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Hastings Pier and its fight to get back on the music scene

Hastings Pier has a historical place in the annals of rock music as an important, if quirky, venue. After major setbacks the seaside attraction is looking to regain its position on the gig circuit. Kevin Hilton looks at the background and potential problems of concerts (almost) at sea

A seaside town that has lost its pier can seem a sad place, somehow less seasidey. The pier in Hastings on the East Sussex coast of England was destroyed after a devastating fire in 2010, an event that affected the town’s regeneration. A high profile campaign to save and ultimately rebuild the 19th century structure culminated earlier this year with an official opening featuring Madness.

The live show by the Nutty Boys, fronted by Suggs (born in Hastings and resident there until he was four), can be seen as a statement of intent by the charity that now operates the pier. During the 1960s and ’70s it hosted some of the biggest names in rock and pop, including The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Geno Washington, 10cc, the Sex Pistols and Squeeze. The aim now is to make the ‘new’ pier not only a major attraction again but pay its way by building on that history.

Following the lead of Madness will be Dizzee Rascal, Happy Mondays and The Orb, supported by Formation and local electronica duo Vile Electrodes, and Levellers with Turin Brakes playing on a festival-style weekender bill on 16, 17 and 18 September. These acts will perform in the open air on the same temporary stage brought in for Madness, set up at the end of the pier.

In the past, bands performed inside the old ballroom, which local historian Andre Palfrey-Martin, who played the pier as DJ Chris Gentry at the time, describes as having a “horrific” acoustic. “In the ’60s and early ’70s most of the sound systems were made up of the standard amps and loudspeakers,” he says. “Trying to be as loud as possible to be heard over the punters was a priority – 100W went nowhere. Most PAs were simply operated from the stage. Mixing was unheard of in most cases, all the mics when through the PA amp, which would hopefully have enough channels to cope.”

The ballroom was not designed for amplified music; it was built in 1922 (pictured) to replace the original Victorian music hall that was part of renowned pier engineer Eugenius Birch’s design and construction of 1872. That building burned down in 1917, one of several fires the pier has endured over the years. The 20th century ballroom and much of the other superstructure were destroyed in the 2010 fire; the western Pavilion shelter was the only survivor.

The shelter now houses a bar and restaurant; that structure and a central visitor centre and viewing points called The Deck are the sole permanent building on the renovated pier. Much of the decking area has been left open, allowing carousels and concession huts to be moved as necessary. The seaward end of the pier has been similarly vacant to allow a stage and ancillary areas to be constructed for concerts. “We didn’t consider building a Victorian ballroom again because we’re not Victorians,” explained Pier Charity spokesman Tim Fordham-Moss.

The £15 million renovation (pictured) has produced what Fordham-Moss describes as “a fully renewed, 21st century model of a Victorian British seaside icon”. He adds, “To be able to resurrect the pier’s reputation as a live music venue is equally pleasing and to have Madness, Dizzee Rascal, The Levellers and Happy Mondays all play live within five months of opening is a real statement that the pier is back and the music is live.”

Suggs screwed the last plank into position on 22 March 2016 as a precursor to the band’s concert on 21 May. It was a fitting debut, Suggs remarked, because Madness has always been an “end-of-the-pier” act. Unfortunately the weather, as ever, was no respecter of an occasion. The day of the show saw heavy rain and strong winds, although this didn’t deter the ticket holders on the pier itself or all those who were able to watch from the beach and the seafront.

The stage was set up facing the land, with a tented front of house area and a backstage marquee. The FOH tent housed an Avid Profile console with approximately 38 channels, at which Madness’ long-time engineer Ian Horne mixed their show. Regular monitor mixer LJ (John) Evans ran the on-stage d&b audiotechnik M2 system from a Yamaha PM5D.

The main rig comprised d&b V Series cabinets flown with six narrow and two wide boxes a side, plus J Subs for the low end. Horne says there were no side or out fills because there was no room on the stage, which was already pretty crowded with the nine-piece band. “The space works well but they do need more room,” he comments. “We were basically playing in the sea but weren’t driving the hell out of the system. The people who ran the show were all very happy.”

The open-air nature of the venue, susceptible as it is to the elements, poses potential problems in terms of noise management. About a mile away on the West Hill overlooking the town it was quite clear to anyone outside that Madness started their set with their hit Embarrassment. There will be some changes for the next shows, which feature acts with a more intense sound than the Nutty Boys.

The September weekend is promoted by One Inch Badge and produced by C3 Productions, both of which are based in Brighton. (PSNEurope readers have encountered the name a couple of times in relation to annual The Great Escape festival in the city.) C3 Productions director Jon Crawley (pictured) has lived in Hastings and says he saw the potential for live music on the pier when it was rebuilt: “I’ve been working as a consultant to the Pier Charity and the idea of live acts, encouraging ‘music tourism’, got a lot of support from the local authority, which felt it would be beneficial to the town.”

Crawley says the size of the audience being limited to 2,500 people has partly dictated how productions are organised. “We have to think about access to exits and also where things can be put on the pier in terms of weight loading,” he explains. “Which is why we have a structural engineer working with us.”

A major change from the Madness show is that the stage will face out to sea, with The Deck acting as the backstage area. Madness’ appearance was regarded by the organisers and operators as a community event, which is why people not on the pier were allowed a view of what was going on. Subsequent shows are more commercial, so that earlier freedom will not be available. Crawley adds that this arrangement could also aid sound control. “The performance area is a fair way out to sea, although we will be putting noise management in place. There will be measurements at nearby properties, following the guideline of not exceeding 75dBA for 15 minutes.”

To further contain the audio as much as possible the main rig will be a L-Acoustics KARA line array plus cardioid subs. Crawley says this configuration means there is very little back spill but with the capability for a “fairly pumpy” sound as well. The FOH desk will be a Midas Heritage H1000, with space available for Happy Mondays to bring in their touring console. The monitor system will be Turbosound TFM-560s, mixed from an Avid Profile.

The choice of bands – and the potential for overspill noise – will doubtless alienate some sections of the town. But with the continuing search for new and different venues in the live event market, plus bookings into 2017, the pier is poised to put Hastings back on the music map.