Halls of fame

Mark Paytress takes a trip back in time to explore the legendary hangouts where entire genres of music were forged

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 10 Mar 2010
  • min read
Mark Paytress takes a trip back in time to explore the legendary hangouts where entire genres of music were forged

For the past 50 years, Britain’s concert venues have been as much part of our musical culture as the artists who graced – and sometimes gleefully disgraced – their stages.

While teenage rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts such as the pre-Beatles Quarry Men were bashing out skiffle-type numbers at school fetes and street parties, more discerning characters were shuffling into two newly opened venues in late-50s Soho: Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club and The Marquee Club, run by Harold Pendleton.

In April 1958, Pendleton brought Chicago electric bluesman Muddy Waters over to join the Barber band on stage at the Marquee. It kick-started a revolution, and by early 1963 a young, enthusiastic new combo called The Rolling Stones briefly took over from Alexis Korner’s R&B interval band, but proved too raw for most Marquee regulars.

The Stones went on to secure residencies at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, then on Eel Pie Island, soon to become hotbeds of R&B. By spring 1964, they were already being tipped as a darker alternative to The Beatles who, between 1961 and 1963, were performing to heaving crowds at The Cavern.

It was the R&B boom that prompted an explosion of new club venues, among them Newcastle’s Club A’GoGo, the Cedar Club in Birmingham and the Twisted Wheel in Manchester.

By 1967, psychedelia grew out of the club scene, with London’s enigmatically named UFO and Middle Earth inextricably associated with the emerging hippie underground.

These ‘head’ clubs were a law unto themselves, with disorienting lights and lengthy sections of improvised music augmenting the audience’s own experiments with the era’s new wonder-drug, LSD. ‘Everyone loved the make-up, the costumes, the political comment, the drug humour,’ remembered UFO regular Arthur Brown, ‘and all the record companies came down to see us.’ And snapped them up. Very soon, all the leading underground bands outgrew the clubs, many seeking to follow Cream and Hendrix into the hallowed spaces of the Royal Albert Hall. One of the most successful were Jethro Tull, though singer Ian Anderson acknowledged the role of a revitalised Marquee Club in championing the second wave of blues boom artists. ‘The stuff that came out of the Marquee during that relatively short period of time was amazing,’ he said. ‘Not only us but Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack and John Mayall, then The Nice, King Crimson and Yes.’

By the early 70s, rock was ushering in a period of giganticism. The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and David Bowie all preferred the impersonal vastness of Earl’s Court over the old cultish strongholds. A brief backlash during the latter half of the 70s took place, when a ‘back to the roots’ movement threatened to wrest control from an industry that had become increasingly safe and risk-free. Pub rock fermented in places such as The Hope & Anchor in Islington, while its more unruly offspring, punk, favoured more offbeat locations such as The El Paradise strip club in Soho or the Roxy in Covent Garden. Ironically perhaps, it was at the trusty old jazz venue The 100 Club on London’s Oxford Street where the new wave first hit the headlines with the two-night Punk Rock Festival in September 1976.

But if the venues have become more sterile, the performers have by no means lost their flair for invention. Today, bands can reach their audience in ways that beats, hippies and punks could never have imagined. Pete Doherty drags his battered acoustic round to fans’ houses while Radiohead ‘perform’ for their fans at home via the internet, living proof that it’s what you play and how you play it that truly counts.