Themed London Walks
Take a Walk in Swinging London – Part 1
In the first of our themed London walks, we are going to take a tour of Swinging London, visiting the places where its famous inhabitants once worked or played or both. (One reason why London was so “swinging” is that the lines between the two were not always clearly drawn.) We will take in iconic clubs and bars, places where pop music history has been written, and, above all, the music itself.
The idea is to listen to the songs while you are in the very same place about which the song has been written. This obviously only works with songs that, one way or another, refer to a specific place, which why all songs with a “generic” London theme have been excluded. So, there will be no London Calling, and no Streets of London (originally written, at any rate, by Ralph McTell as Streets of Paris where he had worked as a busker.)
The songs must convey a certain “sense of place”: that is the first ground rule.
The second is: no far out locations. This is a walk through the West End of London, where most of the iconic places are concentrated. So, for reasons of practicality, there will be no Electric Avenue (Brixton) and, regrettably, no Portobello Road either.
And thirdly: while I have taken as broad a view as possible, this still is, up to a point and inevitably, a personal list. I am very much aware that music can be a highly contentious matter. If your favourite song about London is not included, please do not take this as a personal snub.
Ready to start? Okay then, here we go.
Of all the cultural icons of 1960s London, Piccadilly Circus is perhaps the most iconic. Most “swinging London” TV documentaries of the time appear to start with a shot of teenagers under the Eros statue – which is why this is a perfect place to start our walk. Cast a glance straight across into Shaftesbury Ave, “seventh heaven street” according to Dire Straits in Wild West End, their ode to the entire area, before continuing towards Haymarket on the far side of the Circus.
(There is also a song by Morrissey about the Piccadilly sex trade, but I think that’s a place we’d better not go to.) Turn right into Haymarket and continue – past Her Majesty’s Theatre where they have been staging The Phantom of the Opera for a truly frightening period of two decades – and turn left into Trafalgar Square.
Blur are one of the many English acts that were quite big in the UK – in the 1990s, they were second only to Oasis – but never quite made it in the US. In Blur’s case, this led to a severe case of sour grapes syndrome, and having completed their disastrous US tour, they became more deliberately British than ever before.
For Tomorrow – the lead single of their second album – is, primarily, a song about London, how nice it still is, even though perhaps not as nice as in the “seamless rhymes” of the poets of the past.
Primrose Hill, the northern section of Regent’s Park, which is a little out of the way for this walk, features prominently in the lyrics (“it’s windy there, and the view’s so nice”), whereas Trafalgar Square plays a more prominent role in the video, “standing in” for the entire city whose charms it is obviously meant to represent and to illustrate – which is why it is here.
Continue into Strand, passing Nelson’s Column on your left hand side. In the German original of the (Brecht and Weill song) Mack the Knife, this is where the mysterious Machheath’s first victim is found (“on the Strand”), although the English translation – made famous by Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin – is less specific (“on the sidewalk”).
Turn right immediately behind Charing Cross station towards the Thames and turn left into the public garden until you see the back of the Savoy Hotel on your left. Turn left behind the hotel and follow this street – called Savoy Hill – up to the corner with Savoy Steps. This is the very place where one of Rock history’s most famous “music videos” was shot.
Originally planned as a trailer for the “rockumentary” about Bob Dylan’s British tour of 1965, the video was a typical 1960s style happening: filmed as a spontaneous, ready-made slice of conceptual group art and made with the assistance of everybody who happened to hang around at the time in Dylan’s hotel room at the Savoy (Donovan and Joan Baez helped to write the paper boards, and the poet Allen Ginsberg appears as the guy pottering around in the background). You can find a whole lot more about the video and its history here.
Continue to Savoy Street, turn left and left again on Strand before making your way into Soho by taking a right turn into Garrick Street. Cross Upper St Martin’s Lane and turn right when you reach Charing Cross Street, making your way past Cambridge Circus (and the Palace Theatre) before turning left immediately behind the large intersection into Moor Street.
