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Rock ‘n’ roll Britannia
LONDON — The stage lights break across the crowd in rainbows from above, while artificial mist nips at their heels. The guy to my right stares at the stage, transfixed. He appears to be on something stronger than my ale, but I can relate.
The maniacal three-piece band churns out its rhythms, locomotive-like. The bassist standing beside the speaker, feels loud enough to reset my heartbeat. The drummer flails wildly, punctuating the licks of the tall, Afro-sporting left-hander, who wields his Fender Stratocaster like a toy. The fringes on the sleeves of his jacket hang vertically each time he raises his arm, shaman-like, to punctuate the next chord, and the next.
It’s London. The Marquee Club. It’s happenin’.
It’s December, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience we are watching is only projected on a retractable screen, the music pre-recorded, the lights set up to roughly complement the music. Never mind that Mr. Hendrix has been dead nearly 35 years and that the Marquee, reopened last year, is now four times removed from its original location. Or that an actual live band is to play later in the night. (No one seems to know who.)
The early crowd has gathered to view the largest exhibition of Hendrix memorabilia in the world — guitars, hand-scrawled first drafts of songs, concert posters and 2,000 hours of video footage constantly playing on the stage level, along with the light show.
It makes sense, actually. In reopening the Marquee at 1 Leicester Square, the new owners are involved in the latest attempt not only to cash in on, but also to preserve some of the heady magic of London in the swinging ‘60s. That era was, first and foremost, always about the music.
Although rock was invented in the United States, London is its capital city, thanks to the unlikely work of a group of mostly middle-class teenagers growing up in a Britain still recovering from World War II.
In the early 1960s, budding musicians such as Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton heard something authentic in the music American GIs left behind after the war — jazz, country and especially blues. Soon, they were sending away to America for recordings.
“As far as the record companies or the news media or anything, we were all ignored until those English kids came in,” legendary bluesman Buddy Guy says in Martin Scorsese’s “The Blues.” But in less than half a decade, these British youths’ peculiar tastes and rebellious attitudes — and their unusual musical virtuosity — would propel a musical and cultural revolution.
Those were the days of rock idols and guitar heroes, before pop music became divided and segmented. England’s economy was booming, class structures were beginning to crack along with taboos against drugs and sex, and pop art and fashion (some would say decadence) were on the rise.
In 1966, Time magazine proclaimed in a famous cover story: “[a]s never before in modern times, London is switched on. Ancient elegance and new opulence are all tangled up in a dazzling blur of op and pop.” Musicians, artists and other bohemians were the new aristocrats. It wasn’t long after the Beatles exploded out of Liverpool that “Clapton is God” graffiti appeared on subways.
England remains the third-largest market for music in the world and the second-largest source of written music. And London is a city where history seeps up through the pavement, where past is always prologue. Even though many clubs have closed since the ‘60s, London still has about 600 live-music venues.
I have set out to discover just how much of this heritage endures, either in its original form or preserved as exhibits or simply in memory.
So I turn to Richard Porter, an affable music nut who presides over the London Beatles Fan Club and who wrote a book called “Guide to the Beatles’ London,” to walk me around rock sites in town and share the stories behind them.
WOKE UP IN A SOHO DOORWAY
Name a band that came of age in the ‘60s, and it probably made its name playing the small clubs of Soho. So that’s where we go first.
This multiethnic working-class neighborhood long ago made a haven for artists, intellectuals and hedonists. In the postwar period, the musicians who played and took flats here were the heirs to onetime residents William Blake and Karl Marx. Even now, it remains one of the top areas in the city for art and live music.
How fitting that before we even set foot aboveground at Leicester Square, there’s music in the air. At the foot of the stairs to exit the Tube, as the London Underground is known, we pass a street musician (a “busker” in the local parlance), a folk singer accompanied only by his guitar.
He’s a fine player, actually, but it wasn’t always so. About a year ago, the city adopted a plan to license a limited number of buskers, who are required to pay a fee and pass an audition before a panel of experts. It beats the old arrangement, under which he could have been fined for trespassing.
But London’s most famous busker was never fined. Back in 1983, Paul McCartney turned up at this very same spot and played, free, for about an hour. He was filming a scene for “Give My Regards to Broad Street.”
No sooner do we emerge from the Tube than there’s a story for Mr. Porter to tell as we stand before 10 Great Newport St., the former site of the Studio 51 club.
