Saturday, 23 November 2019

She Said She’d Always Been a Dancer: Soho in the 60s

Stuart Penney

* Old Compton Street in 1959. The yellow arrow points to Paxton's
In early 1967 I arrived in London with little more than a guitar and a change of clothes.  The summer of love was just around the corner and, to paraphrase Bob Dylan from almost a decade hence, there was music in the cafes at night and cultural revolution in the air.  
Jobs were plentiful and, if you weren’t too fussy, cheap accommodation was easily found, usually without the need for tiresome references or expensive bonds.  Thanks to the Evening Standard classified ads, I quickly landed a tiny bedsit in Notting Hill, followed by a job as a general dogsbody in the post room of W. Paxton & Co, a long-established music publisher at 30 Old Compton Street in the heart of Soho.  Even for 1967 the pay was pitiful, just £8 a week (which translates to £150 in 2019) but, more importantly, it was a foot in the door of the music industry, albeit at the humblest level.  Trudging around the West End every day collecting sheet music orders from the myriad publishing houses also provided an invaluable knowledge of the back streets and alleyways of central London.

Restaurants, strip clubs, exotic delicatessens, folk cellars, guitar shops and trendy clothes boutiques were everywhere in the surrounding streets and Soho was vibrant with colour and noise.  Across the road from Paxton's was the 2i’s coffee bar. Established in 1956, it was purportedly the first rock & roll club in Europe and the place where Cliff Richard and the Shadows (née Drifters), Adam Faith, Joe Brown, Tommy Steele and many other British rockers got their start.  The name 2i's was derived from the original owners, Freddie and Sammy Irani, although the brothers were long gone by the time rock & roll arrived.
A few yards along at number 63 Old Compton Street were the former premises of the Beatles’ tailor Dougie Millings.  This is where the Fab Four’s famous collarless suits were made in 1963. The Flamingo and Marquee clubs were just a stone’s throw away in nearby Wardour Street and a few minutes in the other direction was Ronnie Scott’s jazz club.  Ronnie’s had recently moved to Frith Street, but his original Gerrard Street premises, renamed the Old Place, remained open until the end of 1967.
*The Legendary 2i's Coffee Bar
Upstairs from Paxton's were several floors of offices rented by all manner of showbiz types - publicists, managers, agents and the like.  Among them was Bill Cotton Junior, the television executive and son of the famous big band leader. He later became BBC Head of Light Entertainment and Controller of BBC1. 
Immediately next door was the Prince Edward Theatre.  Opened in 1930, the theatre went through several name changes until, as the London Casino, it became a wide-screen Cinerama picture house in 1954.  In the late 70s the venue reverted to its original name and became a full-time theatre once again, presenting big budget musical productions such as Evita, Miss Saigon and Jersey Boys.  One day in mid-1967 a skip arrived in the street outside and what appeared to be the entire costume wardrobe of the theatre was unceremoniously dumped.  Countless silk dresses, velvet tunics, fancy suede boots and wide-brimmed hats were simply tossed away. A couple of us managed to climb in and rescue some items before they went to the tip, but I shudder to think what the entire collection would be worth today.  It was a universe away from the provincial drudgery of my Sheffield hometown.
W. Paxton's Dean Street head office was strictly old school, publishing classical and brass band music of increasingly limited interest in the swinging 60s. The company was established in 1870 and there was even a Paxton record label which sounded impressive but was virtually moribund by the time I arrived. Thankfully, the Old Compton Street branch was somewhat hipper, supplying stores across Britain and Europe with the latest pop sheet music and songbooks sourced from the various London-based publishing houses, of which there were dozens in and around Denmark Street at that time.  Sheet music had been king in the first half of the 20th century but by the 60s it was losing ground to record sales and the traditional publishers were fast becoming an anachronism.  In the 70s and 80s closures, amalgamations and takeovers became commonplace and the music publishing industry shrank to a shadow of its former self. 

