Checking out the movies and the magazines
Waitress she watches me crossing from the Barocco Bar
I get a pickup for my steel guitar
As it happened I had wandered down there after the marking conference, as I normally do, for some wallowing in nostalgia I suppose. I've been going "down there" for so long now that it is part of my psychogeography. I think I've used the term correctly but could be wrong - I fully expect to be corrected at any moment. However, if this apparently serious term 'psychogeography'", writes Guy Debord biographer Vincent Kaufman, "comprises an art of conversation and drunkenness, and everything leads us to believe that Debord excelled at both" then I'm probably okay with it too.
Having grown up a twenty five minute train journey from London, Soho indeed became a regularly visited place. Through my early-to-mid teens I would travel up to visit Virgin Records, occasional Galleries and Museums and then as I got older went to gigs regularly there. The Marquee and just down the road The Lyceum with its all-nighters were great fun. The Marquee in Wardour Street and the Nellie Dean allowed me access to many of my musical heroes. Charisma Records used the Dean as their watering hole so rubbing shoulders and sharing a laugh (and a few pints) with members of Genesis and Lindisfarne before going up to watch some great bands just round the corner at the Marquee was wonderful. These people weren't famous then. Viv Stanshall drank (a lot) there too. I still frequent the Nellie Dean but as they don't sell London Pride I tend to prefer one of George Orwell's regular watering holes, The Dog and Duck, which is where I was heading off to at the start of this post.
A quick pint at the Dog and Duck and then I wandered over to Charing Cross Road and Denmark Street (aka Tin Pan Alley) to drool over a few vintage guitars. Cross over the road and pop into Foyles before rushing up to Tottenham Court Road tube station to get to Liverpool Street for an early evening train home. Foyles, by the way are still in the same premises but should be moving soon. Business as usual.
Many years ago I would meet friends in the Pillar of Hercules for a pint before shuffling off to Ronnie Scott's or the Marquee. Again, raised eyebrows as it's known as a gay bar but it was next to a great Greek restaurant I used to frequent. I was quite saddened when it became victim to a bombing incident some time at the end of last century. Foyles is just behind it. I performed the Amoeba Twist there once*. Nearby there was the Admiral Duncan and St Annes Court where Dark They Were And Golden Eyed was hidden away (or was it Forbidden Planet?).
In my very late teens and early twenties we would go and hang around the guitar shops in Denmark Street a lot. Well, when we could manage to get out of some seedy bar we'd found ourselves in. I went up once to buy a guitar with my bassist Brian** and we didn't get out of the bar at Kings Cross Station, just drunkenly got back on the train to come home to Stevenage in time for last orders. Over the last few years I've returned more sober with another friend to poke around these wonderful shops and rubbed shoulders with Noel Gallagher and that bloke from the Manic Street Preachers - the little one not the one that disappeared. Many years ago I bumped into Steve Howe from Yes and just up the road saw Richard Thompson rushing across the road. Probably dashing off to pray or something.
Anyway, over the years I have visited the area so often that it is part of the landscape I carry in my head. Blimey, even Mrs Dave and I shop around there quite often still. A visit to London without popping in to Fopp Records or a bite of lunch in one of the many lovely little cafes is almost unheard of. So when I read this article last year I thought I'd better get up there a few more times before it all disappears. It's worth reading if you've ever spent a bit of time walking in the wild West End but I'm not one hundred per cent convinced that things are changing that much. Yes, there's no Starbucks (named after a character in Moby Dick trivia buffs - the knowledge of which helped me win a Quiz recently) but other than the obvious Nando's and chains of pasta & pizza parlours, there's little to convince me that it's changing that much. I notice in the article it mentions that "since the 1970s . . . when the music did informal business in its pubs" - they certainly did. Tony Stratton Smith held court in the Nellie Dean and would buy anyone a drink. A great bloke.
Sitting in the Dog and Duck - a tiny pub on a corner - last week (and three times last year) I watched the world go by - it seems to be a similar world that I've watched through these windows for the past 40 years. Yes, there are lots of strip clubs, gay clubs, dirty book shops and seedy "film companies" and yes, there are far more oddly dressed people of some indiscriminate gender, blokes holding hands and wide eyed lost-looking foreign visitors but thus has it ever been. And also, the world has changed of course - and I've moaned at times about that more than many others - but there does seem to be some cosy familiarity about Soho that I enjoy visiting. I certainly wouldn't want to be there all the time but I'm rather pleased that my fears have been allayed somewhat since reading the article. Interestingly, one of the teachers I meet each year at the marking conference works at Barclay School in Stevenage and had been down to Sister Ray's record shop in Berwick Street the day before.
Okay, perhaps there was a bit too much name dropping here but I wanted to try to show that Soho has always been a place that the public could rub shoulders with genuine working musicians. God knows how many actors and writers I've stood next to or walked past. The article is all about "decline" and higher rents. These are the realities of life I suppose. However, the whole area is held in some affection by more than just me, I'm sure. I started jotting down thoughts about this article after reading it last year. As is often the case, I drew a map of the area (possibly a psychgeographic one) and besides some of the memories mentioned above there is also:
- The Dominion Theatre where many gigs were attended before it became the home to Ben Elton's awful Queen tribute
- A guitar shop I've long since forgotten the name of where I bought a Shergold Guitar (behind/underneath Centrepoint)
- The Phoenix Theatre where we went to see Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales just before our O'levels
- The Shaftesbury Theatre where we went to see Jesus Christ Superstar the first time round
- The Marquis of Granby, Soho Square, the café we called Angellucci's after the Dire Straits song (where I learned that a young bearded man on his own shouldn't eat egg mayonnaise sandwiches***) . . .
It appears that historic Soho is hanging on in there and I hope that it'll be a similar situation when I go there next year.
Soho, needless to say
I'm alone on your streets or am I dreaming?
I've been here all of the day
I'm going nowhere with nowhere to go
* you had to be there, I guess, but if you ever saw Patto live . . .
** who mostly played a double bass in those days. That's one reason we never gigged much.
*** nowadays explained away by "dyspraxia" but that was then . . .