London Is The Place For Me
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
With live music back on the cultural agenda, we look at the people and the places that rocked the capital. Part one: The West End
A tourist finding themselves traipsing around Piccadilly Circus in the rain will come with several preconceived images of the London music scene: sneering Kings Road punks, tattooed torch singers and cheeky Britpoppers in Camden pubs or perhaps that most enduring of clichés – a parade of rock aristocrats including The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Queen and their coteries – stepping regally from stretch limos into bacchanalian basements drowned in patchouli and incense.
Those who cling onto such myths might be tempted to hit the top deck of a Routemaster bus and bag a souvenir T-shirt from The Beatles Store in Baker Street, then afterwards perhaps take selfies in Abbey Road or Heddon Street, where David Bowie’s seminal Ziggy Stardust cover was photographed. All good fun no doubt, but you'll discover little of the capital’s real cultural trajectory.
Why not instead grab your best walking shoes (not forgetting an umbrella!) and take a psycho-geographic wander through the very neighbourhoods where ideas were first born, collaborations clicked and genuine artistic and creative endeavours were successfully realised on vinyl, CD or digital download.
Where better to begin than in Soho, that crisscross of streets which nestle between Leicester Square and Oxford Street? On its popular main drag Old Compton Street, you will encounter just a whiff of roasted coffee bean – an aroma that accompanied London’s skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll craze of the post-war period. Kids just wanted to emulate their hero Elvis Presley but, stuck in austerity Britain, had no money for amps and electric guitars, making music instead with washboards, broomsticks and tea chests. This primitive precursor of the 1960’s beat boom and the later singer-songwriter era epitomised by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Simon and Garfunkel found willing young audiences in the cramped surroundings of the 2i’s Coffee Bar, Heaven & Hell, Le Macabre and other briefly starred Soho business ventures.
Of course frothy coffee and jukeboxes are now ancient history, as are Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele – London’s very own answer to Elvis – yet this home-grown, devil-may-care attitude mixed with a certain southern European flair is visible in Soho today, particularly late night outside Frith Street’s Bar Italia (established 1949) or on stage at Ronnie Scott’s, the long-standing jazz club directly opposite.
Just a stone’s throw away from here, on the east side of the Charing Cross Road, aspiring musicians still drool at solid bodied electric guitars. This is Denmark Street, once London’s answer to New York’s Tin Pan Alley. It not only housed the entire music publishing business during its 1940’s heyday but was the birthplace of Melody Maker and New Musical Express, the influential music weekly whose legendary rock writers included Julie Burchill, Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray.
When the former Regent Sound Studios was in business at 4 Denmark Street, this scruffy cut through to St Giles Church and Covent Garden teemed with beat bands on the make including The Kinks, The Stones, The Who, The Yardbirds and other winkle-pickered guitar slingers. Meanwhile, in the smoky, wood-panelled Giaconda café next door, precocious wannabe’s like David Bowie and Marc Bolan hustled deals with hard-nosed publishers and agents who would have been around back when Vera Lynn and The Andrews Sisters topped the hit parade.
Walk along Oxford Street and descend to the basement of the 100 Club (100 Oxford St) and you are at the place where English punk rock found its watershed moment in 1976. Or, should you prefer an alternative punk landmark, the site of the old Roxy (41-43 Neal St) in nearby Covent Garden, which in 1977 hosted the likes of Generation X, The Damned and
Of course the original punks hailed mostly from London’s sprawling suburbs such as Bromley, Croydon or Ealing but frequented what are now prime property hot spots; Covent Garden, Soho and the infamous Kings Road, where Malcolm McLaren opened his bondage wear emporium Sex (430 Kings Rd) and auditioned a young Johnny Rotten by the shop’s AMI juke box. Sadly, many of these legendary characters and landmarks are no longer around – time and the relentless Crossrail development of Tottenham Court Road tube have seen to that – but don’t let that stop the enjoyment of discovering similarly culturally-loaded locales; Mayfair, Chelsea, Camden, Brixton and Richmond to name just a few.
Extract from Music Legends of London, copyright Dan Synge, 2020