Obituary For The 5th Avenue Nightclub, Formerly Nero’s, Portsmouth UK

In the mid-1980’s New York had Studio 54, London had the Hippodrome and even Manchester had The Haçienda. But Portsmouth, well Portsmouth had…. 5th Avenue.

5th avenue nightclub portsmouthLocated on the Southsea seafront, which is a small geographic area of Portsmouth City and opposite-adjacent to the infamous South Parade Pier, the building had many names over the years where each generation experienced the venue in different ways. It all started with The Savoy Ballroom in 1926 with tea dances and morphing into a band and concert hall in the 1950’s and 60’s under the same name. It then became Nero’s in 1973, changing into 5th Avenue in 1983 and finally Time and Envy in 1994. Although the venue was finally closed and left vacant in 2007, its demise was secured by the acquisition by Harry Redknapp in 2008. The total destruction by fire in 2011 and subsequent demolition and construction of new flats in 2015 put a hard stop on the history-timeline of this music venue, that had long been the epicenter of local musical entertainment in Portsmouth,  for over an eighty years. Without a proper eulogy at its fiery funeral, the obituary for 5th Avenue may well be long overdue. After the whole block where the building stood was razed to the ground and the 92 senior citizen flats were built in its place, the new construction was named The Savoy Court, a throwback to its former glory days. Many believe that the new building lacked the merit to use the original name, even if the ghosts of the bygone nightclub days continue to haunt it.

My time at the nightclub was during the 5th Avenue tenure. But it’s just one story, this venue had many.

Eighty Years of Entertainment – 5th Avenue Through The Ages

The Savoy Ballroom In PortsmouthObviously, 5th Avenue was not always 5th Avenue. It started life in 1926 as the Savoy Ballroom, where it first had old-time musical style entertainment, usually during the day and featuring the tea dances of The Palm Court Orchestra. It was empty over the war years, primarily as the Germans were bombing the hell out of Portsmouth and the Southsea area was a common drop-spot, as the German bombers often missed their target at the former Naval site at the Portsmouth Dockyard. Despite being unused during the war years, this site remained virtually unscathed. As musical tastes changed, The Savoy morphed into a band venue in the 1950’s and 1960’s where it featured top acts of the day including the precursor to The Rolling Stones, called The Blue Boys, in 1959. The Beatles played there in 1963 and The Who in 1965. Even bands like The Animals and The Yardbirds made many appearances at the venue. With those bands eventually going to bigger venues in Portsmouth, The Savoy Ballroom became Nero’s in 1971. It was this 1970’s disco with its wild and fun ethos that reinvigorated the venue. 5th Avenue followed in 1982 to usher in the changing sound of the 80’s musical doctrine and in 1991 the venue became the last name it would own, Time and its sister club, Envy. The venue finally closed its doors for good in April 2007. This nightclub was located on the bustling Southsea seafront that, over the years, and the various clubs it became, saw a parade of many of Britain’s best trends including teddy boys, greasers, mods, rockers, punks, dressers and boy racers to name but a few.

1971. The Savoy Ballroom Turns Into Nero’s

Neros Front Door 1981Not that anyone cares now, but, back in the day, the Savoy Ballroom really was the focal point of  live musical entertainment in Portsmouth. There are countless stories of many a Portsmouth couple meeting during its big band days and it was especially popular with local girls meeting American sailors. When The Beatles played there for three nights in 1963 to promote the She Loves You tour, people expected this venue to last forever. But just like The Cavern Club in Liverpool, in the late 1960’s the musical following grew smaller and the good bands started passing instead of playing, mostly due to the venue’s small size and limited door revenue. In 1971, long after The Beatles had left the building and well past the glory days of the old-world crowd of afternoon tea and dancing to the Palm Court Orchestra, the venue changed to its next incarnation and the Nero’s Nightclub was born.

