Sounds from the street

London Essays – Issue 4: Culture

Sounds from the street

Pop music began in London – and the capital has proved a remarkably resilient home to music, even as both the industry and the city have altered.

By Bob Stanley

You would think London would make more of a fuss about being the birthplace of the international popular music industry. Universal, Warner/Chappell and Rough Trade can all trace their antecedents back to genteel Vauxhall pleasure gardens – where, in the 1740s, Londoners socialised while listening and dancing to music provided by wind bands and pianists. Among the more famous songs especially written for Vauxhall were James Cook’s Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill and Henry Carey’s Sally in our Alley; you could buy a song sheet to take home with you. So London was where popular music was first commercialised and began its long, slow transformation into ‘pop’. As recently as the 1920s, America still looked to London as the home of light music – a Broadway show had much more chance of success if it originated on this side of the Atlantic. Jerome Kern – the writer of Smoke Gets In Your EyesThe Way You Look TonightOl’ Man River and plenty of other ‘Great American Songbook’ standards – faked an accent and passed himself off as English to get his earliest songs published. New York and Hollywood may have changed the rules by the mid-twentieth century, but London’s pop roots run very deep indeed.

In an era when the dry professionalism of the Brit School reigns, it’s easy to get nostalgic for London’s musical past, its flukes and freaks and sense of endless creative and commercial possibility. In the sixties, Shena Mackay wrote about girls moving to London, seeking the technicolour romance of Carnaby Street and a sprinkle of Mary Quant or Sandie Shaw’s fairy dust, and finding instead bedsits in Earls Court, the ominous shadow of the leering landlord and the permanent smell of damp and boiled cabbage. But at least the rents were affordable. Young musicians would go to the art schools at St Martins, Hornsey and Croydon, not necessarily with an eye on a job in the art world, but to feel their way.

The capital also lured people from elsewhere in Britain – the Beatles, the Animals, and Tom Jones – who had conquered their home towns and wanted to expand. It could only happen if you made that jump. And even if you hadn’t conquered your home town, with cheap digs anything was possible, although never easy – who would have laid money on the possibilities for A-Ha, three kids who moved over to London from Norway in 1984 and subsisted on salt and pepper sandwiches?

The recent, rapid changes to the city can make it seem that this ramshackle, semi-pro structure has disappeared completely. In the twentieth century, pop’s epicentre – the hub of publishing, the pubs and clubs full of hucksters and starlets – was limited to a couple of square miles, essentially Soho. Music business was conducted almost entirely within spitting distance of recently dismantled Denmark Street, the two rows of buildings where writers hawked their songs, from When I’m Cleaning Windows to Wonderwall, and where the Rolling Stones and Sex Pistols recorded their earliest songs.

From Zone 1…

It’s no secret that the city is becoming more international, more monied. It’s writ large on people’s faces. Crossing Charing Cross Road from Denmark Street, past the former Foyles bookshop and the site of EMI’s publishing offices and the ex-Central St Martins School of Art, no one looks as though they’re struggling to get by, and you certainly won’t see anyone who looks like a drummer with a gig tonight. Twenty-five years ago, every major record label was still within a ten-minute walk of Wardour Street: new acts played at Plastic People on Oxford Street, the Milk Bar on Charing Cross Road, or the 12 Bar on Denmark Street. For A&R men, shows at the Falcon in Camden or the Water Rats at Kings Cross would have felt like a hike. Back in the late eighties, My Bloody Valentine were starting a post-rock revolution from a huge derelict house on Lady Margaret Road in Kentish Town. Quite likely, they thought they were in the sticks – now people pay through the nose to live as centrally as Kentish Town. Go back another six or seven years to the early eighties and you’d find many of the habitués of the Blitz club living in squats even closer to the centre. Boy George’s pad was just off Warren Street; his father was ashamed of its grubby squalor. In 2016, if you’re a songwriter, you’re more likely to be living in a corner of a converted warehouse in Manor House with stud walls and no windows. Time passes, the backdrop changes, and the property is usually another half-mile further away from Piccadilly Circus.

To Zone 2…

London’s meanness, its untidy backwaters, its bits-in-between and neglected corners, are of the utmost importance – more often than not, that’s where the magic happens. The most obvious example of this in recent history is east London. The triangle bounded by Dalston, Hackney and Clapton was a neglected area of squat culture in the late seventies and early eighties, home to the likes of Scritti Politti, and became in the nineties the fountainhead for modern UK urban music. The duo Shut Up & Dance used primitive gear to make extraordinarily exciting breakbeat records for local sound systems and celebrated and lampooned rave culture (with titles like £10 To Get InFuck The Legal Stations and Dance Before The Police Come), selling thousands of their records from the boots of their cars and becoming the source of jungle, drum’n’bass, grime and, indirectly, UK garage and dubstep. Back then, you could master a record at JTS (Jah Tubby Sound) on Broadway Market, get it pressed at the ASL vinyl factory by the canal in Haggerston then drive around the city flogging copies to shops like Pure Groove in Archway, City Sounds in Holborn, and Zoom in Camden Town. You just had to get your foot in the door before it closed and the developers bought the area up.

Does the slow death of Soho even matter to anyone under thirty, who is used to the capital’s musical focus being three or four miles to the east? The ever-moving nature of London’s music scene might explain why east London’s part in recent pop history isn’t talked about more often. It would be nice to see a blue plaque on Stoke Newington High Street where the old Shut Up And Dance offices stood, but there’s nothing. Is it because London’s history is too rich? Hackney has several overlapping stories, different pop worlds progressing simultaneously, a characteristic that, say, Liverpool doesn’t have.

