Why the sudden closure of London venue The Montague Arms matters

The loss of the beloved pub, which launched the careers of artists like King Krule, is another blow to the city’s live music scene

“London burnt in 1940 for the sake of tolerance,” wrote Ian Nairn in the introduction to Nairn’s London, his 1966 guide to the city and its buildings, public spaces, and pubs. “The price was well worth it. It is burning again, but this time only to satisfy developers’ greed, planners’ inadequacy, and official stupidity.” Depressingly enough, we know now that London didn’t take Nairn’s warning. Earlier this year, more proof was thrown on the pyre when the news broke that much-loved south London pub The Montague Arms was on its way out.

It’s important to understand what is being lost here. From its earliest days, The Monty (as it’s affectionately known to patrons) accrued a reputation for serving as host for a galaxy of artists, ranging from big banner performances by Gang of Four, Anna Calvi, and Mr Blobby’s comeback show, to acting as backdrop for tense collisions between Mark E Smith, Nick Cave, and Shane MacGowan as well as innumerable other acts over the decades.

Now, the pub is just yet another victim to the current citywide trend towards cultural beige-ification and listlessness. Matters came to a sudden head on January 16, when an Instagram post by King Krule announced a final show at the pub along with other local bands Horsey, Boss, and LL Burns. The show was, predictably, heaving. It acted as a wild last-minute elegy for a significant space – “the heart of good live music in SE”, as the post itself put it.

It’s a point reiterated by King Krule’s Archy Marshall in conversation with Dazed. “As a haunt that spilled constant obscura onto your construct when attending,” he says, “it stands as one of the most important spaces I have stepped foot in.” It’s another loss that represents part of a wider truth as “the character of London (becomes) lobotomised.”

When it came to The Monty, it was an operation performed with lightning speed, representing an unforeseen end for a venue that has survived several forced rebirthings in a long and cheerfully eccentric history. Managers Ester Van Kempen and Dean McMullen were forced to cut the pub’s eight bar staff and cancel a fully booked six-month gig schedule at rapid notice as news filtered through to them that new owners had taken over from proprietor Noel Gale, who in turn had taken over after the deaths of original landlords Stan and Bet Pownall in 2012.

Opened in 1967, just a year after Ian Nairn’s meditations, the pub was rightly considered a space that could hold multitudes, with no act considered too experimental or strange, even an “orchestra so big the horn section had to sit at the tables”, as one old profile puts it. Famed for its singular decor, stage, and collection of trinkets (“A 1910 bicycle, model ships, a floral patterned Victorian toilet, a stuffed zebra driving a Georgian coach and three human skeletons”, it stood as a genuine monument to much-invoked, seldom understood quality: character. In more recent years, it also acted as host for a range of diverse regular events, including the LGBT club night Passionate Necking.

“As a haunt that spilled constant obscura onto your construct when attending, (The Montague Arms) stands as one of the most important spaces I have stepped foot in” – King Krule

Until a couple of weeks ago, the identity of the new owners remained shrouded in mystery. As a Facebook post by the Music Venue Trust (a London-based charity that aims to protect independent venues across the country) outlined almost immediately after the closure: “New owners have taken over the venue. We are trying to find out who they are and how they thought it would be okay to shut down one of London’s key Grassroots Music Venues without any consultation and without any respect for the local music community”. The intervening weeks have seen some small progress on this. A name has been attached to the new proprietors, Chapman & Winney Ltd, a central London based PLC whose Companies House profile shows a Mr Fraser Chapman as Company Director, though neither they nor Chapman has responded to requests for comment.

Whoever they are, their plans for the Monty don’t seem to involve live music or any sense of the continuity with the past. Beverly Whittrick, the strategic director of Music Venue Trust, mentions that Vamp Kampen had relayed to her a conversation she’d had “with one of the new owners just last week who are apparently looking to create “a bar ‘with a jazz theme’, the inference being that this is a decor theme rather than (representing) any intention to put on live music. It seems very unlikely that the new management intend to programme live music as they have not responded to any of the requests to discuss this.” Nor have they responded to the concerns of the almost 9000 signatories of a Change.org petition that was set up in the wake of the venues immediate closure. From an outside perspective, it would seem that an actual music venue is being transformed into what seems to be a gastropub in venue fancy dress.

As one of Passionate Necking’s organisers Natalie Healey since told Southwark News, The Monty “allowed people to take over the place for the night… and make it their own space. It was unpretentious and allowed anyone to put on their event without charging ridiculous fees. It was (also) a Good Night Out venue (which means) it was dedicated to dealing with, tackling and preventing harassment of all kinds. It really made a difference knowing that the venue’s management and staff would take it seriously if something happened on the night to make you uncomfortable.”

It also acted as an incubator for local talent and creativity. Horsey frontman and local artist and musician Jacob Read, who also makes solo music as Jerkcurb, was keen to stress the role The Montague played in his own development. He outlines his earliest memories of the venue, “right in the 2006 era of retrospectively quite embarrassing indie music”. Regardless, Read says that “it was ferociously alive and exciting then. I was socialising and meeting new people with an undivided shared passion for gigs. The first time I went to The Montague, I had a freshly cut mohawk and was wearing my salmon pink checkered polo shirt and ripped jeans. I remember this very clearly. The band was either Charly Brown, or The Metros, or something like that. It wasn’t the music that blew my mind, but the experience of seeing things live in a place like this. It just had this great energy.”

Though Read had a band already, “we’d never played gigs like this. The Montague really opened up something for me”. And although he’s played the venue many times and in a variety of iterations since, he says that “it’s the only venue I can think of that’s been consistent over the years. I’ve played countless shows there, none of have been bad.”

There’s something about the red neon Las Vegas sign, unapologetically visceral sound system, and seedy taxidermy of the Monty that can’t be replicated by any number of undercover All Bar Ones, chicken coop studio flats, or “jazz themed” bars. Yet nostalgia and an appreciation of the venue and it's influence isn't the same as practical action. The question is what can be done, aside from petitions and community anger, to try and change the outcome?

Unfortunately, as Whittrick intimates, the answer is “not much”, besides perhaps trying to exert a bit of pressure on the new regime. “The previous owner was within his legal rights to sell a building he owned, and the new owners are legally entitled to choose not to offer music in their new business,” she says. Yet frustration remains. “The Montague Arms was one of the 94 Grassroots Music Venues listed in the GLA’s 2016 mapping exercise and therefore would have received support if anyone had known its existence was threatened,” Whittrick continues. “What happened was that the sale was presented as a done deal, leaving the staff, audience, Greater London Authority, Music Venue Trust etc. as pretty powerless to influence.”

That powerlessness is embodied by the photographs that have since emerged of the pub’s iconic stage torn down to rubble. Yet it isn’t just history that gets obliterated when venues like The Montague shut – it’s also the denial of a more colourful future, and a narrowing of possibility for the next generations that won’t be able to reap the benefits of discovery and community felt by Read, Marshall, and countless others across the capital. Though we still can’t be certain what comes next, a south east London without The Montague Arms seems that bit more stupid, greedy, and inadequate.