It transpired that my job at Paxton’s had recently been vacated by a guitar player named Caleb Quaye, who had gone to work as an engineer at Dick James’ studio in nearby New Oxford Street, where he would hook up with Elton John, then known as Reg Dwight.  Reg and Caleb had met at Paxton’s and would sometimes sit in the downstairs tearoom planning their musical future. Reg had previously worked at another publisher, Mills Music in Denmark Street, known as London’s Tin Pan Alley, just a two-minute walk from Old Compton Street.  Caleb would later record extensively with Elton and with his own band Hookfoot.
*part of an Elton John interview in Zig Zag magazine, early
With a small retail counter at street level and a maze of corridors leading to Dickensian wood-panelled offices and subterranean storage rooms behind, Paxton’s was an odd place indeed, employing a motley assortment of misfits, oddballs and eccentrics.  Some senior staff members had worked there for decades and nearly all had unusual personality traits. Like something from the lyrics of the 1966 Cat Stevens hit "Matthew & Son", a few of the more venerable managers were even rumoured to have been at the company for 50 years, taking them back to the First World War!
There was Ron, an angry little man who commuted by train every morning from Luton.  With Coke bottle specs and a toothpick-thin roll-up permanently clamped between his lips, Ron was in a perpetual state of red-faced indignation and would moan endlessly about the world in general and the deficiencies of British Rail in particular to anyone within earshot.  
More interesting was Harry, the co-writer of several published songs, notably the 1952 Max Bygraves novelty hit “You’re a Pink Toothbrush”, for decades a staple of the BBC radio request show Children’s Favourites (look it up on YouTube).  Despite this modest level of fame, mild-mannered Harry wore a brown warehouse coat and worked in the gloomy basement beneath a bare light bulb filling orders of vocal scores for stage and film musicals. The scores were individually wrapped in brown paper tied up with hemp string. Some hadn’t been disturbed for years and were covered in a healthy layer of dust which he would remove with his sleeve before carefully opening them.
Strangest of all was Nigel. Messenger boy Nigel Cornthwaite's all-consuming twin passions were theatre organs and the Who. Despite resembling an overweight bank clerk in his tweed jacket complete with leather elbow patches and tie, he would regularly perform an impromptu version of “My Generation” for us in the tearoom. 
Using a piece of wood as a makeshift guitar and placing heavy emphasis on Roger Daltrey’s stuttering delivery (particularly the line “why don’t you all f-f-f-f-fade away” which he seemed to find particularly risqué) Nigel would roll around on the floor and then smash his “guitar”, Townshend style.  And, heartless bastards that we were, we would encourage him endlessly, until one of the managers heard the racket and came down to curtail the performance. 
When agitated (which seemed to be most of the time) Nigel would suck his thumb and regress to infanthood.  He lived at home with his mother in Twickenham and it seemed that Pete Townshend knew all about him, inviting Nigel onstage at Who concerts and even to his home on occasion.  Several Who reference books mention Nigel joining the band on stage for “Magic Bus” during their last-ever appearance at the Marquee in December 1968. I suppose these days he would be taken care of properly, but back then Nigel was thrown into the workplace at the deep end and left to sink or swim.  It was all very sad. Years later Caleb Quaye told me What a character Nigel was.  I actually went with him to see the Who at the Marquee.  I don't think he ever recovered!”
In 1967 Soho exuded an air of seedy, down-at-heel decadence with garishly lit strip clubs and walk-up brothels on every street and alleyway.  The doorbells euphemistically labelled “Attractive Model, 3rd Floor” were a clumsy way of circumnavigating the law against soliciting.  The number of Soho sex shops increased from just a handful in the early sixties to close on a hundred by the early seventies.  The Street Offences Act of 1959 had supposedly driven prostitution underground, but it was still visible well into the 60s with working girls appearing in shop doorways as soon as dusk fell.  A few plied their trade from the side exits of the Prince Edward Theatre on Greek Street and after a while I got to know some of the regulars by name. One would tease me mercilessly about my proto Marc Bolan haircut.  “If I had hair like you, darling, I’d be making a lot more money!” she would call out as I hurried past on my messenger boy duties.
Each strip club had a barker standing outside on the pavement whose job it was to cajole the drunks and unsuspecting saps inside where they would be fleeced for bogus membership fees and charged extortionate amounts for drinks.  The girls who worked the strip joints used a well-tried rotation system and every day you’d see them rushing from club to club, make-up in place, peroxide hair in rollers under a head scarf and wearing, more often than not, a PVC leopard skin print or cheap fur coat of some description to perform their act yet again a few yards down the road.  This is surely what inspired Paul McCartney to come up with the line “She said she’d always been a dancer, she worked in 15 clubs a day” when he penned the Abbey Road song “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”.

*Don Partridge busking in Brewer Street, Soho
Along with the tourists, office workers and local characters, Soho was home to several street entertainers.  Don Partridge, the self-styled King of The Buskers was a one-man band who scored a couple of UK top ten hits in 1968, the most memorable of which was “Rosie”Don was an imposing figure who could regularly be seen performing around the area with his guitar, harmonica and kazoo in a Dylan-style neck harness and a bass drum strapped to his back, not to mention his trademark snakeskin jacket.  He was frequently moved on by the police and sometimes even arrested and charged with obstruction, but he’d always be back the next day to perform his Jesse Fuller repertoire (Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues” was an essential part of every busker’s repertoire).  Following his brief flirtation with pop success Don continued to travel the world as a street singer almost up to his death in 2010.

One of the most distinctive Soho characters was Billy Davis, an alcoholic semi-vagrant who had a distinctive line in street performance.  He wore thick horn rim glasses and would stick a carnation behind each ear, along with two more in the buttonholes of his threadbare army surplus overcoat.  The flowers were sourced from nearby Covent Garden market each morning and they earned him the nickname “Rosie”. Billy’s arrival was typically heralded with plenty of shouting and swearing, so we’d invariably hear him long before he came into view.  His party piece involved standing in the middle of the street and, casually indifferent to the traffic chaos building up around him, he would carefully balance a wine bottle on his head while singing ancient music hall songs at the top of his lungs. He’d presumably consumed the entire contents of the bottle beforehand.  The spectacle was usually accompanied by the impatient tooting of car horns and the cursing of taxi drivers. Billy’s performance was repeated almost daily around Soho and he would gather crowds of bemused onlookers. Inevitably, he eventually crossed paths with the Beatles. 

*Billy Davis pictured in Gerrard Street circa 1968

Working in Soho we’d see famous actors and musicians on the street daily and while it was always a thrill for a lad from the provinces, after a while it became commonplace and a matter of routine.  “Just seen Sean Connery in the sandwich shop on Wardour Street” someone would say, prompting a co-worker to counter with a bored “Really? the Small Faces were in the Gioconda cafe on Denmark Street this morning” and so the game of celebrity Top Trumps would continue.  But I don’t care how blasé or world-weary you are, seeing the Beatles in the flesh is something else entirely. A few yards along from Paxton’s at 76 Old Compton Street, on the second floor above a shop, was Norman’s Film Productions. It was here that the Fab Four came almost every day for eleven weeks in late 1967 to edit their Magical Mystery Tour television movie.
*The Beatles and Billy at Norman's Film Productions, late

Word started going around that Paul McCartney had been spotted coming and going at Norman’s and, sure enough, a few days later I saw an Aston Martin DB6 driving down Dean Street with Paul at the wheel.  Then, returning from lunch one day, I encountered all four Beatles walking together along Old Compton Street.
*Billy Davis appeared in the "Hey Jude" promotional film clip,
September 1968
They were dressed in their colourful psychedelic finery with neck scarves and beads and George had on a bright yellow Afghan coat.  Chatting and wisecracking among themselves, they were clearly in high spirits. My memory tells me they were walking in single file, like on the Abbey Road sleeve, but that’s probably not true.  As they passed an eatery named The Yodelling Sausage (yes, really) on the corner of Greek Street and Old Compton Street, Lennon became quite animated, laughing and repeating the name in that unmistakable nasal accent.  As for me, I became frozen to the spot. The hysteria of Beatlemania had long since passed and this was Soho, after all, where well-known people were an everyday sight, but here were all four members of the most famous group in the world, casually walking unmolested (and mostly unnoticed) among the shop workers and tourists. It was a truly heart-stopping moment. Then they were gone towards Charing Cross Road and it was back to the workaday drudgery, eccentrics and misfits at Paxton’s.
*Billy Davis at Norman's Film Productions, late 1967
In November 1967 Norrie Drummond from the New Musical Express interviewed Paul McCartney at Norman’s Film Productions.  The Beatles had encountered Billy by this point and invited him up to the editing suite for a singalong.  Drummond wrote in the NME As we walked back through Soho, Paul suddenly spotted Billy, an old friend of the boys.  Billy is about sixty and wanders around Soho with a bottle on his head and a carnation behind each ear.  ‘We'd have loved him for the film,’ whispered Paul as he, John, Ringo and Billy broke into a chorus of [Guy Mitchell’s 1956 hit] “Singing The Blues”.  ‘Long live the Beatles!’ shouted Billy as they continued down the street, ‘And the Stones!’” The Beatles took such a shine to “Rosie” they invited him to the filming of “Hey Jude” recorded for the David Frost Show.  Look out for him standing next to Ringo’s drum kit during the fade out.
A few weeks later we were sitting in the tearoom at Paxton’s when someone came in brandishing the newly released double EP of Magical Mystery Tour.  We pored over it, as people did with every new Beatles’ record back then.  Most vowed to get a copy when funds allowed (the retail price was 19s/6d, or 97½p), but one young square piped up with “I’d like to buy it for my young niece, but I don’t think it’s appropriate because of the lyrics”.  He was referring to the “I Am The Walrus” line “boy you been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down”. Now, even in 1967 that was a weird thing to say.

*The Harry Nilsson Songbook
In 1971 Paxton’s was acquired by the giant American publisher Charles Hansen Music Corp. and the company was re-located to Moorgate in London’s financial district.  Compared to Soho it was a very dull place to work indeed, totally lacking the colour and character of the West End.  Nevertheless, I had moved up the company food chain by early 1972 and one of the first tasks I was given at Moorgate was overseeing the production of a songbook by Harry Nilsson.  Then based in London, Harry was currently riding high with his biggest album Nilsson Schmilsson and the attendant smash hit single “Without You”, so it was decided to rush a songbook onto the market.  Together with the main designer I was dispatched to Harry’s fourth floor apartment at 9 Curzon Place in Mayfair*, close to both the US Embassy and the Playboy Club, to show him proof sheets of the photographs we intended to use for the book.  Although it was well past noon when we arrived, Harry answered the door looking like a man with the world’s worst hangover and I was gratified to note that he was wearing the very same orange dressing gown as on the cover of Nilsson Schmilsson. 
While Harry scrutinized the proof sheets, we drank tea made by his stunning lady friend (who may have been the second Mrs. Nilsson, Diane Clatworthy).  Meanwhile, I couldn’t resist leafing through his small but perfectly-formed record collection. Together with the inevitable Beatles’ albums the LPs were predominantly singer/songwriter themed, with the first two Paul McCartney solo titles, Randy Newman’s 12 Songs and the newly released self-titled solo record by Paul Simon all present and correct.  The flat was tastefully decorated in chic early 70s style by, as I later discovered, ROR (Ringo or Robin), a design company jointly owned by Ringo Starr and Robin Cruikshank, with offices in the Beatles' Savile Row Apple building.  As we left, Harry came to the door to see us off, still in that dressing gown and already on what may have been his second double Brandy Alexander of the day.
*Harry Nilsson's Mayfair apartment was in this building
In July 1974 Mama Cass Elliot succumbed to a fatal heart attack there and four years later Keith Moon died of a drug overdose in the same bed.  Both were aged just 32. The British tabloid press were quick to dub the Mayfair flat “cursed” and “London's most morbid pop location”.  Nilsson later returned to the US and sold the Curzon Place apartment to Pete Townshend. *Following some 80s redevelopment in the area, 9 Curzon Place became 1 Curzon Square.
By the end of 1973 the US owners decided to close W. Paxton down and the entire stock, comprising untold thousands of rare and historic music song sheets, dating from the sixties back to the Edwardian era, was shipped to America.  Poor Nigel was sacked on a trumped-up misconduct charge, presumably to avoid giving him a sizable redundancy payoff (he had been at the company since leaving school in the early 60s), while the rest of us were quietly laid off. Charles Hansen Music Corp itself ceased trading in 1991 and the bulk of their catalogue was taken over by Warner Music.
During the 70s and 80s a Chinese Bank moved into Paxton’s old premises at 30 Old Compton Street.  In the 90s the area became the epicentre of London's LGBT community and today the building houses the world-famous G-A-Y Nightclub.
*The G-A-Y Nightclub at 30 Old Compton Street

