January 31, 2013
In February 2012, a blue plaque appeared on 11 Golden Square, Soho.
It’s not there anymore and neither was it up for long, which is a shame. It commemorated…well, have a look.
The plaque was the work of Dave Askwith and Alex Normanton, who made the signs look as authentic as possible and then surrepticiously secured them to buildings. Some lasted weeks, some months.
They released a book of their witty, realistic-looking work called Signs of Life in 2005. Now out of print, it’s available here on Amazon, or here on Abebooks if you can’t stomach non-tax-paying conglomerates.
It’s in the grand tradition of fake English Heritage signs which seem to be attracted to Soho – for many years, one was pasted to a window in Berwick Street reading “Tom Baker, Bespoke Tailor…worked here but lived round the corner” and for a while, Gavin Turk’s was displayed inside the Groucho Club – but I think this is my favourite. I’m all for it being made permanent.
A second Askwith-Normanton sign was on display a littler further down the wall when I took these photos. It too has now long gone.
January 24, 2013
At 72 Wardour Street in Soho, there’s a newsagent which goes by the unusual name of The Hobbit.
Or, at least, there used to be.
For the last twelve months, the shop has been empty and it’s only since it’s closed down that everyone seems to have noticed the odd name (if you google ‘Hobbit’ and ‘Soho’, you’ll see the sign has caught the eye of almost everyone with a camera.)
The newsagent was given the name in the early 1970s, simply because the owner Ray Grant was a fan of the book (his name can be seen on the right of the sign.) Run by manager Victor for most of its lifespan, the shop was an old-fashioned newsagent in the heart of Soho, and when I recall its dusty, faded, strangely East German-looking interior, I could kick myself for never taking photos.
The largely unmodernised shop was sold to new owners in 2007, who gutted, refurbished and turned it into something closer to a late-night mini-mart. They retained a later sign which had been erected by Ray Grant, but while the new owners diligently chiselled his name off the front, they left The Hobbit.
The name looks even odder when you see it on the modern sign – it seems to bear absolutely no relation to the other words, or the building its on, or any sort of possible business.
The shop closed down in late 2011 and after being empty for six months, the modern sign was removed to reveal the original 1970s frontage in all of its handpainted glory.
I think part of the joy of seeing the sign again is that it’s a reminder of how shop fronts used to look. Inviting, quietly attractive examples of the human sign-writer’s art. They’re not like the majority of newsagent’s signs today, which are uniformly awful: looming, back-lit slabs which people with no design experience have drawn up on a PC, squashed into shape and had printed on sheets of neon plastic.
So far the 1970s sign has enjoyed six unexpected months in the open air – but how much longer it will stay there is anyone’s guess.
September 23, 2012
On the SOAS campus in Bloomsbury is a small plaque unlike any other in London.
The building in Thornhaugh Street is the only one in London to bear a sign apologising for being built.
On the front, facing towards Russell Square, a plaque reads: “The University of London hereby records its sincere apologies that the plans of this building were settled without due consultation with the Russell family and their trustees and therefore without their approval of its design.”
UCL erected the building in 1988 as the Brunei Gallery – an extension to the School of Oriental and African Studies which operates as “an exciting venue in Central London…[hosting] a programme of changing contemporary and historival exhibitions from Asia, Africa and the Middle East”. On top is a Japanese roof garden.
All very unobjectionable, you might imagine. You’d be wrong.
The University is on land which is managed by the Bedford Estates, a trust which benefits the descendents of the aristocrats who bought up the vast empty fields of what would become Bloomsbury three centuries ago.
In 1669, the huge Bloomsbury Estate came into the ownership of the Russell family through marriage. Their land stretched from present-day Euston Road to the north, Tottenham Court Road in the east, and all the way down to Covent Garden to the south – a nice accompaniment to Woburn Abbey, which had been gifted to them by Henry VIII following the dissolution of the monasteries. The Russell family, who were given the title of Duke of Bedford shortly after they came into possession of the land, remain the owners of much of the area to this day.
