Taken from the book Soul City Wandering by Frank Molloy.
Available online from Amazon and Waterstones priced £9.99
Official Event of Open House London 2020
From Tin Pan Alley to Carnaby Street, this walk covers 12 stops and takes roughly 2 hours to complete. The walk starts from outside the main entrance to Tottenham Court Road tube station, on the corner of Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road, and finishes near Oxford Circus tube station.
Please be aware that you are responsible for your own safety while on this walk. Take note of the busy London traffic in the area, and take care when crossing roads, using designated pedestrian crossings whenever possible.
Right, let’s begin. The 1960s: It was the swinging decade that defined popular music. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Small Faces. For all these bands and many others, the battleground was London, and Soho was London’s beating heart. Now, almost all the old venues are gone, the recording studios have closed down, and much of Soho has been redeveloped, gentrified and homogenized. But it’s still haunted by its past. So, let’s go hunting for ghosts…
The first stop is a short distance away. Walk 100m down the west side of Charing Cross Road and stop at the railings opposite the entrance to Denmark Street.
STOP 1: DENMARK STREET (TINPAN ALLEY)
Opposite you is ‘Tin Pan Alley’, Swinging London’s music headquarters. Anyone who was anyone on the 60’s pop scene could have been spotted here: impresarios, managers, publishers, and of course, songwriters and musicians. Here are some of the more famous Swinging London connections:
- No.11 (Rose Morris Music): this was the first music shop on Denmark Street, established in the 1920’s. The Moody Blues were regular shoppers here.
- No.9 (Giaconda café): the Small Faces hung out here amongst many others. David Bowie lived in a camper van parked outside, forming his first band inside the café.
- No.5 (New Musical Express offices): they published the first official UK music chart in 1952.
- No.4 (Regent Studios): this tiny recording facility was established in 1963. A year later, the Rolling Stones were the first major band to record an album here. They were followed by the quintessential Swinging London band, the Kinks. Elton John also recorded covers here for the Woolworth’s label.
- No.22 (Rhodes Music store): it sold guitars to the stars, including Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Chuck Berry.
- No.20 (Mills Music publishers): a young Elton John worked here as an office gopher. Mills Music rejected Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence and Homeward Bound. So he started his own publishers, Charing Cross Music, named after the nearby street. He has owned his music rights ever since.
For stop 2, continue for 200m along the west side of Charing Cross Road. Then turn right onto Moor Street. Stop under the Palace Theatre canopy facing the Spice of Life pub.
STOP 2: MOOR STREET (SPICE OF LIFE)
There has been a pub on this site since at least 1750. In 1952, when it was called the Scots Hoose, the first folk club in London was established upstairs and forged a good reputation. Folk legends that played here included Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Live gigs still take place today in the basement.
In January, 1965, Paul Simon performed here. He was about to embark on a gruelling nationwide tour of British folk clubs, the end of which would result in the penning of his first UK hit, Homeward Bound.
Another folk-hero who performed here was south London songstress, Sandy Denny, who went onto become lead singer of Fairport Convention. Denny, who died in 1978 at the age of just 31, is regarded as the UK’s first prominent female singer-songwriter.
For stop 3, continue for 100m along the west side of Charing Cross Road, crossing Shaftesbury Ave. Then cross over to the east side of Charing Cross Road and turn left onto Litchfield Street. Stop alongside the railings opposite no 27.
STOP 3: LITCHFIELD STREET (No.27)
To your right, at the end of the street, you will see the famous celebrity restaurant, the Ivy, and the St Martin’s theatre, which is famous for London’s longest running show, The Mousetrap, which has been in performance since 1952.
About that time, a folk club called Bunjies opened in the basement of no.27 Litchfield Street. The venue would later feature the likes of Paul Simon, Cat Stevens and Al Stewart watched by audiences that included Phil Collins, David Bowie, and Rod Stewart.
In 1962, a relatively unknown songster played this tiny club during his first tour of the UK. Bob Dylan. Three years later in 1965, Dylan filmed his famous video for Subterranean Homesick Blues in nearby Covent Garden. Later that year, during his sell-out second tour of the country, Dylan wrote Like A Rolling Stone, based on his original travails as a ‘complete unknown.’ It was his biggest UK hit.
