Kate Fuller of the Electric Ballroom talks to Fiona O’Brien about her father’s, and the Buffalo Club’s, legacy
Patrons of the Electric Ballroom, a stone’s throw from Camden Town station, can often be seen queuing down the High Street waiting to get in. But such sights have been familiar for decades, it’s just the music and the dress that have changed.
The Ballroom dates back to the 1930s when Irishman Ginger Maloney opened it as The Buffalo Club. Soon afterwards it was sold to Kerryman, Bill Fuller, who kept it until his death in 2008.
Big names on the marquee for Fridays and Saturdays included acts like Big Tom, or the Joe Loss Band.
It is now run by Bill Fuller’s daughter Kate and although her customers may have changed – and may even be the children and grandchildren of her dad’s regulars – so she remains proud of the foundations her father set down and tries to keep as many Irish ties as she can.
“This place is like having a little piece of my Dad. It’s more than a business and for that reason I can never ever get rid of it,” she says.
From the 1930s onwards The Buffalo Club was one of the most popular London venues for Irish emigrants.
For a long time Camden was synonymous with Irish people and, like any area that migrants make their home, the Irish eventually assimilated and moved further afield, making space for all the other ethnicities and cultures with which we associated Camden today.
They, too, eventually became displaced by gentrification. In the late 19th century most newly arrived Irish people tended to settle south of the river, but after the building of New Oxford Street Irish dock workers, builders and even shoemakers started settling in Camden.
Bars and clubs opened to cater for that growing Irish community, and by the early 1950s and early 1960s the Buffalo had well and truly capitalised on the era’s show band scene, attracting the the biggest names to packed houses every weekend.
Bill Fuller was innovative and an entrepreneur with an eye for opportunity: after Camden Town station was bombed in World War II, he bought the bomb damaged site next to The Buffalo and redeveloped the venue to hold 2,000 people.
“He was always ahead of the times, as his later career showed. Sometimes maybe too far ahead of the times,” she jokes.
It quickly became known for some as more than just a music venue – a social hub for many who felt themselves far from home.
By the late 1950s Bill had built up a chain of ballrooms in England, Ireland and America including the Palladium in New York at which he promoted as diverse a roster of headlining acts as Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash and Grateful Dead.
But his Camden venue still held a special place in his heart, and as the show band era gradually declined he stayed current, picking up many a famous fan and friend along the way.
Among them was Bob Geldof who campaigned to save it from demolition to develop Camden Town Underground station in 2003.
Van Morrison literally took up (brief) residence there one night when he was put up in one of the upstairs rooms after arriving in London late because of a delayed flight.
In the early 1970s some of rock’s biggest names during that era – Paul McCartney’s Wings, Led Zeppelin, The Clash and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention – used what had since been renamed The Carousel for rehearsals.
Meanwhile the local Irish community moved further outwards, or even returned to Ireland, it was replaced by the local Greek community who held wedding receptions there most Sunday afternoons. George Michael’s sister held hers there.
In 1978, with the help of Thin Lizzy’s former tour manager Frank Murray, the venue rebranded itself as a rock venue and the name changed once more, this time from The Carousel to the Electric Ballroom.
It opened on July 28 1978, but after nine months, was closed down because of complaints about the noise.
It reopened in 1979 with new soundproofing. In the early 1980s, up and coming bands – be they rock, New Wave, Punk, New Romantic, Goth or Indie – played there including The Cramps, The Fall, The Only Ones, The Virgin Prunes, U2, The Sisters of Mercy, Nick Cave and The Smiths.
In the 1990s it was an early adopter of the ballroom dancing revival which has since become mainstream, club nights became hugely popular, and it does still host the odd live concert.
Gigs since the Milennium have included, The Hives, Spiritualized, The Kings of Leon, Snow Patrol, Hard-Fi and Graham Cox, but Kate still regularly scours her father’s contact books for Irish music agents to book up-and-coming Irish bands for her younger clientele.