Piecemeal building schemes continued throughout the centuries, but in 1893, the 11th Duke, Herbrand Russell (1858-1937), felt political and popular feeling was turning against the owners of the large London estates, living as they were in a manner which was entirely alien (and alienating) to most of the population. Worried that their visibility and proximity to the masses might make them vulnerable, he made the decision to sell the majority of the family estate to developers, although many of the pre-exisiting developments remained in the family’s vast property portfolio.
Herbrand Russell was for many years the President of the Cremation Society of Great Britain, and was credited with saving the native Chinese milu (or Pere David deer) from extinction by breeding them in Woburn Abbey, but his grandson, the 13th Duke, John Russell could find little positive to say about him: “a selfish, forbidding man, with a highly developed sense of public duty and ducal responsibility, he lived a cold, aloof existence, isolated from the outside world by a mass of servants, sycophants and an eleven-mile wall.”
One of the many institutions who bought land from the family in the 1920s was the University of London, in an era which saw the tone of the neighbourhood shift from the residential to the academic.
Throughout the twentieth century, the Georgian houses were taken over by publishing companies, who converted the decent-sized rooms into individual offices. On the other side of the road from the Brunei Gallery are the former offices of Faber and Faber, a blue plaque dedicated to one-time employee TS Eliot upon the wall.
While the Russell family have long been unable to prevent the British Museum and the University encroaching into their estate, as educational institutions were given the legal right to compulsarily purchase land when they needed to expand, one of the conditions of sale was that the Bedford Estate retained the right of approval on buildings which fronted onto certain viewpoints.
And one of the viewpoints they have approval on is when buildings – just like the Brunei Gallery – face onto Russell Square.
The Bedford Estates were consulted in the early days of the SOAS project, but, in their words, “the university slightly pre-empted the issue”, and the design was fixed without the consent of the Estate. Thus, when the University set about leasing the new building to SOAS, the apologetic plaque was demanded by the Bedford Estate, who specified the exact wording, size and materials to be used.
Underneath the apologetic notice is a plaque noting that the actual design of the building was never really an issue: it won a Civic Trust Award 1988. The Trust awards “do not simply reward good design, but also take into account the way in which schemes relate to their settings and to the people they serve.”
Essentially, the only reason the plaque is there is as a point of principle.
The current Duke of Bedford is the 15th, who succeeded to the title in 2004. Today’s Bedford Estate consists mainly of “residential property converted to office and small hotel use and private residential property.” It also includes lock-up garages and a number of squares, both public and private.
That list rather downplays the scale of his empire which the Sunday Times estimated in 2011 had given him a fortune of over half a billion pounds.
And, since 1988, a prime view of London’s sorriest building.
January 20, 2012
In 1983, a Glaswegian-born, London-living British Railway employee named Alan McGee founded a music fanzine named Communication Blur, which span off into a fledging record label called Creation.
Having sporadically released records by the likes of Biff Bang Pow!, The X-Men and The Legend! (better known as NME journalist Everett True), McGee started a weekly music night called The Living Room in August 1983. The gigs fulfilled two purposes: the headliners sold tickets, meaning McGee could put the profits back into his record label, and it gave the largely unknown acts he had signed a chance to get some exposure.
The club opened at The Adams Arms (now the Lukin) in Conway Street, in an upstairs room which had been a folk club called Dingles from the mid-1970s. In front of an audience of some 150 people, the Television Personalities headlined the first night, and the gig was reviewed in Groovy Black Shades issue 6 (1983).
The PA was minimal, the lights were either an anglepoise lamp or a slide show depending on the band. And it was so bloody hot!! But there was a very relaxed atmosphere, so relaxed that the first band Miles Landesman were still in the bar when they should have been on ‘stage.’
The first Creation LP (released in August 1984) was a compilation entitled Alive In The Living Room, consisting of recordings made on hand-held recorders from the audience at the Conway Street pub.
The bands recorded at the Adams Arms for the album include The Television Personalities, The Mekons, The Jasmine Minks, The June Brides, The Legend!, The Pastels and Alternative TV.