For stop 4, return to Charing Cross Road and turn left. After 100m turn left onto Great Newport St. Stop at the gateway to No.12 across the road from the Porcupine pub.
STOP 4: CHARING CROSS ROAD (PORCUPINE)
Beside you on your left is No.11 Great Newport Street. A plaque marks the site of the basement jazz club ‘Studio 51’ which opened in 1951. In the mid-50s, a skiffle section was introduced to club nights, with music played on home-made instruments, such as a washboard, spoons and a tea-chest. Skiffle had a major impact on UK rock’n’roll – forming the roots of many bands such as the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones. Indeed, the Rolling Stones became the resident band at this spot, playing over 40 gigs here in 1963, more than they have played at any other venue.
Paul McCartney relates a episode that occurred in 1963. He had shared a taxi here with John Lennon and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. The Stones were recording a demo and asked for songs. John and Paul offered them the unfinished I Wanna Be Your Man. The Stones rehearsed it at Studio 51. However, they complained there was no middle bridge. John & Paul wrote one out in five minutes and performed it for the Stones, who were dumbstruck. The Stones later cut a strident rendition of the song which went onto become their first top 20 hit. It was also the first song ever performed on Top of the Pops.
Opposite you is the Porcupine pub. Many musicians popped in here for pre- and aftershow drinks. The pub forged a reputation for attracting harmonica players, including Rod Stewart. Rod taught a young musician called Charlie Perez to play harmonica. His love for the instrument made him change his name to Charlie Harper. He later formed the punk band UK Subs. Charlie claims he saw the Rolling Stones drinking in this pub in the early 60s.
For stop 5, return to Charing Cross Road and cross over onto Little Newport Street/Lisle Street. Turn left onto Leicester Place and stop opposite No.6, the Leicester Square Theatre.
STOP 5: LEICESTER PLACE (No.6)
No.6 Leicester Place was a basement venue known as the Cavern in the Town, based on the Cavern Club in Liverpool.
A London-based group, the Small Faces, became the resident band here in 1965. They were spotted by music impresario Don Arden whose aggressive tactics led to him being nicknamed the ‘Al Capone of Pop’. After signing the Small Faces, he then allegedly spent £12,000 fixing their first chart hit. Later, Arden started his own record label, Jet Records, signing Black Sabbath, the lead singer of whom, Ozzy Osbourne, married Arden’s daughter Sharon, alienating her from her father.
Between 1965-69, the Small Faces had 12 hits including the No.1 All or Nothing.
For stop 6, return to Lisle Street, turn left, then right onto Wardour Street. Walk to the junction with Gerrard Street and stop opposite O’Neill’s.
STOP 6: WARDOUR STREET (O’NEILL’S)
The O’Neill’s pub was once the location for the famous Flamingo Club. Surely no other venue was at the forefront of so many waves of popular music. Under later incarnations it was also known as the ‘Temple’ and the ‘Wag Club’. Labelled ‘the grooviest place on the planet’ it has hosted legends from the world of Blues, Soul, Rock, Heavy Metal, New Romantics, Hip-Hop and House.
In 1962, Georgie Fame began a three-year stint as the resident artist. Often performing with his band onstage was a Jamaican jazz musician known as Ronnie “Syco” Gordon, whose brother “Lucky” was also a regular.
One night, a nasty brawl on the dancefloor saw Lucky end up with 17 stitches. It was an argument over a high-society call-girl: Christine Keeler. The incident led to the British political scandal known as the Profumo Affair.
Lucky went onto work for Chris Blackwell at the Island record company. In 1963, the label had its first UK hit, Millie’s ska version of My Boy Lollipop. Millie dated Peter Asher of the pop-duo Peter & Gordon. For a while, she lived at his home in Marylebone, with Peter’s sister Jane, and Jane’s boyfriend, Paul McCartney. McCartney penned the Beatles’ ska-flavoured Ob La Di, Ob La Da. The song features a line referring to the ska legend Desmond Dekker of The Israelites fame. Dekker was performing in the Flamingo on the evening of the infamous fight.
For stop 7, turn right onto Gerrard Street and stop at the corner of Macclesfield Street.
