A Love Letter to Newport TJ's, Wales’ Most Legendary Venue
Mine was the last of several generations the club had seen through adolescence and beyond. If walls could talk my mum would have grounded me for the rest of my pubescent days.
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Every teenager has their beloved shithole music venue, and TJ's was mine. Located in the centre of Newport, nestled conveniently between Iceland and City Pizza, it was the ultimate toilet-circuit club that revelled in its grotty glory by advertising itself as “The Legendary TJ's” - a piece of puffery coined by John Peel years prior to him even going there. Self-mythologising though it may be, most people would say that the title was entirely justified. FHM included it in their "Top 50 Best Nights Out IN THE WORLD" in 1997, Welsh folklore reckons Kurt Cobain proposed to Courtney Love under the plastic tree near the entrance when Hole played there in 1991, and when I asked my friends what they remembered from their time spent frequenting or working there, this is just a small cross-section of the responses I got:
“I once watched Warren from The Vandals sit on a speaker completely naked, wrap his legs around his neck and then strum air guitar on his penis.”
“I remember witnessing Marky Ramone get hurried off stage and into the back of a blacked out taxi whilst undercover of a variety of towels.”
“Whilst we were cashing up downstairs one night, we heard quite a loud noise and something appearing to fall from the roof near the stage. We walked over and someone’s fucking leg was hanging through the ceiling where the floor had just given way on him upstairs. I don't think we even went upstairs to check on them, it had just become common by that point.”
“One time me and some friends saw someone get kidnapped during a Shai Hulud gig.”
“Did you hear about the guy who shat in his hand and hid it underneath the stage for weeks?”
TJ's was founded in 1971 by the late John Sicolo, who has been described as “a hybrid of Tom Jones and The Incredible Hulk” and stood as the anarchic heart, soul and backbone of the club from beginning to end. Originally christened “El Sieco’s” before being renamed “TJ's Disco” (and eventually dropping the “Disco”), the venue’s punk legacy sprouted in the mid 80s, when some of the promoters began to arrange benefit gigs and fundraisers in solidarity with the miners on strike. The club kept on developing, and when promoters Cheap Sweaty Fun made it their go-to venue after the closure of Stow Hill Labour Club and started bringing in bands like Big Black, Sonic Youth and Half Man Half Biscuit, TJ's quickly became the country’s closest answer to CBGB. Coupled with South Wales’ own burgeoning music scene in the early 90s (Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals, Stereophonics) this led to the media dubbing Newport “the new Seattle”.
I spoke to Matthew Weir, a photographer from Bristol whose relationship with TJ's was a one-night stand in December 1991, the night Hole played (view a full gallery of images from this gig here). With no tour dates slated for Bristol, Newport was his next best option. "I got to the gig and immediately made a few new friends, the place seemed super friendly and it was a great atmosphere," Matthew tells me. "Hole were so loud in that small space and I remember a guy, who I later discovered was John Sicolo, standing in front of Courtney to hold off the crowd from getting to her."
Despite the show taking place just three months after the release of Nevermind, Kurt is said to have spent most of the evening among the crowd, relatively undisturbed, which seems to support the rumour that the bouncer didn't immediately recognise him and tried to charge him a fiver to get in.
"Kurt stood on a bench to get a good view of the band," Matthew tells me. "He was by no means the celebrity he would go on to become in the next 6 months, by which time I would imagine that kind of behavior would've proved impossible for him. I asked him if I could take a couple of photos, to which he assumed I meant of me and him together. I told him 'No, just you', to which he looked puzzled but went along with it. He seemed quiet, shy, all the things you generally read about him, or at least one side of him. Lastly I asked him for his autograph for my mum, I thought he'd like that more. To this day my mum still has it pressed between the pages of a book. A yellow post it with 'Isobel Kurt' in childlike scrawl."
"When Hole finished their set I spoke to Courtney briefly, who seemed far less personable. I took a few photos from a distance and, after asking her for a close up she obliged by pushing her face right into my camera. To this day I love this photo, it's really stark and really honest."