Friday, 15 November 2019

Donovan Performs Sunshine Superman at the Royal Albert Hall


Stuart Penney

This double DVD set is packaged in a CD-sized card sleeve and looks to be the product of a busy cottage industry which sells merchandise from Donovan’s base in Ireland.  I say “cottage industry” because, although nicely designed, these appear to be the kind of blue discs you’d copy at home. I guess that’s the way it works with small production runs from independent record labels these days.  On the plus side, early adopters received their copies hand-signed by the man himself. 
Filmed at London’s Royal Albert Hall in June 2011, but held back until 2016 (presumably to tie-in with the 50th anniversary) what we have here is the full US version of the Sunshine Superman album, plus extras, performed live with a full orchestra, backing singers and a rock band including a handful of big-name guests.  The London Contemporary Orchestra is conducted by Don’s long-time arranger John Cameron. The pair have worked together on and off since 1965 and Cameron was responsible for the wonderfully innovative keyboard, string and brass arrangements on those classic psych pop albums Donovan recorded between 1966-68.
Introduced by his daughter Astrella Celeste, Donovan takes the stage looking great for a man of 65, as he was in 2011.  Dressed in a flowery shirt and velvet tunic and still with that luxurious head of hair intact, he launches into a potted history of “my album” Sunshine Superman.  Almost unbelievably, recording for that record started with the title track in late 1965.  Imagine that! Maybe Donovan did invent psychedelia after all. 
Presenting the album in the original track order, Don floors the RAH audience by bringing on Jimmy Page right off the bat for the opening number.  Dressed entirely in black with his snow-white hair tied back, Page straps on a three pick-up black Gibson Les Paul and, grinning hugely, peels off that oh-so familiar “Sunshine Superman” guitar motif.  As a virtually unknown session man he played on the original hit single half a century ago along with bassist John Paul Jones who, sadly, is not here tonight. Page is on great, if typically sloppy, form and he and Don share a big hug as he leaves the stage after just the one song.

The band and orchestra sound magnificent, but Donovan’s voice seems strained and on the quiet, acoustic songs like “Legend Of A Girl Child Linda” he struggles to make some of the high notes.  The song is simply a succession of identical word-heavy verses, but John Cameron’s complex orchestral arrangement builds layer on layer to maintain interest until the end. Astrella also sings background on some verses.
It’s not often you see a sitar played in anger these days but step forward Don’s old mate Shawn Phillips for “Three Kingfishers” and “Ferris Wheel”.  Phillips contributed 12-string guitar and sitar to the very early Donovan albums, including Sunshine Superman and he still cuts an imposing figure with his gaunt, chiselled visage and waist length hair worn in a ponytail.  A multi-instrumentalist, Phillips also doubles on electric guitar during the concert, playing a frankly bizarre twin-neck instrument which is half Gibson Les Paul and half Fender Stratocaster. 
"Bert’s Blues", one of several Donovan songs inspired by Bert Jansch, starts off acoustically and builds to mighty jazz swing climax with another fine orchestral arrangement from Cameron, who also plays harpsichord.  A veteran of many early Donovan albums, the venerable Danny Thompson is present on “concert bass” (that’s double bass to you) throughout. “Season of the Witch” is possibly Don’s most covered song with countless versions over the decades.  Seldom have two chords worked so well together to produce such a mighty song and tonight “SOTW” is delivered in its original lazy funk arrangement with some impressive guitar from LCO member Tom Ellis and a massive string finale. 
A surprise guest arrives to throw some shapes and duet on “The Trip”.  Turns out it’s Don’s son Donovan Leitch Jr, a tall, handsome young man in designer specs who looks like he’d be more at home spinning discs in a nightclub than singing his dad’s hippy dippy lyrics. 
Shawn Phillips steps up again to play sitar on “Guinevere”.  Don relates the story of jamming at Phillips’ Marble Arch flat in 1965 and recalls how they came up with “The Fat Angel” (written for Mama Cass, fact fans).  Again, the string arrangements are exquisite on these two songs. 
The last song on Sunshine Superman is the gentle, anthemic “Celeste” and it brings the first part of the concert to a close.  Dedicated to his mother-in-law Violetta who is sitting “up in box number 40” “Celeste” rolls along on a heavenly wave of strings and brass. 
After some effusive and extended band introductions, there follows a quite extraordinary encore version of “Atlantis”.  Don’s voice has loosened up a little now and the spoken intro is delivered with impressive gravitas, easily as good as the original single.  There must be 50 people on stage at this point and all of them seem to be playing at once during the “Way down below the ocean” extended coda.  Jimmy Page then returns for a reprise of “Sunshine Superman” with full orchestra and a singalong “Mellow Yellow”.
Disc 2 is a condensed eight song presentation of the first half of the show featuring most of the big hits, including “Catch the Wind”, “Jennifer Juniper”, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and others.  These are, if anything, even more impressive and enjoyable than the main part of the programme. Donovan’s voice is in better shape than on the Sunshine Superman material and the band is right on the money, especially Tom Ellis who perfectly reproduces the heavy guitar parts on “Hurdy Gurdy Man”.  Sadly, Jeff Beck didn’t show up to reprise his performance on “Barabajagal” but that was the only thing missing from a magical night at the Albert Hall.  Ellis has Beck’s parts down pat anyway. 
Given the amount of people involved and the rehearsal time required, it must have cost an absolute fortune to present this show, which is probably why Donovan didn’t tour the world with it.

