Happy Birthday to a legendary musical venue that’s got its roots in rock and roll and a heart of soul

    The Forum is celebrating its 24th birthday this weekend and it’s going to be one big party. Eileen Leahy chats to its owner Jason Dormon about the history of this legendary club and to the musicians who’ll be performing on Saturday night

    To celebrate the fabled Forum entering into its 25th year of business it is welcoming a slew of musicians to play over its birthday weekend. The much respected music venue, which was once a public toilet, maybe diminutive in size but it’s actually a pretty big deal in the world of music thanks to the fact it’s helped launch the careers of Coldplay, Adele, The Libertines and Slaves, to name just a few over the past two decades.

    It has always been a place to namecheck saying ‘I was there’ – whether it’s when Oasis played in 1994 and there were only 50 people present, or when Keane’s Tom Chaplin played his first top secret gig as a solo artist there. Everyone from Wilko Johnson and The Wedding Present to Everything Everything and John Cooper Clarke have performed at The Forum such is its magnetic musical draw.

    So the fact it’s about to chalk up being nearly a quarter of a century old means there’s some serious partying about to happen.

    “I can’t believe it’s been 24 years,” says The Forum’s owner Jason Dormon. “We were just happy to make the first year so you can imagine how we feel now. We were originally in the basement of the Winchester Club (which became Thorins and is now No 9 The Smokehouse) on Nevill Street and were putting on bands like Suede, Boo Radleys and Green Day but we got booted out of there and the first place we saw was the space that was to become The Forum. It was being used as a brass rubbing centre then so we went to the council and arranged a short term lease.”

    The first bands to play on the opening night were Joeyfat (Jason’s band) and Four Heads in a Fish Tank a London group. Twenty four years on, the venue has hosted a staggering 25,000 plus concerts so understandably picking one out as an ultimate highlight is, Jason says, a nigh-on impossible task.

    “Sometimes my favourite nights are the ones when it’s felt like you and just a few other people enjoying the performance. Others include when we did a benefit night for the refugees in Calais and half the town turned out for that, it was really quite moving.

    “When we first started vinyl was in, then it was CDs and downloads and now it’s streaming but the one thing that has stayed the same all these years is the live music element. The way people purchase music has changed but the way we engage with it hasn’t and I don’t think that format will ever change.”

    What does he think is The Forum’s magic ingredient?

    “There’s no one particular thing. I think it’s a combination of the people who work there, those who visit it and of course all the acts who have come to play.”

    Kicking off proceedings on Friday night are a clutch of local bands including The Berertons, Higgs and The Bosons and Ukelear Fallout. They’ll be performing in aid of Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity which is the Mayor of Tunbridge Wells’ David Neve’s, charity of the year.

    Then on Saturday night the venue welcomes the Rotten Hill Gang, an edgy collective made up of musicians from West London who’ll be supported by legendary musician and DJ Don Letts.

    Ahead of their performance, the Rotten Hill Gang’s bassist and sometime vocalist Gary McPherson (AKA Dirty White) told the Times what audiences can expect from their eclectic set.

    Citing themselves as a ‘heartbeat amongst the cracks, back alleys and public houses of Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road’ they’ve been hugely influenced by a lot of the punk bands who also hail from that area including The Clash and The Sex Pistols. Two of the latter’s members, Glen Matlock and Paul Cook, just played with the Rotten Hill Gang in London last week when they launched their latest single Submission.

    “We’re not a band but rather a collective of who’s around at the time,” Gary insists when we chat about their upcoming gig. “We are a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. We’re a group of street poets, buskers, actors and classically trained musicians who got together in an attempt to make music and TV exciting again – with a no fear attitude of achievement is the belief of the imagination.”

    Describing their music as ‘Rap and Roll’ – a mix of hip hop and rock n’ roll via a splash of reggae – Gary says their main core audience “ranges from young kids of 14 and 15 to old men in their 50s. It’s people who want to hear what we are saying, I suppose.”

    On Saturday night the West London collective will be joined by vocalist Annie Bea along with Fjokra Mac, a ‘multi instrumentalist’ who also doubles up as their official keyboardist. And although their second female vocalist Hollie Cook, who is Paul Cook’s daughter, usually performs with them, she sadly won’t be able to make The Forum gig.

    But given the fact the Gang has often welcomed famous faces to their live sets including the aforementioned members of The Sex Pistols as well as musicians from Blondie, The Slits, Steel Pulse and The Clash who knows whether a couple of their cool coterie of contacts might make an appearance on Saturday night?

    Gary isn’t giving anything away but what he does reveal is that because they rarely tour outside of their beloved West London enclave catching them at The Forum this weekend will be ‘very special’.

    “It’s so hard to get everyone together in the same place at the same time,” he admits. “That’s why it’s so special when we do go out on the road. We will be doing a lot more in 2017, especially with the new album Teach Peace coming out in early May.”

    In terms of Gary’s own musical influences he comments: “I love all types of music, there are too many to mention but my all-time favourite musician is Ennio Morricone. Music is one of the only things that can stir your emotions and can take you on a fantastic journey through life – if you let it.

    Also on the bill on Saturday night is DJ Don Letts. He founded Big Audio Dynamite with The Clash’s Mick Jones and is now a regular presenter on BBC Six Music and a respected documentary maker. He’s also very much in demand as a DJ thanks to his encyclopaedic knowledge of music and his ability to ‘read’ a crowd. So what will he bring to the party?

    “Well I’ll be underscoring the Rotten Hill Gang’s mix of punk, hip hop and funk with the history and legacy of Jamaica’s gift to the world: Bass! I want to bring some good cheer to the New Year before Trump becomes President and I’m looking forward to the musical exchange with the people of Tunbridge Wells.”

    For tickets to either the gig on Friday or Saturday night visit www.twforum.co.uk

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