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.
Located on the Southsea seafront, 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 ‘gentlemen’s excuse me’. It then morphed into a band and concert hall in the 1950’s and 60’s under the same name and took a new form in 1971 it became Nero’s Nitespot. It changed into 5th Avenue in 1983 and it entered its final form as Time and Envy in 1994. Although the venue was finally closed and left vacant in 2007, its path to its ultimate destruction was secured by the acquisition of the site by soccer impresario Harry Redknapp in 2008. If it had not been for his involvement, the famous site may have been redeveloped into its next chapter of entertainment. The highly suspicious destruction of the site by fire in 2011, and the subsequent demolition and construction of new flats in 2015, put a hard stop on the history-timeline of this uber-famous music venue. The site had long been the epicenter of local musical entertainment in Portsmouth and for what amounts to an eighty year span, the Pleasurama site was more than just an entertainment complex, it was an icon for so many generations, each embracing it for it’s reflection of the popular culture at that time.
Without a proper eulogy at its fiery funeral, the obituary for Neros and 5th Avenue may well be long overdue. After the whole block where the building stood was razed to the ground and 92 cookie-cutter senior citizen flats were built in its place, the story of this venue had become relegated to the history books and locals’ fading memories. The new construction was aptly named The Savoy Court, a throwback to its former palm-court glory days, but many believed that the new senior living development lacked the merit to use the original club name, even if the ghosts of the bygone nightclub days did continue to haunt it.
My experience of Neros and Fifth Avenue was first hand, so I still do have a dog in this fight that has long been lost already to a bunch of new tenants who prefer the smell of mothballs to that of Hai Karate.
Eighty Years of Entertainment – 5th Avenue Through The Ages
Obviously, 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. The venue was empty over the war years, primarily as the Germans were bombing the hell out of Portsmouth and the Southsea area was a common bomb drop-spot, as the German bombers often missed their target at the former Naval site at the Portsmouth Dockyard and could not return home with any bombs due to excess weight. They would drop their deadly cargo on any light they could find. Despite being unused during the war years, this site remained virtually unscathed and survived to be reinvented in the 1960’s. 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 band to The Rolling Stones, called The Blue Boys, in 1959. The Beatles then played there in 1963 and The Who did a three night gig there 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 fell into disrepair and was largely unused.
In 1971 the Pleasurama group came along and created the concept of Nero’s Nitespot and chose the Savoy Ballroom as its site. The club theme was a 1970’s disco with its wild and fun ethos that reinvigorated the tattered building. 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 and final name that 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 was known as, 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
Not 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 as part of 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 for a song, which included The Savoy Ballroom, at just Five Thousand English Pounds, the new owners, Pleasurama, decided to turn the venue into a modern nightclub using a roman theme of extravagance and whimsy. Out with the marble floors, crystal chandeliers and tea dresses of the old Savoy and in with the 1970’s flares and kipper ties. They boarded up all the gorgeous floor-to-ceiling 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.
The club’s 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 then tried to duplicate the whole NYC experience right back here in Portsmouth. The only problem with that fanciful story is that Nero’s actually predated all of the world famous clubs of this ilk. Surprisingly, 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 in 1971 when compared to Nero’s. The only similar club templates that existed in 1971, were the tiny gay underground clubs in NYC like The Loft, Tenth Floor and 12 West. These clubs had blossomed from the music being played (and mixed) by the pioneer DJ, David Mancuso, who rose to fame in the early 1970s. But Nero’s didn’t look or feel anything like those clubs. It was its own breed and it was early, very early indeed, and I am going to say it was one of the first nightclubs in the world and the very first discotheque in the UK. Historians note that The Arthur discotheque may have opened in 1965 in Midtown Manhattan on the site of the old El Morocco nightclub, but it was tiny compared the Nero’s and it still played live Swing music as disco music had yet to be invented.
Some say that Nero’s 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. It 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 did break new ground way 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 had taken place in Bethel, New York, back in the halcyon days of Summer of 1969 and the music culture looked very different then.
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 production date 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 mirrored 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 go on to manage the club) would take on the nom-de-guerre of Steve Rubell, from Studio 54 ilk, and Nero’s would often 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 romantic couples having sex in their doorways for the next thirty years. Nero’s was a hit, but not everyone in Southsea was happy.
Dumb Luck Gets A Teenager Into Nero’s
I 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 full-on 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 in the Guildhall 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 had suggested I give it a try if I wanted to get in that badly. The doorman parlayed their pity onto me and was 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 just how crazy those times were, I think at that time, there was more underage sex happening inside the club than there was over-age happening outside the club, but no-one seemed to care. One should note that I was not having sex at Nero’s as no self respecting Pompey girl is going to sleep with a man-child who is clearly out of his depth.
Nero’s Provided Some Great Memories
Old 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 and pale the bad memories. More often than not, the more time that has passed, the rosier the memories become. 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 having seen and experienced 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. To them Facebook is something quite different.
Anyone 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 into someones nightmare. It was 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 impressionable 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 with a little more specificity. When you walked into the club, there were barely-clothed dancers gyrating on golden plinths, 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 that they could find in W.H. Smith. They were also too busy spinning vinyl 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 disco gods and the girls were only too 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, trolling past a burning car wreck of inequity. Towards the end of the evening, the dark grey marble counter in the ladies bathroom was snow-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 fueled the party until the early morning, when the club’s harsh incandescent lights replaced the glowing neon hues, forcing the throng to spill out onto the lonely street with its momentum unabridged, despite the threat of the miserable damp cold of English reality that hit 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
Quite 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.