Donovan Performs Sunshine Superman At The Royal Albert Hall is available from here

Friday, 8 November 2019

Floor Singers Welcome! Memories of Les Cousins and the Soho Folk Music Scene


Stuart Penney
*Les Cousins membership card
“…in the overheated, overcrowded, under-ventilated cellar room that has been housing folk music since pre-skiffle days” - Karl Dallas, Melody Maker, October 1969.  
In his 2015 autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (pub. Viking) Elvis Costello devotes an entire chapter to his early experiences as a live performer.  In forensic detail he describes the clubs and pubs where unknowns in search of honour and experience could play for free, regardless of ability.  We’d call them Open Mic Nights these days, but back then the floor singers weren’t really a feature, more a way to fill the gaps between the paid performers.  Traditionally, folk clubs were the natural habitat of the floor singer and one place you were sure to find them in the late 60s was the most celebrated London folk venue of them all, Les Cousins.

*The Bert Jansch debut LP was released on the same day Les
Cousins ​​opened in 1965
Located in the basement of a restaurant at 49 Greek Street in the heart of Soho, Les Cousins was small and claustrophobic, holding maybe 150 to 200 people when full.  Reached by a steep, narrow wooden staircase leading down from the street with no discernible fire exits, it was probably a health and safety nightmare by today’s standards.

Descending into the cigarette smoke-filled gloom (almost everyone was a smoker back then), the folk fans passed under two large photographs mounted in the overhead stairwell. The pictures were alternate shots from the photo sessions which had produced the sleeves of Jansch and Renbourn's Bert and John LP (showing them playing the ancient Chinese game "Go") and the self-titled debut album by the a cappella trio The Young Tradition. The LPs in question were released in the same week of 1966 by Transatlantic records (TRA 144 and TRA 142, fact fans) so perhaps there was a promotional deal happening with Nat Joseph’s independent label. 
The photographer was Brian Shuel, an Irishman who snapped many London-based folk artists of the 60s. Even if you're not familiar with his name, I guarantee you've seen his work. Shuel was responsible for countless album covers, mostly on the Transatlantic, Topic and XTRA labels, including all those iconic early Bert Jansch and John Renbourn LP sleeves.
*Bert & John LP 1966
Andy Matheou, the son of the Greek restaurant owner, ran the basement club and he could usually be found perched on a stool at the bottom of the staircase collecting the entrance fee of five shillings (25p).

There are various theories as to the origin of the name Les Cousins, the most obvious being Claude Chabrol’s eponymous 1959 film.  But I don’t recall hearing anyone use the French pronunciation when speaking of the club, with most people preferring the decidedly British “Lez Cuzzins” to the more exotic “Lay Coo-zan”.  Eventually the name would be abbreviated to, simply, “Cousins”.
*The Young Tradition LP 1966
Although there had been a club presenting jazz and skiffle at 49 Greek Street as early as 1957, legend has it that Les Cousins opened as a folk and blues venue on Friday, April 16, 1965, the same day that the self-titled debut Bert Jansch LP was released.  If true, this was a wonderful piece of synchronicity, given that Bert was one of the pre-eminent performers at the club.
*Before Les Cousins the venue was a skiffle club
Within a year Cousins was an established part of the Soho scene and, together with the equally celebrated Bunjies in nearby Litchfield Street and the Troubadour across town in Earls Court, it became one of the three most important London folk clubs and a breeding ground for new and exciting acoustic music.  Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Ralph McTell, Roy Harper, John Martyn, Martin Carthy, Nick Drake, Cat Stevens, Donovan, Wizz Jones, Sandy Denny, the Incredible String Band, the Young Tradition, Alexis Korner and Al Stewart are just a few of the names who played there.  Visiting US artists such as Stefan Grossman, Tom Rush, "Spider" John Koerner, Dave Van Ronk and Jackson C. Frank also performed, while groups such as the Third Ear Band and Dr. Strangely Strange also squeezed onto the tiny stage. Paul Simon sang at Cousins several times during his 1965 London sabbatical and it’s rumoured that Dylan, Hendrix and a pre-fame David Bowie dropped in, as observers if not performers.  In his formative years Al Stewart acted as compere for the all-night sessions, trying out new material on the dozing patrons in the small hours.  In 1967/68 artist fees ranged from a modest £5 - £10 for the performers just starting out, to a hardly lavish £15 - £20 for the more established names. Although mostly known as a weekend club, in the early years Cousins opened right through the week. A Melody Maker ad. from March 1966 declared "Please note. We are now open Mon-Sat afternoons for guitar practice, coffees, records etc. 3pm - 6.30pm. All members free."