At this point, South Wales was still recovering from the royal kicking it had been given by Thatcher’s conservative government, which paralleled the working class experience in the more industrialized regions of America. So it made sense, then, that politically-charged bands from overseas would skirt around the capital and head instead to a city whose major cultural landmark is a Wetherspoons. Not dissimilarly, most of my friends and I didn’t even live in Newport, we just gravitated hypnotically towards it from surrounding areas because of the music scene. Despite being closer for us, Cardiff was rubbish. It was a city with a curfew, the place you’d go to pass weekend afternoons loitering outside McDonalds. Your parents went to clubs in Cardiff to watch professional blues guitar players. The underage, alternative and terminally disaffected would have to go somewhere else for their fun, and Newport’s underground pleasures became our playground.
But of all the dive bars in all of the UK, why TJ's? John Rutledge, better known as Eggsy from Goldie Lookin' Chain - who are basically Newport made sentient as a rap collective - tells me, "It wasn't that it was different to any other venue, it was the fact that it was similar to other alternative venues all around the country - places you couldn't get to because you had no cash to travel. In many ways, having these little clubs dotted around the country was the closest thing you could get to an internet forum pre-internet. We all swapped ideas and tastes without even realising it. It was like a booze fuelled cocktail evening with a dirty toilet attached."
In it’s time, TJ's has been a home-for-a-few-hours to everyone from Oasis to Fugazi, but mine was the Myspace era, one where bands like Brand New, Coheed and Cambria, Funeral For A Friend and The Ataris played on a seemingly weekly basis and I was able to accost all my teenage idols for the first time with some gig memorabilia in one hand and an illegally sourced drink in the other. A large chunk of my most laughable “coming of age” experiences happened within those four, scribbled on, pissed on walls; in a single evening I saw a now quite famous supermodel/musician get accidentally smacked in the face by a bass guitar during Brand New’s set, proclaimed my love for Jesse Lacey to his actual face and made him sign a drum skin I’d been gifted by their roadie, combed sick out of a friend’s hair with my fingers so the bouncers wouldn’t clock the entire bottle of vodka she’d smuggled in/necked and chuck her out, and performed a basic sex act in the bar area. If walls could talk, and then used their newly granted magic to call my mum, then I would have grounded me for the rest of my pubescent days.
Ironically, though, TJ's was probably one of the most encouraging spaces in which a hopeless misfit such as myself could blossom. It may have been located next to a halfway house in the centre of a city that was named “Britain’s most violent town” in 2000, but violence and intimidation were the only things not welcome at TJ's. If you fell over, five pairs of hands would be there to help you up. Then they’d probably rip the piss out of you, but not before making sure you were okay. It was the kind of environment your weird uncle with an army job would describe as “good character building”, and he wouldn’t be wrong.
Speaking to Mike Jones, who started putting on shows there in 2005 when he was 14, he says, “This was the strange thing about Newport, you could put on a show with someone like Dying Fetus and just have some pissed lads from the Riverside Tavern over the road walk in and check it out. It sounds cliche but regardless of background or what people were wearing, people did look out for each-other. I can count on one hand the amount of times we had trouble whilst I was working there and it was usually swiftly dealt with, with a clip round the ear from John.”
Because John allowed such a rag-tag collective of hardened locals and underage drinkers to come in and treat his club like it was their mate’s house, it became a spiritual home for anyone who didn’t fit in anywhere else. If you ask around, you’ll hear it described as everything from "a cross between that pervy bar in Star Wars and CBGB's but with a multi storey car park over the road" to “a really friendly punch in the stomach”. For all TJ's faults, nobody has a bad word to say about it in retrospect. Joe Strummer, who spent 1973/4 attending Newport College of Art and Design and working as a gravedigger for the council, played one of his last ever gigs there.
Sadly, mine was the last of several generations that TJ's had seen through puberty and beyond, but for many it played a role that won’t be forgotten as quickly as it closed.