STOP 7: MACCLESFIELD STREET (DE HEMS)
You are now in the heart of Chinatown. London’s Chinese community moved here from the East End in the mid-20th century.
Further on up Gerrard Street, No.39 was the original location for Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club between 1959-65. John Lennon held his 23rd birthday here. Ronnie Scott played saxophone on Lady Madonna. The Small Faces also played here in 1965, before the club relocated to Frith Street. No.44 was the venue for a late ‘60s psychedelic club called ‘Happening 44’. Pink Floyd played early gigs here, led by Syd Barrett who lived nearby writing most of his songs in a hallucinogenic haze.
At no.11 Macclesfield Street is the famous Dutch pub De Hems. During the 60s it was a Music biz watering hole, with the Record Mirror offices nearby. The Kinks, the Hollies and Herman’s Hermits all drank here. Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson tried to get a record contract here for an American song-writer lodging at his Californian home: one Charles Manson.
In one of the basements of a Chinese restaurant around here (no-one is sure which), the New Yardbirds, featuring Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones held their first rehearsal in 1968. Within weeks they would become Led Zeppelin.
For stop 8, from Macclesfield Street, cross Shaftesbury Avenue onto Dean Street. Then turn left onto Old Compton Street and stop outside No.72.
STOP 8: OLD COMPTON STREET (COMPTONS)
On the opposite side of the road, the plaque at No.59 proclaims the site as the birthplace of British rock ‘n’ roll. In 1956, songwriter Lionel Bart turned the basement into a nightclub called the ‘2 ‘I’s’. It became a famous music venue, inspiring, it is claimed, the Cavern Club in Liverpool.
Tommy Steele, Britain’s first genuine pop idol, sang here on the opening night. In the late 50’s the first UK TV pop show ‘6-5 Special’ was filmed at the venue. A band who formed here was Vince Taylor and The Playboys. Barely known in the UK, Vince Taylor became a god-like idol in France. Unlike The Who, who wrecked the stage after a set, Taylor would destroy it beforehand. It is said he is the inspiration for Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.
To your left on the opposite side of the road you will see Comptons pub, originally known as the Swiss Tavern. For most of its 130-year history, ‘The Grand Dame of Soho’, has been a famous gay drinking establishment. It was here in 1958, that Harry Webb and his backing band made the decision to become Cliff Richard and The Drifters. The backing band later changed their name and emerged in their own right to become UK’s biggest-selling instrumental group: The Shadows.
For stop 9, turn right onto Wardour Street and walk to the junction with Bourchier Street (an alleyway). Face the south corner of Brewer Street opposite.
STOP 9: WARDOUR STREET (RESIDENCE BAR)
In 1954, Blues musician Cyril Davies opened the first ‘London Skiffle Club’ here above this pub which was then called the Roundhouse. When the skiffle craze faded, Davies asked fellow musician Alexis Korner to open the ‘Blues & Barrelhouse Club’ in the same venue.
Barrelhouse was form of boogie-woogie with lots of improvised piano. This place then became most influential venue in the development of British rock. All the great blues artists came here, including the legendary Muddy Waters, who in 1958 shocked the audience by plugging in his guitar, and by doing so starting a revolution.
Korner subsequently started his own band Blues Incorporated which included, at various stages, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Jimmy Page, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. As such, this pub was the breeding ground for the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the ‘supergroup’ Cream.
For stop 10, continue northwards on Wardour Street for 100m and stop opposite No.90.
STOP 10: WARDOUR STREET (No.90)
No.90 Wardour Street was once the site of the famous Marquee Club, possibly the most important venue in the history of British rock.
The original club opened in Oxford Street in 1958 and relocated here six years later. In 1988, it was decided that the vibrations of music had made the building unsafe (how rock ’n’ roll is that?) and it was demolished. Since that time, the club has re-opened in various locations. It was last seen in Covent Garden in 2008.
The Marquee saw London debuts for David Bowie and Led Zeppelin. Resident bands through the 1960s read like a who’s who of rock: Manfred Mann, Yardbirds, Spencer Davies Group, Small Faces, Cream, Pink Floyd and Procul Harum. But the band most synonymous with the club was the Who. Formed in west London in 1964, the classic line-up of Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon had 14 UK hits in the 1960s. There is a blue plaque up on the wall dedicated to Keith Moon.
