Werewolves Ghosts of London
Of all the pop culture landmarks in London only the Abbey Road crosswalk is protected by law. The Brits are good at looking after historical stuff, having had so much practice and a wealth of material to work with. They use a series of “grades” to identify structures of true importance, starting at places like Stonehenge and St. Paul’s Cathedral and stepping down from there. Still, the grades don’t normally go so far as to include an ordinary crosswalk, a bit of municipal paintwork notable only for its association with the Beatles. Today, with its preservation guaranteed by decree, the Abbey Road crosswalk—or zebra (rhymes with Debra) crossing as the locals call it—looks much as it does on the 1969 album cover despite the daily trampling by traffic and tourists.
In another part of London, Jimmy Page’s house is famous aside from its association with the Led Zeppelin guitarist (and its previous owner, actor Richard Harris). The Tower House, built in the 1850s in the Gothic Revival style, has its own Wikipedia page due to its architectural merit and looks as striking and pristine today as it does in sketches from the Victorian era. It’s easy for fans to visit, too, being set in a selfie-friendly spot close to the road.
The Tower House and Abbey Road—both the crosswalk and the namesake recording studio nearby—are unusual in their high level of preservation and there’s no reason to suppose that will change any day soon. At the other end of the spectrum, plenty of potential landmarks, usually on private and unprotected land, found themselves in the path of commercial progress and were torn down, plowed under and are now gone forever.
Quite a few of the stops along London’s music pilgrimage trail are somewhere in the middle. They are the endangered species among pop culture sites—not extinct yet but heading that way, existing as much in one’s imagination as the landscape. Many of them have changed through the years or are in the process of being reborn, replaced and repurposed. Take Trident Studios in the heart of Soho, where not only a string of great songs were recorded, but all using the very same piano: “Hey Jude”, “Life on Mars”, “Perfect Day”, “Tiny Dancer”, “Killer Queen”, “You’re So Vain”. Today the Trident building contains the offices of a software company or some such. The only reminder that this is hallowed ground for music fans is a Blue Plaque commemorating David Bowie, an enameled disc mounted high on an exterior wall and is easily missed.
With some perseverance and Google Maps, places like Trident Studios can still be found around London even if there’s not always much to look at when you get there. True music fans will find it worth the effort to visit these places even if they have faded into the brickwork as palimpsests, simultaneously there and not there. Let me now guide you through a few of these ghosts in the landscape before they disappear entirely.
Marquee Club, Wardour Street, Soho
THEN: Sooner or later everything gets turned into condos. Wessex Studios in Islington, where London Calling and Never Mind the Bollocks were recorded? Condos now. Basing Street Studios in Notting Hill, where Jethro Tull recorded Aqualung in the same week Jimmy Page recorded the “Stairway to Heaven” guitar solo? Condos. Given the trend, there’s no reason to suppose the Marquee Club, in a prime location but bereft of architectural interest, could put up much resistance. Being little more than a plain, blackened room, the Marquee was not known for opulence, but in its golden era, 1964 to 1988, everybody who was anybody played there, including the biggest names in prog rock, heavy metal and punk. King Crimson and the Moody Blues started here in the sixties, while Pink Floyd played regularly on Sunday afternoons. The Marquee was easily the most influential club venue of its day, but with changing musical tastes and skyrocketing rents, London’s club scene has scattered to other parts of town, especially to the east end and south of the river. How long before those venues, too, are redeveloped into something else?
Chelsea Drugstore, King’s Road, Chelsea
THEN: When it opened in 1968 the Chelsea Drugstore wasn’t just a place where Mick Jagger went to get your prescription filled. More than a pill dispensary, it was a multi-level space that sold magazines and records and served food and drinks—a retail concept well ahead of its time, boasting a futuristic exterior of aluminum and glass. In the late sixties King’s Road rivalled Soho’s Carnaby Street as the style hub of Swinging London and no place was groovier than the Chelsea Drugstore with its mini-skirted staff and hipster clientele. Austin Powers would have fit right in. Few interior photos seem to have survived the sands of time but Stanley Kubrick used it as a filming location in A Clockwork Orange, immortalizing the Chelsea Drugstore in the scene where protagonist Alex picks up two women at a record shop. They don’t make drugstores like that anymore. Still, not everyone was enamored of the place. Local residents opposed the brash architecture and complained of the riffraff that came and went at all hours, and by the early seventies the Chelsea Drugstore was forced to close down.