I visited Les Cousins 15 or 20 times from mid-1967 through to 1969, sometimes attending the legendary weekend all-nighters.  These were marathon, uncomfortable affairs, sitting for hours on unforgiving wooden benches (former church pews, apparently) or, for the unlucky latecomers, the cold, hard floor.  The club didn’t have a drinks license and most of us couldn’t afford much more than a Coke and a sandwich, anyway. Some people would simply curl up in a corner and go to sleep, earning Cousins the nickname “the cheapest hotel in London”, before stumbling out into Greek Street as the tube trains began to run again on Sunday morning.
Bert Jansch later immortalised the scene in the song “Daybreak” from his 1977 album A Rare Conundrum (Charisma CAS 1127):   It’s Daybreak The all-nighter’s faded to a close
The last of the folkies
Rises and goes As the shock of the morning sun blinds your eyes
It’s Sunday morning

*Moxy and John Lamont (guitar) pictured in the early 60s at the
Witch's Cauldron folk club, Hampstead
One memorable Cousins performer was the harmonica player known simply as Moxy.  With his waist-length shock of red hair, matching beard and a collection of harmonicas in every key, worn bandolier style in an ammunition belt, he cut a fearsome figure.  I never fully discovered if Mox (as he was often billed) was a floor singer, a paid performer, or a mixture of the two. He played with whoever would agree to back him on guitar, including, at various times, Davy Graham, Isaac Guillory, John Lamont and Steve Bromfield and his Cousins appearances were sometimes advertised in Melody Maker.  There were even rumours he’d worked with an early version of the Alex Harvey Band.

Moxy was also an enthusiastic flautist but would sometimes overstay his welcome.  I heard dark (and possibly apocryphal) tales of Roy Harper threatening violence when Mox refused to stop playing his flute one night as Harper was ready to begin his set.  If true, this may well have happened on Saturday, April 15, 1967 when Harper and Moxy are documented as playing Cousins on the same bill as the Young Tradition and Al Stewart.  My strongest memory of Moxy is seeing him sweep along Greek Street late at night in a huge black cape, red hair flowing and carrying his assortment of harps in a small attaché case.
*The entrance to Les Cousins circa 1968 showing Brian Shuel's photo of the Young Tradition
Two of the most popular Cousins performers were, undoubtedly, Roy Harper and John Martyn.  Although still exclusively acoustic players at the time, they brought a touch of rock & roll swagger into the folk world.  Harper entertained us with his wickedly accurate Dylan impersonations and convoluted song introductions, during which he would often dissolve into fits of stoned giggles at something only he found amusing.  As a 1969 Melody Maker review put it “[people were] enchanted by [Harper’s] contemporary comment, issued with his own special brand of hip talk, punctuating every line with a throaty chuckle, as is his habit”.  Roy’s version of Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country”, together with some textbook examples of his rambling audience chats, can be heard on the CD Live At Les Cousins, August 30, 1969 (Blueprint BP220CD). 
*Roy Harper - Live At Les Cousins 1969 CD

In stark contrast to Harper’s gentle, blissed-out persona, John Martyn was a force of nature.  Loud and boisterous with a high-octane, aggressive guitar style, he would beat the daylights out of his battered instrument during each song, then swig flamboyantly from the bottle of beer at his feet before theatrically re-tuning for the next number.  A genuinely great guitar player, Martyn was known to use nearly a dozen different tunings, which was no help at all to those of us watching closely and trying to figure out how to play his songs. All the while he’d be cracking jokes and conducting noisy conversations with crowd members.  One night, someone in the front row drew attention to a huge, 6” split in the crotch of John’s jeans. Naturally, he found this hilarious and it became a running gag for the rest of the set. His self-deprecatory cry of “Ithangyew!”, delivered Arthur Askey style to acknowledge the applause between each number, would soon become his concert trademark.

Martyn’s big finale at Cousins was a rollicking version of Lonnie Johnson’s “Jelly Roll Baker”.  Unlike Johnson’s original medium-paced blues shuffle, John ripped into it in double time, turning the song into a guitar tour de force.  It usually went down so well that when he ran short of material, Martyn would simply reprise “Jelly Roll Baker” adding, with mischievous glee, “You didn’t think I’d have the bleedin’ cheek to play it again, did you?” in his faux Cockney brogue.  When north of the border he would revert to broad Glaswegian, the result of a childhood spent alternating between Scotland and England.  Although the song was a fixture of his live set from at least 1967, “Jelly Roll Baker” didn’t appear on any of his records until 1973 when he recorded it, cheekily retitled “The Easy Blues”, for the album Solid Air (Island ILPS 9226).

Both men played Cousins endlessly (Roy Harper appeared there a documented 25 times between 1965-69) but by late 1968 the folk zeitgeist was changing.  Their respective second albums (Harper’s Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith [CBS S BPG 63184] and Martyn’s The Tumbler [Island ILPS 9091]) tapped directly into the burgeoning underground rock scene, where their brand of progressive folk would attract a new, hip (and, of course, larger) audience.

