In The Spotlight: The Grayston Unity’s Michael Ainsworth

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Across 40 years of putting on gigs, Michael has experienced the full gamut of emotions. We caught up with the venue owner to discuss phone boxes, tour managers, Pulp and… err, giant chess.

Gig promoter at just 17, live music has been in Michael Ainsworth’s blood his whole adult life. Another constant has been an unwavering passion for his home town of Halifax. Or should we say ‘The Shoreditch of the North’?

“Haha. Yeah. The Shoreditch of the North. That was partly my fault…

“Elizabeth Alker was doing a live broadcast up here for Radcliffe and Maconie’s radio programme. I deliberately said ‘Look, can you come up half an hour earlier and I’ll give you a bit of a tour.’ I cherry-picked some good places – the coffee shops, the record shops – so by the time she went on air, she was absolutely buzzing about Halifax.”

Soon after, The Guardian did a follow-up feature and the ‘Shoreditch of the North’ tagline was born.

But why did the BBC deem it necessary to send Elizabeth Alker to Halifax in the first place? It wasn’t for the local latte culture, that’s for sure. No. It was to experience first-hand Michael’s bar-cum-live music venue, The Grayston Unity, which had just been given the title of ‘UK’s Smallest Gig Venue’ by Independent Venue Week. And the story behind all that started some decades earlier, not too far away.

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Born in Huddersfield and raised in Brighouse, Michael left school at 16 with three O-levels to his name. He went on to study catering at college but his heart wasn’t really in it. Something in life was missing.

Then, quite by chance, he was asked to organise a gig.

“I was social secretary for the student union. The band was called Spectre – a ska-reggae band from Bradford. We put them on at a place called Dennys.”

Michael was just a week past his 17th birthday. That was to be the first of many, many hundreds of bands he would put on. His second came shortly afterwards – The Three Johns, a moderately successful indie outfit at the time.

“I had a taste for it then.”

michael ainsworth aged 17
Taking the first few steps: Michael Ainsworth aged 17

After finishing his college course, Michael landed an interview for an industrial catering job. But that same night he went to watch a band called Chinese Gangster Element. He soon had two job offers on the table – one, a paid catering role and one of unpaid band manager to Chinese Gangster Element. He chose the latter.

“I just saw them and thought they were great. That band actually had opportunities. They had three Peel sessions. I was told years later there was quite a lot of label interest.”

With Michael’s help, Chinese Gangster Element released an EP, got a series of good live reviews in the old music press and played a gig or two in Belgium. All that was no mean feat considering it was such a different world back then. For a start, to get gigs, you had to send cassettes through the post to venues.

“I used to go to the call box with 2p coins and hope to get through to somebody.”

There was another major problem facing any aspiring, young, gig promoter in Halifax at the time. There were no venues. There were no pubs with function rooms like you had in most towns and cities. So you had to get creative.

Michael and his mates, Ted and Steve, started a night called the Morning After Club, putting on crusty tech-punk animators, Pop Will Eat Itself, among many others. They used various ad hoc venues, none of which lasted them particularly long, but they kept going. Michael then started putting on gigs with Ian Macondach, including a number of political benefit events in the town centre, featuring the likes of Chumbawamba and Cud.

Gig ticket: Pop Will Eat Itself at The Morning After Club
Just the ticket: Pop Will Eat Itself at The Morning After Club, The Shay Sporting Club

Moving into the Nineties, they started a new night, The Return Club, and found a relatively permanent home at North Bridge Leisure Centre.

“We had a good two years there. It was just a concrete box, but we made it work, sometimes putting on gigs twice a week. Looking back now, I find that incredible – to get an audience on a Wednesday night. It was a lot of effort. But we had some decent names – Pulp, Mock Turtles, Paris Angels.”

Through their council affiliation with the Leisure Centre, they also staged a couple of gigs at The Piece Hall, which featured the hotly-tipped New Fast Automatic Daffodils and indie starlets Bob, along with local bands like The Last Peach.

Michael and Ian had built a thriving local scene. Dave Simpson came and reviewed a Pulp gig for Melody Maker. Just three years later, Jarvis and co were headlining Glastonbury on the Saturday night.

Jarvis Cocker and the idiosyncratic Pulp: No strangers to The Return Club

“We’d get sent tapes all the time. There was one, I wish we’d managed to pull it off… We got a demo from PJ Harvey. We could just never work out a date to put her on.”

The Paris Angels gig, unfortunately, heralded the end of their tenure at the Leisure Centre. A particularly lively coach load of Mancunian fans came over that night and, due to various ensuing events – one involving a giant chess board – Michael and Ian were evicted.

