Category: Music

Shuttered Soho

Lockdown Lowdown 16.5.20

Took the bike and trundled up to Soho at 8am this morning to see if it still existed. It’s been my preferred place to have fun for more than forty years. Plenty of nothing going on now.

Soho Square: Lot of homeless people being cleared out by police
Want to be back at Ronnie’s the night it re-opens.

See you there when it all wakes up.

Suiting The Beatles

Suiting The Beatles

Dougie Millings made suits for the Beatles, in fact he made every suit featured in the Fab Four’s films: ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help!’  Last night I met Gordon Millings, Dougie’s son, who gave a talk about those fab days and showed us the original patterns created for the Beatles’ outfits.

Gordon Millings, Guy Hills of Dashing Tweeds and bespoke cutter Dan MacAngus

Gordon, born in 1945, was three years younger that Paul and almost the same age as George. His Dad’s shop was on Old Compton Street in Soho, two doors down from the 2i’s Coffee Bar. The 2i’s was a famous music venue in its day and can claim to be the birthplace of British rock & roll. A young Cliff Richard got his start there as did the Shadows, Adam Faith, Joe Brown and Johnny Kidd.

When these singers started to rake in some teen-generated cash they wandered over to Dougie’s to get suited and booted. Cliff was the first to do this and started sporting Millings’ clobber on the box.

Word made its way to Liverpool and Brian Epstein brought Gerry and The Pacemakers down for a fitting. Brian told Dougie the next time he was in town, he was bringing a new band. The Beatles showed up with quiffs and leathers but left with a set of collarless Nehru-style jackets.

At the time Gordon was training as a cutter at Huntsman on Saville Row. He used to pop back to his Dad’s shop at lunchtime to help him out. Once the Beatles became famous, Millings had to move to bigger premises and employed around eight tailors to meet demand. Back then a bespoke Saville Row suit cost £35, today you’re looking at £5,000 or more.

Last night’s talk took place at Dashing Tweeds who have taken the original designs and created new suits according the Beatles’ patterns. There’s a cape jacket which can be seen on the Help! album cover, a collarless jacket and a Teddy Boy style jacket which was worn by Lennon at the London Palladium.

On a final note, Keith Moon was also a customer and was buried in one of Dougie’s dark blue suits. Trouble was, as Gordon told me last night, he had forgotten to pay.

Blue plaque special

Blue plaque special

Ronnie Scott gets a gong

It was bucketing down; more like an Asian monsoon than gentle British rain. Appropriate, I suppose, as there were a hundred of us gathered in Chinatown getting soaked. Suddenly a saxophonist stuck his head out of an upstairs window and started to play.

English Heritage were honouring the old jazzer, Ronnie Scott, with a blue plaque at the location of his original club on Gerrard Street. The weather was not playing along.

On the plaque Ronnie is cited as jazz musician and raconteur. His gags were legendary: ‘I love this club, it’s just like home: filthy and full of strangers.’ Or how about: ‘You don’t seem very impressed. Why don’t you all hold hands and see if you can contact the living?……It’s the first time I’ve seen dead people smoke.

The club was located on Gerrard Street from 1959 until 1965 and was an attempt to emulate the smoky jazz clubs of New York. They presented many famous musicians there: Zoot Sims, Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz and Ben Webster.

Of course, these names will mean nothing to many people so how about Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Jeff Beck, Van Morrison and Prince who’ve all appeared at the club where it now resides on Frith Street.

Simon Cooke, the MD at the club, who’s a mate of mine said: “Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club has led the way in British Jazz for 60 years through its innovative programming and championing of the music and musicians. An English Heritage Blue Plaque is a fine acknowledgement of the contribution that Ronnie Scott himself made to the British Jazz scene.” He also said a lot of stuff that was entirely unprintable.

I should declare an interest here and that interest is I love jazz and have been going to the club since the late 70’s. In fact, I was there last night to see the mighty Mingus Big Band.

Coincidently I was also there the night Ronnie died on 23rd December 1996. George Melly was appearing as he did for years over the Christmas period and rather bizarrely, said nothing about Ronnie’s passing.

But back to happier matters, as the rain beat down the saxophonist (Alex Garnett, part of the club’s house band) played Ronnie Scott’s own saxophone to wild and wet applause as Ronnie’s widow Mary looked on.

Ronnie’s is a London treasure; a fantastic venue presenting wonderful musicians and for a jazz club even the food is pretty good. Make sure you get along there sometime soon.

Denmark Street Blues

Denmark Street Blues

I signed one of those on-line petitions the other day to ‘save’ Denmark Street. For those who don’t know, Denmark Street was once the Rock & Roll capital of London. I’m not entirely sure why I thought it was a place worth preserving. In my almost 40 years of visiting ‘Tin Pan Alley’ as it used to be called, I’ve received, almost nothing but snotty nosed, boot-faced condescension from the so-called sales people that frequent the music shops. Most of them look like roadies who may be wonderful at coiling cables but would struggle to sell water in a desert.

