David Bowie, Thin Lizzy, Sex Pistols: How Scarborough's tiny Penthouse venue hosted some of music's biggest names

Scarborough was once home to a small music venue that attracted an incredible array of some of the top names in music from the late '60s to the early '80s - from Roxy Music and Fleetwood Mac to the Sex Pistols and Ultravox. PATRICK ARGENT remembers The Penthouse.

By Patrick Argent
Sunday, 18th April 2021, 6:19 pm
Updated Sunday, 18th April 2021, 6:20 pm

35 St Nicholas Street, to anyone of a certain vintage with a rock 'n’ roll attitude, was once a particularly significant and alluring address in the centre of Scarborough

The first floor of this elegant 19th century Georgian building, that would subsequently hold one of the country’s leading small live music venues, was collectively once the Town Hall, a ballroom, a billiards hall and also a cinema.

Opening on the evening of Saturday 19 April 1969, the club above a branch of Lloyd’s Bank would, over the next decade and beyond, subsequently host an impressive array of many of the most influential and significant names in music.

Photo montage includes ex-Penthouse DJ Mat Watkinson and owner Pete Adams, now Swami Dhyan Rahim.

These artists would come from a diverse range of genres, from the late ’60s hippy period to the post-punk era of the early 1980s.

From the barrelhouse New Orleans blues of Champion Jack Dupree and the ribcage-rattling heavy metal of Judas Priest, to the intricate progressive rock of Yes and Camel and the bludgeoning immediacy of an all-out frontal assault by the Sex Pistols, the breadth and quality of bands who took to the stage at The Penthouse astonishes even the younger generation of rock fans today.

Outstanding names

David Bowie, Derek & The Dominoes, Roxy Music, Free, Hawkwind, Uriah Heep, Wishbone Ash, MC5, Thin Lizzy, Mott The Hoople, The Noel Redding Band, Fleetwood Mac, Status Quo, BeBop Deluxe, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, David Coverdale’s Whitesnake, Dr Feelgood, The Stranglers, The Damned, Ultravox, Joe Jackson, XTC, amongst a whole cohort of others - the formidable inventory detailed on the 1979 commemorative poster contains a host of outstanding legendary names that demonstrably represents a near comprehensive cross-section of ’70s rock music.

Former Penthouse DJ Mat Watkinson with an original poster listing the bands that played there.

Amongst that eclectic line-up there would occasionally be the most bizarre of bands: New Zealand’s Vaudeville-esque Split Enz, the Medieval ages-inspired Gryphon, the proto-punk psychotic theatrics of The Doctors of Madness.

There would also be the unexpected; the authentic beefed-up ’50s rock n’ roll of Johnny Kidd’s former band The Pirates, the esteemed radio DJ John Peel, the ex-New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, the anachronistic The Enid, a full blown prog rock outfit emerging in the very eye of the storm of the punk rock explosion, in addition to no less than two appearances by The Sex Pistols.

The Penthouse never failed to deliver surprises.

The thrilling Sex Pistols

Posters featuring The Sex Pistols, left, and Ultravox.

On the night of Thursday 25 August 1977, at the very height of their potency and notoriety across the nation, the inimitable Sex Pistols (with Sid Vicious on bass) would give a thunderous, intimidating and utterly compelling performance of their rampaging, nihilistic fury. The Penthouse once again was at the very epicentre of contemporary rock music.

Entrenched in what seemed to be an endless queue outside, I was extremely fortunate to be among the last scrum of people to be admitted, having the foresight to propel myself, somersaulting over the top of a heap of bodies and finding myself somehow landing inside the main doors.

The gig, a consummate masterclass of the frenzied punk genre, was undoubtedly the most intensely thrilling and incendiary music event that, for me, has had no equal to this day.

The Pistols had first played the venue in May 1976, to a very nonplussed audience of around 35 people, some of whom pelted the band with beermats. For the August 1977 gig The Penthouse was packed to the rafters.

Inside The Penthouse.

The future rock mogul who brought about all the above was Peter Adams (now Swami Dhyan Rahim), a Whitby businessman whose seething annoyance at being refused entry into a conventional club in town because of the style of his clothes was to be the burning catalyst for the creation of his very own.

The club that he established would become the alternative venue for those he referred to as “free-thinking people”, with a virtually unrestricted dress-code and a much-welcomed liberalised approach in providing for its varied and differing clientele. It represented a haven for non-commercial music fans who sought out the best of the underground rock scene at the time.

The ones that got away ...

One could argue, perhaps, that despite the potential missing names from the list of bands, no Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, The Clash, The Jam, Killing Joke or The Cure for example, The Penthouse, although situated remotely in a seaside resort on the North Yorkshire coast, would nevertheless command the recognition of the music business nationally.

The club became widely acknowledged among many artists and established itself as a steadfast regular venue on the UK live music circuit.

Far more than just a regular disco on a Wednesday or Saturday night (albeit with a fair proportion of rock music from Led Zeppelin, AC/DC etc thrown in by the resident DJs), unlike the other nightclubs, The Penthouse was more akin to a cultural arts centre.

Doorway to The Penthouse; the club was above Lloyd's Bank.

During its heyday music aficionados didn’t necessarily have to travel out of town, as so often the cutting edge of contemporary rock would be appearing weekly on stage in St Nicholas Street.

In comparison with other such venues as The Marquee in London where many of the very same bands would also perform, The Penthouse, with its especially vibrant, friendly, relaxed atmosphere and policy of staging the bands much later in the evening, proved to be an irresistibly potent and enduringly successful format.

Lord of the Rings inspiration

With its uniquely exotic mixture of an Afro-haired model and Art-Nouveau typeface graphic identity, psychedelic poster artwork, an Aubrey Beardsley styled stage backdrop then subsequently one inspired by Lord of the Rings, and latterly Middle Eastern-influenced interior décor, the club’s imagery proffered an unconventional experience to any nightlife patrons.

In the post-April 1979 era, with the club in the new ownership of businessman Nasser Beiromi, it continued to regularly attract many leading names such as The Pretenders, Bauhaus, Au Pairs, The Q-Tips, The Records, UK Subs, the revivalist Mod bands Secret Affair and Purple Hearts, and the Birmingham reggae band Steel Pulse, amongst a multitude of others.

Viewed by many with nostalgic affection since its doors closed for the last time in 1982, memories of the club still resonate in a profoundly vivid way amongst those who felt privileged to have been part of its story.

Unforgettable, irreplaceable, enthralling and unique, The Penthouse electrified the Scarborough music scene with its 600+ bands, enhancing the lives of thousands who frequented this modestly small venue that, remarkably in its time, captured a substantial and significant assemblage of rock history.

Scarborough's pantheon of nightclubs down the decades - and which one was voted the best ... see HERE.

From left at the 2008 Penthouse reunion are Robbie Winspear, Pete Hudson, Paul Murray and Rich Hodgson.