The history of London’s 10 greatest live music venues
Carl Allen, author of London Gig Venues, has researched the history of more than 550 of London's live music venues, present and past. Here he explores memorable episodes in the history of some of the capital's most interesting music hubs
The Astoria, Charing Cross Road
The shell of a Crosse & Blackwell pickle warehouse built in 1893 was in 1927 reconfigured by Edward A Stone, who designed many other Astoria cinemas in London. It was later used as a strip club before it was relaunched as a music venue in 1985.
The Astoria quickly became a much-loved destination for music fans and a firm fixture on tour itineraries for the next quarter of a century. David Bowie, Morrissey, U2, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Oasis, Radiohead and a whole host of indie and rock bands appeared on its stage. The Rolling Stones played here in 2003 on their ‘small club’ world tour, and the Astoria hosted the Manic Street Preachers’ last gig with lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards before he went missing in 1995.
Although the Astoria was a little rough around the edges, its 2,000 capacity made it attractive both to bands who were just establishing themselves and to big names who wanted to play a venue more intimate than arenas.
The Astoria also had an alternative nocturnal identity. After gig-goers had left the building at the end of a show, G-A-Y Pink Pounder club nights would host appearances from pop acts such as Kylie and The Spice Girls.
Underneath the venue was a ballroom, called the LA2 and later the Mean Fiddler, which staged gigs by Pulp, The Cranberries and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
The Astoria and its ballroom were demolished in 2009 to make way for the new Tottenham Court Road Crossrail station.
(Photo by Carl Allen)
Blitz, Great Queen Street
Blitz was the epicentre of the 1980s New Romantic movement. As well as attracting a celebrity A-List clientele, the Blitz had Steve Strange (later of Visage) on the door and Boy George working in the cloakroom.
The venue hosted the first gig by Spandau Ballet in December 1979 (commemorated by a Performing Rights Society blue plaque), and David Bowie filmed the video for his 1980 hit ‘Fashion’ here.
After Blitz closed in 1980, the site became home to Browns nightclub; today it is a lap-dancing club. Though the building is hardly one of the most attractive on Great Queen Street, its place in the cultural and fashion history of the 1980s is hugely important.
The Marquee, Wardour Street
The Marquee is possibly the most iconic venue name in London, moving between several sites over the years.
It first opened as a jazz club in a former cinema on Oxford Street in 1958. However, its best-known address was 90 Wardour Street, thanks to the acts that played there during the club’s long stint at the premises.
The Marquee club moved to this site, a former Burberry clothing store, in 1964. The first band to take to the stage was The Yardbirds, and over the years practically every big-name act of the period played here: Cream, David Bowie, Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, The Cure, Kiss, Led Zeppelin and U2, to name just a few.
This venue closed its doors for the last time in 1988, when the club moved to Charing Cross Road for eight years; the Wardour Street building was converted into residential flats. A blue plaque on the building commemorates Keith Moon – the drummer from The Who – who played the venue an impressive 29 times.
The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road
Not many buildings, let alone music venues, can claim that their design was seen in plan format by engineer Robert Stephenson (1803–59), designer of revolutionary steam engine The Rocket – but when it first opened in 1847 the Roundhouse was a steam-engine repair building.
By 1869, the Roundhouse was being used as a gin warehouse, a function that continued until the 1950s. In 1964 the building was taken over by the Centre 42 movement as an arts space for theatre, dance and music. Pink Floyd played the inaugural event, a ‘rave’ to launch the newspaper International Times in 1966, and The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Ramones, Patti Smith, The Clash and Blondie performed here before the venue closed in 1983.
The building then stood empty until a brief series of gigs in 1996 by Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg and Suede blew away the cobwebs and reminded everyone what a fantastic building it was. The Roundhouse Trust, set up in 1996 to bring the building back into cultural life, raised £28 million and in 2006 the venue opened up once more as a home for the arts, with acts including George Michael, Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker and the Manic Street Preachers playing the rejuvenated Roundhouse.
The Grade II* listed building, beautifully restored and adapted for modern use, celebrates its 50th birthday as a cultural hub in 2016.
