Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Two I's coffee bar

Before the Beatles, the London music scene depended on its Tin Pan Alley stable of pretty boys. Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Tommy Steele...and many others, including Sir Cliff Richard.

2is coffee bar

Cliff and the boys were associated with the 2is Coffee Bar in Old Compton Street, Soho, and the nearby Moka Coffee Bar in Frith Street, just a short distance from the music publishers, music shops and studios of London's Tin Pan Alley. The link above is to wonderful article by Nickel in the Machine on this bubbling scene.

"In 1953 the Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida opened the Moka coffee bar at 29 Frith Street in Soho which provided London with its first Gaggia expresso coffee machine. […] Soon other coffee bars sprung up around Soho, often providing live music, and these included the Top Ten in Berwick Street plus Heaven and Hell and the Two I's next door to each other at 57 and 59 Old Compton Street respectively. Almost over night young people, who now for the first time were starting to be known as 'teen-agers' had somewhere to go they could call their own."

Starting in 1955 and taking off with the advent of skiffle, the 2is was at its height in 1958 to 1960. You know skiffle, right? Here's Jimmy Page playing skiffle in 1957.

The scene was pretty much wiped out by the Beatles and the Stones in the early sixties. Cliff was one of the few survivors, and to everyone's surprise he kept on going, and going, and going. He continues to be one of the favorites wheeled out for Royal Do's to this day, and I'm personally astonished it wasn't Cliff who was chosen for the London Olympics teaser bus last week.

He never did crack the States. The reason for that is simple. His was the old model, the hip-swivelling flouncy-quiffed singer. His band, the Shadows, was similar to the Ventures, the old model of a beat combo. The Beatles and the Stones cleaned up in the States, overturning that paradigm forever. The States no longer had time for pretty English boys past their first blush of youth, particularly one modeled on Elvis, who in 1958 had been inducted into the army and had come back a changed man himself.

By the way, if you look at a map of Soho and locate Frith Street and Old Compton Street where all these British chart toppers sprang from, a few hundred yards away to the north is Denmark Street, where the Rolling Stones first album was recorded. And just south of Old Compton Street is Gerrard Street.

You'll often see that name in Led Zeppelin lore. Books and articles call it the place where Led Zeppelin held their first rehearsal, and they always say it was a dive in Chinatown. It is in Chinatown now – there's a picture of it as the Kowloon restaurant in this blog's write up of the spot.

Kowloon Led Zeppelin first rehearsal

Map of Soho

© Google

But as you can see when you look at the map, it's actually part of London's music area, Soho, just a few hundred yards from the 2is and the major studios. I don't know why everyone feels the need to emphasize it's in Chinatown.

Perhaps it's more exotic, more rags to riches, and most of all, perhaps it is because it downgrades the old myth, the one about how the experienced-muso-Page-was-predatory-on-inexperienced-Midland-hicks.


Julia said...

"I don't know why everyone feels the need to emphasize it's in Chinatown."

Because Gerrard Street is in the centre of Chinatown, maybe?

Peromyscus said...

Good point!

It wasn't at the time of the rehearsal, though. The Chinese were just beginning to move in. It didn't start getting press as a "Chinatown" until 1970.

Rob said...

There's a picture of Gerrard Street from the mid sixties on this post:

My post about The Flamingo club is all Chinatown now so you can see how much the place has changed.



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