The Smiths tribute band re-opening Brixton Academy: “We’re grateful and humble”

The Smiths tribute band set to play at the re-opening gig of the O2 Academy in Brixton tonight (Friday April 19) have spoken to NME about what to expect from the show and what it means it be gracing the stage at the iconic London venue after tragedy closed its doors.

The legendary South London venue has been shut since December 2022 after a fatal crowd crush that left two people dead. The tragic incident occurred at an Asake concert, which resulted in the deaths of Gabrielle Hutchinson, aged 23, and 33-year-old Rebecca Ikumelo. A third was left in a critical condition.

The future of the iconic London venue had been uncertain since then, before it was announced in December 2023 that the venue was allowed to retain its licence and re-open if it can meet “robust” safety rules. See the full list of 77 measures put in place here. The Academy Group declined to be interviewed about what changes had been made to the venue ahead of this weekend’s re-opening.

Police forensic investigators seen outside the O2 Academy Brixton in London after a crowd crush during an Asake concert at the venue
Police forensic investigators seen outside the O2 Academy Brixton in London after a crowd crush during an Asake concert at the venue. CREDIT: Thabo Jaiyesimi/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Back in March, a run of gigs to mark the return of the venue were announced – kicking off tonight with Nirvana UK (a tribute to Nirvana) and Smiths tribute band The Smyths. Next week will see a follow-up with Definitely Mightbe (a tribute to Oasis) and Foos tribute UK taking to the stage, before normal gigs kick off with the likes of Editors, The Black Keys, Kamasi Washington, Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend all set to perform at the Academy in the coming months.

Smyths frontman Graham Sampson said that they were “grateful and humble” to be offered the opportunity, noting that the opening gigs with tribute bands were “about easing as you go”.

“You’d have to speak to the Academy Group about why, but I’d say that going carefully is what they’ve done,” said Sampson. “Given the backdrop of what’s happened, to return with a full-on show would be a lot more pressure.”

Already moved by the tragic events of December 2022, Sampson said that the gig would be all the more “poignant” as he was at Brixton Academy back in December 1986 for what would turn out to be the last ever gig performed by The Smiths.

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“Back then, it was just another gig you were going to,” he remembered. “We now know what that turned into.

“In a funny way, I’m not thinking about it too much because I can’t allow myself to. Remarkable things keep happening for us and I overthink it too much then I either won’t live in the moment or I would start second-guessing myself. I’ll just approach it like any other show. I know that to get on a stage that I’ve been looking at from the audience for years will be overwhelming, but after that it’s just about doing what we do and not reflecting on it too much.”

He continued: “It’s another one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. Stephen Street, the legendary producer of The Smiths, is now a friend of mine. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and sometimes pinch him when I think about how I grew up watching The Old Grey Whistle Test with The Smiths and Stephen Street in the studio making ‘Meat Is Murder’ as a 15-year-old. Now all these years later, it’s very unexpected but very welcome.”

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Asked if their setlist would pay homage to that final Smiths show at Brixton Academy, Sampson replied: “We were wrestling with that one. We know that the audience is going to be made up of die-hards and the casual fan.

“Because this particular show brings together two audiences who will have appreciate of each band’s material is something that we’ll have to be aware of. There will also be some people there just in a capacity of celebrating the venue itself. What we have to do is sprinkle the set with some unexpected curios and the expected tunes.”

While Sampson said that The Smyths had never played with Nirvana UK before, he was excited as both tribute acts were honouring “groundbreaking and iconic” bands.

“When both bands arrived on the scene, they were fully armed and loaded,” said Sampson. “Both had a gravitas and majesty, they seemed immediately iconic. It took their peers years to accumulate yet, which is why they’re both the definitive bands of their era.

“I confess to not know a great amount of Nirvana’s back catalogue because at that point in time I was far more of a Suede boy. I like the dark, romantic side of things, but I still remember the exhilaration of hearing them for the first time. I couldn’t believe the guy’s voice.”

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Now in their 21st year as a band, The Smyths have gained a reputation as one of the world’s premiere tribute acts after playing over 900 shows in the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand and appearing at Glastonbury, The Isle of Wight and Bestival.

They also recently gained the approval of former Smiths frontman Morrissey, who shared one of the band’s gig posters on his official website.

“It was the first time we’d had genuine cast-iron acknowledgement,” said Sampson. “We’d heard some third person reports from someone known to his band and his security guards that he thought we were brilliant, but we never knew for sure – now we do!

Johnny [Marr, guitarist] has acknowledged us before in print and on radio, and Mike [Joyce, drummer] and Andy [Rourke, bassist] we’d met several times at our own shows. Morrissey’s acknowledgement was the last to come, but it was thrilling nonetheless.”

Noel Gallagher joins Johnny Marr at Brixton Academy on October 23, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Ollie Millington/WireImage)
Noel Gallagher joins Johnny Marr at Brixton Academy on October 23, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Ollie Millington/WireImage)

While many Smiths fans may struggle to come to terms with Morrissey’s often divisive political views, Sampson said that his tribute band were there for them to “celebrate the music, and to celebrate the artist as a young man”.

“The music is preserved in an aspic or an amber,” he said. “You can pick it up and cherish it for what it was, and for what it still means now – particularly for a teenage audience. The Smiths lyrics are universal to the human condition, which is why people still find The Smiths and Morrissey’s writing so relevant. Everything rushing through the teenage mind is there in those words.”

As a result, Sampson said that they were finding that their audiences continue to attract younger and younger Smiths fans.

“The older generation is there and they are bringing their children and grandchildren,” he admitted. “We’re now seeing a massive influx of youth, and the front dozen or so rows of our shows are populated by a much younger generation. It confirms everything that [writer and former NME journalist] Nick Kent said all those years ago in The Smiths’ Southbank Show documentary that one day the band would be viewed in the same way as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. He was absolutely correct. I felt it then in 1986 and I feel it now.

“They’ve stood the test of time. Back then, one week I was into Cocteau Twins and next it was The Smiths. I was also listening to The Velvet Underground and The Doors even though they were long gone. It’s the same thing for this generation – they’re finding the classics.

He added: “The Smiths occupy a very interesting space because I find that they are both in that alternative sphere as The Doors and the Velvets, but then you’ve got Bowie as that bit in-between the ‘establishment’ of The Stones and The Beatles.

“The Smiths belong among all of those, which is quite remarkable.”

The Smyths and Nirvana UK perform a co-headline show at London’s O2 Academy Brixton tonight (Friday April 19), before UK Foo Fighters and Definitely Mightbe take to the stage next week on Friday April 26. Visit here for tickets and more info on these and other upcoming Brixton Academy shows.

The hearing into the future of the venue began took place in September, to determine whether or not the Academy Music Group (AMG) could continue to operate their licence at the music venue. After the fatal crowd crush, the Metropolitan Police then reportedly made a push for the location to close its doors for good.

The hearing was told of the venue’s refusal of racial profiling and AMG’S ambitious plans to improve ticketing and safety, before things concluded with Lambeth Council saying that they supported the re-opening of Brixton Academy “in principle” if a series of conditions are met. The Met Police meanwhile, denied that they were actually looking to close the venue – but said that they believe current operator AMG “shouldn’t be the licensee” if the Academy is to open its doors again.

Since the venue’s closure in December, an online petition was launched to counteract the closure while various artists and industry professionals also spoke out against the potential shutting down of the venue. It has attracted over 116,000 signatures.