After a period as an O’Neills, the pub was renamed The Lukin in the 2009. I had wondered if this was a continuation of the pub’s musical history, and it was named after the American Mark Lukin, the bassist in the Melvins and Mudhoney (he’s practically the only Lukin that comes up on Google.) But after I said I thought it was a “crappy pun name” (as in ‘Look In’), I was emailed by Shaun, the owner. He rightly said if I’d wanted to know where the name came from, I should have just popped in and asked. So the next day, I went along.
From the outside, I’d thought it was a chain pub; I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s a charming, large, jam-packed local, and on the Friday I went in, it was heaving with people ordering roasts. Shaun couldn’t have been more welcoming, and he urged me to pop upstairs to see the room where the club had originally been.
To the left is a bar, to the right, a huge fireplace. It’s exactly as it was when the club was running nearly thirty years ago.
Sadly, there’s no chance of it being used for any more live music, Shaun told me – the area is now residential enough to mean complaints about noise. He also let me know that The Lukin is named in honour of his grandfather (Lukin was his surname.)
The Living Room moved from the Adams Arms in 1984 to the upstairs room of The Roebuck (now The Court) at 108 Tottenham Court Road. The new venue already had a small musical footnote associated with it – in July 1965, 18-year-old Davey Jones performed a successful audition for manager Ralph Horton at the pub with his band The Lower Third (two months later, Jones adopted the stage name ‘David Bowie.’)
It was at the Roebuck “in front of 10, possibly 15 people” on the 8th June 1984 that East Kilbride’s The Jesus and Mary Chain performed their debut London gig.
Reminiscing about the night in MOJO, Jim Reid recalled “it was an absolute racket. We’re still having a blazing row while we’re supposed to be playing this song…” Bass player Douglas Hart remembered that “there was a lot of pent-up energy released. Years of frustration. It was total chaos. People just stood and stared.”With the guitars untuned, a broken fuzz pedal creating a horrible noise, the PA emitting ear-splitting shrieks of feedback as it struggled with the volume, and William Reid playing with his back to the audience, the set lasted just ten minutes.
Even though Creation’s co-founder Dick Green later admitted “I’m sure nobody meant it to sound like it sounded,” an awestruck Alan McGee signed the Jesus and Mary Chain to his fledging label immediately.
The Jesus and Mary Chain with (R) Alan McGee in Plymouth, 1985 (photo by Valerie Hicks)
Their first single Upside Down stayed on the UK indie chart for 76 weeks, becoming one of the biggest selling indie singles of the 1980s, and would kickstart McGee’s rapid rise into the big leagues. The Living Room shut up shop sometime late in 1984 as McGee went on to sign a who’s who of British indie acts throughout the next decade, including My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Oasis, Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub and the Super Furry Animals.
The name ‘Creation’ became famous worldwide, but it was in these two Fitzrovia pubs where the label’s rise truly began.
But it’s hard not to feel there’s something daft about changing pub names, which wipe out even the most recent years of history in a single stroke.
July 13, 2011
At 29 Great Marlborough Street, W1 (but most often approached by Carnaby Street, where it’s situated on a corner where the street meets Fouberts Place) stands The Shakespeare’s Head.
The sign outside the pub claims the inn was established on the site in 1735 and was named after the owners, Thomas and John Shakespeare, who claimed to be distant relations of their famous namesake. Nothing of the original establishment remains – the building which stands today is late nineteenth-century (albeit in a Tudor style) – and there are serious doubts over whether it has any connection even with Shakespeare’s descendants. After all, The Shakespeare’s Head is a fairly common pub name in London – others can be found in Holborn, the City, Kingsway, Finsbury and Forest Hill.
It’s likely Thomas and John Shakespeare form part of a colourful story about the pub’s origins, and one which has been stated with increasing conviction over the years. The presence of the claim on a nicely-painted board outside the pub certainly helps attract the passing tourists ambling down Carnaby Street, but it doesn’t make the story any more likely to be true.
