Access online exclusive: A brief history of live music in London

“London goes beyond any boundary or convention. It contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London.

Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography

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Performance, particularly music, has been a part of London’s street culture for centuries – images of the legendary Bartholomew’s Fair, earnest street corner buskers and bawdy tavern ballards spring to mind.

Away from the street, and beyond London’s long tradition of the stage, the first purpose-built music venues followed in the wake of the city’s 17th and 18th century theatres – throughout this period, London was growing at an impossible rate and, as city’s population boomed, the hunger for fun, for access to popular culture, grew and grew.

Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, London’s West End was the glittering, grandiose heart of art and culture at the centre of the world’s largest empire. But for every monument to high art – from the Royal Albert Hall to the Royal Opera House – London teemed tenfold with Music Halls, the loud, boisterous entertainment of choice for the city’s working classes.

At the start of the 20th century, variety was the order of the day – from Shepherd’s Bush in the west, to Finsbury Park in the north and Stratford in the east, popular new venues sprang up to accommodate this boom of extravagance, light and sound. At last, even the royals relented – the first Royal Variety Performance took place at the Moss Palace Theatre in 1912.

Playwright Noel Coward would later say of the city, “the higher the building, the lower the morals”, and during the Second World War, with Glenn Miller crackling on the wireless, the American GIs of the Rainbow Corner Club, near Piccadilly Circus, introduced the many benefits of US youth culture to London’s war-weary generation.

The establishment, particularly the popular press, would spend subsequent decades in bluster and outrage over this most exciting of imports, but the post-war charge towards pop music had begun – London was to become the centre of a live music culture driven by the tastes and desires of ordinary young people. It would create remarkable venues such as The Marquee in Soho, which throughout the 1960s welcomed the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Pink Floyd and even a young David Bowie.

The stage might not have been as opulent as its West End predecessors, but this was live music that would change the world.

Of course, with any popular culture, comes counterculture. On the 20-21 September 1976, a basement on Oxford Street witnessed the arrival of punk rock into the mainstream. The 100 Club Punk Special, featuring the likes of The Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Clash, announced the arrival of a high-energy, who-needs-to-rehearse performance style – one that smashed the comparatively sedate paradigm of more conventional rock.

Punk sparked a new era of unique musical subculture in London – movements that would immortalise venues across the capital. Iconic clubs such as The Roxy or The Blitz in Covent Garden, like many of their stars, would burst, burn bright and fade away – whereas The Fridge in Brixton would, over many decades, be hallowed ground for both punks and new romantics, as well as an icon of the LGBT scene and trance music culture in the 1990s.

From the places, to the people – London has produced its own musical heroes over the generations. A refugee from Tanzania, who once sold t-shirts in Kensington Market, was a hero to millions in London and around the world, long before 13 July 1985. When Freddie Mercury led Queen on to the Live Aid stage at Wembley, in front of an estimated global audience of two billion, they took what was billed as the greatest show on earth and made it better.

In more recent years, Amy Winehouse, sadly immortalised by her death in 2011, became Camden royalty for her incredible talent and soulful live performances – including a recording for the BBC in the magnificent art deco surroundings of Porchester Hall. These are the shows, grand and global, or unique and intimate, that create stars – and the venues are all important.

The Fridge in Brixton was ‘defrosted’ in 2010, shortly after the Astoria, another iconic music venue and LGBT bastion, fell victim to Crossrail. A saddening trend for the closure of these performance spaces – including the recent closure of The Black Cap in Camden – threatens to discard a proud and diverse cultural history in favour of development and gentrification.

Knowing this history, and appreciating the spaces in which we hear the musicians we love, is vital to understanding the cultural value of London and the emotional power of its venues and their music, to the communities that love them.

The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony foregrounded London’s remarkable musical history. A global audience, billions of eyes and ears, turned towards Stratford’s gleaming array of modernist marsh-bound monoliths – one of which, the Copper Box Arena, is now part of a new generation of live entertainment venues in the city. Including everything from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, to Arctic Monkeys and Dizzee Rascal, the ceremony beatified artists from across the history of British music, in the most spectacular celebration of one of the world’s key crucibles of culture – London, and her many magnificent venues.

Read Access All Areas‘ Save Soho article on p28 of the January 2015 issue.

Article by Daniel Le Grange.

Grange works for Better Venues as the company conference & events manager. He has more than 10 years’ experience working within events and specialises in managing album launches, live entertainment, private parties and high profile sporting events. Daniel has been part of managing events for international artists such as John Legend and Demi Lovato.