London’s music scene and her venues are in a state of flux. Seemingly powerless in the face of consolidated development and veracious capitalism, musical institutions are vanishing or at risk of doing so. One should not look on the past as perfect, halcyon days in which art and artists roamed and owned the streets, instead present lamenting must maintain a guise of objectivity and be a call to action rather than merely resignation in the face of the faceless forces of change.
Denmark Street is at a crossroads in its existence. Facing peril at the hands of developers and abandoned by local councils, a centuries old musical history is in the balance. It was with this contemporary issue in my head and in my heart that I endeavoured to walk ‘Between the 12 Bars’ – the 12 Bar being the streets venerable music venue and a place of deep personal attachment for myself as a musician having both seen gigs performed there and dreamed of taking part myself. The bar closed its doors at the beginning of 2015, moved to Holloway Road only for that to close. The tireless efforts of Henry Scott-Irvine and the Save Tin Pan Alley group have recently secured a music venue to operate once again on the original site, gutted by Crossrail development, on Denmark Street. Home again.
The walk was to function as an opportunity for reflection on music in London – perceived as ‘gone’, but perhaps ‘changing’ is more appropriate a term – at best optimistic, at worst naïve. My exact route is less relevant than my reflections – brought to mind as a direct result of the mentally stimulating act of perambulation.
Methodologically, my improvised route served sometimes as a distraction and weather at first propelled me to certain, sheltered routes. On the other hand this improvisation allowed me to get truly lost – something becoming a rarity in this city, my adopted home. Lost where amongst the first signs of familiarity are places of fond memory of time spent with my ex-partner. It seems even in walking, enacted as a mentally palliative exercise, one is not safe from the stop-in-your-tracks power of the memory of the head and of the heart. Included is a hand- and hastily- drawn map of my route, in the spirit of Guy Debord’s Discours sure les Passions de l’amour though I hope he will not take offence at the quality of its execution.
One, two, three, four.
Behold the 12 Bar brought low. Not wishing to dwell too long on a loss always in my heart I headed north on Tottenham Court Road, a station normally a popular busking spot but not today. Remembering conspicuously absent petrified Freddie Mercury. To Gower Street, passing RADA and a curiously named ‘Minerva House’. Goddess of wisdom and sponsor of the arts, trade and strategy – perhaps some perverse ancient divine determinism set the arts at the whim of the forces of trade millennia ago.
Through the bowels of the Ministry of Truth – a long and incorrect way (a detournement at least as far as being a detour) to Richer Sounds on Holborn’s ex-Electric Avenue, that name being an adolescent misnomer on my part. My father having described with fond memory the proliferation of shops selling and servicing record players around Tottenham Court Road. I, logically, conflated the name of Brixton’s famous street with the only area of London I associated with musical electrics. One could only find retailers of such things here and, in the same vein, London’s only guitar shops were on Denmark Street – except of course Macari’s which has presence not only on the street itself but also en route on Charing Cross Road, as if an amuse-bouche to the coming musical feast. Somehow my younger mind could absorb and retain this itinerant information but could not conceive of a place known as ‘Brixton’. This truly is time to reflect, and simply to be out walking.
Amidst rain and crowds, head-down to Euston via Gordon Square observing some obsolete borough street signs – an interest of mine. The first I ever noticed I used to pass every day, when I lived and loved in Peckham; St. Mary’s Road, once of the Borough of Camberwell, now Southwark. Mornington Crescent for Koko, heading, perhaps drawn, to Camden. Arlington Road, Charlotte Street, being parallel to main thoroughfares – Camden High Street and Tottenham Court Road respectively – allow for but do not insist upon a quicker pace. Rather, the emptier pavements allow the freedom to dictate one’s own pace. Displaying an accidental loyalty to the A400 in its numerous guises as Tottenham Court Road, Hampstead Road and Camden High Street. Crossing Regent’s Canal via a beautiful Victorian lock, only to be confronted with a behemoth branch of Morrisons.
Not yet witnessed much ‘music’, more homelessness than anything – at least, those people asking for money. What am I looking for, or expecting to see? Something indicative of my second-hand experience of the halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s? Perhaps something that made those days so open to rose-tinted reminiscences was the lengthy, peaceful cohabitation in the charts of both the titanic and timeless as well as truly drab and cliché pop acts. I refuse to make a comment on the condition of present chart music, but my reluctance to do so most likely reveals my feelings.
