South East Wales

Film about how club TJ's was 'at the heart' of Newport

John Sicolo's gravestone
Image caption Mr Sicolo's gravestone has the TJ's logo and the words "done rocking, gone sailing" paying testament to his love of music and time in the merchant navy

Sometimes a nightclub can capture the spirit of a city and come to represent the dreams and aspirations of many alienated people who live in it.

That is the role filmmaker Nathan Jennings believes TJ's had in Newport, with its influence growing out of the miners' strike and still felt today.

It is seven years on Tuesday since its owner John Sicolo died.

Director Jennings, 29, is making a film on the life of a man who helped put the city on the world music map.

While the club closed in 2010 after his death, the calibre of acts it attracted led DJ John Peel to add the word "Legendary" to its title while Magazine FHM put it in its "Top 50 nights out in the world" in 1997.

Yet, Jennings' documentary will be a social commentary focusing mainly on the effect it had on an area undergoing hard economic times with the demise of the mines and cuts at the steelworks.

"About one in two or three households in Newport and further away stepped through those doors," he said.

"Every town has its club like The Hacienda (Manchester) and The 100 Club (London), that captures an era, people feel connected to and which gives the area its identity.

"TJ's for a long time was that for Newport."

Image copyright Nathan Jennings
Image caption TJ's nightclub on Newport's Clarence Place closed in 2010

He started going as a teenager to meet "likeminded people and an alternative crowd" and feels it became a second home for many because the owner made everyone feel "part of his extended family".

As well as attracting bands such as Green Day, The Offspring and Therapy, owner Sicolo also allowed "mess-around bands" to get up and play.

"John was a chef in the merchant navy and would let performers stay above the club and cook for them," Mr Jennings added.

"They would come over on the 'toilet circuit' of smaller clubs and say they were well looked after, talk of the hospitality, and word spread with bands from around the world then wanting to come."

However, Jennings believes the evolution of the city into a music destination started a long time before El Sieco's changed its name to TJ's in 1985.

In the late 1970s, the Stow Hill Labour Club was one of the city's main venues, attracting acts such as The Cure, Adam Ant and The Sex Pistols.

Then in 1979, Simon Phillips opened Rockaway Records in Newport Market - which led to him putting on fundraising punk nights for miners and the Ethiopian famine.

"These shows appeared at random, intimate venues, such as Billy Bragg in the dockers' club. When the strike was over, he kept doing them," Jennings said.

Image copyright Nathan Jennings
Image caption Mr Jennings has interviewed Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein from American punk band The Misfits, who played at TJ's

"When Simon met John great things happened, with his ability to attract acts and John's warm personality.

"These days you get big, corporate venues, but they don't have the personality of the smaller ones. You felt the music in TJ's, were close to it, it was the perfect intimate venue.

"The sad thing is, it closed when John died. he poured his heart and soul into it."

Rockaway Records' Phillips put on about 300 shows under his Cheap Sweaty Fun banner between 1986 and 2007, and while the capacity was officially 400, Jennings believes many attracted far more - including about 700 for a performance by American band Rocket from the Crypt in 1996.

However, it was not just a proving ground for acts from across the Atlantic - some believe it was a birthplace of the "Cool Cymru" movement, which saw many Welsh bands achieve huge acclaim.

Jennings said acts such as Feeder, Manic Street Preachers and 60ft Dolls "found their feet there", while Catatonia filmed the video for single "Mulder and Scully" at TJ's.

Others who had played or recorded in the city or nearby such as Metallica, Iron Maiden and the Stone Roses would also pop in.

It is was also where the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain reputedly proposed to Courtney Love, who was fronting a gig at TJ's with her band Hole.

The documentary is in the early stages of production with a number of interviews already recorded and Mr Jennings plans to travel to the USA to speak to bands who played at TJ's, before entering it into international film festivals.

He said: "It created something positive, a sense of inclusion for people who may have felt like outsiders and were having a hard time economically.

"Newport is not the nicest place in parts. I am proud to be from there, but it can be dark and gritty.

"This will be the story of how music can be at the heart of a community, something people can relate to around the world."

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