Harper’s profile received a huge boost toward the end of 1968 when "Nobody’s Got Any Money In The Summer", a track from Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith, was included on The Rock Machine Turns You On (CBS PR22), one of the earliest UK budget sampler LPs.  It reached the top 20 album charts in June 1969, selling an estimated 140,000 copies. John Martyn received similar mainstream exposure when the Island records budget sampler You Can All Join In (IWPS 2), featuring "Dusty" a track from The Tumbler, also charted around the same time.

*The Rock Machine Turns You On LP 1968
Martyn’s acoustic years were also numbered and in mid-1969 I witnessed him trying out a Gibson SG electric in the Selmer guitar store on Charing Cross Road.  It was a portent of things to come. The Echoplex years were beckoning and as the new decade arrived Harper and Martyn left the folk world behind. In the coming years they would work with and/or influence the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pete Townshend, Kate Bush, Pink Floyd, Phil Collins and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson.

*Paul Simon at Les Cousins ​​circa 1965

But it wasn’t all well-known recording artists and influential guitar players at Cousins.  There were other hopefuls who played there. These were the floor singers. Between the big-name acts, or while we were waiting for someone to drag Bert Jansch or John Martyn out of the nearby Pillars of Hercules pub to play their set, the stage was turned over to virtually anyone who wanted to perform.  These amateur singers were of varying quality and ability, ranging from excellent, via passable, to toe-curlingly bad. Blind, misguided confidence is a wonderful thing to behold, especially when unfettered by any hint of talent and just like the deluded souls on the early rounds of a Simon Cowell TV show, it’s the bad ones we tend to remember. 
*Donovan at Les Cousins ​​circa 1966

One floor singer from around 1968 resembled a youthful Henry Kissinger.  Short and stocky of build with thick, horn-rimmed specs and severe short, wavy hair, he would accompany himself not with a guitar but a mandolin and harmonica harness around his neck.  This chap was fond of using an expression I’ve heard nowhere else, either before or since. He referred to his harmonica as the “blues bellows”. “I’ll need the old blues bellows for this next number” he would say, while rummaging in his duffle bag.  He penned his own songs, too. “Here’s one I wrote after I broke up with my girlfriend” he’d impart ominously, before treating us to a mawkish ballad about tearful separations and departing jet planes.

Ironically, it was the “old blues bellows” that proved to be his undoing one particular night.  Mid-way through an interminable self-penned tale of woe with countless verses, he launched into the harmonica solo, only to find he’d put the instrument in the harness upside down, with the bass notes where the high notes should be and vice versa.  Understandably, the ensuing cacophony completely put him off his stride and instead of bluffing his way through, he stopped the song mid-solo and attempted to flip the harp over. In doing so he fumbled and dropped it. Almost in slow motion the harmonica cartwheeled from his grasp, bounced off the edge of the tiny stage and into the front row of the audience.  Clearly unfamiliar with the adage “the show must go on”, “Henry” curtailed the performance at that point and shuffled back into the shadows, a broken man.

Another unforgettable floor singer was the girl we nicknamed “Francoise” because of her similarly to the French chanteuse Francoise Hardy.  Tall and willowy, “Francoise” was strikingly attractive with her tight leather pants (outrageous for the time) and waist-length hair. But although she looked the part, she unfortunately lacked any vestige of musical ability.  I only saw her perform once, but it was a memorable occasion. Opening the homemade cover, which was little more than a piece of chenille fabric sewn into the shape of a guitar bag, she removed the cheapest instrument imaginable.  It was one of those terrible no-name plywood instruments which looked like it was made from old fruit crates and sold for maybe £20 in the 60s. It ticked all the boxes: heavy steel strings, slot-head tuners, unplayable action an inch off the fretboard etc.  To complete the ensemble, her guitar strap was just a length of satin twine of the type used to tie back curtains.

It didn’t augur well, and our worst fears were realised when her opening chord was hopelessly out of tune.  “Francoise” stopped playing and without batting an eyelid said “Oh, that’s strange. It was in tune when I left home this morning”.  She continued to struggle with it for a while, turning the tuners wildly this way and that, until an audience member could stand it no longer and jumped up on stage to tune the guitar for her as best he could. 

What happened next was even more surreal.  Instead of the expected popular folk tune or campfire ballad she stunned everyone by launching into a rockin’ version of “Hard Headed Woman” from the 1958 Elvis movie King Creole (also covered by Wanda Jackson the same year).  Of course, while it lacked nothing in terms of presentation, it was desperately out of tune both vocally and instrumentally.  “Francoise” gave the song everything, including some energetic Elvis-style hip-swivelling. I can’t remember how it ended, or even if she sang any more songs, but I do recall the stunned silence followed by a smattering of polite applause as she left the stage.
There were many other memorable floor singers at Cousins, some of which deserve a feature all to themselves.  But it was the headliners we had really come to see, and no one was more influential in the folk world back then than Davy Graham.  Unfortunately, Davy’s genius was also tempered by his legendary substance abuse, which gave his live performances an air of danger and unpredictability.  This eventually put his career on hold and in the mid-70s it wasn’t unusual to encounter the great man busking at Camden Market or hanging out in a Notting Hill squat for example (see postscript).  
Davy was still a star in the late 60s, however, and I arrived to see him play Cousins one weekend in 1968 with high expectations.  He was due on stage around 11 pm but midnight came and went with no sign of him. Eventually, an hour or more after the scheduled appearance time we heard a commotion at the entrance to the club and the most extraordinary sight greeted the assembled folkies.
*Davy Graham - Midnight Man 1966
The staircase down from the street led to a doorway to the left of the stage and the performers had to weave their way through the audience (who were seated on the floor, for the most part) to perform.  Suddenly Davy Graham appeared amongst us and very slowly began to pick his way toward the stage. Always short-haired and smartly dressed, we were surprised to see his trademark crew-cut was covered by a brightly coloured bandanna.  As he came closer the reason for his slow progress became apparent. With a guitar case in one hand Davy was also leading a small dog – a Jack Russell terrier to be exact – with the other. Once safely on the stage, he tied the dog’s leash to the leg of his stool and sat down.  Ominously, the guitar case remained firmly closed at this juncture. He then began to address the audience. What followed was the most extraordinary stream-of-consciousness imaginable, none of it accompanied by a single note of music.

