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Rock & Roll Higher Ed

Breaking with tradition, Paul Greatrix writes about actual bands on campus.
This article is more than 5 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

In previous posts we’ve looked at the older big names  on the HE music scene, I’ve reported here before on the lost bands of HE and some of the forgotten ones as well as which bands to watch out for in 2018. In addition we have had a number of related HE music topics here including  universities named after bands and VC Desert Island Discs.

All of these lists though have a minimal association with historical accuracy and truth: yes, they are made up (and I can only apologise to the readers who have written in asking when some of these acts will be touring).

Back in the real world, I have also reported on some of the  legendary gigs which took place at the University of Nottingham . Shortly after posting this piece one helpful reader pointed me towards ‘When Rock went to College’, which chronicles the great and the good who played Lancaster University in years gone by :

Barry Lucas and Paul Tomlinson have documented an amazing chapter in the history of Lancaster University in a superb and very large new book. It contains tales of the halcyon days when Paul McCartney was playing football on campus waiting to hear if the Uni would allow him to play a gig that evening, when Harvey Goldsmith asked if finals could be moved to accommodate The Rolling Stones, and Queen played for just GBP40! If you were a student at Lancaster during this time you may (or may not!) remember some of these events, anecdotes or images, but truly, there is something for anyone connected with the uni, then or now.

This sounds like an excellent read and not just for Lancaster alumni or indeed the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mark E Smith, who has only occasionally been mixed up with the late lamented frontman of The Fall.


In a different vein there is a whole book about a single gig on a university campus over 40 years ago which has since acquired legendary status:

On May 8, 1977, at Barton Hall, on the Cornell University campus, in front of 8,500 eager fans, the Grateful Dead played a show so significant that the Library of Congress inducted it into the National Recording Registry. The band had just released Terrapin Station and was still finding its feet after an extended hiatus. In 1977, the Grateful Dead reached a musical peak, and their East Coast spring tour featured an exceptional string of performances, including the one at Cornell.
Many Deadheads claim that the quality of the live recording of the show made by Betty Cantor-Jackson (a member of the crew) elevated its importance. Once those recordings—referred to as “Betty Boards”—began to circulate among Deadheads, the reputation of the Cornell ’77 show grew exponentially. With time the show at Barton Hall acquired legendary status in the community of Deadheads and audiophiles.

Definitely one for the Deadheads that (which possibly explains why I’m not so keen on this one).

And two other very good books to mention in passing in this context. The first is ‘Cider with Roadies’ by Stuart Maconie (a title which demanded a book if ever there was one) in which the author recounts various episodes throughout his life in music including the many gigs he attended (mainly in Liverpool) while a student at the college which is now Edge Hill University.

The other is ‘Gig: the Life and Times of a Rock Star Fantasist’ by Simon Armitage which includes a number of excellent gig reports, the foremost of which is a show at Huddersfield University by The Fall. Armitage also talks about his sole encounter with Mark E Smith (not the Vice-Chancellor) as well as a few other excellent yams about the Fall front man.

But of all of these higher education related musical offerings none matches the extraordinary compendium that is the amazing  UEA gig archive:

UEA’s gigs have been part of the fabric of life in our region for decades. Organised by the Student Union and open to the public, some of the biggest names in music have played UEA and the Nick Rayns’ LCR. For thousands of people those UEA gigs hold great memories, not-so-great memories and even gigs that can barely be remembered. We’ve been delving through our archives to look at some key gigs and their impact.

The website offers every gig ever at the LCR from 1963 onwards and is a fascinating read. It’s also published in book form and very good it is too.

One legendary gig that didn’t actually happen at UEA was the show that was meant to be the first night of the Sex Pistols’ UK tour. As John Street reports here, the Vice-Chancellor cancelled the event following the furore after the band’s appearance on the Today show, hosted by Bill Grundy.


But there have been many more gigs which did actually take place at UEA and they are all recorded in this terrific archive.

What are your favourite (real or fictional) higher education and music books or websites?

6 responses to “Rock & Roll Higher Ed

  1. No discussion of famous gigs at universities can pass without mentioning The Who and the Live at Leeds album which was recorded in the refectory at Leeds University on Valentines Day 1970. A blue plaque is now on the wall there.

    The band had just completed a major US tour on the back of the Tommy album and wanted to get back to some smaller more intimate gigs. The shows at Leeds and Hull universities were recorded for a live album. The band preferred the Hull performance but technical problems with the recorded equipment meant that the bass guitar had failed to record at that show – so the tape from Leeds was mixed and became what is widely regarded as the best live album ever recorded.

    Hull – you just missed out !

  2. I would suggest a visit to the Coventry Museum of Music, curator Pete Chambers MBE, for the wonderful collection of artefacts, memorabilia and documentation of the role of students’ unions in the nurturing of music – from the Lanchester Arts Festival (Monty Pythons first live show to Adrian Boult to Cream) and the Two Tone movement and on to Rock against Racism.

  3. Most memorable gig at Leeds was an impromptu one by The Clash on the steps of Leeds University Union. They were unable to do real gigs due to a dispute with CBS records. Their performance quickly drew a huge crowd until the anarchists turned up to throw paint at them in protest in them having signed to CBS in the first place. Joe Strummer et al fled into the union building and we had to shut the door to prevent a crush in the entrance.

  4. Led Zeppelin fans will be celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary later this year. There are conflicting reports of the exact date when Led Zep first performed using the name Led Zeppelin. Some claim it was 25 October 1968 when the famous four played at the University of Surrey, but a poster for the event refers to band as The New Yardbirds. Regardless, a few days after the gig, Led Zep signed their first record contract and the rest is history. Details can be found at
    Jimmy Page returned to the University of Surrey when he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2008. More details here at Dave Lewis’s excellent Led Zep website

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