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King's Hall concerts from The Beatles to Nirvana

By Joe Kearney

image captionThe King's Hall was Northern Ireland's largest venue until Belfast's Odyssey stole its crown in 2000

For decades the King's Hall stood proud as Northern Ireland's biggest concert venue. Its rafters rang to the sounds of The Beatles, U2, Dylan and Bowie… but no more.

It opened in 1934 but, last month, Belfast City Council's planning committee approved plans for a £100m private health care facility at the south Belfast site.

But the famous faces who brought medicinal music to Belfast during its darkest days live long in the memory.

As the 60s started properly swinging, the mop-top incarnation of The Beatles gave teenagers a voice - manifested as a shrill scream.

The Fab Four performed two shows at the King's Hall on 2 November 1964, in front of 16,000 fans.

At the time they were the biggest group in the world, and making their second and last visit to Ireland.

image copyrightNick Newbery
image captionThe most expensive ticket for The Beatles' 1964 King's Hall gig cost £1

"The 1963 visit was a cinema tour and they played at the Ritz, but 1964 was the big one. We ran two shows in the one night at the King's Hall, which I don't think has been done too often," Promoter Trevor Kane says.

"We were clearing 8,000 people out of one and getting the next ones in. The top price then was £1."

Few photos of the concert remain, with a first-year student at Queen's University capturing some of those that do.

Surrey-born Nick Newbery was sent to cover a story on "a band coming to town called The Beatles", for student magazine The Gown, because another photographer "wasn't interested".

"I wasn't particularly fond of the rock group but they were famous and I had a front row seat," he says.

media captionThe pictures were taken by photographer Nick Newbery

The likes of Remo Four and Motown star Mary Wells played before the Beatles on the so-called 'package tour' concert - but no-one had come to see them.

Thin Lizzy walk-out

Once John, Paul, George and Ringo took the stage there was pandemonium, with screams drowning out the 10-song set and a wholly inadequate PA system.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionPhil Lynott and John Sykes strut their stuff with Thin Lizzy in 1980

But actually hearing the music mattered little to those who could forever say: "I was there."

While touring acts were usually guaranteed a warm reception, particularly given how hard they were to book during the Troubles, home-grown heroes held a particular place in the hearts of Belfast audiences.

Irish rockers Thin Lizzy played The King's Hall twice, first in 1980 with their Black Rose tour and again three years later with their Thunder and Lightning show.

The 1980 show was well received by an audience who had seen Lizzy rise to worldwide fame in the five years since they played Ballymena's Flamingo Ballroom.

By April 1983, however, the band's star was on the wane and their King's Hall concert was widely derided for the sound quality and a lacklustre performance.

"So bad I walked out," one fan said.

"The acoustics were dire, one song just merged into another in an industrial grinding fashion."

The band played their last concert in Germany five months later; front man Phil Lynott was dead within three years.

Bono 'sick of flags'

Those who saw U2 at King's Hall in June 1987 had none of the reservations of the Thin Lizzy crowd.

The Dublin foursome had played the city several times during the early 1980s but by 1987 the Joshua Tree album had elevated them to a different stratosphere.

"I can't drive past the King's Hall now without thinking about that fantastic evening," fan Paul Duffy, who was lucky enough to meet his heroes, says.

"I've seen loads of bands there over the years but to me, U2 and the King's Hall are synonymous with Belfast. It was just such a magical time."

image copyrightPAUL DUFFY
image captionU2 fan Paul Duffy (centre) and a friend secured a picture with The Edge

One big question ahead of the concert was whether Sunday Bloody Sunday would make the set list.

The band had first played it at Belfast's Maysfield Leisure Centre in 1982 and five years on they played it again.

Fan Geoff Caves recalls a moment fans produced the Irish tricolour and a Union Jack flag during the song.

"Bono said: 'You can take down your flags, we're sick of flags,' " says Mr Caves.

image copyrightIrish News
image captionThe U2 concert was lauded in a June 1987 review in the Irish News

Jerry Lee Lewis 'not taking dope'

Jerry Lee Lewis was described as "rock 'n' roll's first great wild man" and once drove to Graceland, drunk and high on pills, with a gun on his dashboard, demanding that Elvis come down to prove who was the real king.

By 1985, the 49-year-old had slowed down a little, as he took to the King's Hall stage for a country show that also featured Brenda Lee and Tammy Wynette.

image copyrightDavid Redfern/Getty

As he sat down at the piano, he told the crowd: "I'm not drinking. I'm not taking dope, cause I can't find any. But I'll tell you one thing, I'm sick. But I'm going to do the best I can for you."

After an hour-long performance, the Louisiana legend collapsed and was later treated for what his manager insisted was exhaustion and food poisoning.

Lewis wouldn't be the last star rushed to hospital following a King's Hall concert.

Kurt Cobain's jumper

In 1991, an upcoming grunge band from Seattle were scheduled to play Belfast's Conor Hall but the gig had to be cancelled due to ill health.

By the summer of the following year, Nirvana's Nevermind album had knocked Michael Jackson off the No 1 spot and was shifting 300,000 copies a week.

image copyrightBarry Peak
image captionNirvana's 1991 Conor Hall gig had to be cancelled due to Kurt Cobain's ill health

A rescheduled concert at King's Hall in June 1992 featured support from The Breeders and Teenage Fanclub and was the most sought-after ticket in town.

Ash frontman Tim Wheeler was a wide-eyed teenager at one of his first big concerts and credits the night with inspiring him to start a band.

image copyrightbbc
image captionNirvana inspired Tim Wheeler to start Ash

"It was such a great intro to music," recalls the Downpatrick-born singer. "I had been into metal and stuff before but this was great, really getting into pop tunes. It was a very young crowd and very dramatic show."

Fan Barry Peak remembers: "I had just turned 18 and Nirvana were as important as things were in my life."

Chris Black, from Whitehead, also made his own little piece of musical history that night.

"I was up at the front and there were some young lads diving into the crowd, including one with blond dreadlocks," he recalls.

image copyrightSteve Pyke/Getty Images
image captionBy the time Nirvana played at King's Hall in 1992, Kurt Cobain's substance abuse was no secret and he and his pregnant partner Courtney Love were caught in a maelstrom of fame

"I had the same hairstyle at the time and when the bouncers went looking for him, they got me instead.

"I was backstage when Nirvana's bass player invited me to meet the band.

"Courtney (Love) came over and told me she loved my jumper and could she have it."

When she offered him £35, he took the cash.

"I had no idea what she was planning to do with the jumper, but then I saw Kurt wearing it on several occasions."

The next day, Cobain collapsed during breakfast and was taken by wheelchair to a waiting ambulance.

Nirvana's representatives claimed he had a weeping ulcer caused by eating junk food.

Two months after the Belfast show, the band would play their last UK date, headlining the Reading Festival.

Two years later, Cobain took his own life.

Related Topics

  • The Beatles
  • Belfast
  • Music