After around 30 minutes or so of this rambling dissertation, even the dog had fallen asleep.  Being respectful folkies though, the audience were far too polite to give Davy the slow hand clap or walk out on him.  There may have been a smattering of embarrassed throat-clearing or nervous tittering during some of the more incomprehensible moments (ie most of it), but we remained seated and silent to the bitter end.  Mercifully, after what seemed like hours, he took out his trademark Gibson J50 and commenced to play some of the most incandescent jazz blues guitar. It was simply astonishing stuff and in retrospect worth every second of the interminable stoned preamble.  As it ended, Davy silently put away his guitar, untied the Jack Russell and together they slowly wound their way through the crowd and out into the grey Soho dawn.
*Davy Graham - Folk Blues and Beyond 1965
In April 1972, after operating for almost exactly seven years, Les Cousins closed its doors for good.  Many of the artists who came up through the club were, by that time, signed to major record labels and achieving fame and (modest) fortune on the university, theatre and festival circuit, commanding fees way beyond anything Cousins could offer.  The folk scene was changing and the golden age was over.  
The opening quote at the top of the page is from an October 1969 Melody Maker review by legendary folk music journalist Karl Dallas.  He was describing a Cousins performance by US ragtime blues guitarist Stefan Grossman (one of the shows I attended, incidentally) but his description could have applied to any given Friday or Saturday night at the club.  Les Cousins was undeniably hot, cramped and an uncomfortable place to spend the evening. But, equally, it can’t be denied that magic was created week in, week out in that dark cellar, the effects of which still reverberate throughout acoustic music today. 
At the time of writing, 49 Greek Street is an anonymous Soho bar with an upmarket basement nightclub, unrecognisable from the Cousins era (except for perhaps the distinctive green tiling either side of the door, which remains).  But, if I may end with a threadbare cliché which has been used in countless songs (none of them folk songs, sadly), if those cellar walls could only talk, what tales they could tell.  A Davey Graham Postscript:
In the mid-70s I played guitar with a Scottish friend who lived in Latimer Road, down at the seedy end of Ladbroke Grove in west London.  I would visit him there in one of a row of small terraced houses all of which were, at that time, occupied by squatters. The squat movement flourished in the capital during the 1970s, when an estimated 30,000 people lived in squats in Greater London.
For reasons which were never fully explained, Davey Graham sometimes showed up at the house to rendezvous with one of the residents.  We could only guess the purpose of his visits, but the fact that he always left looking reinvigorated with a spring in his step should have given us an indication.  I was quite starstruck at this brush with folk aristocracy, although few in the house seemed to know (or care) who he was. 

 At this point Davey hadn’t released an album in five or six years and his profile was at a low point.  In an attempt to sum up his achievements in simple terms the more musically uneducated housemates might understand, I briefly explained that Davey was a famous guitarist and he was also a big influence on Led Zeppelin.  This information was greeted with blank looks and shrugs, for the most part. I left it there, but was tempted to add that Jimmy Page had adopted Graham’s guitar arrangement of “She Moved Through The Fair” and turned it into the live showcase “White Summer”, first with the Yardbirds and later with Led Zeppelin, where it became part of a medley together with Bert Jansch’s “Blackwaterside” (retitled “Black Mountain Side”), but decided that might be over-egging the pudding somewhat. 
The last time I saw Davey Graham at the Latimer Road squat he was in the narrow back garden which backed directly onto a noisy railway line.  As the trains rattled by I watched him doing chin-up exercises using some seemingly fragile overhead PVC pipes which formed part of a jerry-rigged communal plumbing system connecting the row of houses to a water main further down the street.  As I looked on, enthralled, an old Irishman named Mick O’Donnell, who cared little for Davey’s celebrity, but had clearly taken my earlier description on board, yanked a window open, stuck his head out and yelled “Oi, you!  Led Zeppelin! Fuck off out of it!”. 

  • In the early 70s Davy Graham changed the spelling of his name from “Davy” to “Davey”.  This happened at some point between 1970 and 1976 and the release of his albums Godington Boundary (President PTLS 1039) and All That Moody (Eron Enterprises ERON 007).
  • In 1970 the compilation LP 49 Greek Street (RCA SF 8118) was released.  It featured studio tracks by artists associated with Les Cousins such as Keith Christmas, Andy Roberts, Mike Hart and Nadia Cattouse.  Apparently, the door shown on the LP sleeve belonged to a different building on Greek Street.
  • On 24 November 2004, Les Cousins was reopened for a one-off Nick Drake tribute.  This event took place over two floors of the building at 49 Greek Street and not just the basement. 
    *49 Greek Street LP 1970

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