From CBGB to the Roundhouse: Music Venues Through the Years is a deceptively slim volume given the staggering amount of information author Tim Burrows has gathered on the various iconic music venues discussed within its pages. In part because it’s less than 300 pages and in part because of his casually familiar tone, Burrows has made it relatively easy to devour the book in one sitting.
However, that’s not to say it’s a light, shallow read by any means. Burrows has done his homework and From CBGB to the Roundhouse comes across as a thoroughly researched, lovingly presented and wholly authoritative treatise on the places that have stuck in collective musical memory as strongly as much of the music itself. The air of expertise in the text, as well as the sense of noteworthiness in its subjects, is apparent because Burrows is not only cataloging buildings and performances spaces, but he’s also delving into the creative scenes and musical movements that sprung up around them, and dissecting the evolution of the artists and styles that were shaped by them.
Divided into three main sections, From CBGB to the Roundhouse focuses predominantly on US and UK venues (through the Cloudlands Ballroom, in Brisbane, and a few other famed halls in Australia get coverage as well). Part one details the beginnings of several venues going back to pre-World War II basement jazz clubs, tiny bars and pubs and house “rent parties” and “shebeens”, and documenting the music venue’s evolution from those humble beginnings through early rock ‘n’ roll and then the late ‘60s psychedelic expansions of ballrooms, theatres and mid-sided outdoor spaces, to today’s large arenas, stadiums and gargantuan festival grounds.
Tracking these changes in this section, Burrows hops back and forth across the pond and flits from venue to venue so that, for instance, discussion of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom is paired with the Whisky A Go Go in LA and what was going on with Bill Graham in San Francisco, as well as with psychedelic clubs like the UFO in London. Rather than separate each venue on a time line or by geographical proximity, every tale is interwoven and filled out with incredible anecdotes from first-hand interviews and excerpts from secondary sources with promoters, performers, owners and fans—such as Sonny Rollins remembering early days playing at Ronnie Scott’s, or promoter John Morris relating the details of how Wavy Gravy interpreted being put in charge of security at Woodstock. This narrative web is constructed so that the reader can get a more complete picture of the path from, say, the early days at the Fillmore to last summer’s Glastonbury.
Section two continues the interconnected threads somewhat, but does so under specific chapter headings such as “David Bowie at The Rainbow”, “CBGB and New York Punk” or “Eric, Bob and the Reggae Clubs”. It’s in this section that the personal stories get really interesting, particularly the tales from the kitchen of the Armadillo in Austin, Texas. Frank Zappa loved it there, and apparently, he was known to help out in the back on more than one occasion!
A sizable portion of part two is dedicated to The Rainbow, with no less than three chapters on the venerable spot. There’s its origin (as The Astoria), the aforementioned Bowie spectacle in 1972—which forever changed what a rock show could be—and Public Image Ltd.‘s first show. This part of From CBGB to the Roundhouse is where readers will find most of the punk coverage, as well as being where the titular clubs are mentioned at length.
CBGB, of course, is sadly no more, but a refurbished Roundhouse reopened in 2006. Naturally, one cannot talk about important music venues without talking about the demise and disappearance of important music venues. Burrows weaves this into his text with everything else, often lamenting a fallen venue even as he’s quickly on to the next up-and-comer (like the rest of the music industry that way, I guess).
However, following a section exploring the rise of raves—particularly the Hacienda in Manchester—Burrows does go into greater detail about closures and failures in the third part of From CBGB to the Roundhouse, with an entire chapter entitled, “Closing Down”. The gone-but-not-forgotten venues are listed and discussed individually here, as there really isn’t another sensible way to do it.
Still, Burrows manages to connect the closures to the rest of the book’s overall style by immediately following them with a chapter called, “The O2 Arena: The Shape of Things to Come”. It’s a reiteration of earlier examples of buildings being re-purposed into music venues, but on a much grander scale. Formerly the British government’s failed “Millennium Dome”, it’s now arguably the most popular venue on the planet.
It’s also, according to Burrows (and many agree), the symbol of the final decline of the music industry because, like most American stadiums, it can only support big ticket acts with million dollar sponsorships. The O2 and its kind could be the end of the music venue.
From CBGB to the Roundhouse ends on a more hopeful note, though. The last two chapters reveal that smaller pubs and clubs and venues are still surviving, and in some cases, thriving. They are just more spread out from traditional areas and each other than ever before. Burrows suggests in “New Venues in London and Beyond: What’s in a Name?” that the location, and obviously, the name of the club is increasingly less important, because of its inherently transient nature. In “Brooklyn and the Nouveau Shebeen”, the re-emergence of underground shows and house parties points to an alternate future than the one seen from the O2’s plush seats.
Although there are a few minor editing mistakes (Monterey becomes Miami at one point, a couple of quotes are attributed to commas and mid-sixties “Ann Arbour” turns into a “suburb” of “Michigan”), and no doubt there will be someone, somewhere, incensed that their own beloved venue isn’t mentioned, with From CBGB to the Roundhouse: Music Venues Through the Years, Tim Burrows has done a wonderful job of weaving his vast tapestry of venues into an experience that seems engineered to give readers a sense of actually having been there at each and every one.