The Clay Pigeon, Eastcote, on a Friday night, and The Queens Arms in Harrow & Wealdstone on Sundays.

"The Clay" was effectively in the middle of nowhere (the 282 bus route had never seen so many hairy-arsed bastards filling its decks). But the hall, more used to hosting Sunday lunchtime jazz bands, was very roomy, hampered only by a bar the size of a postage stamp, though equipped with a newfangled European lager, Lowenbrau, responsible for widespread brain damage among the clientele.

By the mid-'80s, big-haired American rockers, Bon Jovi, Ratt and Y&T (whose Midnight In Tokyo was played every week for - Sweet Jesus! - at least eight years) were sharing space with old favourites in the setlist. This gave rise to a new mating ritual: while lads stood around in cap-sleeved T-shirts, nut-crunching Brutus Gold jeans (courtesy of Cromwell’s Bazaar) and white baseball boots, out of their minds on Lowenbrau; row after row of skin-tight denim and black legging-clad female arses would be on display, grinding in unison to Journey's Separate Ways.

The air was thick with that unmistakable Soundhouse aroma: fags, booze, perfume, aftershave, dirty old biker – and pheromones. Lots of pheromones. Lovely. And thanks partly to Neal's new DJing partner-in-crime, Adrian ‘Adey‘N’Paula’ Gibbs, the Soundhouse went from strength to strength.

While Saturdays found Neal firmly ensconced at The Royal Standard, Walthamstow, Sunday nights at "The Queens" brought the weekends to a suitably boozy close. A tiny broom cupboard-sized room tacked onto the back of a popular Irish watering hole, what ‘The Queens’ lacked in size, it made up for in its ‘unique’ ambience and, like ‘The Clay’, a car park that bore witness to umpteen clandestine acts of sexual depravity.

No Sunday evening ‘down the Queens’ was complete without a hair-of-the-dog livener, a detailed discussion about what had gone on the night before (and with whom), the first rumblings of a hangover to start the week - and yet another airing for Y&T's friggin' Midnight In Tokyo.
The Soundhouse's ‘Clay and Queens’ years ran on into the early-'90s, but even the best things come to an end. Neal and the Queens Arms parted company earlier, but The Clay Pigeon hosted the final night of the Soundhouse in 1992. It was the end of an era...

Times they were 'a' changin'...

Especially in music, where the likes of Nirvana, Metallica and Pearl Jam were shaking things up. It was time for a new era and a new generation. Neal went to Japan and Portugal, produced bands and enjoying a semi-retirement lifestyle (the lazy bastard). Also, a full seventeen years had elapsed since the birth of the Soundhouse and many people who were then young foolish teenagers - brought together through their love of rock music - were now in their 30s, still foolish, but starting families of their own.

Nevertheless, births, marriages, divorces, death and even widespread hair loss couldn’t stop the Soundhouse nation. Proving you can't keep a bunch of rock fans-that-refuse-to-grow up, er, down, a chance meeting between Gerry Kelly and Neal Kay led to the Soundhouse being re-booted in the 21st century. Some 10 years after the Clay closed its doors, December 8 2001 bore witness to the first Soundhouse reunion at yet another trusty North West London boozer, The Rayners Hotel.

Further gatherings of the - older, greyer, balder, fatter, still lovely - clans took place annually each December until 2005. Sadly, property developers moved in on The Rayners soon after, and it was time for the Soundhouse to close again – this time for good.

The times had changed again. But old friendships would not be abandoned so easily. Unlike in the ‘90s, there was now no escape. The reunions had stopped, but mobile phones and social media meant the ex-members of Neal’s beloved Soundhouse Nation were now subtly bound together via cyberspace. In other words: we’re stuck with each other forever – regardless of Privacy Settings.

And, as implausible as it might have seemed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, many of the bands Neal championed ‘down the Soundhouse’ are still making records and still touring. As Saxon and their prehistoric lead singer once sang: ‘And the bands played on…’, albeit now balder, wrinklier and missing a few original members.

And so, from time to time, we old Soundhouse regulars still run into each other – passing on the stairs at the Kentish Town Forum, queuing for the bar at the O2 – sharing a nod, a smile, even a few words, and then wondering how we all got so old, and when was the last time we slept with each other.

Then, of course, the music starts: the head begins involuntarily nodding, the fingers jump to an imaginary fretboard – and we’re young and even more foolish again, and back down the Soundhouse, where it all began.

Mark Blake/Gerry Kelly
2001 (Revised 2017)

Mark Blake is a music journalist and author. His work has been published since 1989 in major newspapers and music magazines Q, Mojo, Classic Rock and Prog.
Mark is the author of music biography, Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, Stone Me: The Wit & Wisdom Of Keith Richards, Is This The Real Life: The Untold Story of Queen and Pretend You're In A War: The Who And The Sixties.

Gerry Kelly is a marketing director in the music industry. He has worked for labels such as Warner Music, RSK Entertainment and Escapi Music. Gerry currently works for Trapeze Music and Entertainment.

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