‘You’ve got long hair, I’ve got long hair!’ The loud, joyful community of rock bars

With strong drinks and stronger music, rock bars are fiercely independent havens for UK metalheads, who have been donating thousands to keep them alive after Covid

It’s Friday night in north London’s Black Heart, a rock and metal bar tucked away on a Camden side street. The walls and ceiling are – inevitably – painted black, the beer taps are furnished with antlers, and the speakers are blasting out Metallica’s Enter Sandman. As the chorus hits, the whole bar breaks into song, and the bartender turns down the volume so all that can be heard is a room full of joyous metalheads belting out: “We’re off to never-never land!”

As pints splash and voices echo, the scene feels poignant: pandemic lockdowns left rock fans wondering when they might have moments like this again, with the Black Heart nearly closing down until it was saved by a crowdfunding campaign with prize draws that raised more than £150,000 in seven weeks.

“It was incredible,” says Mel Doumbos, the Black Heart’s manager. “One guy had this hand-painted Obituary leather jacket – and he donated it. [Iron Maiden guitarist] Adrian Smith’s son said: ‘I hope you don’t mind, I asked Dad if he could sign a photo for you.’ We had bespoke jewellery made; people donating their time to help. We discovered just how much this place means to people.”

Revellers at Solid Rock in Glasgow
Revellers at Solid Rock in Glasgow. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

“I donated what I could, and when it reopened, I was straight there,” says Seán O’Farrell, a regular. “It’s so welcoming. The support they got shows how much people love it – we need to keep places like this alive.”

The rock and metal bar is an unsung but significant corner of British culture, where the drinks are strong, the music loud, and you can try to decipher illegible band logos with fellow enthusiasts as your feet collectively stick to the floor. “You come in, sit down and take all the pressure off,” says David May, who’s been going to the Solid Rock in Glasgow since the early 90s. “I don’t need to worry about who comes in, or about somebody starting a fight. I really don’t have a better word for this place than home.”

The Solid – as it is known to its locals – has been going since 1987. A stone’s throw from Glasgow Central station, it stands out with its 80s metalheads mural. Above the door is a memorial to Lemmy from Motörhead and the walls inside are covered with framed discs and guitars. It is Saturday evening and there are regulars at the bar and students piling in as the night goes on, with many finishing the night at the Cathouse rock club nearby. The vibe is warm: it isn’t long before two women invite me to sit with them. As one of them, Lorna Benson, observes: “It’s one of those bars that, if you came in by yourself, you won’t be sitting alone for long.”

Mel Doumbos, the manager of Our Black Heart in north London
Mel Doumbos, the manager of Our Black Heart in north London. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“It’s very eclectic: you’ve got people from 18 right up to their mid-60s or older,” says the Solid Rock’s owner Robert Alexander, who started working there as a teenager and enjoyed it so much he stayed on instead of pursuing a career in law. “It shouldn’t work, but it does, because we’ve got this thing that binds us all together. I think it’s unique to the rock scene that you can have late-night venues and clubs that are welcoming to people who are old enough to be grandparents!” He adds that they have even had wedding receptions here.

What connects this community is the music, whether you’re a doom obsessive, a grindcore geek, or you just want to hear Van Halen cranked up on a Saturday night. Many bars put on gigs, like Scruffy Murphy’s in Birmingham: the city known as the birthplace of heavy metal, thanks to Black Sabbath.

“I was in a band years ago, and I remember how hard it was if you wanted to get anywhere,” says Scruffy’s manager Oliver Hunt, who is preparing for a 20th-anniversary festival in November. “When I took over I wanted to give bands that no-one has ever heard of a chance to play in a decent place, and watch them grow. Bands need stepping stones; you can’t just start and play Wembley.”

The Gryphon in Bristol aims to put on three gigs a week in its upstairs venue which has a capacity of 50. “If you’re a small local band, it’s difficult to find a venue – that’s where I stepped in,” says landlord John Ashby. He celebrated the bar’s 11th birthday in September, but despite Covid restrictions being lifted, he remains cautious, restricting crowd capacity at gigs and encouraging mask-wearing. “We’re such a small venue, it’s tricky to social distance.” he says.

Rock bars are invariably independent, so have been hit hard by the pandemic. Some, but not all, had support from their landlords. Many applied for cultural grants from the government, but some were unsuccessful, like the Anvil in Bournemouth.

“We were told we weren’t culturally significant enough,” says manager Ryan “Bear” Mills. “We were down to two staff members and losing thousands a week. The second lockdown was a blessing in disguise because we were about two weeks from going under.”

Crobar, a Soho rock haunt which had seen everyone from Dave Grohl to Lady Gaga visit, folded after 19 years; the space is now a Simmons cocktail bar. But the Crobar’s owner Richard Thomas started a successful crowdfunding campaign which means he is hunting for a new location. “It warmed my heart that so many people think the Crobar is worth saving,” he says.

Iron Lung and crowd at central London’s currently homeless Crobar. Photograph: Naki/Redferns

The Gryphon raised £16,000 with its campaign. “Because of the scarcity of rock and metal pubs across the country, I had people donating who’d never even been to the pub,” says Ashby. “They just wanted to keep places like this alive.”

In Bournemouth, the Anvil decided not to crowdfund. “Our idea was to come out of the other side and do a membership scheme,” Bear explains. “But since we’ve reopened, the business has been so good that we haven’t needed to. We were able to re-employ staff, we’ve broken bar sale records and we’re doing better than ever.”

The outpouring of support for these rock bars has proven just how important they are to their communities. “We’re a safe space,” says Doumbos, of the Black Heart. “I go to the Dev [the nearby Devonshire Arms] all the time – you do feel like you can go there, as a woman on your own.”

Solid Rock regular David May agrees. “We [rock fans] felt a wee bit persecuted – people saying things like: ‘Look at him with the long hair.’ But then you come in and it’s like: you’ve got long hair, I’ve got long hair! But never mind that, you’re wearing that band’s T-shirt – that’s brilliant! Have you heard their latest album?”

“You get people who come in and they say they thought we were gonna be scary – that it would be like a horror movie!” says Bear at the Anvil, laughing. “We might look scary, but we’re nice people. Rock bars and alternative crowds are good at making people feel accepted and safe. In a lot of commercial places, you get far more judgmental people.”

From 80s glam to the 00s nu-metal boom, rock and metal’s moments in the mainstream have waxed and waned over the years. But, as the support for these rock bars proves, there will always be a dedicated scene full of passionate people of all ages. “You see articles saying rock’n’roll is dead,” says Jackie Murphy, a teacher who is a Solid Rock customer and regular gig-goer. “Then you go to a concert, there’s a mixed crowd, and the place is jumping. There is a whole scene happening, just not necessarily in the public eye.”


Hannah May Kilroy

The GuardianTramp

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