After a lengthy break, during which family commitments took priority, Michael started a night called The Doghouse with his friend, Rothwell Shackleton, in 2005.

“We always said, ‘let’s only do this so long as it doesn’t get complicated’,” laughs Michael.

“It was upstairs at the Royal Oak on Clare Road. It was filthy. The toilet was horrendous. If you spilled a drink you’d knock out the lights downstairs. But it was absolutely perfect for us – the right size, the landlord let us do what we wanted. We had some great nights. The Courteeners played their first gig outside Manchester there. The capacity was about 110, 120 and that night we stopped counting when we got to about 240. It was seriously busy.”

After four years, they moved The Doghouse to The Old Cock for a brief period, before settling at Arden Road Social Club. It was another venue that left a lot to be desired, but Michael and Shack corralled volunteers from all corners of the community (including two of The Orielles, at one stage) and they all collectively spruced the place up.

It was a popular spot, the inherent working class vibe being a big part of its appeal. The Lovely Eggs played there several times and named it one of their favourite venues.

the lovely eggs
Holly Ross of The Lovely Eggs

“We used to do family-friendly Sundays, once a year. We’d have kids’ entertainment in one room and put bands on in the other. I’ve had people come up to me years later and say ‘thank you for doing that’. We had some good times at Arden Road.”

By this time, at least, the logistics of staging a gig had streamlined. The internet, and Myspace in particular, meant that sourcing bands was easier. Mobile phones made communicating with them a smoother ride too – no more anxious, cold nights in a phone box with a bag of 2p coins. Amps and PA kit had become unfathomably lightweight compared to the Eighties.

But none of that mattered a jot when Michael, asked by the local vicar to put some gigs on at Halifax Minster, clashed with John Grant’s tour manager over the band’s technical requirements.

Many of the Minster gigs Michael put on are among his most special memories, particularly shows by Midlake, Low, Efterklang and most recently Lisa O’Neill, which he ranks as one of his all time favourites. But the John Grant gig was a rollercoaster. To cut a long story very short, after a momentous stand-off, the gig went ahead at the last minute and was a roaring success. But scars remain.

“It was an absolute nightmare. The most stressful night.”

We’ll save the details of that for another time.

All such stress came with little-to-no profit. Alongside all the gig-making, Michael maintained a career in education for many years and it was the income from his senior marketing roles that helped fund the hobby.

The situation worked pretty well, but Michael hankered to have his own bar in the town. Over the years he had scoured many potential premises. Then, following a few aborted attempts, he finally found a place next to Halifax Town Hall – 1-3 Wesley Court – and pulled the plug on his stable, well-paid job for good.

“In many ways, it makes no sense. I went from a job with loads of holiday, good salary and a pension to, well, none of that.”

With the endless support of his wife, Michael set about renovating The Grayston Unity – named in memory of his late mum – and flung open its doors to the world in May 2016. Despite having no initial plans for live music because of the space restrictions, he soon U-turned and put his first gig on within a month – in the infamous 18-capacity front room. The Smallest Gig Venue in the UK.

The Grayston Unity at Wesley Court
The Grayston Unity at Wesley Court

Three years later, foreseeing challenges to its Wesley Court location, Michael joined forces with a business partner to open another bar in the town, The Meandering Bear. A curious name with a curious back-story.

“Halifax used to have a ramshackle zoo where the animals kept escaping, not least a brown bear that roamed around Copley Woods for a day and a half. We commissioned Kieron Higgins to write a poem about it.”

This quirky little anecdote actually says a lot about Michael. He is a creative thinker, passionate about the arts and is, above all, fiercely loyal to his home town.

“I’ve put the odd show on in Manchester, but it never really interested me. I always loved putting on gigs in the town where I live. Halifax is a really cool and creative place. But it goes about it in its own, very understated way.

“I’m never going to say the town is anywhere near perfect. But there are so many places that would give their right arm to have the buildings and the creative stuff we have. This town is built on substance – historically, politically and culturally.”

In 2023, The Grayston Unity moved from Wesley Court to larger premises on Horton Street, coincidentally just yards from The Meandering bear. It has a basement venue accommodating 110 and a top-floor, 16-capacity snug called the Tiny Grayston. In the truest of grassroots traditions, those spaces host a flamboyant mix of live music, DJs, poetry, cinema, art and yoga.

Michael, who claims he is “actually quite cautious”, has boldly, vociferously championed the community for some time and has become, perhaps a little reluctantly, a figurehead for much of its artistic output.

He has also been particularly keen to give young, local talent a voice and a chance, whatever their discipline – musicians, bar staff, sound engineers and marketers. And whether the likes of the BBC and The Guardian turn up or not, Michael would still be doing his thing, with music coursing through his veins, forever fuelled by local pride.