Earlier this year a two-day festival Emerald Sounds was held there, which celebrated the best of contemporary Irish arts, from folk to rock to indie, and even comedy. Kate was the only one of her father’s offspring to want to follow in his steps.
She lived with him in Las Vegas, where he emulated the showband scene at Irish clubs and pubs over there, from the age of two until ten.
She was later schooled in Dublin, the hometown of her mother, when her parents separated, but flew back to Las Vegas every summer to spend time with Bill and catch up with her school friends.
“My Dad loved Santa Monica in Los Angeles and managed lots of clubs and did promotions there. He would take me and my friend with him and we would go out to a fancy restaurant for something to eat in the evening and then back to the hotel room to bed.
“Then he would wake us up at 11 o’clock at night and we would accompany him as he would check on all the clubs, and then be back at the hotel in bed again by 2am!
“I never really thought it strange or glamourous, that was just how it was. I remember watching TV with him all the time and he’d be like ‘I know him, I know her’, but I suppose like all parents you kind of *rolls eyes* go yeah, yeah.”
Kate vividly remembers her first ever Electric Ballroom experience too.
“I was born in 1976 and I was about five, just at the height of the punk era. There was a band playing and everyone with these Mohawks, it was brilliant.
“I knew I always wanted to be a part of that. My dad married five times. I think because he had me when he was in his sixties he had a bit more time then in his later life so I got to see more of that side of the world.”
When Kate finished school she moved straight to London to work in the Camden venue, but then the opportunity came up to move to Los Angeles.
“I helped my Dad out in Santa Monica and it was brilliant. It was so different to the experience I had running one large Camden music venue, to all of a sudden managing a lot of different nights on the club scene.
“And it was just a brilliant way to spend some more time with my Dad. Then the issue with TfL wanting to put us up for compulsory purchase when they wanted to extend the station happened.
“Dad asked me if I wanted to come over and take the venue, and the legal battle, over and I did. I was about 24 then. All of the legal jargon was way over my head but I was determined and probably had the benefit of youth, and not fear, on my side.
“I pumped all of our savings into legal costs. I couldn’t tell Dad that. But it worked out ok in the end. We won and got them all back. But it was a huge PR campaign, we had Suggs and Bob Geldof helping us out and lending their support.”
And since then Kate has seen the venue go from strength to strength, always keeping ahead of the times as her Dad did.
“I couldn’t even tell you my favourite memory here, there has been so many I have forgotten! Prince played here. And Madonna. MTV use the venue and Comedy Central as it is in a great location and we have a capacity of 1,200.
“We are open, and busy, every Friday and Saturday night. And then as it comes into September our gigs and events start up again during the week.
“At the moment we have put in planning permission to extend the balcony around the main dancefloor to give more seating room for gigs, and a bit of a lounge on a club night.”
Not bad for someone who almost came into the industry blind at such a young age.
“Well that must come from Dad too. He worked in construction before he bought this place. He was only 19 or 20 then when he got it. He used to tell me he had to change the name of his company to make him sound older.
“Fuller and Son he called it. It was another one of those parent stories that I didn’t really pay much attention to but when we cleared out the attic to make our offices we found the paperwork with the company on it!”
Bill passed away in 2008, aged 91, and despite all of his global business success, it was Camden that held a special place in his heart.
Kate says because it was the place that started his whole journey. She too could never leave the venue, and the mother-of-two can already see sparks of her and her father in her eldest daughter.
“I have two daughters, Billie-Jean and Ava aged seven and four. The seven-year-old was born just after my Dad passed and I knew, whether it was a boy or a girl, I had to have his name in there somewhere.
“Michael Jackson had just died too so my cousin suggested Billie-Jean! And she is so into her music already. She comes here and says ‘when I grow up I want to run the Electric Ballroom’.”
Just as well. Her grandfather once said: “Oh, I’ll keep Camden until I move out of this world. It was the first place of my own that I had, so I wouldn’t dream of parting with it. Camden will never be sold.”