Music venues, Theaters and almost all indoor spaces we use to escape and enhance our lives are under threat. This series explores the venues affected around the country, how they have dealt with the lockdown up to this point and why it is so vital that they return once lockdown is over. First in this series, Tom Hutchinson talks to Tom Caulker of The World Headquarters, Newcastle.
Burrowed into an old Victorian warehouse on a murky Newcastle side-street is World Headquarters, the epicentre of the city’s pulsing alternative nightlife scene. The club’s owner, Tom Caulker, started putting on inclusive, clandestine parties in the 1980s, as an antidote to the oppressive fog of racism and violence that hung over Newcastle. In Tom’s own words, anyone who didn’t conform to Newcastle’s white, cis-macho-male image risked ‘getting their heads kicked in if they went into town’, and the glaring lack of a safe space in the city centre ultimately led to Tom taking matters into his own hands.
After cutting his teeth running illicit gatherings, Tom became Newcastle’s first independent and non-white license holder, transforming local boozer ‘The Trent House’ into a staggeringly cool soul-utopia, before cementing “Worldies” as the pounding heart of the North East underground.
Tom explains that, since its inception, ‘the club’s sole purpose has been to make Newcastle a better, more inclusive place for young people’, by inspiring ‘racially harmonic, global perspectives’ and through the celebration of the success of a black-owned business.
Following the murder of George Floyd, it has become depressingly clear that this work is still essential, as the veil of ignorance that covers and protects systems of white supremacy and institutional racism across the Western world has begun to slip.
World HQ understands the importance of education and empathy in dismantling these systems. Throughout lockdown the club has been involved in the Let Us Breathe campaign, a series of live-streamed online protests for racial justice that, as the campaign’s Facebook page says, ‘is facilitated through discussion with community leaders, debating the way forward for eradicating racism from our communities, policing and political systems’. Tom himself speaks in one of the protests, drawing attention to the failure of the school curriculum in addressing Britain’s colonial past, and the conscious omission of black history in the classroom.
The club is one of thousands of independent venues across the country who have had their souls ripped out by the pandemic, and are now lying dormant, with faint echoes of nights past falling limp onto once loaded and vivacious dancefloors. These places don’t only play a vital role in the development of new artists, but also offer an invaluable centre for young people in their community. Tom recognises this, ‘it very much effects young people, and it is the places where young people really want to go that will be hit the hardest’. He also worries for the business owners and venues themselves, predicting that there will be a ‘phenomenal number of places that will close’.
The preservation of independent venues is paramount to the wellbeing of the communities that they serve. It is no coincidence that it is often venues such as World HQ that are at the vanguard of social change. Via their very nature they have evaded the invasive tentacles of profit-driven franchises that rule over the entertainment industry, a progressive stance in itself. It may, however, be these stances that prove to be the downfall of these venues, as money dries up and landlords stand firm on rent payments.
The UK’s late entry to lockdown and the continued irresponsible handling of the virus has no doubt harmed their chances of recovery… it is unlikely a solution can be found without significant investment into music’s grassroots venues, and across the arts more widely. The power of community organisation will be ever more important after the “return to normal”, and the examples set by groups such as World Headquarters will be resources to draw upon in the inevitable process of rebuilding that will have to take place.