‘Our sound man had Kurt Cobain against the wall’: iconic Leeds gig pub ‘reopens’

Kurt Cobain reportedly slept on the sofa, which had been signed by scores of bands. Oasis famously played to no audience at all. For more than a decade, the Duchess of York in Leeds was a mainstay of the northern gig circuit. Before it closed in 2000, it hosted Nirvana, Pulp, Blur, Manic Street Preachers, the Verve and Coldplay on their respective paths to the top.

Today, the site in Vicar Lane hosts a clothes shop. But the venue is being partially recreated in Leeds’s Kirkgate Market for this week’s Compass festival, a showcase for interactive art projects. Pints will be served beneath a mock-up of the old Duchess sign. The walls will be covered in gig flyers, photos from gigs, posters and quotes from former punters.

“But it won’t be complete until there are people in it,” explains Katie Etheridge, who designed the project with fellow Cornwall-based artist Simon Persighetti – together they run arts organisation Small Acts. The pair hope that visitors will “come together, share memories of gigs they went to and discuss why pubs and pub venues are so important, and what we can do to stop them being lost” – particularly after the pandemic has threatened so many small venues with closure.

The Duchess was the Robin Hood pub until local promoter John Keenan transformed it in the late 80s by putting on touring bands. “I was promoting at about five other venues as well,” he says. “There was a lot of juggling, but the more I had going on, the more enjoyable it was.”

, ‘Our sound man had Kurt Cobain against the wall’: iconic Leeds gig pub ‘reopens’, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
The new pop-up version of the Duchess in Leeds’ Kirkgate Market. Photograph: Compass festival

Keenan ran the Duchess for four years and promoted there for 13. He put Blur on when they were a “psychedelic band” and gave a young Radiohead a valuable support slot with progressive rockers Here and Now. “I looked for a distinctive sound,” he says. “Bands either have it or they don’t.”

Keenan promoted Nirvana in 1989, supporting fellow American rockers Tad. Cobain refused to stay in the same room as singer Tad Doyle because he snored. “So he slept on the sofa in my office,” says Keenan. “Kurt smashed his guitar against the mic stand that night, destroying our expensive microphone. So our sound man had him up against the wall. They promised they’d replace it and to be fair they did, the next day.”

Oasis played twice, the first time – on 8 September 1993 – as total unknowns. “There were two people in with a kebab each,” guitarist Bonehead recalls. “So we treated the gig like a posh rehearsal and played as if our lives depended on it. I think we played Live Forever and probably ended with I Am the Walrus. By then the couple had had an argument, slammed their kebabs down and stormed off. We were left playing to an empty room, but the bar staff gave us a round of applause.”

Oasis returned on 12 April 1994 on a joint headline tour with Whiteout, by which time people were queuing around the block. “Mostly to see Oasis,” says Bonehead. “It was the first time I’d seen a massive queue before.”

, ‘Our sound man had Kurt Cobain against the wall’: iconic Leeds gig pub ‘reopens’, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
The former Duchess of York frontage. Photograph: Leeds Civic Trust

Later that year, Tim Hornsby – who ran York venue Fibbers – took over the lease and hired experienced band/touring manager Miranda McMullen to run the Duchess at a time when female venue managers were rare. “That might be why so many venues in those days were revolting, she says. “I lived on the premises but on the first night the roof leaked all over my bed. The toilets and dressing room were absolutely disgusting.”

So she transformed the place, disinfecting the walls, ditching the filthy mattress in the yard and bringing in hot food, with vegetarian options. “The philosophy was ‘Let’s make it nice for the punters, but the bands need to want to come here too.’ We fed Supergrass when they were the support band and they said, ‘This has never happened to us before.’ Green Day said they played better because we looked after them so well.’”

It was all over once the lease was sold to a property company. Twenty-one years on, with grassroots venues among the 12,000 licensed venues to have closed in the pandemic, Etheridge argues that such places “aren’t just where people experience their first gigs or get into music, but where the bands themselves build the foundations of a fanbase”.

Bonehead agrees. “Just two years after playing the Duchess we walked out in front of 250,000 people at Knebworth,” he says, “but those little venues with people are right in your face are where you learn your craft. If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.”

, ‘Our sound man had Kurt Cobain against the wall’: iconic Leeds gig pub ‘reopens’, The Nzuchi Times Guardian

The Duchess of York “homage” forms part of the Yorkshire Square, a fully operational pub installation in Kirkgate Market, 15-24 July. John Keenan is interviewed live at 5.30pm on 23 July, followed by live music.

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