The loss of music possessing a power of cultural phenomenon – one likes to imagine young people as the ruling class and the easily characterisation of every youth as one of The Young Ones quartet – rather than simply being an audiophilic pastime is certainly, if partially, linked not only to the closure of pubs and bars, but also increasingly stringent licensing restrictions. Further, not only are long-standing venues at risk of losing their right to exhibit music – not least Kilburn’s venerable Good Ship – under the auspices of sound being classed as an anti-social act but large clubs, a real source of anti-social behaviour, are given free reign with all-night licenses. In Vauxhall for instance the recent by-law prohibiting the consumption of laughing-gas is a largely unenforced and irrelevant measure in the battle against anti-social behaviour in the area.
Fabric, ex of Farringdon, may not be a music venue by my personal experience – a place of live, band music – but it was a place of music for a great many people and to speak against its closure may at first seem a little counter to my preceding vitriol regarding large clubs, but the closure of Fabric was not about the consumption and potentially fatal consequences of drug-taking. Loss of young life is undoubtedly a tragedy but no lucid observer truly believes this was the reason for the popular and historic nightclub’s closure. It had to be made an example of. Indeed, “Fabric was always going to close, drug deaths notwithstanding”, and that closure could be celebrated as a tick-in-a-box in the war on drugs in the capital by both Mayor of London as well as the top echelons of the Metropolitan Police. Local councils lose more government funding year-on-year but, the Independent claims, revenue generated by institutions such as Fabric was simply too locally focussed. It did not serve to augment the coffers of the council in the more direct way that, say, a block of luxury flats would – which incidentally would create less income than night-time economy businesses. The fact that Dickens’ ‘Social Night’ is instead now referred to as the ‘night-time economy’ evidences the priorities of London administrators – not in a varied, safe and inclusive night-time culture, but instead the maximising of profit. Further, there is a clear congruence between the stories of the 12 Bar and Fabric in that they were both closed – the former moved north then closed again, the latter closed seemingly indefinitely – but both are set to reopen, highlighting the insecurity of London’s music venues.
Leafy north London, not so much a land of capitalism as is central London where I began – perhaps of the victors of capitalism – those financially comfortable in their existence. At least outwardly so – the financial affairs of my own family are by no means directly correlative with my father’s income. Sought a subversion of the present-day condition of my surroundings whilst lost in Hampstead and Gospel Oak by singing the Kinks to myself – those proud residents of Muswell Hill. ‘Sunny Afternoon’ seemed a fitting defiance to the autumnal reluctance of the sun to make his presence known.
Lost. An over-estimation of how north Holloway was led me to the south-eastern corner of Hampstead Heath and Gospel Oak. Refusing the aid of my phone – and the relief of public houses – I instead orientated myself by road signs and maps in bus shelters. At Tufnell Park, which I found myself at by accident, I got myself back on track, if nowhere near where I wanted to be considering the protestations of my stomach and the contents of my wallet – or lack thereof.
Finally, Holloway Road whose length presented itself with Roman straightness. Despite knowing that the 12 Bar was no longer in operation here – I never had a chance of visiting whilst it was, only during its Denmark Street residency – I was dismayed, due to a miscalculation, that it was now a Cashino (not a typo, a chain of slot-machine based casinos).
My unintended north London jaunt meant my end-point had been reached, without all of my points of interest visited. Completing the length of Holloway Road I headed towards Highbury and Islington to visit upon the Union Chapel – a space shared in the Durkheimian sense between the sacred and the profane, being a Congregational Church as well as part-time music venue (and a charity base). The Union Chapel is partially representative of the growing sharing economy in London – itself a necessity as much an anti-capitalist belief system – as well as the multiplicity of roles that a single place can perform. One wonders how the nearby disused but fine Highbury station building could function if reopened. Unlikely to be musical with The Garage next-door-but-one, but music is not the only activity that requires public spaces for its exhibition and is not the only branch of the arts with a falling number of opportunities for that exhibition. Sat in its residents’ gardens with a free coffee from a certain supermarket, before rushing to Lewisham, home again, in the Carol King sense, to develop my film.
Here is the street as it was, is and – Muses willing – will always be.