What are the best rock music landmarks in London?
London is full of history. But if, like me, your eyes would glaze over during history lessons at school whilst a dreary and rather ill-dressed teacher stood drooped over his desk like a wet sock droning on about the significance of the Spinning Jenny and The Reformation, you might say there’s rather too much of the royalty, architecture and old dead people kind of history, and not enough about the rock and roll kind in the current curriculum.
So here’s something a little more up to date. I don’t mean bang up to date. We’re not talking Skrillex and Example here. That’s not really history (yet). More like The Beatles and The Stones, but at least it doesn’t involve old military uniforms and handlebar moustaches. Unless you count Sgt Pepper or Hendrix.
Hmmm. Bad example.
What I present here is a short (two hour) walking tour taking in a few rock n roll sights in a small area around London’s Soho, between Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Circus in the South and Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square in the North.
And if this whets the appetite for travelling further afield then let me recommend the fascinating book Rock Atlas. Written and researched by David Roberts, the book highlights 650 great music locations all over the UK and tells the stories about why they are significant.
Here’s the Every Record Tells A Story Rock ‘n Roll Walking Tour of London:
- Starting Point: Tottenham Court Road tube station. Walk along Oxford St towards The 100 Club:
- The 100 Club has been home to many legendary gigs since first opening in 1942 – in particular the first Punk Festival which featured early performances by The Sex Pistols, The Damned and The Clash. More recently the venue has seen gigs by Blur, Oasis, Suede, Metallica, and Paul McCartney.
- Travel east towards Centrepoint. At the crossroads look to your left where used to stand The UFO club – where Pink Floyd played early gigs. It’s not there anymore however, so turn right instead down Charing Cross Road towards Denmark St.
- Denmark St: Known as London’s Tin Pan Alley after the New York district where publishers and songwriters all worked together. Now London’s biggest concentration of guitar shops, this is where the UK’s rock n roll industry established itself. Writers, managers and bands all used to gather here. The Rolling Stones recorded their first album at #4 which is Regent Sounds Studios. The Sex Pistols lived above #6 Denmark St and recorded early demos there. Elton John wrote “Your Song” here.
- Site of The Giaconda Dining room. Until 2014 this was still an excellent cafe, (according to my Harden’s guide) but when known as La Gioconda Coffee Bar this was the spot where Bowie and Marc Bolan would meet up before they were famous, “trading grandiose fantasies…over cups of coffee” according to Paul Trynka’s excellent Bowie biography Starman.
Bowie also met up with Steve Marriott here, almost joining the Small Faces in the process.
It was here too that Bowie met a BBC researcher (it was known as a musicians hangout) looking for a story. Bowie invented the idea of a “League for the Protection of Animal Filament”: an imaginary group of long haired people who were fed up with being mocked for the way they looked. This got Bowie an early TV appearance on the Tonight with Cliff Michelmore show in 1964 where he humorously complained about people saying things like “Can I carry your handbag?”. “It has to stop!” he complained, perhaps not entirely seriously.
- Walk to Soho Square where, at the southern end is a park bench and plaque dedicated to Kirsty MacColl who sang a beautiful song about Soho Square.
- Next is the site of The 2 “I”s coffee bar in Old Compton St where a green plaque marks the birthplace of British rock n roll in 1958, and where Hank Marvin amongst many others was “discovered” (and also worked behind the bar). Members of The Beatles would subsequently hang out in this famous London venue.
- Travel to Wardour St via St Anne’s Court, the site of Shades Records, once the finest heavy rock record store in London.
- At 90 Wardour St is the site of the first Marquee club where The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Yardbirds and latterly Guns n Roses played. A plaque is there, dedicated to Keith Moon who performed there regularly. I saw Tesla, Great White, White Lion and a few other bands here before the venue moved to 105/7 Charing Cross Road.
- Walking across Berwick Street, there is still a couple of decent record shops along here (Sister Ray’s and Reckless Records), and the street memorably formed the image of Oasis’ second album What’s The Story (Morning Glory).
- On to Kingly St to The Bag o Nails. Recently re-opened, here you will find two plaques commemorating the place where Paul met Linda and where Jimi Hendrix performed his breakthrough performance, witnessed by The Beatles and The Who amongst others.
- At 52 Carnaby St, is a green plaque dedicated to legendary rock manager (and Sharon Osborne’s dad) Don Arden and his band The Small Faces. Arden’s office was here, and Arden was a man who by all accounts was not to be messed with, if dangling recalcitrant rivals (Robert Stigwood) out of a window is a good guide to character (which I think it is). The Small Faces’ fan club was also here.
- Nip across Regent St to Heddon St to find the black plaque that celebrates the place where the cover of Ziggy Stardust was photographed.
- Now walk down to #3 Saville Row to see the building where The Beatles played their rooftop concert as captured in the documentary Let It Be.
- You could walk south across Piccadilly to Jermyn St to the Indica Gallery where John met Yoko at a private view of her exhibition. But it’s not there, so instead why not check out another plaque in front of Hendrix’s London home at 23 Brook St to conclude your tour?