'This is a special venue': Celebrating 25 years of Union Chapel concerts
PUBLISHED: 07:00 06 September 2017
Islington's Union Chapel has become a legendary concert venue after 25 years of shows in Compton Terrace. Surprisingly, however, it has suffered numerous setbacks along the way. Ahead of its anniversary concert next week, the Gazette asks how it became so revered.
Union Chapel is one of the most unique gig venues in the country.
The biggest musicians you can think of, from Bjork to Elton John, have performed legendary gigs there.
It’s the type of venue where fans go to experience the setting as much as the music. When a big artist announces a gig, tickets can sell out within minutes.
But, ahead of its anniversary show celebrating 25 years as a gig venue (and 140 years of the building), things have rarely been straightforward.
“We got there in the end,” commercial manager Peter Stapleton tells the Gazette, “but it took a good few years to grow.
“We didn’t have a proper bar at first. We would put cash in plastic pint pots. And the stage was awful. Every show, you feared it would collapse.”
It became a gig venue in 1992, out of necessity to save the chapel.
“It was faced with demolition in 1982,” marketing manager Emma Stell says. “The congregation had shrunk to a tiny number of people. It didn’t have enough money and they decided the best thing to do was demolish it and build a new, smaller building.”
Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Emma continues: “The people of Islington banded together to save the building. The church realised people loved the space and set up an independent charity to find a way of using it to raise money. The way they decided was through music events.”
Little is known about its early shows, and the events team continues to appeal for gig-goers’ early memories.
Within a decade, Time Out had named it London’s best music venue in 2002.
But it closed the year after. Organisers’ relationship with Islington Council had been poor for years, and neighbours regularly complained about noise. The council eventually took away its licence because there weren’t enough toilets.
“There were a lot of setbacks,” Peter says, “it took a lot of practice”.
After agreeing a 10.30pm curfew and banning alcohol, it re-opened as a gig venue in 2006, when it really took off. The biggest artists – from Amy Winehouse and Noel Gallagher to Adele and U2 – played there.
Emma reckons it’s the little details that make Union Chapel such a special venue: “We do things differently to normal music venues.
“Not allowing alcohol in the chapel is an example. It makes it stink of stale beer, which isn’t great at weddings. But it’s had a beneficial effect on the venue, as people aren’t constantly getting up and down to go to the bar.
“It means we sell lots of cups of tea and hot chocolate with marshmallows! We get lots of postive feedback for it.
“This building was made for the human voice. It has the best acoustics and the intimacy [the venue has a capacity of 900] makes it special.”
Peter adds: “It has a community feel. It’s warm, and not commercial. The performers really take to it as well.”
Bjork’s 1999 show is widely regarded as Union Chapel defining show. One reviewer said she would be talking about it for the rest of her life.
“Bjork is the one everybody wishes they were at,” Emma says.
“She took out the PA system and performed with a string quartet and piano. She filled the stage with candles and really made the most of our amazing acoustics.
“There’s a huge heavy metal band, Opeth, which did the same kind of thing in 2012. It was so unique, compared to their usual style.
“The best performers are the ones that strip back their act – and adapt to the venue.”
There are limited tickets (£10) left for Union Chapel’s anniversary concert at 6pm on September 16. For more information, visit unionchapel.org.uk