Rainbow Theatre, Seven Sisters Road, Finsbury Park
THEN: Built as a cinema in 1930, the Finsbury Park Astoria changed its name to the Rainbow Theatre and became one of London’s most celebrated live music venues. It was a sizable place, seating 2,800 people. It was here that Jimi Hendrix first burned a guitar onstage—and his fingers, requiring a trip to the hospital. Years later, in a fine Spinal Tap-esque moment, Deep Purple’s 1972 concert here earned them the distinction of being the world’s loudest band according to the Guinness Book of Records. More substantially, though, the Rainbow earned its cred as a venue of choice for recording live music. With a little help from his friends, Eric Clapton recorded his post-heroin addiction comeback concert at the Rainbow and Neil Young recently released the recording of a 1973 concert here. There must have been magic in the acoustics because the Rainbow attracted a disproportionate share of diverse artists wanting to record live music and videos: the Beach Boys, Genesis, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, Ramones, T. Rex, Kevin Ayers, Golden Earring, Stiff Little Fingers and Van Morrison among many more.
NOW: Universal Church of the Kingdom of God
Eel Pie Studios, Ranelagh Drive, Twickenham
THEN: When Pete Townshend lost his driver’s license, as rock stars do, he bought a riverside house in leafy West London, downstream from his suburban home, and turned it into a recording studio. This way, he could commute to work along the Thames by boat and thumb his nose at the local traffic police as he sailed past. He named the new property Eel Pie Studios. Problem was, Pete called everything Eel Pie this or Eel Pie that. In fact he already owned another studio called Eel Pie miles away in Central London, and Eel Pie was the name he used over the years to refer to a series of home studios. So it’s difficult to be sure exactly what Pete and/or the Who might have recorded at the Twickenham location, though it’s reasonable to think it would include demos or portions of Who Are You and solo albums of that era such as Empty Glass. What we do know is that this Eel Pie location was used in the eighties by A-ha, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Thin Lizzy and others. The Cocteau Twins took up residency here for some years in the nineties, calling the place September Sound. Townshend sold the property in 2008 and it has since devolved into a gloomy and unkempt single family home.
NOW: Private residence
La Gioconda Coffee Bar, Denmark Street, St. Giles
THEN: You can walk the full length of Denmark Street in about one minute, yet there’s more music history to discover per square inch than anywhere else in London. And with ten guitar shops to distract you along the way, actual travel time may vary. In the sixties Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were freelance studio musicians patrolling the area. The Kinks and Rolling Stones recorded their early work at Regent Sound, across from a building where Elton John auditioned for a music publisher while lyricist Bernie Taupin went up to the roof, sat down and wrote about kicking off the moss. Both Melody Maker and New Musical Express magazines began here. The Sex Pistols rehearsed in a dingy basement under Malcolm McLaren’s office. In later years the 12 Bar Club, holding only a hundred people, hosted UK debut gigs for Jeff Buckley and Adele. But the place that tied the street together was a shabby little coffeeshop called La Gioconda, where songwriters and musicians hung out together all day—and where a regular customer soon to become known as David Bowie recruited members for his first band, the Lower Third, thus launching his career.
NOW: Steak restaurant
Apple Corps Limited, Savile Row, Mayfair
THEN: By the mid-sixties so much money was pouring in that the Beatles were advised to form a corporation or lose most of their earnings to personal taxes. So they set up Apple Corps and delved into everything from filmmaking to electronics to retail. While the Beatles made music that changed the world, they couldn’t run a business to save their grandmothers: every one of those ventures quickly failed. But the Beatles (or their accountants) had excellent taste in real estate and bought a handsome Mayfair townhouse for their headquarters. In the basement they created Apple Studio, the recording space seen in Peter Jackson’s documentary The Beatles: Get Back. Then, during one wintery lunch hour in 1969 the Beatles played on the rooftop … until the local constabulary showed up, responding to a noise complaint, and literally pulled the plug on the last live performance the Beatles ever gave. Such an event might have been the coup de grâce for any lesser band trying to get their groove back, but for the Beatles it became just another iconic moment in a long tradition of iconic moments. They shrugged it off and within a month were in the studio starting work on their Abbey Road album.
NOW: Abercrombie & Fitch
Paul Ruta is an old Canadian guy now living in London. Work appears in Reservoir Road, Ghost Parachute, X-R-A-Y, The Pinch and other places. He writes for kids under the pen name Andy Spearman. He regularly updates his website: paulthomasruta.com
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