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The Rise and Fall…And Rise Again of the Odeon Auditorium (Online Report)

From a glance, it looks nothing more than a derelict building. The art deco façade is worn and stained with age. Its history, its identity has been erased, leaving behind little more than the faded stencilled outlines of its name, “New Victoria.”
From the balcony hangs a sign which destroys every bit of character to the building: TO LET. The paintwork is peeling, the boarded up entrance adorned with graffiti.

Although pedestrians rarely acknowledge the building, which is located on Clerk Street in Edinburgh with but a cursory look, this was once one of the city’s most iconic, and perhaps important buildings for music.

In the 1930s, under its name New Victoria, it functioned primarily as a picture house, or cinema, right up to its closure in 2003. In 1964 it became known as the Odeon Auditorium. It was the first picture house in Scotland to show Bond movies.
But the story at hand here is focused on a significant period, (1970-1982 to be exact) in which the venue began to host music gigs.
I have a boundless affection for all things nostalgic. It started one day when I was clearing out the attic with my Dad and we came across his old vinyl collection. Stacks of them that smelled of damp earth when you broke open the cover. The art- large and vivid; the shiny black record, sharp as a razor’s edge. Amongst this were all his concert tickets, and photographs of David Bowie, albeit not his own. They were copies of his brother’s originals, who had seen him live in 1973, because my Dad was not old enough to go. Indeed, all these little keepsakes were the result of the only music venue in town for young people.
“There was the Playhouse and the Albert Hall,” my Dad says, “but the bands that played there often charged extortionate prices, and you knew it was going to be a pretty safe gig, no punk rock or anything.”
The Odeon on the other hand was a place where bands made their mark. Before stadium bands became stadium bands, there was this little place. Well, not so little, as it once held more than two thousand people. But it was something Edinburgh had experienced nearly four decades ago and probably never will again. A strange and exciting time.

In the early 70s, Deep Purple, Roxy Music and Paul McCartney played for about £1 here. The Odeon’s popularity peaked around 1978-79 where it was rarely out of the circuit of touring bands. The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Ramones, AC/DC, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Patti Smith, Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Thin Lizzy, Blondie, XTC, Motorhead- gasp!
Nowadays, Edinburgh’s music scene no way near as busy. It is a joy to think however that one time the Capital was the host of such a great number of bands- bands that would a year later become world famous. I could imagine the importance of this venue to people like my Dad, when music was producing a new energy against the gloomy backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain. In those days remember it was not easy to get in touch with your favourite groups- no Myspace, Twitter or Facebook- only ragged posters and flyers with the dates torn off, stuck to billboards and garages. It must have been truly amazing once the word spread of your beloved band coming to your town.
“It (Odeon) just looked like the inside of a theatre,’ says Stevie Watson, who attended many gigs during the period. “It had a balcony and rear stalls. In those days you had to sit down when a band was playing, and you would be thrown out if you got up and started dancing. Ridiculous!”
Historic Scotland described the interior as evoking that of a ‘Greek Theatre’, “curved Ionic vestibule, galleried auditorium…niches with figures, Corinthianesque columns…Greek key gallery front; sky ceiling with illuminated stars.”
It was essentially an environment for film lovers- artistic, neo-expressionistic, and now it had opened its doors to a variety of teenage rockers, punks and new wavers. The somewhat exclusive value of this building had been reduced, and both art forms- film and music- had their chance to shine.

On 9 June 1979, The Who played here before their Wembley Stadium date. David Forsyth remembers his attempt to get close to some of the band members:
“In the foyer they had a lot of stands advertising Quadrophenia and The Kids Are Alright movie which had just been released. We managed to nick a couple of album covers and hung around outside the back of the theatre in the hope of getting them autographed. We saw John “Rabbit” Bundrick, the keyboard player, and my mate swears he saw Kenney Jones as well. We did find out however that the band were staying at the Caledonian Hotel in Lothian Road.”

Then

In the mid 1980s, the popularity of the venue for music steadily began to decline. Edinburgh was no longer holding the limelight, and all of a sudden there had been a big diversion; tours missed the capital and native bands were relocating to Glasgow, where the music scene was, and still is, thriving. Cinema had also been hit badly, with the introduction of ‘home cinema’, VHS.
The Odeon Auditorium soldiered on for another decade until it was sold by its parent company to a property developer in August 2003. In some way, it could have been the moment when Edinburgh’s music died. For eight years it has remained closed, abandoned and falling into disrepair.

Now

There is however light at the end of the tunnel. Plans made to demolish the building to make way for student flats were eventually withdrawn, and more recently   Edinburgh City Council are in talks with a group who want to revive the building- fittingly called The New Victoria Project. Their aim is return it to its original form, as well as having a bar and café.

Managing Director, Sarah Colquhoun, says, “There have been some new developments which we are waiting to see the outcome of, whilst waiting to see if the decision made by the planning committee is appealed by the current owners.”
This includes dropping its grade B listed status for a grade A listing. Community support is also being demonstrated through the Save The Odeon petition established in March 2009 which has collected 5608 signatures to date.
So things are looking up for the campaigners involved, and much has been gained, but there is still a long way to go until the ideas of restoration become realistic.
“If successful, we could expect restoration to take place around early 2013-14”, says Sarah.
Some things will never be the same again however, no matter how much you tamper with them. You’ll never get a theatre choked with fag reek, with stiff old chairs, or dusty, orange floral carpets- the atmosphere of the ‘old days’. You’ll get a halogen-soaked stage, comfy seats and cold drinks. But I did say I was a sucker for nostalgia.

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