‘You can feel the history in there’: the return of New Century Hall

“I was standing in line late 1966 with a lot of people to see the Jimi Hendrix Experience,” says John Cooper Clarke. “I noticed that everyone in the queue except me was wearing a tie.” The renowned punk poet, speaking over the phone on the way to a gig in Kidderminster, hastens to add that he still looked dapper, wearing a Fred Perry (“You can’t wear a Fred Perry and a tie, you’d look like a schnorrer!”) and a striped sports coat. “I couldn’t get in,” he says, mimicking the doorman: “No tie!”

The venue was Manchester’s New Century Hall, a 1,000-capacity space adjacent to New Century House. Designed by Gordon Tait for the Co-Operative Insurance Society in 1962, it played host to major acts such as Hendrix, the Stones, Tina Turner and the Kinks, before becoming an unexpected haven for acid-house parties thrown by local producers A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State.

It’s now being relaunched as part of the development of the Noma district, extended to three floors and renamed as, simply, New Century. The basement will house Access Creative College, offering degree-level qualifications in music and gaming, the already-opened ground floor features a bar and kitchen with a curated selection of street food vendors, and above will be the meticulously restored events space, ready to be officially reopened on 20 September with a performance from Clarke.

The space lay vacant for years, only hosting a handful of gigs in the last decade – including one 15 years ago featuring Clarke and the Fall – and just three between 2002 and 2013. “I think we’d always been aware of the space as a bit of a hidden gem in Manchester,” says Jon Wickstead, co-founder of local promoter Now Wave, which is in charge of programming for New Century. “It was just so infrequently used. And you’d go in there and see this amazing old ballroom and be like, why isn’t this being used all the time?”

As soon as Wickstead, fellow Now Wave co-founder Wesley Jones and live promoter Ruth Hemmingfield (Deaf Institute, Gorilla) found out about the plans to revive the venue, they wanted to get involved, inspired by the purpose-built nature of New Century. “We were so excited when we saw that room,” Jones notes. “A lot of live spaces are sort of crammed into something that used to be something different – a warehouse, or a theatre – but this was built to watch live music.”

The original interior design has been retained: “Because it’s listed, you can feel the history when you’re in there,” Hemmingfield says. “There’s the sprung dance floor, the whole ceiling is just these crazy light fittings that have been there since 1962.”

It mirrors Clarke’s own memories of the venue. “It was the kitsch sister next door to the mighty CIS skyscraper,” he says. “But it’s kind of a minimalist mix of brushed steel, glass, a bit of concrete and some polished granite styling here and there.”

John Cooper Clarke.
‘I couldn’t get in’ … John Cooper Clarke. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

“It was typical of the Co-Op. Keeping it puritanical but in a good way, it’s built with nice materials that don’t deteriorate or rust. So it still looks spick and also span,” he says, comparing the original building to the work of Phillip Johnson.

Wickfield agrees: “If you see photos of it from the 1960s compared to now, it’s exactly the same, but we’ve modernised it with all the equipment,” he says. “It looks really wow, now, and unique. But imagine how futuristic that was in the 60s.” To create the desired effect, the team has been sparing with social media teasers, ensuring people experience it in person. “A dancefloor doesn’t bounce on Instagram,” Hemmingfield says.

This combination of old and new, dated and updated is reflected in the venue’s forthcoming line-up. “While we’re pleased to be bringing back an old building it’s not going to be populated by revisionist gigs,” Jones says. Although it’s a listed building insulated by a rich history, the team reinforces an apt focus on the new. “This is something for the next decade, somewhere for new acts to play for new kinds of stories to be told.”

It means that while some bookings are anniversary gigs or shows by local legends – including Clarke and an album playthrough from the Charlatans – the focus is on creating a line-up as eclectic as it is electric. Highlights include jazz experimentalist Kamaal Williams, garage cumbia band Los Bitchos, and Australian Madchester revivalists Confidence Man, who, in a vote of confidence for New Century, chose to add extra dates due to demand rather than switch to one of the city’s roomier venues. In future, New Century plans to branch out into comedy and family events, while the downstairs Access Creative College also has free rein to use the state-of-the-art soundsystem.

The project is made all the more vital due to the dire situation arts venues are facing across the UK, hangover effects of the pandemic, rocketing rents and the cost-of-living crisis set to bolt many venue doors shut for good. “It was really exciting to bring something back into use as well to reinvigorate it … especially with venues closing all across the country,” Jones says. In upcycling a vacant space into something new, it’s also a strong proof-of-concept for future initiatives.

As opening night looms, the team speaks of a positive energy surrounding the venue. Has Clarke has ever opened a venue? He quips: “I’ve closed a few!”