What the pub does have, however, is one of London’s most charming Shakespeare statues.
There are others dotted around the capital – Leicester Square, Westminster Abbey, on the front of City of London school, a bust in the churchyard of St Mary Aldermanbury – but none with the playfulness of the one which peers out from a window-like recess of the pub.
There’s just something perfectly realised about the position of the body. While the face is cold and fixed, the stance of the body really conveys him casually examining the crowds below – a fixed moment where the greatest playright of all time is half-looking for inspiration in the throng that passes outside his window.
I have no idea whether the bust has always been painted in these cold colours, but there’s more than a touch of “zombie Shakespeare” about the hue (a zombie Shakespeare made an appearance in The Simpsons’ 1992 Halloween special Treehouse of Horror III, looking surprisingly similar to the pub’s statue.)
The sign outside also claims the bust lost a hand in World War 2 “when a bomb dropped nearby.”
While the bust is definitely one hand down, I’m inclined to take everything that sign says with a pinch of salt.
June 2, 2011
As a long-time comics fan, there’s nothing I enjoy more than conjuring up mental images of how comic shops used to be. When I was nine-years-old, the original Forbidden Planet comic shop at 23 Denmark Street was simply the most magical place on earth.
I only have to see a glimpse of the Brian Bolland artwork which used to adorn the plastic bags (and the associated t-shirt my dad bought me on one trip) and I’m straight back to the uneven wooden floor, the smell of pulp paper, the shafts of light streaming through the dust which hung in the air, and the vague unease of my mum as the till rang through each 75p I’d spent on the recent releases.
The store first opened in 1978, the third of the dedicated comics shops in London following Dark They Were And Golden Eyed in Soho and Weird Fantasy in New Cross.
The original Forbidden Planet was owned by Nick Laundau, a former sub-editor of 1970s British comics 2000AD and the war title Battle. He went on to establish Titan Entertainment, a company distributing imported the US comics which were previously only sporadically available at British newsagents.
There’s no better example of how American comic books were distributed in the UK prior to the 1970s than with the knowledge that most arrived in the country as ballast inside American ships. It’s a commonly told tale that when the ships docked in Manchester during the 1940s, the ballast was purchased by two brothers who wanted the American newspapers inside to sell on to fish and chip shops as wrappers. Any comic books they found would be diverted to a market stall and sold from there (the two Mancunian brothers later went on to found World Publishing, a successful children’s book imprint which finally closed in 2003.)
Today, Laundau is no longer the owner of the Forbidden Planet chain, but remains with Titan Books, now a vast publishing company specialising in TV tie-in books and magazines.
Just round the corner from the original shop on St Giles High Street was FP2, which, despite it’s claim in the poster above to be “the cinema and television shop”, I recall being stuffed full to bursting with sci-fi novels.
The two shops combined and moved round the corner to New Oxford Street in the early 1990s, forming the country’s first Comics and Sci-Fi Megastore.
It was a boom time for the comics shop – a new generation’s rediscovery of the Star Wars films and the announcement of an upcoming prequel, a mania for TV hits like the X-Files, and a runaway speculator’s market of limited edition comics and cover variants, meant that comics and pop culture had never been more mainstream.
Blinded by the record profits that the mania for collecting generated, the comic companies made a terrible mistake; they forgot to make their comics any good. While they would happily produce six different front cover designs for every single issue, they completely forgot to deliver the goods inside the covers.
As the writing and artwork inside the comics plummeted, so too did the numbers of readers. Copies which were once highly prized collectables became impossible to shift from the shelves. The speculators and collectors all retreated, and many of the smaller comic companies who’d been riding those waves folded almost instantly. It’s no surprise that, of the dozen or so mainstream comic shops operating in London at this time, all but the Forbidden Planet have since shut up shop.
Now pretty much the sole vendor in town, Forbidden Planet moved to its present, even larger location at 179 Shaftesbury Avenue in 2003.
I like the shop, but I can’t imagine it excites the minds of ten-year-olds like the original did mine. It’s very white, clean and tidy – a far cry from the sense I used to get of hunting for buried treasure in the scruffy old shop located down a rather insalubrious side street.
