When the Golden Lion pub in Todmorden shut during lockdown the community felt the loss of the music it brought to the valley. But the managers kept it alive by launching a record label
By Christian Lisseman
What connects a former record producer for Badly Drawn Boy, a Thai businesswoman and a pub in the Upper Calder Valley?
The answer lies in the market town of Todmorden, where the Golden Lion, a large grade II listed former coaching inn that sits beside the Rochdale Canal, has made a name for itself on the music scene in recent years, attracting artists such as Jarvis Cocker and Trainspotting author and DJ Irvine Welsh to name but two. It’s from here that a small press record label, Golden Lion Sounds, has been launched and through which Andy Votel recently released a new vinyl record.
Votel has been involved in the music industry for all of his adult life. Though perhaps best known as a producer for Badly Drawn Boy, the 47 year old has also co-founded the record labels Twisted Nerve and Finders Keepers, the latter of which reissues obscure vinyl records from around the world. He’s also a remix artist, DJ and graphic designer.
But Stockport-born Votel began his involvement with the music scene when he was a teenage rap artist, and is revisiting his youth with two records, one released via Golden Lion Sounds.
“This harks back to something which is 30 years old and the assemblage of a load of art students and battle rappers,” says Votel. The two projects, released under the titles Violators of the English Language and Magnets & ProVerbs, see Votel reconnect with people he worked with in the late 1980s, when he was the youngest member of the group Violators of the English Language (from which Votel, whose real name is Andy Shallcross, takes his stage name). Whilst they had a modicum of success, appearing on a BBC documentary Think of England in 1991 for example, Violators failed to gain label interest, although some of their instrumental tracks were eventually released via Fat City and Grand Central.
“We were well known battle rappers early doors,” explains Votel, “and then it just sort of disappeared. We all went our separate ways so basically our rap careers were cryogenically frozen for three decades.”
In the intervening years since the group disbanded Votel has remained very much within the music industry but many of the people he called up to reunite for the two records had moved into different spheres of work.
“I knew one of the main things which would hold us back would be stage fright, which has built up for years and years,” says Votel. “This fear is something that none of us has really felt before.”
But Votel says that fear ended up being the artistic drive that he and the other artists used to push the projects forward and complete them. “I recommend fear as a creative tool!” he says.
The new records are essentially products of the Covid lockdowns since “they wouldn’t have happened without that”. Neither record is a particularly commercial venture for Votel, but was “something that always had to happen – it was trapped within all of us”.
Describing the work as “British hip-hop with puny Northern accents” Votel and his fellow musicians, sample artists and lyrical poets who worked on the albums have created truly original-sounding material with distinctly Northern voices combined with inventive instrumentation, beats and cuts.
Whilst describing the works as projects of “complete insanity” Votel is keen to stress the hard work that went into making both records.
“There’s nothing whimsical about this,” he says. “We mean what we’re doing.”
Like Votel’s two recording projects, the Golden Lion Sounds label itself was born during the Covid lockdowns. Following devastating floods in 2012, the Golden Lion had stood vacant until 2015 when Matthanee Nilavongse (known to everyone as Gig) and her business partner Richard Walker took over the lease.
They’ve had great success in building up the business, making it a central part of Todmorden’s community and reaching out to fans well beyond the valley, but it’s not been easy. Not long after taking on the lease, the Lion was flooded again and, more recently, there were the Covid lockdowns that threatened the future of the pub. The record label was launched both to aid the pub’s friends in the music industry and help the pub itself survive.
“People in the music industry were badly affected during that time, and there wasn’t much support from the government,” says Gig. “We started the label to help our friends in the niche market – people who have been doing gigs and DJing in the pub.”
Gig was overwhelmed with the positive response to the idea when she approached friends in the music industry.
“It’s two-way support,” she says, recognising that the label strengthens the ties the pub has with musicians. Local bands such as Working Men’s Club and Lounge Society are among those who have released music via the label, proceeds of which go back into supporting the pub’s future. “Everyone said yes straight away to working with us.”
Gig says she loves working with vinyl records and admires the artistry that goes into making them.
“The charming thing is records are forever. Once your voice or your music is on that disc it is forever. Even when the world has collapsed, the record will still stay, whereas a digital recording can just vanish.”
Votel’s own involvement came about because he knew the pub’s owners and had regularly DJd there. He praises the Lion for nurturing talent, its community-minded approach and for taking risks.
“It’s what they share with my label Finders Keepers really,” he says. “They’ll have one commercial night and then use the money to do something that is totally off the wall. They are more excited by a punk night with five people in the crowd than a packed-out mainstream house music night. I’m in love with the place. There’s only one other place like it, a venue in Hamburg called the Golden Pudel, a long in the tooth institution. Hopefully the Golden Lion will get to that stage.”
Such are the frequencies of Votel’s appearances at the venue, he says: “Everyone thinks I live there! It’s a home from home.”
Magnets & ProVerbs will be Votel’s latest contribution to Golden Lion Sounds. The yellow ten-inch vinyl features eight rap and hip-hop tracks including contributions from Votel himself, Jeni Chan aka Penny Chew, and rapper DJ Benjamin Hatton, among others.
“They said we want you to do something that you wouldn’t expect,” laughs Votel. “It was a case of be careful what you wish for!” n
The Golden Lion’s manager, 43-year-old Gig, is originally from Thailand but settled in Todmorden after some time in London.
“As a migrant I felt like I had to prove myself and be this person who really showed how much I loved the culture of this country,” she says. She was also driven, she says, to “be right and good enough” for her son.
Before taking on the lease of the Golden Lion, Gig ran a Thai restaurant in a nearby local pub called Three Wise Monkeys, and it’s there she met Walker, her now business partner. The Golden Lion quickly became central to the community in Todmorden.
Alongside a well-stocked bar, it runs a variety of music nights catering to every taste, hosts comedy gigs, serves amazing Thai food, and provided facilities such as a food bank and a community grocery store during the Covid lockdowns. The mutually beneficial relationship that operates with the record label is mirrored in the kind of relationship the pub has with the local community. Gig strives to keep prices as low as possible and is always looking for ways to contribute to the local economy.
“We are there for the community and the community is there for us,” she says. “It’s a two-way thing again.”
As well as dealing with floods and lockdowns, the pub has struggled with other issues in the last few years including a few run-ins with the local council around noise abatement orders and a ruckus that was caused by a yellow wall. This story, which made the national press, centred on Gig’s decision to paint an exterior wall of the pub bright yellow during the 2020 lockdown. Todmorden had been due to have the Tour de Yorkshire pass through the town and the yellow wall was originally supposed to be celebrating that. When the tour was cancelled because of the Covid outbreak, Gig thought the yellow wall would help brighten up the town. However, she and Walker received a letter from the local council threatening them with a £20,000 fine and a possible prison sentence for breaching planning laws because of the listed nature of the building. A petition was started to try and retain the yellow wall, but Gig agreed to return it to its previous white the following year.
Despite her lightheartedness, Gig is a serious businesswoman. Aside from running the pub and now the record label, she has recently taken on the lease of another establishment, the Cross in nearby Heptonstall, hoping to “spread the joy” that’s found in the Lion. The venue is due to feature in Channel 4’s Four in a Bed programme next year, a reality show in which four B&B owners compete to be named best value for money.
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