As a venue, the O2 Academy Brixton is iconic in its own right. Built as a cinema and theatre in 1928 for £250,000, it evolved into a music venue in 1983, (despite several proposals to knock it down for car parks). With its art deco interior the venue has been the setting for countless photo and film shoots, including music videos for Billy Ocean’s “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”, and the controversial Michael Winterbottom film 9 Songs.
As stage manager of the O2 Academy, no two days are the same for Josh Rosen. He paces across the dark stage on a Tuesday morning, looking out across the empty, vast arena, and stops at one spot on the stage to point out the acoustics of the epic concert hall. “If I stand right here and speak you can hear me all the way over the other side of the arena,” he says, adding “there are no secrets here; the walls have ears”. He bounces a tennis ball and the sound reverbs off the walls and echoes while he reflects on some of the music legends that have graced the O2 Academy’s stage.
From Fatboy Slim bringing in a boxing ring in 1999 to performances by the Prodigy, the Smiths, Morissey, Pete Doherty, and Madonna, Rosen’s job is a whirlwind of logistics. The Brixton Academy is not set up with permanent speakers and microphones so all of the equipment is brought in for each individual concert, while the stage at 65 feet wide is generally boxed in with curtains. We walk backstage, through a labyrinth of stairs and corridors leading to dressing rooms, catering kitchens, VIP bars and the first aid areas, which are there for the inevitable health and safety liabilities that are over-excited groupies and crazed fans, the kind that line up for days in anticipation. “They’re always the ones that come in and collapse from dehydration or exhaustion and have to be taken care of,” Rosen says, in a matter of fact tone.
The artists are set up in a series of dressing rooms (showbiz bulbs around the mirrors and all) tailored to their individual requests. When Marilyn Manson played at the O2 Academy earlier this year the walls had to be covered in floor to ceiling black curtains and Rosen was instructed to place just one chair in the room. “Marilyn Manson sat on the chair and anyone else who came in had to stand; we were all told by his people not to look at him”. Not all big name artists are as precious, even those you might imagine to be. Madonna, who installed a giant statue of four horses in the foyer for her 2000 performance was “lovely to work with”, Rosen says. “She is really sweet, she’s not a diva”. When Prince performed at the Academy he hung out backstage in Rosen’s crammed backstage office watching football on the tiny couch, surrounded by rock memorabilia, posters and tickets. “Prince was a lovely bloke, very polite and well spoken for such a small man,” Rosen smiles.
Having worked at the Academy Brixton for 18 years, Rosen is practically part of the furniture. “I don’t know what’s outside these walls. I can see as far as the Nando’s out the window, but I don’t know what else is out there, I’ve never seen around the corner,” he jokes.
Prior to this gig Rosen was a roadie for Brit rocker Lemmy, so he knows the touring game all too well. “When you’re on the road you just sleep, then you arrive somewhere, get out of the van, unpack everything, the artists play their gig, then get back on the road, sleep and wake up somewhere else; you don’t see the cities you visit; it’s completely surreal,” he says. “People are always excited to perform here though, there’s always a great energy”.