Paying a Visit - Mega's Bar, Birmingham
Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 21 May 2011 |
If you’ve ever studied a serious, grown-up book about early blues music, you’ll be familiar with the archetypal pre-war photo of a guitar legend performing live. But the caption, you’ll have noticed, is invariably incorrect. It denotes the bluesman as occupying ‘The Main Stage, New Orleans Easy Club’ (or similar), whereas he is in fact clearly in a public lavatory – and not a particularly good one. I’m guessing the resemblance those archaic blues clubs had to actual public conveniences lay behind the ‘toilet’ metaphor when it came to classifying venues of the 1980s. But in the case of one bar, local to me, the lavatory connection was more than just a metaphor…
The inconspicuous Mega's bar in Birmingham city centre (Old Square), seemed to emerge in 1986, as the media finally scaled down its concerns about the ever-expanding Chernobyl nuclear cloud and radioactive meat imports from Prypiat. Suddenly, with no citizen of the West Midlands yet having expired from eating Uranium-enriched pork, local papers once again had time to think about nightlife. In an effort to escape to a corner of Birmingham undiscovered by radioactive meat distributors, their journalists had stumbled upon Mega's, and its presence was revealed to the world. Well, revealed to one or two bored wretches with nothing better to read, anyway.
Megas’ most instantly noticeable characteristic was a wall at the front of the stage, segregating the band from the audience. Whether this bizarrely placed wall was the result of a builder not being paid in full, or whether the design was deliberately conceived in some vodka-fuelled, mid ‘80s brainstorming session it was hard to tell. It wasn’t a high wall, but if the bassist was less than 4ft tall, the majority of the crowd would see little more than his hat. Not that there were any 3ft 10 bassists on the circuit at the time, or indeed any nights upon which the audience at Mega's could legitimately be described as a ‘crowd’, but the landlord probably wouldn’t have known that when brainstorming the layout.
Mercifully, there was a gap in the wall, centre stage. Among other things, this enabled members of the audience to visit the lavatory, which was located behind the band. The word ‘ordeal’ is a strong one, and would not normally be used to describe a trip to the loo, but at Mega's, the process of spending a penny had the wherewithal to psychologically scar audience members of a shy, retiring or private disposition – possibly for life.
There was something about walking straight through a performing band on your way to the lav, which demanded an almost award-winning level of bravery. You may get jabbed in the kidneys with an enthusiastically wielded guitar neck. Equally, you may take a swinging mic full in the temple and wake up outside being fanned aggressively with the drummer’s bandana. But this journey wasn’t just about the physical danger. Your entry to and departure from the lavatory would typically be highlighted to the rest of the gathered audience by flashing stage bulbs, a spotlight, and possibly a strobe. At Mega's, a trip to the toilet was expressly not a private matter. It was a dazzling public exhibition, which could, and usually would, create a great deal more interest than the band.
But going in was the easy part. By far the greater challenge, was the process of coming back out. It was certainly wise, before emerging from the lavatory, to prepare for at least a moderate round of applause. Indeed, much as having your emergence from the bog clapped and cheered might prove embarrassing, in practical terms it was a blessing. Since it alerted the band to the fact that you were behind them, it potentially saved your life… “What’s happening?” the band would think. “Applause?… We never get applause… Ah, of course. A member of the audience must have emerged from the lavatory. Let us take due care as we frantically thrash our instruments randomly around the stage, so as to avoid breaking his teeth / nose / neck and creating an open and shut case for the Health & Safety Inspectorate.”
Actually, the audience at Mega's was in any case generally made up of musicians. I think anyone else who walked in off the street assumed it was some kind of drunken dress rehearsal gone dramatically wrong, and walked straight back out again. As a live entertainer, there was something about performing in front of a bunch of musical know-alls running up a grand total of your mistakes on a calculator, which removed any vague semblance of competence you may otherwise have had. At the end of the first song when your final chord died away to the sound of indifferent murmurs, the odd giggle and approximately one clap, you lapsed into a mood of contemplation. Mostly suicide, obviously, but other thoughts did cross your mind. Why did I ever bother becoming a musician? What’s the total amount of money I’ve lost putting on gigs? Why do human beings torture themselves?… That sort of thing.
But the torture was soon to end, as Mega's swiftly wiped itself off the entertainment map. With even the most illustrious of serious venues either closing down or falling down as late ‘80s discomania gripped the city, a bar whose acts performed behind a wall and whose audience were applauded for going to the lavatory was never, realistically, going to out-survive the deep-ingrained fear of radioactive bacon. Another quirk of 1980s entertainment had fallen by the wayside.
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