Rock 'n' Roll in Soho!

Tales of Rock 'n' Roll From the Heart of Soho

A photo from outside the Marquee Club in London's Soho
Rock 'n' roll started in Soho. Well actually, no it didn't, but it found Soho and made its home there. Rock 'n' roll actually started in the United States in the 50s, but it made its way over to England through mainly the radio (see Radio Caroline) and the records were traded, bought, sold, and stolen in the docks up and down the country. (For instance the docks up in Liverpool were great places to get the latest American records as found out the members of a skiffle band later to become a pop band called The Beatles, but more on them later.) However it made it there, it did, and found a welcome home in Soho. This marriage of rock 'n' roll and the seedy wondrous streets and venues gave birth to British rock 'n' roll and changed the face of music forever. 


Where better to start then the 2I's Coffee Bar on Old Compton Street, which was the first place in London to have an amplified stage. Granted the stage only measured 18 inches (wide) and was made of milk crates, but that doesn't stop it from being the birthplace of British rock 'n' roll (as solidified with a green circular plaque on the outside of the building). So from 1956 there's a who's who of patrons getting discovered, working at, or playing at the 2I's, most notably Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, and Led Zeppelin's manager, then working as a doorman before getting into music management, Peter Grant. Ringo Starr also mentions the 2I's in his 2015 song "Rory and the Hurricanes": "That's where Tommy Steele would play."

Speaking of Led Zeppelin (we weren't but segues aren't my strong suit), do you know where they were formed? No, you don't, because not even the band knows! (Unless you do know and have evidence, in which case send it to me and I promise not to use the information for financial gain. Honest.) All they know is they formed in the basement of a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Helpful. We do know, however, how they got their name. We owe this to the late great Keith Moon who after hearing Jimmy Page's idea to form a super-group said, "That'll go down like a lead balloon, you should call yourselves Lead Zeppelin" and as we know, he was right; the group didn't amount to much... What? They wrote "Stairway to Heaven"?! And they hold the record for being the 4th best selling artists of all time! 

Finally let's talk about the title picture. The Marquee club. Now as the title suggests this is a post about rock 'n' roll tales from Soho, so how could we not mention the Marquee club? The epicenter for bands playing from the mid-60s in the heart of Soho. The Marquee club originated on Oxford St but was forced to move to a cheaper/rougher (at the time!) Wardour St where it really made its name under the control of jazz enthusiast Harold Pendleton (who'd opened the club in '58). 

Everyone worth mentioning has played at the club including The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and The Who (Pink Floyd and The Who had residency spots at the club). In fact there is a plaque on the restaurant next to the club's old front listing the many bands that have played there so you're sure to find someone you like!

The Rolling Stones actually got their start at the club at it's old location on Oxford Street but only played the club in total a few times. This was mainly due to Keith Richards' feud with owner Harold Pendleton. Harold was a traditional jazz enthusiast, which was the norm at the time, jazz being the what the country mainly listened to other than dancehall in the post world war two pre-youth explosion period, and Keith having heard some incredible blues from the deep south clashed on a fundamental level. Musically. The most important level at the time. This culminated after one meeting with Keith hitting Pendleton over the head with his guitar.

The Who often played the Marquee club having a residency there. Keith Moon actually has a plaque above where the entrance would have been back then. The plaque was awarded to him after much arguing with the English Heritage society who essentially said no because the other members of The Who were still alive. This was met with much backlash as it was felt we should honour the greatest rock 'n' roll drummer of all time with Rob Lee, the editor of The Who's official website saying, "Maybe you're only eligible if you smash up guitars rather than drums," but the plaque was awarded and now we have something to go look at while we are listening to The Who to remember the great man.

Now for some rock 'n' roll stories about The Who. Keith used to love to drink in the Ship Pub which is just down the road from the club (I mean Keith used to like to drink anywhere but this is relevant), and after one especially raucous drinking binge, the barman asked Keith to pay his tab. A reasonable request met with a reasonable answer in the form of letting off a smoke grenade in the pub! This was not uncommon, however (the drinking not at the venue, not the smoke grenade), because the Marquee when it opened was a venue without an alcohol license. So what did you do if you were a band in the 60s and 70s and wanted to get drunk before you went on stage? Easy. You put on the support band and ran across the road to have a few pints before staggering back to play! Perfect. 

I get these stories and facts from various sources including the websites of venues and bands, talking to people around at the time, but mainly autobiographies like Keith Richards' Life.  

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Rock 'n' Roll in Soho!