After picking up the dilapidated Savoy buildings, which included The Savoy Ballroom, for just Five Thousand Pounds, the new owners, Pleasurama, decided to turn the venue into a modern nightclub using the new “disco” genre. Out with the marble floors, crystal chandeliers and tea dresses of old and in with the 1970’s flares and kipper ties. They boarded up all the seafront vista windows, gutted the inside of the venue, put in a 2nd floor and installed a new gaudy front entrance with a huge overhang and the new 1971 discotheque, Nero’s, was born. Its full name was actually Nero’s Nite Spot and it came as a total shock to the City of Portsmouth as this new club looked like the owners had gone to Studio 54 in New York City, snorted all the cocaine they could lay their hands on and tried to duplicate the whole NYC experience right back here in Portsmouth. The only problem with that story is that Nero’s actually predated all of the world famous clubs of this ilk. It wasn’t until 1977 that Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager created Studio 54 in NYC, 1973’s CBGB’s had a completely different vibe and London’s Ronnie Scott’s and The Marquee Club looked positively pedestrian compared to Nero’s. Some say that the club was inspired by the famous Romanesque porn movie of the time, Caligula’s Hot Nights, but that movie did not come out until late 1977 eitherIt is a bold statement to say that Nero’s was the first of its kind, but the closer you look, the more it appears that it really was breaking new ground back in the heady days of 1971, capturing the peace and love music genre and turning it on its head. You have to remember, this was only two years after Woodstock happened in Upstate New York, in the halcyon days of Summer of 1969 

Inside the newly constructed Nero’s there was a multi-level, under-lit dance floor, straight out out of Saturday Night Fever (long before Saturday Night Fever even existed as a movie, with a circa of 1977). Gone were the romantic and panoramic sea views across the Solent – through the giant floor-to-ceiling windows, they were replaced with black walls, spinning colored spotlights and a huge disco ball. Even a fog machine was installed and they did not realize how much of a cliche that would eventually become. Wall to wall carpeting in shades of purple and gold were adorned with golden statues of naked women that topped off this 1970’s Romanesque, hippie-inspired wet dream of a nightclub, something that Portsmouth, or even the country had ever seen before. When it opened,  Dave Anson, (who would later manage the club) would take on the nom-de-guerre of Steve Rubell, from Studio 54 ilk, and Nero’s would turn away ten times more people than they allowed in, each and every night.  Nero’s Nite Spot became the hit of the city and thus began the nightclub hell for the local seafront residents that lived nearby, because with this club opening, local residents would now be subjected to late-night rowdiness, people throwing up and even having sex in their doorways for the next thirty years. Nero’s was a hit, but not everyone was happy.

Dumb Luck Gets A Teenager Into Nero’s

Nero's front door in 1978I was lucky enough to see Nero’s first hand. At fifteen years old, and on a bleak Friday night during the winter in 1981, I managed to get into Nero’s. Sure, they had teen nights and school/college rentals of this club (where they did not serve alcohol), but my one and only experience of Nero’s was on a Saturday night, an over eighteen night, late in 1981, long past its heyday as the top club in Portsmouth, but the experience was still something to remember.  Sure, by then there were other copycat clubs like Martines and Ritzys in Arundel Street. There was even The Some Place Else Club in Palmerston Road, but they were all cheap copies of the Nero’s phenomenon. I managed to convince the doorman to let me in by name-dropping a former bouncer who I knew had been fired a week earlier. Actually, he was still a tenant in my mum’s bed and breakfast and he suggested I give it a try. The doorman probably felt bad for him, as they liked him, they parlayed the pity onto me and let me in. It is important to note that when I was fifteen years old, I looked like I was ten,  so this was something of a feat. Bear in mind,  it’s just me in Nero’s. I mean, on that night, I do not not know anyone else inside Nero’s, so I am not quite sure what I was thinking. I did not have any friends at the time who were willing to go up against the notoriously tough Nero’s bouncers, just to be turned away.  Girls had it so much easier. I knew of so many thirteen year old girls at school who would get dressed up and had no problems getting in on an over-18 night. So many girls in fact that its still quite disconcerting this many years later just how crazy the times were, I think at that time, there was more underage sex than there was over-the-age-of-consent sex in the club.

Nero’s Provided Some Great Memories

Inside Neros Nightclub, 1973Old people can often talk about how great the good old days were and wax lyrical about just how wonderful everyone and everything was back in the day. It is part of the human condition to just remember the good times. More often than not, the more time that has passed, the rosier the memories. Fortunately I was pretty objective when I visited Nero’s that one time, I just skated in on the tail end of its final act so I was fortunate to get a glimpse of something bigger than I had anticipated at the time and I am grateful to have seen it. Nero’s really was something quite special. In researching this story I was amazed to see how many people there are now with their own stories and pictures of their time at the club. The same could not be said for the other versions of the club that existed in that space during other times, specifically 5th Avenue and Time. (It is probably not fair to lump the original Savoy into that that mix as most people who experienced it are all probably dead now or have dementia).