Here, at no. 13, you could – until recently – find the Barocco Bar from where, in the Dire Straits song Wild West End, the waitress watches Mark Knopfler buy his coffee beans at Angelucci across the road at 23B Frith Street, another West End institution that has been abandoned (although they continue to do business in the suburb of East Finchley – where, incidentally, George Michael grew up).
The West End’s most famous coffee bar, however, has survived and still thrives right next door: Bar Italia. Even in London, there are not many coffee shops that have their own song dedicated to them.
“There’s only one place we can go, it’s round the corner in Soho, where other broken people go – let’s go!” sings Jarvis Cocker for Pulp, and Dave Stewart – the former front man of the Eurythmics – is apparently planning to write a whole musical about the place.
Yet another West End legend lies right across the road: Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (47 Frith Street) has hosted many legendary performances over the years – jazz, of course, but also rock. The Who premiered their rock opera Tommy here, and Jimi Hendrix gave his last ever live show on this stage.
Continue down Frith street to Soho Square and look – near the ping pong tables and the equestrian statue – for the bench that has been dedicated to the singer Kirsty McColl. Sit down for a while and watch the “pigeons shivering in naked trees”.
“There’s an empty bench in Soho Square: if you come, you’ll find me there.” Kirsty McColl – a hard-working folk singer with two recent top-ten singles under her belt – was 41 years old when she was killed by a speeding powerboat while taking a swim with her two young kids on a family holiday in Mexico. (She was able to push the kids out of the way, just in time.)
The case is notorious because the speedboat was owned by one of Mexico’s richest men, who also happened to be on board at the time. The Mexican court, however, found that it was not him but a deckhand who had piloted the boat. The court sentenced the deckhand for culpable homicide and eventually set him free after he paid a penalty of £61.
Every year since her death in 2000, Kirsty McColl’s fans have gathered near the bench in Soho Square on the Sunday nearest her birthday (10 October). “I hope to see those pigeons fly in Soho Square on my birthday.” Swinging London does not come much more poignant than that.
Return to central Soho by turning back into Greek Street. Turn right on Old Compton Street and right again into Wardour Street, looking for no. 90 on your right hand side, the former site of rock music’s most famous joint, the legendray Marquee Club. It had originally opened in 1958 on 165 Oxford Street – this is where the Rolling Stones played their first ever gig in 1962 – but really hit the big time after its 1964 move into a more central location (more central by Soho standards, that is). Practically every band that was famous at the time played here at least once, including Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Sex Pistols. (The Marquee moved somewhere else in 1988.)
In this clip from a French documentary, you can see how small the stage of the club was – not big enough, in this case, for the band and the guy with the camera. Since the band in the clip is The Who, you also get a chance to see Keith Moon in action on drums. Of all the musicians who ever played here, he is the one whose name has made it, for unfathomable reasons, on to the Blue Plaque that is attached to the outside walls of the building.
Continue down Wardour Street, turn left into Broadwick Street and look left into Berwick Street. This view – minus the Soho market stallholders who are crowding the street every weekday between 9 am and 6 pm – will be familiar to (at least) all of the 22 million people who have bought a copy of the 1995 Oasis album What’s the Story Morning Glory. This was one of the last albums ever to sell that many copies worldwide, and certainly one of the last rock albums.
Continue down Broadwick Street all the way until you reach Carnaby Street: a synonym for hippie fashion in the late 1960s (the place where the miniskirt was invented). It made the front page of TIME magazine in April 1966 (to illustrate the cover story of “London: The Swinging City”) and went quickly downhill since then. Today, it is – quite frankly – no more than a grim caricature of its former self.
Still, we started the walk with one iconic place of the 1960s and should therefore finish part 1 with another – besides, the 1991 “Spirit of Soho” mural on the corner with Broadwick street is certainly worth an extended look. See how many of the characters – all local residents, at one time or another – you can recognize.
We are now ready to leave Soho, crossing Regent Street into Mayfair – where we will continue our walk in the next post……
Start this walk early-to-mid afternoon, for reasons that will become clear as we go on. All will be revealed at the end of part 2. Duration: 3 to 4 hours.