For stop 11, continue northwards on Wardour Street, turn right onto Flaxman Court and follow to St Anne’s Court.
STOP 11: FLAXMAN COURT (THE SHIP)
At No.116 Wardour Street is The Ship, a famous London rock ’n’ roll pub. The Marquee was not licensed to sell alcohol, so most artists drank here. Patrons included John Lennon, Syd Barrett and Jimi Hendrix, who apparently passed out in the corner. Keith Moon was barred from the pub after letting off a smoke bomb.
Around the corner at No.17 St Anne’s Court is Trident Studios. In 1967, this was a pioneering recording facility with a revolutionary 8-track mixing desk. Here, the Beatles recorded many tracks for their ‘White Album’, having dispensed with the services of Abbey Road.
Other legendary rock albums recorded here included David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Lou Reed’s Transformer. An ancient Beckstein piano that once sat in the studio was the same instrument as heard on Elton John’s Rocket Man and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. It was also the same one used on the opening bars of The Beatles’ 1968 epic single Hey Jude.
For stop 12, from St Anne’s Court, cross Wardour Street and enter Broadwick Street. Follow Broadwick Street for 250m. Then turn right onto Carnaby Street.
STOP 12: CARNABY STREET (SHAKESPEARE’S HEAD)
Carnaby Street derives its name from the locally sited Karnaby House which dated back to the 1680’s. In the 1960’s, along with the King’s Road in Chelsea, it was the place to go shopping for London’s dedicated followers of fashion, or ‘Carnabetians’ as they were labelled in the famous song by the Kinks.
Many independent boutiques that began on this street went onto become major brands including Cecil Gee, Ravel and Lord John (see the plaque above No.43).
During Carnaby Street’s 1960s heyday, many luminaries drank at the Shakespeare’s Head where there was a folk club. Those on record include Billy J. Kramer, the Fourmost, Dave Davies of the Kinks, Rod Stewart and John Lennon.
To finish at Oxford Circus tube station, from Carnaby Street turn left onto Great Marlborough Street. Then turn right onto Argyll Street and left onto Oxford Street for Oxford Circus tube station.
FINISH: OXFORD CIRCUS
Let us end with a tale relating to the two great sentinels of the swinging sixties: the Beatles and the Stones.
On Argyll Street, you will pass by the London Palladium. This famous venue opened as a music hall in 1910. In the 1960s, it played host to Sunday Night at the London Palladium, a TV programme showcasing the best of British showbiz talent. On Sunday 13 October 1963, the Beatles topped the bill. Fifteen million people watched the show on TV. They became an overnight sensation and Beatlemania was born.
Unlike the Beatles, the Rolling Stones initially refused to appear on the London Palladium TV show, which they considered too square for their rebel image. Under pressure from management, they finally relented in 1967. But when it came to joining their fellow performers on the stage at the end of the show, the Stones refused. The decision caused outrage in the press, boosting their bad-boy image.
Even though we’ve only covered the relatively small area on this walk, this little vignette tells us something: that in the decade that defined the popular music genre more than any other, the battleground for all these singers, musicians and bands – arguing over contracts, fighting for airtime, vying for stage appearances, competing for press coverage and, ultimately, trying to make it big – was London.
So, which is the greatest rock ’n’ roll city? If you’ve always presumed that the answer lies somewhere between the east and west coasts of America, I hope that, by taking you by the hand and leading you through the streets of London, I’ve shown you something to make you change your mind.
‘Ghosts of Swinging London’ is taken from the book Soul City Wandering by Frank Molloy. Published by Choir Press. The book is released on September 30, 2020, priced £9.99, and is available online from Amazon and Waterstones.
Note: This walk is free. If you have enjoyed it please consider making a donation to NHS charities.
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Wall, Mick. Led Zeppelin – When Giants Walked the Earth. Orion. 2009.
Thanks to Robert Brooks and Brian Hawkins for their recollections on the Marquee.
Follow Soul City Wanderer on Twitter@soulcitywander