by Flo Ward and Tom Graham
A few weeks ago, after lengthy negotiations with the landlord and building contractors over rent and fire safety renovations, Oxford's venue The Cellar closed its doors for the last time. The news felt almost anti-climactic: after the last couple of years, which have seen The Cellar fight off the prospect of closure more than once, the basement club seemed invincible. 13,000 people signed a 2017 petition to prevent the club’s redevelopment into a retail space, and a further 2,000 donated over £92,000 in just over 4 weeks to the ‘Cellar Forever’ crowd-funder in 2018. Sadly, this overwhelming support was not enough: on 11th March 2019, the venue ended its over 40-year-long tenure as the beating centre of Oxford’s independent music scene, leaving a sweaty, low-ceilinged hole in the city’s heart.
The Cellar’s reach extended far beyond Oxford’s itinerant student population, forming an integral part of the local community. In a city that often feels divided into ‘Town’ and ‘Gown’, Cellar did its bit to transcend this, opening its doors to students, locals and performers alike. Here are their memories:
Image: PapaKimYo (left); Dave Awcock (right)
“It’s got new paint but it’s the same kind of place, it is what it is. It’s an iconic club”. These were the words of the blues-rock three-piece Steamroller when they played at The Cellar in 2014 in celebration of the venue’s 40th birthday. They were the first band to play on The Cellar stage, then called the Corn Dolly, in April 1974. The Corn Dolly was a pub, but Steamroller’s initial gig propelled it onto the Oxford music scene, with bands like The Cure frequenting the venue throughout the late-70s, and Foals in the early-00s. Although The Cellar was host to many other big names throughout its time – from Russell Howard to Ben UFO – it always remained true to its humble roots. “For a long time it was the standard by which I judged all small clubs,” speaks TJ Hertz (A.K.A. Objekt), who studied in Oxford and learned to DJ at The Cellar . “It was a wonderful venue, one whose idiosyncrasies and limitations defined rather than diminished its charm, and one whose stage and DJ booth were open to anyone with half an idea who cared to give it a shot.” With inexpensive hire costs, it was accessible to any small but ambitious project. Without The Cellar, the city now finds itself in a position without any obvious space facilitating experimentation without a huge price tag.
Because of this accessibility, The Cellar was a springboard for the careers of several successful DJs, musicians and event organisers. Sybil Gillespie, DJ and founder of SIREN, a London-based DJ collective comprised of female-identifying artists, is another Oxford alumn for whom The Cellar was an introduction into new music. “It will stay forever in my heart. I first started going out to listen to ‘underground’ dance music at The Cellar, and wouldn’t be on the path in life I’m on if it were not for those nights.”
More recently, Cellar’s manageable hire costs enabled not-for-profit events to raise significant amounts of money for charity. Student-run party Patchwork raised money for several charities by running regular events at Cellar from 2015-17. Berlin-based DJ Katia Mullova (A.K.A. Katiusha), speaks on behalf of Patchwork: “Our favourite memory there was when anu tore it up and things got so fire everyone started taking their clothes off and losing their shit (think the bouncers had to come inside to tell us to behave). Somehow The Cellar had a way of keeping an atmosphere even when it was absolutely heaving, and it always surprised the bigger bookings with how much fun it was.” The success of Patchwork demonstrates Cellar’s ability to host stacked lineups while still serving the wider community.
Goodness is another recent example of a student-run party whose popularity has been driven by the alternative identity that The Cellar cultivated. From humble beginnings in Oxford, Goodness have put on successful nights in Bristol, Manchester and London, and have secured spots on the festival lineups of Gottwood and Dimensions. “It’s a platform for student initiative,” says Oli Nelson, co-founder of Goodness, “one that, in my 1st and 2nd year, allowed this city – which I really didn’t have particularly high hopes for in terms of nightlife – to really flourish in that respect. No other club in Oxford can adequately match its balance of size, atmosphere and cost, there is no low-risk option for aspiring promoters, and, as such, nights have become more infrequent and less diverse.”
Run by the Hopkins family since 1979, The Cellar didn’t suffer the same erosion of identity that can come with endlessly switching management. In amongst the seemingly constant development of central Oxford, leaving behind trails of empty shops in its wake, The Cellar was a reminder of the city’s individualism. It was a versatile venue, constantly evolving with the ever-changing population of student punters and promoters, but it also managed to stay the same at its core. “I graduated, but in classic university romance style, I couldn’t let go,” says Cat Hunter, who put on bands under the ‘Sunday Roast’ banner throughout 2008. “I stayed in Oxford, running my club nights, booking bands and pulling pints. Long after I quit the city, I’d take a monthly train back to keep the Sunday Roast going, struggling under the weight of a tatty box of CD-Rs.”
DJ Chris Barrance, who grew up around Oxford and has lived in the city centre since 2010, has a similar story: “[The Cellar] genuinely felt like a second home or living room for most of the last decade. But to put into words what made it so special, it was the fact that as a punter, I could turn up any night of the week for something by myself, and find half a dozen or more good friends down at the front.” As a DJ and promoter, Chris was thankful for the “musical freedom, and the creative expression that comes with that. This was proved time and time again by having smiling, thankful 40 or 50+ year olds coming and shaking your hand over the DJ booth on a Saturday night for continuing this tradition of The Cellar. Halfway through my first time ever playing records myself in The Cellar, the Pet Shop Boys turned up and were bopping away at the back.” It’s the bizarre and unexpected moments like these that enable a music scene to grow while retaining its unique character, and the loss of Cellar takes with it the opportunity for future audiences to experience these oddities.
Bruce, Batu and Ploy shelling for Turf x Timedance in November 2017
Perhaps most compelling, however, is the enormous reaction of grief that many have expressed online – comments on The Cellar’s notice of closure on Facebook are testament to the many significant memories that the venue accumulated in its 45-year history. “I met my husband there pretty much 14 years ago to the day The Cellar closed down, so its closure felt pretty personal to me,” says Susanna Griffiths. “I will forever remember the sticky floors, the strange smell of Lush drifting downstairs to mingle with the beer and cigarette smoke, the super weird graffiti that left me forever wondering exactly what a ‘penu’ was. But most of all I’ll remember the relaxed atmosphere so rare of a city centre venue, and the easy friendships that helped to create.” Her words remind us that The Cellar won't just be remembered as a space for music, but also as a space that fostered lasting friendships and relationships.
In comparison to the university, the history of Oxford’s alternative community spaces can be easily subsumed by much older legacies. But this should not be the case; independent venues like The Cellar should not live in the shadow of Oxford’s dreaming spires but alongside them, a reminder that although the city may be a symbol of stiff-lipped British tradition, it has also been the birthplace of a small but thriving music scene
Image: The Cellar [Oxford]
Words by Flo Ward and Tom Graham