In 1963, the Rolling Stones made a minor splash with a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On” and were looking for a follow-up single. Legend has it that Mr. McCartney and John Lennon spotted Stones manager Andrew Oldham on the street nearby and demanded that he take them to Studio 51, where the Stones were rehearsing. The two Beatles showed their contemporaries the chord changes to the song “I Wanna Be Your Man.” Just written, the number had been destined for the next Beatles album, but that afternoon, they gave the song to the Stones, who then finished it and recorded it — their first big hit in England.
There are similar stories around many corners. A few blocks north on Charing Cross Road, the Astoria still hosts bands, mostly up-and-comers. The bar, however, bears the name of one of the biggest legends ever to grace these streets, The Who’s famously wild drummer Keith Moon, who whiled away many an evening there.
A quick left and a few blocks west on Oxford Street leads to the London Palladium on the corner of Argyll Street. In 1963, the Beatles played here to a television audience of 15 million. The ensuing reaction was described as “Beatlemania.” The interior of this circa-1910 building has been beautifully preserved and continues to host music and theater.
And only two blocks north on Great Portland Street is the former home of the Speakeasy club on 48 Margaret St., a famous after-hours basement hangout for rock’s elite. In 1977, a disillusioned Pete Townshend of The Who met two members of the Sex Pistols there and proceeded to drunkenly harangue them about the state of rock music. He would stumble out of the place and pass out on a stoop a few doors down, only to be awakened by a police officer.
Soon after, he would weave the experience into his highest-charting song, “Who Are You?”
KING OF CLUBS
No club before or perhaps since has had as much cachet as the Marquee Club, which could be the subject of a tour itself.
The first location, beginning in 1958, was 165 Oxford St., now occupied by a store, the Pilot. Here, in 1962, Brian Jones’ gigs with a band called Blues Incorporated led to his forming the Rolling Stones later that year. (Mr. Jones’ life and mysterious 1969 death are the subject of a film to be released this summer.) The Stones would officially debut there later that year as a fill-in for Blues Incorporated.
Rod Stewart also premiered at the Marquee, in 1964, just before the club moved to its most famous home, a short walk away at 90 Wardour St. From 1964 to 1988, the cramped room hosted nearly every famous British band. Mr. Hendrix held the all-time attendance record.
Jimmy Page played there in an ad hoc group of white bluesmen recruited to back Muddy Waters in 1966 and would return as a member of the New Yardbirds for the band’s London premiere. Only days later, they would rename themselves Led Zeppelin.
The club was also ground zero for the flowering psychedelic movement. On Sundays in early 1966, the electric Kool-Aid set would descend on the Marquee for an afternoon of poetry, music and acid trips promoted as the “Spontaneous Underground.” Music was provided largely by a then-little-known band called Pink Floyd.
This location is now occupied by a restaurant and lofts. But you can still visit the next best thing — the Ship Pub, a few steps down Wardour. Because the Marquee lacked a liquor license (in fact, it closed at 11 p.m.) in those days, the talent used to unwind at the Ship before and after gigs. The Ship remains a charming little pub, of the type where locals are happy to get to know you over a pint.
In 1988, the club moved to 105 Charing Cross Road, then to suburban Islington in 2002 under the stewardship of the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart. After that brief upscale experiment failed, it is back in Soho, at 1 Leicester Square.
LIVE AND LET DIE
Mr. Hendrix’s old flat at 23 Brook St. in the Mayfair neighborhood is marked with an English Heritage plaque, but visiting the homes of other pop idols requires a bit more insider knowledge.
Near the old Marquee, Mr. Townshend lived on the top floor at 87 Wardour St. in the mid-‘60s, even converting one of the rooms into a studio.
Farther west, in the Marylebone neighborhood, is Ringo Starr’s famous basement flat at 34 Montagu Square. After living there about a year, Mr. Starr rented it to Mr. McCartney, who wrote several Beatles songs there, including “Eleanor Rigby.”
Mr. Starr’s next tenant was Mr. Hendrix, who was evicted after painting all the walls black. The next occupants were Mr. Lennon and Yoko Ono in the first place they shared; their first major drug bust occurred here, as did the photo shoot for their infamous nude album cover.
Fans also come here to pay their respects to their deceased idols. Not far south of Montagu Square is the Cumberland Hotel in Marble Arch, where in 1970, Mr. Hendrix died in Room 507 after overdosing in Notting Hill.
Farther south, in Mayfair, is a location with an even more infamous history. Both Mama Cass Elliot and The Who’s Keith Moon died at 9 Curzon Place, only four years apart.
Even in the sleepy neighborhood of Kensington, across Hyde Park to the west, fans flock to 1 Logan Place just off Kensington High Street to pay homage at the final home of Freddie Mercury, the former frontman of Queen. Many leave flowers.
