'Keep It': The Reading Rooms under threat

The Reading Rooms is under threat after being subjected to a sustained campaign of unwanted police pressure. Now the influential Dundee venue is urging punters to take a stand

Feature by Michael Lawson | 21 Dec 2018

“Are you ready? I said are you ready?” An unmistakable Jamaican accent implores. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is in town, noising up the local crowd before swashbuckling his way through dub classics old and new. A newly-opened, little-known venue on the edge of the town centre has pulled off a considerable coup by luring the dub demigod to the east coast for his Dundee debut. Perry’s performance would later go down in Tayside folklore, and a plaque, authorised by the fictional Dùn Dèagh Department of Counter Culture no less, was later erected to commemorate it. Meanwhile, 15 years on, the club in question has grown to become one of the city’s enduring cultural landmarks.

From its inception in 2001, The Reading Rooms quickly established itself as the city’s foremost music club. The likes of Roy Ayers, Gilles Peterson (who remains a club regular), Afrika Bambaataa and Norman Jay all soon joined Perry on the growing list of era-defining artists to grace the Victorian library.

More recently, the club has played host to the cream of electronic talent: Eclair Fifi, Avalon Emerson, Big Miz and Paranoid London in the past few weeks alone, with a similarly stacked schedule in place for the first quarter of 2019. But more crucial than any high-profile guest is the way The Rooms has helped nurture the city’s music scene at a grassroots level. Its willingness to provide a platform for local talent has helped scores make the daunting transition from promising bedroom artist to fully-fledged club DJ.

Factor in the noise complaint-neutralising location in a quasi-industrial plot on the edge of town, unrivalled sound system and sprawling garden that doubles up as a picturesque smoking area, and it quickly becomes apparent that The Reading Rooms is one of Scotland’s finest clubbing institutions.

So when it found itself the subject of an unwanted and sustained campaign of police pressure recently, the alarm bells were sounded immediately. An online petition launched by regulars garnered upwards of 7000 signatures in the first 48 hours – alongside countless heartfelt messages of support – before promptly being taken down on the advice of the club’s legal team. 

It cited the gentrification of the area surrounding the club, part of the ambitious £1 billion waterfront development centred around the newly opened V&A, as a primary driver of this police heavy-handedness. Some punters went one further, suggesting that the authorities’ end goal is to force the club into closure and sanitise the area in anticipation of further ‘regeneration’.

While the full police motives remain unclear at this stage, their actions represent a worrying pattern of disregard towards Scottish nightclubs, that started with the much-publicised demise of The Arches in 2015 at the hands of Glasgow City Council.

“It's an interesting case as the Scottish Government has approved the Agent of Change principle,” explains Shain Shapiro, nightlife expert and CEO of global music consultancy Sound Diplomacy. “So things should improve.” Written into Scotland’s national framework earlier this year, the Agent of Change principle dictates that developers are responsible for dealing with noise issues when they build new homes or hotels near music venues.

At the time, it was hailed by T in the Park founder Geoff Ellis, who also runs King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, as “a huge step in protecting Scotland's live music scene”. Yet so far it has proven to be worryingly inept. The Sub Club, another Glasgow clubbing mecca that needs no introduction, hoped that Glasgow City Council would take the principle into account when Wetherspoon’s applied for planning permission to build a hotel directly above the club. Sadly councillors sided with the budget pub chain last month, in a move that puts the existence of Scotland’s most iconic nightclub at risk. Clearly local councils’ disdain towards music venues isn’t restricted to one part of the country.

“It’s ridiculous that a city that was jostling to become the City of Culture last year is quite happy to allow its only credible music venue to disappear,” laments Chester Cornford, a Rooms regular who’s also DJed at the club a handful of times. “The driving force [behind the police pressure] seems to be gentrification. There's always talk of various developments across Dundee – a lively popular nightclub with a fairly forward-thinking booking policy which helps to put Dundee on the map doesn't seem to sit well with hotels aiming for an older, weekend-and-business-oriented clientele.

“Just look at The Arches: increasingly stringent licensing and heightened police presence, apparently justified by a drug-related death, led [the] way for a brand-new hotel next door. Now it ‘lives on’ as an extremely marketable street food market.”

Yet, while a city as vast and vibrant as Glasgow has proven that it can comfortably absorb the loss of a cultural space, the demise of The Rooms would be a hammer blow to Dundee. Its closure would leave its floundering music scene in the hands of a few self-aware bars in the student quarter and a cluster of tired rock clubs entirely reliant on neverending Sham 69 tours and amusingly titled tribute bands. Few could argue against the V&A being a welcome and much-needed addition to Tayside’s cultural landscape, but why should it come at the expense of its most cherished music venue?

With the police campaign showing no signs of letting up, their latest tactic of reducing the capacity to 200 (down from its usual 450) is one that has caused particular strain on the club and its promoters. A night with Liverpudlian DJ Mella Dee, set to take place at The Reading Rooms on 21 December, has had to be relocated due to it selling more than 200 tickets prior to the cap being imposed; rite-of-passage house and techno night Book Club described how it will make it harder to “secure deposits for guest DJs for upcoming events”; while the club itself took to social media to spell out exactly what halving the number of punters means in terms of operation.

A link to an online fundraiser was preceded by a message reading: “In order for us to continue to run the venue and bring international artists and DJs, whilst providing a safe platform for local talent to grow, we need to raise enough funds to cover the cost of rectifying recent operational issues at the club by 20 January 2019.”

While this call to arms was heeded by two hugely successful fundraising parties under the banner of ‘Keep It’, and the general show of support from club regulars has been nothing short of inspiring, Cornford insists that the worst thing to do now would be to let complacency slip in. 

“Keep going to the club and behaving in the way you have previously,” he urges. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen any trouble at The Reading Rooms, which is testament to the crowd it attracts in comparison to some of the other clubs in town. But we also need to go a step further. Write to your MP, MSP and local councillors, and make them hear your voice on the issue. Popular support is the only thing that’ll keep the club open.”

“I always bring this back to a more holistic question,” Shapiro interjects. “What are our town centres for and what kind of space do we need, as a community, to enhance our wellbeing and quality of life?” In the case of Dundee, a city desperate to reinvent itself as a thriving cultural hub in the wake of the V&A opening, it’s a question that ought to hold particular prescience.

Keep It fundraisers are taking play at The Reading Rooms, Dundee, 22 & 28 Dec; Support The Reading Rooms' campaign here.