When the music dies some of us will be left without a chair.
London is getting obliterated, culturally desecrated. Fragile relics with echos of glittered drag queens and burned out guitar amps are rotting under a layer of chrome and glass.
This door is an important door. It’s a readymade artwork with a deep, deep history and cultural significance. It stands for something, something recently lost. It is now an installation. It lives in the window of the Fine Art Society, for now. That is the oldest commercial gallery (founded 1876) in London. Sitting rather uncomfortably opposite Sotheby’s, looking at Louis Vuitton and reflecting Jimmy Choo. On New Bond Street, this gallery is a testament to the staying power of British creativity. Recently it’s rent has shot up, surely it’s must be feeling the squeeze. It must never succumb to the siren calls of the loss-leader luxury (made in china) high fashion brand flagship location’s charms.
Turn a couple of corners and you’re in Tin Pan Alley (Denmark Street), quite possibly the most important musical street in the world. The Sex Pistols lived here, Bowie signed his record deal here, Hendrix and The Rolling Stones performed here and even up until recently new audiences discovered Adele, Jamie T and the Libertines at the 12 bar. Kids saved up, made their way into dusty guitar shops, trebling, they picked up a guitar, the silence of the room, the memory of the person before them shredding the frets like Hendrix in a purple haze. That coming of age ritual is gone.
Waynes World, NO STAIRWAY – denied!
IS THIS CONCRETE ALL AROUND OR IS IT IN MY HEAD?
The street has been served it’s death sentence. There’s no palliative care. It’s more like 3 weeks to get lost. The mighty cross-rail is coming, a multi-billion pound juggernaut that will link East and West more tidily than Russell Simmons and Farrakhan at a post Biggie and Tupac assassination summit. Who gives a monkeys about a teenager playing guitar and “jamming good with Weird and Gilly“? We can bring people into the commercial mecca of Tottenham Court Road’s salesmen screens and cookie-cutter tesco-bucks-nero-primark-ageddon. It’s all gravy! All the way to the HSBC.
Down the way from the Tottenham Court Road
Just round the corner from old Soho
There’s a place where the publishers go
If you don’t know which way to go
Just open your ears and follow your nose
’cause the street is shakin’ from the tapping of toes
You can hear that music play anytime on any day
Every rhythm, every way
– The Kinks (1970)
Sadly it’s not just Denmark street that’s faced the hard magic of the gentrification wand, the curse is everywhere. Soho itself has seen scores of vital establishments serve their last orders. It’s unlikely it’ll spawn another Francis Bacon or house late night YBA talks about pickled sharks and unmade beds. The Astoria is gone. I saw my girlfriend play there, that’ll never happen again. The metro is gone, Madam Jojo’s… and so many more, even The Paolozzi mosaics at Totenham Court road station. What are we left with..? the new dull as dishwater train station. It’s a D- (at best) for effort and E for execution attempt to ruin something that was fine. The only architectural merit that thing has, is in it’s ability to draw attention to other more successful buildings, which is pretty much all of them. It’s not gross, it’s just pointless and certainly not worth getting rid of the mosaics for.
Meanwhile, international investors sit on their remote square-foot based investments, watching their yield tick on mobile apps from luxury tax haven resorts. These empty Mary Celeste, buy to leave penthouses cast a mocking shadow of the wonderful Londoners below. They live here, work here, love here, have kids here and die here. The roof over their head is a necessity not a luxury, for them their spare box room bedroom is a tax liability.
Look I’m all for improvement. Making things better is always good. If it’s actually necessary! However, some things are special, they need to be looked after. New York took a swipe at it’s counter culture in the 80s. And yes the crack-heads fled the squares under helicopter spotlights, but if you’re not careful you take the good with the bad and end up with a world that feels like one massive homogenised version of ‘Friends’. The nightlife, the poetry, the music and the graffiti were relegated to priest holes style basements.To feel alive we need the extremes not just the in-betweens. New York’s now on a mission to get artists back into the city with free live-work spaces. Lets not take the best of London and turn it in a mirror image of any street in any international city, anywhere in the world. That is beyond stupid.
London’s beating heart has always been it’s music. The birth of the teenager, jazz, mod – the look, the style, the fashion. This stuff is really important, you don’t get Westwood without punk, and you don’t get Punk without places punks can congregate. There’s no album art without albums. You don’t get Bowie without a stage and you don’t get the trainspotting soundtrack without raves. You most certainly don’t get T-Rex at the start of Billy Elliot without a place for Mark Bolan to buy his guitar strings. All of those musicians have impacted on all our cultural industries. Fashion, film, art, dance, even advertising. If this economy is a creative economy, if we don’t really manufacture anything any more, we are missing a massive piece of the puzzle. It needs a soundtrack! Culture needs a sound.
The guitar shops will die, it won’t work spread out across the city, there’s no guitar shopping destination. It’s a bit like Carnaby Street without clothes, Hatton Garden with no diamonds or Portabello Road without a market. Seems to me the great gig, is now doomed to exist in the sky, quite how you’re going to be able to test a flying V in the cloud I have no idea!
Back to the 12 bar, it’s ten in the morning, a couple of weeks ago. The venue is closed, officially departed a few weeks before. There’s a rude awakening at the front door, no it’s not Pete Doherty turning up for his sound check, it’s the violent thud of a police battering ram. The door is barricaded, the activists inside aren’t here to give it up easily but they’ve been holding on to it for as long as they can and the inevitable wolf is at the door. They scream “there’s someone d-locked to the door” you’re going to kill her! Moments later the door is in the street and the cultural protectionists are forcibly removed.
A girl on a balcony in a club in Tin Pan Alley.
Awake to the sound of bastards with battering rams like bombs.
Her boney back is added to the front door.
A boy screams “there’s someone d-locked to it”.
They carry on.
Top panel smashed through.
Barricades are good for getting your head bashed in.
The boy is pushed into the floor, they scream “stop resisting”.
She’s arrested for some shit she’s not sure of.
Then de-arrested to a recital of the time of her freedom to the minute.
The street PA soundtracks her exit with NWA.
She uses her liberty wisely and makes off with the door.
She handles it masterfully onto the 159 bus.
It terminates. she wrestles the door into a Tesco Trolley.
She relinquishes it in a Streatham basement.
Sealing its sanctum with the words…
“They can take our culture, but they will never take our doors”.
So by some strange fluke of life I’ve become a temporary custodian of this door, and I’ve bought it somehow into art. Where I think, hopefully it will be safe. The door is not for sale, the idea really isn’t to privatise it. However it would be nice if someone wanted to take it on and look after it. Maybe a museum or something? Or perhaps someone would like to show it in another context. We’re open minded to all suggestions, so do get in touch if you have ideas. I can put them to the bohemians4soho crew who saved it, and hopefully we can secure a safe future for this important remnant.
Click images below to see larger close-ups of the 12 bar door: