The story of the music venue that has survived against all odds
Newport’s iconic music venue Le Pub has been celebrating its 30th anniversary in style with a series of high-profile gigs throughout 2022.
Acts including Gruff Rhys, GLC, Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard, The Bug Club and Adwaith have performed in recent months, with legendary Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess set to grace the stage in November.
It’s not been all plain sailing for 30 years, with Le Pub having to leave its original location on Caxton Place following the sale of the building in 2017. After a lot of blood, sweat and tears, Le Pub re-opened on Newport High Street and has continued to flourish since.
Sam Dabb, the formidable owner of Le Pub, says it has been hard work in recent years, but is proud of what Le Pub continues to achieve.
“I think surviving the move in 2017 and then with Covid hitting, it felt like everybody needed something to celebrate. Being thirty was a damn-good reason for a celebration. It was a good excuse to have a party and to remind us why we started in the first place. It was all such hard work, but the celebrations are a reminder of why we do it.”
Sam’s idea for a big celebration came to fruition after speaking with Matt Jarrett of Newport’s Diverse Records, who books the gigs for Le Pub.
“We sat down and decided we were going to ask everyone we’d ever met and liked to come and play some shows and see what we could put together. We had a wish list, and there aren’t many on that list that we didn’t end up with. And those that aren’t doing it have got really good excuses – like they aren’t even a band anymore!”
With the official anniversary being July 2022, Sam’s original plan was to do thirty gigs that month, “but it was just too much”. They settled on gigs throughout the year, with Sam looking forward to one in particular.
“Tim Burgess is coming to play, that is the big one for me. That was the one that I was put in charge of making sure happened. I still can’t believe I actually pulled it off! I’m really excited for that in November. He or The Charlatans have never played Le Pub.
“I sent him an email explaining what Le Pub was and asked him if he fancied playing an anniversary show. He simply replied ‘Yes’, and I was in shock. He’s just such a great guy. I do some work for Music Venue Trust and he’s a big supporter of them and has done a lot for them. Without Music Venue Trust I don’t think any of us would still be here.”
It seems that the appreciation is mutual. This week, to her surprise, Sam was the recipient of an Outstanding Achievement Award at the Music Venue Trust’s 2022 Venues Day. The event, which took place at the Hackney Church, London, was attended by grassroots music promoters and supporters from across the UK. Sam was presented her award by comedian Mark Steel, who recently developed a fondness for Newport after performing stand-up at the Riverfront Theatre.
Along with the famed TJ’s, Le Pub was part of a music scene in Newport in the 90’s often referred to as, some say tediously, ‘the new Seattle’. Sam says that Newport, and Le Pub in particular, was a special place to be during this period, not that she can remember too much.
“I spent most of that era drunk, I’m not going to lie, so my memory can be hazy! But there are just so many great nights and memories.
“There was definitely a scene. I was in a band called Disco, and it was really weird because if you were from Newport literally all we had to do was say ‘we’re a band now’ and all of a sudden you’ve got the NME on the phone asking what kind of stuff we play. I was like ‘what the fuck is this?’, it was a really weird time to be in Newport. We played with the 60ft Dolls and Catatonia. We played TJ’s 20 times and signed to TJ’s records. We got played on John Peel, Steve Lamacq, Jo Whiley – and it was only because we were from Newport. We weren’t very good. In fact, it was shit! If we were from any other city in Britain, we would’ve struggled to get a gig, let alone Radio 1 airplay! It was a very strange time.”
With Le Pub having played host to such a plethora of musical talent, Sam struggles to pick a stand-out memory or moment.
“We have done so many incredible gigs and amazing club nights. I’ve had so many random Monday’s when all the regulars have been lovely and I’ve just had a really amazing shift. It’s not really possible to pick one special memory, because every night can be so different.”
One memorable night Sam does remember involves a member of Busted and a well-known Welsh DJ.
“One of my favourite stories is the night Pulled Apart by Horses played. Huw Stephens turned up to see them, which was a bit out of the norm. Then a friend of mine who had a recording studio in Newport turned up with Charlie from Busted! Everyone just ended up absolutely hammered.
“Getting Charlie and Huw in the pub’s infamous photobooth was my mission! There was this really random moment where I was like ‘Huw, come in the photobooth with me’ and he opened the curtain and was like ‘Charlie Simpson?!’. Charlie responded ‘Huw Stephens, what the hell are you doing in Newport?!’ It was a very Le-Pubby and random night!”