(Photo by Carl Allen)
The Rock Garden, The Piazza, Covent Garden
Opened in 1976, this basement venue hosted a wide variety of New Wave and indie bands including U2, XTC, Adam and The Ants, and Suede. A number of unsigned regional bands also performed here, hoping to attract the interest of record companies; The Smiths played their first London gig here in March 1983.
The Rock Garden had a busy diary, with gigs on most nights; however, by the 1990s it had become a nightclub called The Gardening Club. The building is today home to an Apple Store.
The Scala, Pentonville Road
Opened in 1920 as a Gaumont cinema, The Scala hosted its first gigs in the 1970s, including performances by The Stooges and Lou Reed; photographs taken by Mick Rock at these gigs were used on the covers of The Stooges’ Raw Power and Lou Reeds’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal albums. The film projectors continued to roll during this time, though the name of the cinema changed many times over the years.
By the mid-1990s the venue was no longer used as a cinema, instead functioning as a music venue, nightclub and snooker hall. Acts to have played The Scala include Foo Fighters, The Killers and Coldplay. The five-storey building is rather wonderfully detailed inside and out.
(Photo by Carl Allen)
Sir George Robey/Powerhaus, Seven Sisters Road
In the 1960s, the pub that opened as The Clarence Tavern in the mid-19th century was renamed the Sir George Robey after the famed London-based music-hall comedian, and became the local boozer of a young John Lydon – who, performing as Johnny Rotten, was lead singer of the Sex Pistols. From the 1970s the pub hosted gigs by the likes of Fairport Convention, Wilko Johnson and later The La’s.
In 1996 the pub was taken over by The Mean Fiddler Group and renamed The Powerhaus. The venue attracted mostly indie bands such as Blur before closing for good in 2004. Empty and unloved – except by a few admirers of the buildings ‘Meux’s Original London Stout’ carving – it fell into disrepair and was demolished in 2015.
(Photo by Carl Allen)
Paris Theatre, Lower Regent Street
Designed by the renowned cinema architect Robert Cromie, the Paris Theatre opened in 1939 and became a BBC radio studio after the Second World War. The Beatles recorded several live radio appearances here in 1962 and 1963, and the building’s exterior features on the cover of their album The Beatles Live at The BBC.
This was also the venue of choice for John Peel’s ‘In Concert’ programmes, during which T-Rex, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin and many others recorded on stage and broadcast to the nation. The theatre closed in 1995 and remained empty until 2005 when it became a private gym.
The Gaumont State Theatre, Kilburn High Road
When it opened in 1937 the Gaumont State Theatre was one of the largest cinemas in Europe, with a capacity of 4,000. This beautiful art deco edifice was the work of George Coles (1884–1963), who designed many of London’s cinemas including The Troxy in Stepney and The Coronet in Woolwich, both of which have also hosted gigs.
The candelabra in the Marble Hall was designed as a copy of one in Buckingham Palace, emphasising the grandeur of the cinema. The diverse and rich array of musical acts to have performed on its stage include Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and The Who. As television audiences grew in the 1950s and 60s, these performances were important in supplementing the venue’s income.
The cinema closed in 1981 (though a small screen was used between 1985 and 1990), later housing a bingo hall and today a church. The Grade II* listed building, and particularly its 37m-high tower, remains a local landmark.
Gaumont State Cinema, c1937. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The Troxy, Commercial Road
The Troxy, another George Coles-designed art deco cinema, opened in 1933 and boasted a revolving stage. Vera Lynn, Gracie Fields and Cliff Richard all performed here while the building was still an active cinema.
The cinema closed in 1960, partly due to the hangover of damage caused to the building during the Second World War but also because of the general decline of the Stepney area. It became home to the London Opera Centre, but by the 1980s was being used as a bingo hall. The building, which became Grade II listed in 1990, then became an event centre and music venue hosting performances by Morrissey, Pixies and the Jesus and Mary Chain.
Carl Allen is the author of London Gig Venues (Amberley Publishing)