The day the music dies

Paul Talling’s second volume of London’s Lost Music Venues sets Dan Carrier on a nostalgic trip down memory lane...

Thursday, 28th July — By Dan Carrier


A poster for the Sex Pistols at the Screen on Islington Green

IT was New Year’s Day, 2005, and reporters at the Camden New Journal had thrown a huge New Year’s Eve party at a venue in Mayfair.

We walked home through the London dawn, and carried with us around £5,000 in loose change.

Your local newspaper had held a party, collecting on-the-door donations instead of charging an entrance fee. We raised funds for the Archway-based charity, Action Aid, to help with its response to the devastating Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

By 2005, The Embassy Club had closed down and was waiting to be redeveloped, but we knew the caretaker and he let us use this empty venue in the swanky surrounds of New Burlington Street to have all-night dances.

The Embassy is one of 140 venues that feature in the second volume of social historian Paul Talling’s London’s Lost Music Venues, a fascinating look at the places that have stamped themselves on our cultural landscape, nurtured musicians and simply brought immeasurable amounts of fun.

As well as New Journal parties, we learn the Embassy was a high-rollers’ hang-out, with the likes of David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend visiting in the 1980s and then later David Beckham, Prince Harry and Kate Moss made it a regular haunt.

Paul’s project to chronicle the changing face of the city began more than 20 years ago. He notes how London is always in a state of flux, and, as a music promoter, he is well aware of how quickly venues come and go.

“I started photographing pubs, swimming pools, sports grounds that were lying empty and unused,” he said. “I used to promote gigs and saw plenty of places that had closed.”

The National in Kilburn. Photo: Paul Talling

Armed with a camera, a sturdy pair of shoes and an unquenchable curiosity to uncover the stories of change and redevelopment, Paul began traversing back streets and the result was a 2003 bestseller, Derelict London.

“I would walk randomly each day, take shots and then research the buildings I had found,” he reveals.

“It was a case of celebrating buildings, no matter what era they were from, and the social history that went along with them and is easily forgotten when a building disappears or is changed from its original purpose.”

The second volume includes both larger venues that had international renown, and smaller places whose influence was well beyond the square footage of the dance floor.

Paul recounts the story of a venue called The Cat’s Whiskers in Kingly Street, Soho. It was home to the first jukeboxes seen in London, and enjoyed a burgeoning reputation for hosting performers such as Lonnie Donegan, Tommy Steele and the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group.

By 1958 it was so popular the police closed it down for being dangerously overcrowded, while, according to Coca-Cola, The Whiskers was their biggest single customer in the UK.

Its diminutive size was such that it is said the famous hand jive dance started here during shows by the band Leon Bell and the Bell Cats – taken up because of the lack of dancing space.

Johnny Otis, the American singer, clocked on to the craze and his hit, Willy and the Hand Jive, made it a globally recognisable dance move. It didn’t last – owner Peter Evans moved from skiffle to steak. He set up the Angus Steak Houses from the former Whiskers bar, while today, it is a Korean restaurant.

The Astoria Theatre. Photo: Paul Talling

Paul jumps from such important cultural landmarks to larger venues including theatres, that had established acts playing.

He looks at The Astoria, the Charing Cross Road venue that opened on what had once been Crosse and Blackwell’s central London factory in 1927.

But its demise was sealed when the Crossrail work began. A Compulsory Purchase Order was issued for the building to be knocked down. More than 10 years later, a new venue called Soho Place is set to include a 600-seat venue.

Redevelopment is not the only reason places close, no matter how successful their past has been. “The world-famous Cafe De Paris, with its extraordinary history, has gone,” he observes.

“That was purely because of Covid. It is a precarious business, putting on gigs, and requires determination and, if it’s a central venue with high rents, investment.”

Some Camden venues will bring a wave of nostalgia to anyone who has enjoyed a night out in the past two decades feature.

The Castle pub in Kentish Town Road – also named The Verge and The Flower Pot – was a popular venue in a gorgeous, Grade-II listed pub. An estate agent firm bought it, closed the pub down and went through planning wrangles as they tried to earn permission to demolish it. They were eventually ordered to make good damage – and the venue is now a property management office, much to the sadness of many living nearby.

While noting their loss, Paul is clear what pressures there are on venues.

The Ramones at the Astoria

“Take the Bull and Gate in Highgate Road,” he says. “Let’s say a publican likes having bands on, and the place is established, but a brewery comes to them and says instead of having a dozen people watching their mate’s band on a Tuesday night, this could be a gastropub and the gig venue a restaurant with 10 times as many people on a slow night eating expensive food, and spending 10 times more.”

Venues that played clear roles in counter culture movements and celebrating London’s fantastic diversity feature.

We are reminded of Covent Garden’s Africa Centre, carved out of a former fruit and vegetable warehouse for the market in 1964.

It was more than a music venue – as Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted. The South African campaigner joined the fight to keep the Centre open in 2012, praising it for its work as a crucial space for the anti-apartheid movement.

With live bands from Africa regularly booked, it offered something different, and was the home to the Soul II Soul collective from the mid-1980s, becoming a key venue in the dance music culture.

As well as mourning how a city is always in flux, which means improvements in some places and destruction elsewhere, Paul’s work offers a window into a London with a huge range of places run on a shoestring and fuelled by passion, providing a space for creative adventures.

London’s Lost Music Venues: Vol 2. By Paul Talling, Damaged Goods Books, £14.99

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