Bodega Social: From 'fighty pub' to beloved music venue
The Bodega in Nottingham is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a special series of shows. How did a "fighty" pub become a music venue with a reputation for breaking the best new bands?
It's July 2001, The White Stripes are soundchecking at a tiny venue in Nottingham, and a seven-year-old girl is watching Meg White.
"I remember Frances being eyes wide open watching this cool girl play drums with this guy playing a really loud guitar," says Jeff Barrett, one of the venue's founders.
"Frances was having drum lessons. After the soundcheck Meg said 'Do you want to come up and have a go?' and let Frances sit and play her kit and encouraged her to play the drums."
Frances Nesbitt, now 25, remembers Meg White giving her a White Stripes badge.
"Me and my dad went to the soundcheck and my dad introduced me to her and she just talked about being a female drummer and was really encouraging for me to do it," she says.
Jeff himself remembers sitting at the bar with Jack White, trying to convince him to sign to his record label.
"I can picture that now, sat with him telling him why my label was better than the one he eventually signed to," he laughs. "Not convincingly enough, obviously."
Jeff already had a good track record for discovering bands. His label, Heavenly Recordings, had released first albums by Saint Etienne, Beth Orton and Doves, and early singles by Manic Street Preachers. It had also created a London club night called the Heavenly Sunday Social, which helped launch the careers of the Chemical Brothers, its resident DJs, in the 1990s.
The label then founded London music venue The Social in 1999, followed by the Nottingham venue, also called The Social. Jeff, who grew up in Nottingham, had been walking up Pelham Street with his promoter friend James Baillie when he spotted what had once been quite a rough pub.
"It had a reputation for being quite fighty and that was why this place was closed and boarded up," he said.
They called the estate agents and someone came about five minutes later to let them have a look round.
"Man oh man it was like walking into a warzone," he says. "It was a disgrace. It looked like there had been a massive fight and then a bomb went off and someone had just gone 'do you know what, sack this', and just left the building. But I loved it. As soon as I walked in I thought this could be perfect for what we want to do."
The idea was to create a "really good bar" in the city centre, with James as the promoter and another good friend as DJ - Frances's dad Martin Nesbitt, also known as The Reverend Car-Bootleg.
Jeff persuaded his partners in London to invest and the 220-capacity venue launched on 28 November 1999 with a show by Liverpudlian band Shack.
"We happened to be pretty hot at the time because The Social had been a really successful club night," says Jeff. "So we had got some credibility and my record label had got some credibility. So putting the right groups on early and putting ourselves on the map early was quite easy.
"We put The Strokes on, we did early gigs from Franz Ferdinand, Goldfrapp, Coldplay. It's ridiculous when you go through who played there."
Anton Lockwood, who was an independent promoter in Nottingham at the time, said it "filled a gap for a small venue".
"I was putting on shows all over the place but I was having to go out of town to slightly random places," he says.
The first show he put on at The Social was with Gorky's Zygotic Mynci in February 2000, followed by And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead in April 2000.
"The Social was the first place focused on music and culture that was about being a music-led venue and bar every day, seven days a week," he remembers.
Unfortunately what happened next was something Jeff describes as "one of the most disappointing things that has ever happened to me in my life".
"It was year three, the make or break year of any new business that has yet to turn a profit," he says.
"We had good reason to be optimistic and things were looking good until the start of February when our manager failed to turn up for work and later failed to answer his phone."
They quickly discovered he had "done a runner", leaving the country with tens of thousands of pounds in stolen takings and a string of gambling debts.
"That was it for our finance partner," he says. "He realised that without that month's takings in the bank the year was going to be a struggle."
The venue was saved when George Akins from DHP - which owns Nottingham's bigger venue, Rock City - stepped in. They did a deal and ran the venue together for a few years, as well as taking over a former cargo ship-turned-nightclub in Bristol called Thekla, rebranding it The Thekla Social. But the partnership soured after a few years, they were unable to renegotiate terms of agreement, and Jeff walked away.
"It was sad," says Jeff. "I loved that bar. I really, really, really loved it. I loved being there. I thought we had done something really cool. I love Nottingham and it just felt good to me. And it was a great place."
Andrew Trendell, news editor at the NME, frequented the venue when he was at university in Nottingham from 2006 to 2010, during which time the name changed to The Bodega Social, and eventually The Bodega.
"As a student and music fan, The Bodega was an essential spot," he says.
"I remember early shows by Anna Calvi, Foals, Florence, The xx, The Twilight Sad, to name a few, as well as meeting The Cribs and many other '00s indie legends in there for their after-shows."
He remembers it as somewhere for "bringing in the best international breakthrough talent" but also "giving a stage and spotlight to Nottingham's many brilliant local and unsigned acts".
"Nottingham has never got the credit that it deserves for its music scene, nightlife and culture, but there's a real sense of community and always so much going on. It could give Manchester a run for its money," he says.
"Nottingham culture is always thriving, and that wouldn't be possible without places like Bodega at the heart of it."
The Reverend Car-Bootleg is the only person to have been involved with the venue throughout its entire history, having played there at least two nights a week for 20 years. He is best known for DJing at The Pop Confessional, which started in 2006 and rewards people who confess their sins with a free vodka shot.
"There are quite a lot of real confessions," he says. "I think you're getting people in a vulnerable state. I think it's quite therapeutic. We've had some quite harrowing tales in there and the priest that listens to them is very sympathetic."
His favourite gig there was Bright Eyes, in about 2000 or 2001.
"He played to literally about 30 people and he [singer Conor Oberst] was just fantastic," he says. "I was blown away by how good they were."
The 20th anniversary is being celebrated with a special series of shows, which include performances by Heavenly artists The Orielles and Stealing Sheep as a nod to its history.
Anton Lockwood, who is now one of DHP's directors, said the venue has maintained its reputation as somewhere to catch acts on their way up.
"It might be an anniversary but we are still moving forward and we are still putting on the best new artists," he says.
"It's a new music venue and it's about being creative and whatever the latest creative, interesting music is then The Bodega is where you're going to find it."
As for Jeff Barrett, he still remembers the venue with fondness and will be DJing at one of the anniversary shows.
"If the opportunity came up I would buy it back, I totally would," he says.
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