Neros staircase to main clubAnyone who was sober enough to remember, will recollect walking into Nero’s, the lobby with the disco ball, past the cloakroom on the left, up the stairs, with the phone booth on the right and then taking a final left turn at the top of the stairs into Nero’s.  The first time you walked in it was like being born. It could be a sensory overload to some. The smell, the color and the taste, yes the taste, of everything Nero’s had to offer. This club with four bars and two dance floors that could hold up to 2,000 people a night seared a strong memory it into my young and somewhat naive mind. It was as if the scene had been plucked directly from a roman emperors private quarters, all the things you thought people did in a nightclub, but never actually saw, until now.You half expected Caligula to welcome you to his fantasy land.

Let me set the scene for you. There were barely-clothed dancers gyrating on golden podiums, young girls making out with older men in the dark corners of the club, with their ham-hands fiddling up their satin skirts, mouthing unheard utterances below the disco din of music and the babbling brook of the crowd. Other men were lying prostrate on the velvet carpet podium, in trance-like gazes from drugs, sex or just enjoying the music provided by the knock-off London DJ’s who were too busy spinning all the 50 pence hit 7″ singles they could find in W.H. Smith. They were also too busy to see the gaggle of loose single girls gathered at their DJ booth ready and willing to satisfy their carnal desires. These men were the modern day gods and the girls were only to happy to provide their sordid offerings as gifts. You ignored the sweet smell in the air and the unexplained stickiness of the deep-pile plush purple carpet and continued on to see the next unseen sight, like some naive rubber-necker driving past a burning car wreck of inequity. Towards the end of the evening, the grey marble counter in the ladies bathroom often appeared all-white due to the fine mist of nose candy that had been consumed upon it. People from all walks of life filled the dance floor and the music, drugs and alcohol kept the party going into the early morning, when the throng would finally be forced to spill out onto the street with its momentum unabridged, despite the threat of the miserable damp cold of English reality that hits them in the face like a thousand hypodermic needles.

This was a scene that hipsters of the day must have experienced nightly and it would be my first and last experience of 1970’s disco style Nero’s nightclub, as it shuttered its doors in 1982, before I even reached the legal age of eighteen. In early 1983, 5th Avenue was born and that’s when the club entered a new chapter in its storied history.

Nero’s Was Never A Discotheque, Despite The Promotions

Neros Portsmouth 60p for a bopQuite surprisingly Nero’s Nitespot wasn’t supposed to be a disco. The term “disco” never featured in their original name when they opened in 1971, but it did finally find its way into its promotional flyers in 1976 and then on to their glass front entrance doors in 1977. The term Disco wasn’t even coined in the musical industry until 1974 and it didn’t take off as a musical genre until later in 1975.  Nero’s opened its doors in 1971, so what style of music were they playing prior to the steady “four-on-the-floor” beat of disco? Guitar rock and ballads seem out of place in the Nero’s I remember. When the musical genre of disco finally went into decline in 1980, Nero’s had already hitched its wagon to the genre a little too strongly, even though the club did not start out that way back in ’71. With the advent of the Disco Sucks movement in 1980 the club suffered greatly in ticket sales and began losing money for the first time in its history. It also didn’t help that there were now a litany of other knockoff nightclubs all over town. Pleasurama management believed that the only way to survive was to uncouple their bond with disco, gut the venue and start with a fresh brand and launch. They may have thrown the baby out with the bath water by ditching the Nero’s model that had served them very well for ten years, but it was time to move on. Those twenty year old’s were all now thirty and changing diapers and Neros did not fit the bill of the electronic eighty’s. Although Pleasurama would achieve decent success with 5th Avenue, they would never recapture the amazing success of Nero’s again and a lot of its history is now lost to time and fading memories. It might have only been 60 pence for a bop, but its aging customers were now paying for mortgages.

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Michael Rogers

Having never been a member of the 657 crew and still a frequent guest at the Jolly Sailor, Mike likes to travel back to his old stomping grounds once in a while. Rogers has been writing for twenty years about things that really don't matter for such publications as Good Housekeeping and The Radio Times. Married with two dogs and a cat, he will often be found at his desk looking for writing inspiration in the most random places, often in the waste paper basket for something he wrote last week.