The night punk rock was banned from Sunderland Empire

The Boomtown Rats at Sunderland's 2018 Kubix Festival.
The Boomtown Rats at Sunderland's 2018 Kubix Festival.

Sunderland music fans repeatedly moan about having to trek through to Newcastle to watch the biggest acts.

Back in 1978, however, some of the country’s leading bands were effectively banned from Sunderland Empire after a “trail of damage” at one infamous gig.

Sunderland Empire 's entrance in the 1970s.

Sunderland Empire 's entrance in the 1970s.

“Theatre bans punk groups” was the headline on the front of the Sunderland Echo following “Chaos at the Empire” during The Boomtown Rats’s October 23 show.

More than 120 seats were damaged and toilets were vandalised with spray paint while bouncers had to restrain spectators from surging on to the stage.

Lead singer Bob Geldof also threatened at least three times during the concert’s opening 20 minutes to walk off after the band were repeatedly spat at.

“No one spits at The Boomtown Rats or me,” he shouted.

Also read: Sunderland punk rocker’s memories of infamous Boomtown Rats concert

An emergency meeting of the theatre’s governing trust imposed the ban the following night after learning that the repair bill would surpass what was then a hefty £1,500.

Chairman Len Harper, who would also serve as both Sunderland’s mayor and council leader, said afterwards: “We aren’t showing middle-aged prejudice to punk rock and we’re not criticising punks.

“We are simply saying that we have a responsibility to look after the theatre and see that people who come to it are not put in danger.”

Although punk’s first raucous onslaught on the nation’s ears was undoubtedly diminishing, the decision denied followers any realistic prospect of seeing famous names such as The Clash and disintegrating Sex Pistols on their doorsteps.

As theatre director Russell Hills, conscious that only a minority of spectators were to blame, said: “Most of the kids going out of the stalls were really sickened when they saw the damage and knew that they probably wouldn’t see this sort of concert in Sunderland again as there is nowhere else big enough.”

So what happened next?


Also read: David Bowie plays Sunderland’s Roker Park

The subsequent nationwide publicity certainly did not hinder The Boomtown Rats’s career with Rat Trap becoming their first of two United Kingdom number one singles within weeks.

They were happy enough too to return five years later to perform at Sunderland Polytechnic after their popularity had waned.

A trickle of punk and new wave bands such as The Stranglers and Elvis Costello and the Attractions would also shortly delight Sunderland audiences by appearing in their prime at the Mayfair, now home to Tesco’s supermarket, across the River Wear.

Even The Clash, albeit a Mick Jones-less Mark II version, made it on to the Mayfair stage during a busking tour of the region in May 1985.

As for the Empire, Teddy Boys Showaddywaddy were considered suitable enough to appear at the venue in December 1978 with teenage sensation Kate Bush following in April 1979.

And the ban? With punk’s initial popularity finally subsiding, we can find no record of any band testing its small print.

Also read: So did the Rolling Stones ever play Sunderland?

A 1987 appearance by heavy metal legends Motorhead, however, suggests it was eventually lifted in spirit if not writing.

Yet, safety pins or no safety pins, and in an era before identikit arenas or modern football stadiums, the majority of household names continued to head north to Newcastle City Hall.

Perhaps a final indication that little has changed in the intervening 40 years can be found elsewhere on the Echo’s front page.

For our punk ban story was pipped to the paper’s number one spot by the search for another new Sunderland football club manager after Jimmy Adamson joined Leeds United.

Also read: The day indie legends New Order played Sunderland