MONEY (THAT’S WHAT I WANT)
North and west of Soho’s clubs is Soho Square, an idyllic block-size urban park ringed by expensive homes and offices. One of them happens to be MPL Communications, set up by Mr. McCartney in 1969 as a music publishing business. The company owns the rights to about 25,000 songs, including works of Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins and Mr. McCartney — but only his solo work. MPL lost the rights to the Beatles’ catalog to Michael Jackson, and a good portion of them have since changed hands yet again.
Rewind 40 years, when music publishing wasn’t just an element of the music business. It was the music business. Sheet music was more profitable than recordings. Songs were parceled out to artists by professional songsmiths, who retained the lion’s share of royalties and rights.
The center of this infant industry was just to the east, across Charing Cross Road along Denmark Street, a block-long, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it haven of rock history. This was known as London’s Tin Pan Alley, the home of England’s largest music publishers.
On one side is a restaurant called Spice Spice, formerly the Giaconda Cafe. In an effort to get to know the right people, David Bowie (then known as David Jones) lived outside the Giaconda in a converted ambulance parked on the curb.
Across the street on the second floor is Mills Music, which in the late ‘60s employed an errand boy named Reginald Dwight. Supposedly, he wrote “Your Song” on the roof here, which would later go to No. 1 under his new nom de music, Elton John.
Farther down the block, a preserved facade marks the former location of Regent Sound Studios, where the Rolling Stones recorded their first album in 1964.
The most notable characteristic of Denmark Street now is the first-floor music shops, displaying all types of new, used and collectible guitars and other instruments.
Legend has it that when The Who was notorious for smashing instruments to bits at the end of shows, Mr. Townshend used to run regularly into the music shops on Denmark and beg for a couple of new guitars on credit for that night’s show.
His monetary problems became a thing of the past not long after one night only three blocks west, at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club on Frith Street. That’s where Mr. Townshend and his group premiered “Tommy,” the concept album that would catapult The Who to superstardom. On that evening in 1969, the place was packed not with young fans, but with journalists on hand to hear the first rock opera. Some of them complained of hearing loss for days afterward.
Ronnie Scott’s remains one of the world’s most famous jazz clubs, and the walls are dotted with photos of the legends who have played there, including Duke Ellington and Diana Krall. It’s also the site of Mr. Hendrix’s last public appearance, on Sept. 16, 1970, when he sat in with Eric Burdon and War.
At Trident Sound Studios on St. Anne’s Court, a sign on the door helpfully lists all the classic songs that have been recorded or mixed there, including the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” According to Mr. Porter, when the Beatles were recording parts of “The White Album” there, the police smelled marijuana wafting onto the street. But once they realized the source of the smoke, they merely asked for autographs.
If you were a member of rock royalty, it wasn’t just about where you lived, but how you lived, too, and what you did with all your fame and fortune. Enter Carnaby Street. Now the narrow, inclined street is home to an attractive mix of upscale retailers and souvenir shops, with patrons standing shoulder to shoulder as they make their way from shop to shop.
In the late ‘60s, the shoppers would have been going in search of velvet suits and lace ascots, rather than Origins bath products and Tower Bridge snow globes. The first miniskirt was designed and sold here. This was the epicenter of swinging London, mod culture, and the inspiration for the Kinks’ satirical “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” to say nothing of the Austin Powers films.
Beyond Regent Street from Carnaby lies Saville Row, known for another type of clothing. Saville Row is still one of the world’s top addresses for men’s haberdasheries and made-to-measure suits, but Beatles fans know it as the former headquarters of Apple Corp. The Fab Four recorded much of their final album, “Let It Be,” here in the basement studio, but the 200-year-old building is best known for their impromptu performance on the roof on Jan. 30, 1969 — their last concert of any kind.
Some of the local businesses complained about the noise, but the police waited about 45 minutes before they broke up the racket.
The Bag o’ Nails club, between Carnaby and Saville Row at 9 Kingly St., must have been convenient for the lads. This was where Mr. Hendrix played his London debut, and it was an after-hours hangout for many pop stars. It also evidently brought out the romance. Paul and Linda McCartney met here, and John and Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac became engaged here.
DO IT IN THE ROAD
It’s cliche by now, but no self-respecting rock fan can refuse a stop at London’s rock mecca, Abbey Road Studios, only a few blocks from Mr. McCartney’s longtime London mansion.
Most tourists take the Tube to the tony North London neighborhood of St. John’s Wood and walk the five minutes down Grove End Road to the famous crosswalk immortalized on the “Abbey Road” album cover.