This triangle is still a musical stronghold, of course, but one of a very dfferent flavour: Cafe Oto and the Shacklewell Arms do the same job as the Soho venues did in the twentieth century. The irony is probably not lost on the major labels that they all moved west to Hammersmith, Putney Bridge and Olympia to avoid rising rents a matter of months before the creative scene began to move eastwards, to the Angel to Hoxton to Dalston. If EMI had set up shop in Old Street in the mid-nineties, it’s conceivable that the company would still exist.

To Croydon…

It isn’t just Zone 2 districts like Dalston that have provided alternatives to the dens of iniquity and creativity of the west end. The suburbs have always been as important to London’s artistic souls as the centre: close enough that you feel involved, that your voice has London validation, but sufficiently far away for you to grow and develop in isolation. Starting in the mid 50s, producer Joe Meek found solace in a studio above a leather goods shop on (still unfashionable) Holloway Road and – with number one hits TelstarJohnny Remember Me and Have I The Right – recorded the first significant DIY independent pop in this country. The sixties R&B boom that gave us The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Yardbirds and The Who came out of clubs in Ealing, Twickenham and Richmond; Fairport Convention were named after a rambling, arts-and-crafts building in Muswell Hill which housed a dentists’ surgery where they rehearsed every day, creating the building blocks for British folk rock; David Bowie’s ‘arts lab’ in Beckenham was the back room of a pub he retreated to in 1969 after an abortive first stab at fame in the Smoke, creating his own world, his own tiny orbit of people and influences, working up the songs for Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust.

Cool Croydon

The outer suburbs continue to be productive. Croydon – regarded by the Post Office as part of Surrey until a few years ago, but now consciously rebranding itself as ‘Croydon, South London’ – is as ‘outer’ as the city gets, its high street a full ten miles from Piccadilly Circus. Still, it’s an interesting pointer to how pop music in an internationalised London might develop. Its vast number of sixties office blocks rendered it a victim of the post-secretarial age in the ’00s, as many companies realised they could save on rent and operate instead from a couple of laptops. Croydon’s fall coincided with the rise of dubstep – the empty space, the concrete uncertainty of its future, were reflected in disconcerting sub-bass and skittery double-time percussion, partially filling what had been lost.

Dubstep’s centre was Big Apple Records on the centuries-old Surrey Street market. Prime dubstep operators Skream and Hatcha worked in the shop; Digital Mystikz were regular visitors. Dubstep went international, Big Apple closed, the music moved on. The overground extension to West Croydon has given the suburb a direct link to Peckham, Shoreditch and Dalston, enabling its empty spaces to become an ‘art quarter’ and galleries like Turf to emerge. Already you feel it’s up against the clock, though: the empty office blocks are being repurposed en masse as private flats.

In 2016, the most exciting act from Croydon are Kero Kero Bonito, two middle-class kids called Gus Lobban and Jamie Bulled, and Japanese singer Sarah Midori Perry. Their music is influenced by dancehall, computer games and J-Pop – it’s super-catchy and at some point will crossover into the mainstream, just as dubstep did. But it’s a million miles from dubstep: Kero Kero Bonito are loosely affiliated with PC Music, a collective based a few stops up the overground in Peckham, who epitomise London’s current music scene and nod gently to its art school pop heritage. The PC Music collective are obsessed with Eurodance and advertising jingles and post their songs online. Main players AG Cook and Danny L Harle both went to Goldsmiths, and are unembarrassed to say they’re middle-class. The privatisation of public space in places like the new Central St Martins site may seem designed to stifle self-expression, but PC Music prove you can operate with wit, flair and commercial nous inside the freshly drawn boundaries of the expanding internationalisation of London.

If contemporary pop is so international and online, you may wonder why it needs to be based in London at all. If the likes of PC Music are priced out of Peckham, why shouldn’t they move to a creative city with cheaper property and plenty of it? Yet people making pop music are still drawn to London. Healthy scenes outside the capital tend to be uninterested in commerciality; it still seems like an act of defiance to not be in London. Take the current experimental music boom in former mill town Todmorden, between Leeds and Manchester – it’s thriving and at least a generation away from death by gentrification. But Todmorden is an exception. London is still the city that most musicians want to be based in. Why is this?

For young, digital-savvy musicians, the fact that the music industry is based in London is now less important than the fact that it is also at the centre of the fashion and art worlds, which are increasingly converging to create pop culture. If the music industry moved en masse to Reading, a young musician would still prefer to be in Peckham, where the galleries, bars and parties are and you can still get noticed. Yes, it’s harder to get by in London than anywhere else in Britain – it feels easier to breathe in Newcastle, Bradford and Birmingham, and if you’re comfortable and confident enough to operate in a smaller city (I’m thinking of the Pastels in Glasgow, Field Music in Sunderland, Massive Attack in Bristol) then a scene can still develop around you. But most musicians don’t have that singular vision or confidence. Just by virtue of moving to the capital you can feel more legitimate. Rent be damned – you are almost compelled to make something happen.

There’s so much going on that London lights a fire under you. Get a move on! Cut that record! Make that break before someone beats you to it, because there’s always someone else in London ready to see your idea and raise it.