60ft Dolls, perhaps Newport’s most famous sons, have a long history with Le Pub having performed there on numerous occasions. Sam says she has great memories of the three-piece punk-rock firebrands.
“There are quite a few stories about the 60ft Dolls, some I can’t tell. There was the time Mike (Cole, bassist of 60ft Dolls) stepped forward off the stage and accidentally knocked a girl out with his bass head, that wasn’t pretty, obviously.”
This is corroborated by the Dolls’ drummer Carl Bevan. “Yeah, he boshed her right in the mush with the headstock of his Fender Precision when he was jumping around. I think we stopped playing to check if she was ok. She was very brave, but she must have caught a shiner. Mike was gutted!”
“We’d try and keep their gigs secret at Le Pub and 200 people would turn up and we’d be like ‘who the fuck told everyone’?!”, says owner Sam. “Everyone would deny it, but word always got out and those gigs would always be crazy. They must’ve played Le Pub 20 or 30 times easily.”
Bevan, the beat of the 60ft Dolls, is full of praise for his old haunt.
“It’s a perfect-size small venue – small enough to be able to create an intimate experience where you can get nose to nipple with the band. It’s always been easy for bands to put on gigs there too. If 20 people turn up it doesn’t feel empty, but you can also cram 300 people in with sweat dripping off the ceiling and you can still see the stage and the sound is good.”
Bevan has fond memories of Le Pub, particularly during the halcyon days of the 90s.
“When I was out most nights a week, Le Pub in Caxton Place was the first stop every time. I’m showing my age now, but it was pre-internet and there was no need to ring anybody to arrange to meet them because everybody would probably be there anyway. It had a great sense of community then, as it does now. That particular attribute is impossible to manufacture with advertising, slick interiors or marketing. It can only be organic. Le Pub as a community has always been 100% organic and built from the grassroots up in a city that has always loved its rock and roll.”
Sam says that Bevan’s old bandmate is still a regular at the new premises.
“I see Mike about three times a week now, he still often comes into Le Pub, has a Guinness, and then goes home quite early.”
Known for his drinking and hellraising during the bands’ heyday, Sam says that after some difficult times Cole is doing well.
“The thing about Newport is that it has so many characters! Everyone in Newport is very individual and strange. Mike is one of my favourite people in the world. Always has been, always will be. He’s always got a smile for you no matter what. Even when he was going through some hard times himself, I’d see him in town and he’d still always have a smile for me. He is one of the nicest people I know. Seeing him out and about and doing well just always makes me happy. He’s a brilliant guy.”
A 60ft Dolls reunion is the dream for music fans from that era, but Sam thinks this is wishful thinking.
“Ah, we tried for the anniversary, but I don’t think that is ever going to happen unfortunately. I think that is one ship that has well and truly sailed. We did manage to book a solo show with Richard (Parfitt, singer-songwriter and guitarist with 60ft Dolls), but then that got cancelled, sadly.”
The demise of the Newport Leisure Centre and the importance of Le Pub to Newport and the community
With the news that the Newport Leisure Centre, which hosted prestigious acts such as David Bowie and Foo Fighters, is to be demolished, Newport lacks a 1,000 or 2,000 capacity venue that are in abundance in neighbouring Cardiff and Bristol.
“I am going to say something really controversial here. I think it is the right idea not to put a venue in anything rebuilt. Bands don’t want to play leisure centres anymore, they want to play Tramshed’s, Sin City’s and O2 academies.
“It’s a bit depressing that we don’t have a bigger venue like other cities, but I think that bands want to have dressing rooms, not a changing room that stinks of chlorine.
“I think for the council to spend an absolute shedload of money that could be spent on better facilities for health in the area, just for bands to turn up once or twice a year and play is not financially viable. It would be great to have a 1 or 2,000 capacity venue in Newport that is custom built, but I don’t think any council in Wales has got any money at the moment.
“The Tories are sucking everything up and they are certainly not sharing it out!”
Sam isn’t just passionate about Le Pub, she is passionate about her city.
“I have said it so many times, but my main wish for Newport is that I wish people would stop fucking slagging it off! It’s a really nice place to live. I’ve been here fucking 30 years and I love it! If people actually open their eyes and have a look at it, it’s great. It’s full of brilliant people and brilliant things.