In fact, with all the silent men in their forties flipping morosely through leaflets, it looks a little bit like a private medical facility where all the health information pamphlets star Spiderman.
There’s still a shop in London that conjures up the wonder of the early 1980s comic shops, however; the Comic and Book Exchange in Notting Hill.
Everything about it is as perfect a relic of 1980s comic shops as you could ever imagine. The floor is dirty, the strip lighting flickers, and most importantly, it smells of cheap paper.
The racks are full to bursting with stuff you’ve never heard of, you can find amazing bargains, the signs are all handwritten, and the vast majority of their stock harks back to a time when comics had lurid, over-the-top covers created solely to encourage kids to pick them up.
It’s odd that the last place to go when you get nostalgic for Forbidden Planet would be Forbidden Planet. While FP might be the last of the London comic book stores to survive, the Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange is the only one in London that feels like stepping back to the modern industry’s very earliest days.
May 25, 2011
Years ago, I picked up this single in a charity shop – but sadly just the sleeve. With no record inside, the actual recording of Sound Town: London – The West End remains a tantalising mystery. It’s undated, but the inclusion of the BT Tower (which was completed in 1964) on the sleeve means it was released in the mid-1960s at the earliest.
Produced by Travelsound of 1-14 Canfield Gardens, NW6 (a couple of roads away from Finchley Road tube station), the record celebrates “the sounds that are London. A small treasure of knowledge this – it will enrich you in many ways, help you to understand the people of this Island. You will then be able to say, “nice to know you.””
I’d always presumed it would consist of field recordings of noises, ambient sound or conversations – a prototype art project – but looking at the back, one T.Z. Kurkowski is credited with the script, which was read by Ian Clark, a registered British Travel Association guide. In some ways, it’s an early prototype of many of the modern London walking tours you can currently download through iTunes, where someone takes you on a walk in real time, their commentary running over the sounds of the roads they’re walking down and the sights they stop outside.
The track ‘Speaker’s Corner at Marble Arch’ is the one I’m keenest to hear – for something which has been running for so many years, it’s shocking how meagre a selection of recordings seem to have been made at Speaker’s Corner. In recent years, it seems to have fallen off the list of tourist destinations, but having wandered over a few months back, it’s as full of racists, cranks and End-Is-Nigh-ers as ever.
A second record – Sound Tour of London – The City – was also released at the same time, but neither return any results on the internet whatsoever. It seems I’m never going to get to hear this thing…
May 6, 2011
High above 105-109 Oxford Street sit a trio of London’s oddest statues.
Three stone rodents.
At first glance, they look a bit like rats, but the wide flat tail sported by the one on the right identifies them as beavers.
The one at the very top also comes with a scroll, bearing the initial ‘H’.
105-109 Oxford Street was formerly the premises of Henry Heath’s Hat Factory, and his name and profession are still spelled out in a brick facade on the back of the old factory, which can be seen from Berwick Street.
According to the firm’s own publicity in 1879, Heath’s hat factory dated back to the reign of George IV (1820-1830) and they guaranteed “1st , Their Quality; 2nd Excellence of Finish; 3rd Style.”
A relief of George can be seen above one of the windows, with the date 1822 most likely referring to the firm’s establishment. Next to it is a young Queen Victoria, 1887 being the date the premises were rebuilt.
Henry Heath’s primary product was top hats, which were made using felted fur from “Beaver Otter, Rabbits, Hares and Musk Rats.”
The firm was still advertising its products in 1931, but while they undoubtedly shut up shop due to the modern decline in hat-wearing, I’ve been unable to find out exactly when. If anyone knows, please drop me a line!
In the meantime, here’s a final shot of the beavers, who’ve been perched on the roof watching London change for the last 124 years.
May 6, 2011
It might be more proper to place a question mark at the end of that headline, but, according to Stephen Knight’s Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution (1985), 74 Brook Street, just two minutes away from Oxford Street and opposite Claridge’s, was once the home of London’s most infamous murderer.
