Into the Limelight

From radio engineer to rock club owner, Ray Bispham followed a dream and established one of the best venues in the North West that brought thousands of music fans to Crewe. The club’s popularity grew quickly, there were regular sell-out gigs, expansion followed and the BBC made a film about the whole experience…

a Ray Bispham 6x6, September 09“Across the 1970s I worked as a radio and TV engineer, gaining some fantastic experience in and around the music industry. I was always a rock fan, so sound checking some of the top acts was a real treat. But ask any music fan and they’ll tell you that watching bands is never enough. For me, I always wanted to run gigs and stage successful rock events. I started off at the Cheshire Cheese running a rock disco, then moved to the Earle of Crewe where I hired the upstairs function room. That gave me more control and the numbers grew quickly. People loved the atmosphere, the bands we put on and that a close-knit group of like-minded music lovers could get together in their own space. This was so successful that I started running nights at The Manor, when it was still a proper pub. That was in the early late 1980s and early 90s, and I realised that I needed a much bigger venue if the business was to grow. I was still working full-time; at Dane Bank as an electrical technician, then along the tracks servicing telecom equipment for the railways.”

Initially looking for a pub with a large back room, a chance discovery set Ray thinking. “The pubs I viewed weren’t big enough. The space on offer was no better than the places I’d worked. Then I saw the old church on Hightown. It had operated as the Victoria Snooker Club, but was boarded up. There was a tree growing on the front steps and there was a large For Sale/To Let sign bolted to the wall. It was perfect. I took a look around the place and it was obvious that plenty of work was required, but something felt right about it. You just have a feeling about a place, like a house. So I went for it. Luckily, I had a very clever solicitor and he negotiated a three-year lease that also allowed me to buy the venue, with only inflation added to the original asking price. Then the hard work started!” 

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Finding a willing workforce was not a problem, as the numerous regulars from Ray’s rock nights were keen to see a permanent rock venue open in Crewe. “I was shocked and flattered by the fantastic volunteers who stepped forward to help create the new club. We signed the papers in March 1994 and it took eight months to refurbish the place. I didn’t want a lick of paint and a new carpet; it had to be right. So to have plumbers, electricians, plasters and carpenters offer to help was a humbling experience. It made me realise that Crewe needed a big stage. So we made the best of what we had, as there wasn’t a blank chequebook. The Manor was being turned into a food pub, so we bought a lot of the fixtures and fittings from there. Then I heard about a 40-feet bar being sold by Gorsty Hall. We had that delivered by articulated lorry, and it took ten of us to lift it into place. So we opened, finally, in November 1994 on the back of word-of-mouth and some fantastic coverage in the local press. The Limelight was born.”

To say the new club flourished is an understatement, but for over a year the band room failed to sell out. “It was a huge success from day one. The main bar and band room were buzzing, but getting that elusive 400 downstairs proved tricky. Then, just over a year after we opened, a local band called Tower Struck Down headlined. They’d played across the country and enjoyed some chart success. I knew it would be a decent crowd but what happened that night took me by surprise. The place filled within 20 minutes of the doors opening. We had people upstairs trying to listen because the band room was full. I knew then that we could make a real success of the place. The Limelight was on the map and, typically, we sold out for a second time the next evening!” 

c Taken from Limelight carnival float 99

By 1996 the rock formula was well established, but the better cover bands were also attracting large audiences – some of them selling out. “Tribute acts were the natural progression for us. We always had live, local acts on when we could, but the demand for U2, Floyd and Thin Lizzy was phenomenal. We couldn’t expect our regulars to watch the same bands again and again, so we started to invite the best of the tribute circuit. Some of them were fantastic, almost the real thing, but at a fraction of the cost. That’s what clinched it. Rock fans could go to Liverpool and Manchester, but that would cost £10 on the train, plus £20 to see a band. At the Limelight we could have Australian Pink Floyd, T-Rextasy, Achtung Baby and Limehouse Lizzy on stage for a fiver. The public loved it, and not just the people of Crewe. They came from all over. It was a rock monster growing beyond all expectations.” 

The Limelight grew steadily, creating the Annexe Bar and, later, buying the adjacent shops that would become the Café Bar. “A lot of the gigs were over subscribed. We’d put Sold Out signs on the door but they still came into the club. So we needed more room. The Annexe would often serve as a spillover space for people who could not get downstairs. We considered extensions and even relocation. It never stopped growing. At one point there was a waiting list for bands to appear at the club, as we just couldn’t book them in. It was a crazy journey and I never believed that it would be as successful as it ultimately was. The email list topped 10,000 at its peak and we had 55 staff on the books. It was an enormous family of music fans, people who wanted to be part of a scene. Local businesses used to contact us trying to coordinate with gig schedules. When we had big acts on the local B&Bs would fill up and, sometimes, you couldn’t get a room in Crewe because of the bands we had on at the club. I honestly never expected it to be so successful.” 

d Delamere - Limelight club seen from Jubilee Gardens (2), March 07 s

Then, seemingly out of the blue in 2007, Ray put the club up for sale. “I don’t think people realised how the club had affected me. I was drained. I’m a hands-on kind of guy and I like to be involved from start to finish. So after 14 years I was knackered. It was a tough job and although the club ran like clockwork there was a lot going on behind the scenes. I decided to sell because my doctor told me to take a break. I was seriously stressed out and I needed to step back. The weird thing was that the BBC came to make a film, called ‘Into The Limelight’, when I decided to sell. So I did a PR job for the incoming buyer, talking about the good times and how much potential The Limelight had. It felt strange, but I wanted to see the venue go from strength to strength. It just needed a new leader. So I’m glad I sold the place, but I do miss it. I’ve taken The Jolly Tar pub in Wardle and everything is more relaxed. We only have a few staff, we don’t have to handle bands that bring three van loads of equipment, and yet there’s a great vibe starting to build. Who knows what will happen in the future…” 

Ray’s story appeared in “Crewe And Its People” that was published back in 2009; all forty stories will be posted here between February and June as a permanent series of social history documents for Cheshire. A second volume of fascinating Crewe life stories will be available to buy from September 2016.

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