“Our city centre isn’t great, but then show me a second city centre or town that is. They just don’t exist. None of the problems that people seem to attribute to Newport are specific to Newport. They are affecting every town in Wales and in Britain.
“Unfortunately, that is the state of Britain after 12 years of Tory rule. They have inflicted their pathetic budgets on Wales. We don’t have the chance to actually do anything we want to with our own money. It is being taken from us. I could rant all day!”
Bevan, who now lives in Cardiff and plies his trade as an accomplished artist, is full of praise for Sam and Le Pub.
“The death of John Sicolo and TJ’s closing had a big impact on the live music scene in Newport and I’m sure glad that Le Pub has kept the lights on over all these years.
The amount of venues that didn’t make it is very sad indeed, and with everything that’s happened recently with covid, it’s commendable that it’s still defiantly standing there like Hodor! Who knows what’s around the corner with these two idiots that are in control of the UK economy – it looks like it’s going to get even worse for small businesses and consumers.
Le Pub has survived by investing in long-term customers that make up its community, and they have invested in the venue in return. I think those are really strong foundations to stand on and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it going for another 30 years!”
For the meantime, Sam is focused on ensuring a prosperous and bigger future for Le Pub, something that is so important for the creative community.
“I think if Newport lost Le Pub it would lose a hell of a lot. I’m not saying somebody else wouldn’t step up because where there is a creative community, they will always find spaces. We are really lucky in Newport that we have got quite a few little community theatre spaces.”
Le Pub have already built a free-to-use recording studio in the basement to help a newly thriving Newport music scene. A proud socialist, Sam says it is a move not designed to create money, but creativity.
“We built it during Covid and it seems to have already started to make a difference. Bands have got a proper little hub now. We don’t charge to use it, there is just a donation pot for rehearsals. If you want to record a demo, that is fine too. There is a massive thing in the music industry at the moment where there are so many fucking rich kids and it makes me sick.
“Part of that is because you can’t afford to record a demo unless you are rich! And you can’t get gigs without a demo, you can’t get seen online without a demo. So, part of our way of tackling that is to record demos in the studio for free. Then bands have got stuff to release online to get some attention to maybe earn some money themselves and kickstart their own career. I’m not trying to hold everybody’s hand from creation to stadium, but I do want to try to tackle that massive class divide in new music.
“If you pick a band that are doing really well at the moment, then nine times out of ten on their Wikipedia their parents are clickable because they are also famous. It has got to stop, it’s ridiculous. Mark from Music Venue Trust said to me about 5 years ago that ‘if we don’t do something about securing the future of grassroots music in Britain, we are going to see Coldplay headlining every festival for the next 50 years!’ And he’s not wrong.
“I think that is something really important to tackle by giving opportunities to kids who just want to make music for fun, not just because Mummy and Daddy think it might make them a couple of million.”
As for a repeat of ‘the new Seattle’, 46-year-old Sam is not so optimistic.
“I don’t think anywhere will ever see anything like that again. I sound so old, but I just think with the invention of the internet, scenes aren’t geographically linked anymore. Music scenes tend to be online communities now.”
However, Sam is positive about the current music scene in Newport and has big hopes for the future.
“There is a great feeling in the area at the moment about all the new bands around. Like The Nightmares, who have just signed to Equal Vision Records. They are a worldwide label and they are going to be touring the world.
“It’s the first time in ages that a Newport band have been given those opportunities, other than Skindred. The guitarist from The Nightmares is also in Murder Club, who are doing phenomenally well and have just come off tour with The Wedding Present. There is a real excitement in the air. Also, Parcs are an incredible electronica husband and wife team, they are outstandingly good.”
There are plans to renovate the two derelict floors above the pub with a rooftop garden, as well as more studios for music, art, theatre and video production. Sam is adamant she wants Le Pub to become Le Hub of Newport.
“The pipedream is to find the money to open a 1,000-capacity venue in Newport and run it ourselves – let’s call it Le Club! That is the dream.”
The 30th anniversary celebrations of one of Wales’ most venerated music venues will continue until the end of the year. Under the leadership of the passionate and brilliant Sam Dabb, it is certainly in safe hands for the foreseeable future.
Find out more about Le Pub’s 30th anniversary celebrations HERE
Carl Bevan’s art can be bought on his website HERE
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