Knight first identified the Victorian surgeon William Withey Gull (1816-1890) as Jack the Ripper in his book, and his hypothesis was later adopted by Alan Moore for the tremendous graphic novel From Hell (which was also a less tremendous film.)
Educated at Guy’s Hospital (where he remained throughout his professional career) Gull’s medical reputation has been entirely outstripped by the clamour of the Ripperologists. He coined the name ‘anorexia nervosa’, advanced understanding of paraplegia and Bright’s disease, argued that women should be encouraged to enter the field of medicine, and was known for his ceaseless work in treating patients at any time of day or night.
Gull’s surprisingly modern medical outlook was summed up in his Published Writings: “Never forget that it is not a pneumonia, but a pneumonic man who is your patient. Not a typhoid fever, but a typhoid man.”
In 1871, Gull became Physician-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria’s son Albert (then Duke of Wales and later Edward VII) and successfully treated him for typhus. With nary a full-stop in sight, The Times reported on Gull’s work with the Prince in December 1871:
In Dr. Gull were combined energy that never tired, watchfulness that never flagged ; nursing so tender, ministry so minute, that in his functions he seemed to combine the duties of physician, dresser, dispenser, valet, nurse, – now arguing with the sick man in his delirium so softly and pleasantly that the parched lips opened to take the scanty nourishment on which depended the reserves of strength for the deadly fight when all else failed, now lifting the wasted body from bed to bed, now washing the worn frame with vinegar, with ever ready eye and ear and finger to mark any change and phase, to watch face and heart and pulse, and passing at times twelve or fourteen hours at that bedside.
Created a Baronet the following year (he took the title 1st Baronet of Brook Street), Gull was consequently appointed Physician Extraordinary and subsequently Physician-in-Ordinary to Victoria. It is not likely he ever treated the Queen; there were four Physicians-in-Ordinary and for all but one of them it was effectively an honorary position.
Gull died at 74 Brook Street in January 1890 after a series of strokes. The Times reported his death.
We regret to announce that Sir William Gull died at half-past 12 yesterday at his residence, 74, Brook-street, London, from paralysis. Sir William was seized with a severe attack of paralysis just over two years ago while staying at Urrard, Killiecrankie, and never sufficiently recovered to resume his practice.
On Monday morning, after breakfast, he pointed to his mouth as if unable to speak. His valet, who was in the room, did not quite understand what was amiss, but helped him into the sitting-room. Sir William then sat down on a chair and wrote on a piece of paper, “I have no speech.” The family were at once summoned, and Sir William was soon after removed to bed, where he received every attendance from Dr. Hermann Weber, an old friend, Dr. Charles D. Hood, his regular medical attendant, and Dr. Acland, his son-in-law.
The patient, however, soon lost consciousness, and lingered in this state until yesterday morning, when he quietly passed away in the presence of his family. The inquiries as to his state of health during the last two days have been unusually numerous, a constant stream of carriages drawing up at the door.
Gull was buried next to his mother and father’s graves in his childhood hometown of Thorpe-le-Soken in Essex.
If his name was well-known in his lifetime, it was nothing compared to how famous it would become from the 1980s onwards. While a 72-year-old highly-respected baron doesn’t seem the most likely of serial killers, Stephen Knight’s hugely entertaining book argued that Gull was responsible for murdering five women working as prostitutes in the East End in 1888 on the direct orders of the state.
To do justice to the entire murky web of probable presumptions, possibilities and perhapses which make up this conspiracy, there’s nothing as exhaustive and enjoyable as Alan Moore’s From Hell.
The interior of 74 Brook Street even makes an appearance towards the end of Moore’s book, when the medium Robert James Lees leads the police investigator Abbeline to the doctor’s front door. A tired, confused Gull confesses to his crimes. This was just artistic licence on Moore’s part – but considering the entire “William Gull was Jack the Ripper” theory depends almost entirely on artistic licence to keep it afloat, it’s an entirely fitting addition.