The patronising attitude must have seeped into the brickwork, because while the hair styles from 1970 to the present day may have changed their withering looks haven’t. But we’ll come to all that in a moment.

Denmark Street is located just east of Soho and branches off Charing Cross Road just south of Tottenham Court Road. It runs for only 300 metres or so but in its hey-day it was what Harley Street is to medics and what Fleet Street used to be to newspapers. It was the beating heart of London Rock & Roll.

In the 50s and 60s it was home to music publishers, but times changed, and it gave way to recording studios, music clubs and musical instrument shops.

In the 60s the Rolling Stones recorded their first album at Regent Sound located at 4 Denmark Street and Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote ‘Your song’ at offices belonging to music publisher Dick James. The 70s saw the Sex Pistols living and recording there. From 1994 until last year the 12 Bar Club played host to the likes of Jeff Buckley, Bert Jansch and KT Tunstall. It has quite a musical history.

Today, Denmark Street is the victim of a triple whammy: (can you have a triple whammy?) Creeping gentrification, the Crossrail development at Tottenham Court Road and I’m guessing the cold hand of Amazon.

Tin Pan Ally and I go way back, and over the years I’ve been there to buy all matter of guitar playing stuff, but I want to tell you about my first and last visits.

In 1970, I was a budding guitar player which made me virtually identical to just about every other 16-year-old in the western world. But where I differed from all the other players was not in talent, but rather that I had £15 in my pocket. Fifteen quid that was to be spent on my first proper amplifier and there was only one place to go to get it.

I was living with my parents in a village just outside Northampton and I bought an amplifier in a local junk shop that had come out of the Savoy cinema. It was massively heavy, produced almost no volume and was utterly useless.

It was decided, I was to go to London by train, buy an amplifier and return all in one day, ALL BY MYSELF. That rather dull, repetitive sentence does scant justice to the head-spinning, cart-wheeling excitement, that a day in London at the Rock & Roll centre of the universe conjured up. I could barely sleep, and what’s more, I had a new pair of jeans.

To my parents, a trip to London was a special occasion, dressing up was obligatory and I totally bought into that concept. Let me tell you about the new jeans. They were skin tight, and I’d taken my mother’s pinking shears to the generously endowed flairs that spread like spinnakers from my ankles. I looked like I’d been attacked by wolves. Topping them off was a psychedelic tie-dyed T-shirt and a World War 2 military great coat, the latter bought at an army surplus store. It had a small hole in it and I was always slightly bothered that it’s previous owner might have met his end while wearing it.

Top look I’m sure you’ll agree, except my mother didn’t. What DO you think you look like? You can’t go to London looking like that, was the general tenor of her remarks. If I was to retain that all important £15 a compromise had to be reached. And then I had a brain-wave.

Yes of course Mum, I’ll change my trousers and turn down the volume on my shirt. Rather a quick back down in the face of authority you might be thinking. To which I reply HA! You are underestimating the ingenuity of a 16-year-old. I had a largish shoulder bag that I used for carrying albums into which I shoved the ripped jeans and eye-melting T-shirt. Once aboard the train I changed outfits and, I like to think, looked magnificent. Surely, I’d meet rock stars in Denmark Street and we could exchange cool, sardonic nods of recognition. I might also meet girls, a commodity that seemed non-existent in Northampton.

Sadly, the rock stars must have been getting their heads together in the country that day and as for girls, well my extravagant look didn’t have the desired effect.

Because Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton cranked their axes through Marshall amps, I had to have one, but fifteen notes didn’t cut it, so I settled for a Park amplifier instead. This was grudgingly sold to me by a long-haired lout who could barely get out of his chair such was the industrial level of contempt he felt for the whey-faced plank-spanker standing in front of him. Walking out with my prized possession I was philosophical. Sod him for a game of soldiers, I thought, I now own a black, fifty-watt amplifier. Heaven on earth.

A week later I took it to school and someone nicked it. Rock & Roll dreams snuffed out.

Last month I visited Denmark Street in search of mid-priced acoustic guitar to take travelling. I was after an instrument that could get thrown around without too much concern if it got the odd dink or scratch. One massive improvement on being 16 now rather than in 1970 is that for £300 you can score yourself a highly playable, decent sounding guitar. The guitars I was brought up on were untunable and almost unplayable. Or was that my lack of talent?

So, I’m upstairs at Hank’s and the guitar jockey is handing out various specimens for me to try. Just prior to this visit I’d figured out quite a nifty version of the Gershwin classic ‘Summertime.’ It’s not exactly hard to play but involves a descending bass line and some rather groovy chord changes. Next thing I know the guitar sales person looks round and says, ‘Wow, that’s great, how do you do that, could you show me what you’re playing there?’

Young people today, they don’t have a clue how to behave.

In case you’re wondering about the guitar in the picture, it’s a Mexican made Fender Stratocaster that was produced in conjunction with Transport For London.