Lately, however, the locals have become increasingly impatient with those who pose, sometimes barefoot — a la Mr. McCartney —for a photo in the middle of the street, and have taken to careering down the street without paying much heed to pedestrian right of way.
A few paces to the left on Abbey Road is perhaps the world’s most famous recording studio, initially called EMI Studios but effectively renamed Abbey Road. On the corner in front of the crosswalk, the street sign has been reinforced with steel and bolted down because it was so often stolen by fans looking for a souvenir. Today they mark it with graffiti.
Since the ‘60s, fans did likewise on the white concrete wall that separates the sidewalk from the studio property — with the tacit support of studio management. Every so often, when the messages became too numerous, the wall would be photographed for posterity and repainted.
As part of a new anti-graffiti initiative by the local Westminster Council, the wall was painted over recently by a professional anti-graffiti company. Now, any time messages appear there, they are painted over immediately. Some fans, including my guide, are not happy, and he has initiated an online petition to get the council to reverse its decision.
Through the tall, wrought-iron fence is the rather large, yet unassuming, building. The studio itself dates to 1931, and Mr. John, Pink Floyd and the Police are but a few who met great success recording here. But it is the Beatles who defined the place. They first recorded here in 1962 as part of an audition. Later that year, they recorded “Love Me Do” here and sparked a worldwide phenomenon that in many ways has yet to dwindle.
The Beatles found their way into the kingdom’s official collections. East across Regent’s Park from St. John’s Wood, hard by the King’s Cross Tube and train station, is the monumental British Library. Among the library’s permanent exhibits are a Gutenberg Bible; a copy of the Magna Carta; and a Beatles display, which includes original handwritten lyrics to songs such as “Yesterday,” “Ticket to Ride” and “Fool on the Hill,” as well as vintage collectors’ cards of the lads and fan club publications. Visitors can also listen to the group’s original Parlaphone recordings.
Four Tube stops south, back to Leicester Square and a short stroll to Trafalgar Square is the National Portrait Gallery, where royalty and generals are memorialized. But 10 or so rooms on the ground floor are dominated by figures from 20th-century pop culture. The changing collection includes Mr. Bowie and Mr. John alongside Princess Diana.
As I stand beside an English family admiring the likenesses, the mother leans down to her son, about 10, to tell him, “That’s Paul McCartney from the Beatles.”
“Yes, Mummy, I know.”
Rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia easy, cheap or pricey
The Beatles and other rock stars have contributed to the United Kingdom’s heritage and economy, and plenty of businesses are happy to separate fans from their money. Here are a few of the best:
Original London Walks. This is the dominant company for all walks, as varied as Jack the Ripper and the Old Jewish Quarter. It’s also the company that works with Richard Porter, the Beatles brain of Britain. Mr. Porter offers two distinct walks, for about $10 per person.
The Magical Mystery Tour (Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday) encompasses the Apple offices and Abbey Road, among other iconic places.
The Beatles in My Life walk (Tuesday and Saturday) covers the Fab Four’s apartments and other haunts, as well as Abbey Road. Other tour companies have begun giving Beatles walking and coach tours, but Mr. Porter planted the flag more than 15 years ago. “It’s my tour, basically,” he says. “They copied it.”
For more information, visit www.walks.com or www.beatlesinlondon.com.
Beatle Pilgrimage Tour. This all-inclusive package in late summer includes six nights in Liverpool and five in London, encompassing nearly all the Beatles sites in the U.K.; www.beatletour.com.
Abbey Road Cafe. Conveniently located for the tourist at the Grove End London Underground station, this shop will sell you a sandwich and a cup of coffee and a Beatles guidebook or a postcard to send home; Finchley Road and Grove End Road; www.abbeyroadcafe.com.
Royal Albert Hall. Opened in 1871 at the behest of Queen Victoria’s husband, the domed Albert Hall has hosted thousands of shows, among them the farewell show of Eric Clapton’s Cream and the 2002 tribute to George Harrison. The daily tours include the Queen’s Box and the Royal Retiring Room; Kensington Gore; www.royalalberthall.com.
London Beatles Store. Only a few years old and on the same block as the Sherlock Homes Store, this storefront sells everything from postcards to Yellow Submarine lunchboxes to the rarest of Beatle collectibles; 231 Baker St.; www.beatlesstorelondon.co.uk.
England Rocks. This shop on the underground level at Covent Garden sells new T-shirts and knickknacks, but the real attraction is in its back room: Rare items are displayed and for sale — including autographed guitars and a one-of-a-kind Yellow Submarine jukebox that sells for about $23,000; Covent Garden; visit www.englandrocks.co.uk.
Jeff Dufour is features editor at the Hill newspaper.
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