Surprisingly there is no plaque commemorating Gull’s time in the house, but there is one the other side of the road, on the house directly opposite 74 Brook Street.
The plaque is not dedicated to Dr Gull or Jack the Ripper, but commemorates some similarly grisly work that, even after all these years, still turns the stomach of all right-thinking people.
May 4, 2011
On Wednesday, 14th January 2009, the Astoria at 157 Charing Cross Road closed its doors for the final time.
The whole corner block it stood on was compulsarily purchased for demolition, so Tottenham Court Road station (which is directly underneath it) could be made six times bigger in anticipation of the Crossrail project, a high-speed rail network linking Berkshire to Essex. Such a provincial sounding reason to spell the end of one of the very last (and certainly the largest) of the properly central large music venues.
Proper concert halls are one of the few things that never end up being replaced. Once they go, they’re gone for good, and it’s odd how once an area loses one, they almost never get one back.
Built on the site of an old Crosse and Blackwell pickle factory, the Astoria was designed by Edward A. Stone, who was also responsible for other Astorias in Brixton (now the Brixton Academy), Streatham and Finsbury Park. It opened in 1927 as a cinema, and continued screening films for the next fifty years. The picture below shows in it 1936.
The Astoria became a theatre in 1976, and finally a music venue sometime around 1985. The list of bands that have played there is a Who’s Who of the music industry since: Nirvana, Radiohead, Oasis, Blur, Madonna, U2, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Black Sabbath, David Bowie…an almost endless list. It makes me think that the legend engraved over the stage door of the Palace Theatre – I’m paraphrasing, but it’s along the lines of “the greatest artists in the world have walked through these doors, and will continue to do so” – would have fitted the Astoria.
While working for Xfm in August 2007, I did an on-stage introduction for the Fratellis and had a chance to nose about backstage (unfortunately, I’d left my camera at home.)
It was quite a state backstage – not in terms of being especially tatty (all concert venue backstages invariably are, no matter how plush they look from the outside), but because it was a mass of incredibly narrow tunnels and tiny, low-ceilinged corridors that twisted so often and so sharply, you felt that you weren’t going onstage so much as going caving. It really hits you when you walk out how big the auditorium is, mainly because the balcony is so steep, and it looks like it just goes up and up and up. My voice went too high when I shouted the band’s name, and that high-pitched ‘The Fraaaaatelllllis!” from my one time on the Astoria’s stage must have been played more on XFM than some of the regular station IDs. A proud moment.
Despite a number of spirited campaigns to keep it open, the final gig took place on the 14th January 2009. Appropriately named The Demolition Ball, the concert benefited a number of good causes, but the line-up of Get Cape Wear Cape Fly, The Automatic, My Vitriol and ex-Mansun singer Paul Draper was nowhere near the send-off the venue deserved.
A week after closing, the demolition job started in tiny increments – the sign for the Metro Club, round the other side of the building in Oxford Street, was taken down, and a few months later, the iconic signage of the Astoria were removed. By October 2009, the site had been levelled.
It’s demolition left just Koko (formerly the Camden Palace) and The Kentish Town Forum as the only similar-sized venues nearby, neither of which have the legitimately dirty, legendary, big-time feel of the Astoria.
It’s just a building that was there to make money, but I feel a bit sad it was knocked down. Maybe it was the amount of pleasure the Astoria brought to so many people (and I’ve been going to concerts there for over fifteen years, which I’m quite shocked to realise) that meant when I used to walk past it, I saw it as a ‘good’ place, a ‘friendly’ building. It was somewhere people looked forward to going inside. It had a sense of history that you felt when you stepped through the doors and started walking up the stairs.
And now it’s gone so we everyone can charge their Oyster cards up without having to queue, and get to Abbey Wood in Essex in much quicker time. Hooray.
Fitting with its iconic ‘big-time’ feel, there’s been a disproportionately large number of live shows recorded here for CD and DVD releases. You can see some of the acts (and hopefully what the venue used to look like in the background and cutaway shots of the DVDs) right here.