“TJ's had a family atmosphere and John was at the heart of that,” Mike says, “There was never a high turnover of staff. If you worked there, you generally stayed there until you finished uni or got a job that was actually going places. If ever there was a disagreement or a falling out (which I'd have with John almost daily) you'd come in the next day and everything would be forgotten about. Part of that is down to it being a venue with the same staff and John as a constant for so long, which just doesn't happen anymore.”
John Sicolo owned the venue until he passed away in 2010, aged 66. After that, TJ's closed with pretty much immediate effect due to financial difficulties. NME reported that Sicolo had been pouring thousands from his pension fund into the venue to keep it open. Some people described him as a surrogate father figure. He allowed people to live in the flat above the venue rent free, providing they ran errands for him. Mike tells me that John kicked out those who were living there towards the end because “he didn't think they would move on with their lives and go on to achieve the things that they wanted to achieve,” even though they were “the people that kept the place open most of the time by putting their dole money straight over the bar.”
“I think he lied and said he was going to re-develop the flats upstairs and sell them,” Mike explains, “But that was never likely as I was still using the chicken shop next door as a dressing room for bands.”
In 2011,TJ's was sold at auction for £242,000, but so far nothing has happened to it other than the odd accidental fire. At present, it’s still boarded up. Whether it would’ve stayed open were it not tied up in financial difficulties is another question, but Newport as a whole has become increasingly economically fucked over the last decade. It is now among the worst hit cities in the UK for unemployment, with almost 1 in 12 jobs lost during the decade to 2013, a depressing climate that would have had an inevitable effect on TJ's under any circumstance.
As Mike tells me, “TJ's was on it's arse for a while, so it was more symbolic than anything else, I think. Towards the end, TJ's wasn't a venue that was equipped to deal with modern touring bands and it just got left behind. I think it really took the wind out of people’s sails when it went rather than having a galvanising effect on people to rally round and re-build a scene.”
The constantly looming allure of Cardiff has certainly had an increasingly draining effect on the areas around it, and as with most venues that end up shutting down for primarily financial reasons, you’ll find more people bemoaning its loss than actually went to shows there in it’s final years. Still, Newport’s relationship with punk isn’t easily sapped. Even now, where most areas don’t have a single independent record shop, Newport has two: Diverse and Kriminal. And Newport’s other longstanding punk-associated venue, LePub - which still stands but whose legacy has always been slightly overshadowed by TJ's - has faced multiple threats of closures over the last five years but managed to rescue itself through successful benefit shows, social media campaigns, and crowdfunding. Though there was a three year lull in punk/hardcore shows in South Wales after TJ's went, a fresh group of promoters are now picking things up again in Cardiff. But the spark that used to bring people to Newport from all over the country is notably absent, and had been for a hot minute before TJ's was boarded up.
“Like everything, these things go in cycles,” says Mike, “When I was young there were a lot of talented young kids starting bands and wanting to their name out there, and in another 5-10 years Newport might have the same thing. You can have all the infrastructure in the world in terms of venues, practice studios, recording studios and whatever else, but without that spark to set it off it can all just be meaningless.”
Eggsy agrees, "Sadly I think [TJ's closing] killed off a large chunk of Newport's music scene, but I suppose it's just a question of time before people start vibing again."
The venue was linked to times and places, musical generations and eras that are very much over, but it was also much more than that. It’s gloriously ungovernable presence didn’t just frame entire scenes, it framed entire lives. I consider myself lucky enough to have spent just a few years there, but there were many who came before me who spent ten times as many. The sensation of displacement that follows a cultural causality will always feel greater in an area that didn’t have all that much to begin with, but Newport is not a city that wallows in its losses. "There's no point moaning about it being over," Eggsy says, "People need to look forward, maybe even start a metal band or some shit like that. Who knows! Maybe Newport will become the next Motown. All it takes is some songs and a group of drunk people."
I imagine a few people would have liked to have seen the venue carry on, run by a member of the Sicolo family. But as things happened, the best thing to do isn’t to mourn TJ's absence, but to keep sharing the story and make sure it’s not forgotten. If that continues, maybe Newport can rise again.
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