This week’s London Shoes blog was undertaken the day before the 2nd Covid19 lockdown restrictions were implemented – so following this publication, there will be a brief lull in weekly blog publications for a few weeks whilst ‘Shoes’ observe the Governments non-essential travel advice – but hopefully I shall be able to knock a few new ones out before the Xmas festivities.
The subject matter of this blog represents ‘Part 5’ of an on-going theme that I’ve been publishing this year – and it’s a topic that has certainly encouraged quite a bit of unpredicted feedback from London Shoes followers – especially those of a certain age who grew up listening to the music of the late 1960’s & 1970’s.
So – the topic in question for this blog represents Part 5 of “London’s-Lost Music Venues”.
This piece focuses specifically on two Clubs that were located in the Soho district of London’s west-end – that came to prominence in the late 1970’s at the emergence of the ‘Punk’ music and fashion scene namely:-
‘The Vortex’ and ‘The Roxy’
First up is ‘The Vortex’ which was situated at 203 Wardour Street-London W1.
Now – way back in 1974 to 1978, I worked at Barclays Bank 183 Wardour Street, literally just 4 doors away from what became The Vortex club.
Before the emergence of the Punk scene, The Vortex was the famous “Crackers” club, a sort of bar/nightclub that was an extremely popular venue on the London ‘dance scene’ map & beyond.
When I started working at the Barclays branch in Wardour Street, I was 17, and I moved on from there when I was 21. It was a very busy, well staffed branch at that time – and a lot of the junior staff like me, were around the same age. Anyway – most Friday nights after a busy week at work – me & my work colleagues would pile into ‘Crackers’ for a few drinks, before heading off on a crawl of our favourite Soho drinking dens – ‘Crackers’ would often be our starting point.
Anyway – In 1977 and with the emergence of punk music and the punk scene, ‘Crackers’ changed its name to ‘The Vortex’ and started to book punk bands to play there, initially on a Monday & Tuesday night.
It didn’t take long before The Vortex in Wardour Street became one of the top London venues on the London punk scene and beyond – as punks from all over the country would descend on The Vortex, to see popular punk bands such as:- The Buzzcocks – The Fall – Siouxie & The Banshees – Generation X – Sham 69 – The Police – Tubeway Army & The Jam.
In fact the 5th single to be released by The Jam in August 1978, was entitled “ ‘A’ Bomb in Wardour Street”, which Paul Weller wrote about the total chaos and violence that always seemed to occur at The Vortex when the punk bands played there.
The Vortex was licensed to hold 650, but the punk gigs regularly attracted over 1,000 punks from all over the country – and that overcrowded atmosphere only helped to create the ‘vibe’ that The Vortex was famous for.
However – after just 1 year of staging punk gigs The Vortex club had gained too much of a bad reputation and at the end of 1978 it had to close down – but in that short period of time The Vortex had done enough to go down in history as one of London’s top memorable punk music venues.
Following its closure The Vortex was converted into a trendy nightclub and bar called “Dirty Harry’s”.
Personally, I have only happy memories of The Vortex when it was ‘Crackers’ – and am so pleased that I was around at a moment in time when all this was happening in London.
It is also pleasing to see that the venue appears to have gone back to its roots, as today the advertising placards indicate that it is now a ‘Simmons Bar’ – a franchise that specialises in creating a ‘disco’ club vibe – although the place was completely abandoned and boarded up when I was there, and sadly, because of the impact of the Covid19 virus, it may be the case that, as with a number of the west-end’s once busy nightclub haunts – it may never re-open.
So – having re-visited what was my old working manor for 4yrs, to seek out the old Crackers venue that became The Vortex club – I took a short stroll over to Neal Street in the Seven Dials district of London, very close to Soho.
Seven Dials was once the filthiest, poorest, dangerous and notorious slums in London – but today (well, pre-Covid) it is one of the west-end’s trendy places where people from all over the world want to visit.
In the early 1970’s no. 41/43 Neal Street was a building that was a run-down fruit & veg warehouse.
In 1976 the building was bought by the now legendary music & nightclub owner and promoter Andy Czezowski – who transformed the building into the infamous “The Roxy” club.
By the end of 1976 Czezowski had staged 3 gigs in the basement of his new ‘The Roxy’ club – where Generation X (with Billy Idol* as lead vocalist) – Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers (Johnny Thunders-the ex-guitarist of the excellent New York Dolls) & Siouxsie & the Banshees – were the headliners.
*there is an extremely tenuous link between me and Billy Idol – because when I worked at Barclays Bank Minories branch in the late 1970’s, (Minories being the branch I was transferred to after Wardour Street branch) – I was involved in the opening of a business account for the band ‘Generation X’ and had to witness the signatures of the 4 band members, one of which was a ‘William Broad’ who’s stage name was ‘Billy Idol’. I told you it was tenuous!!!
Anyway – back to The Roxy – having laid on these 3 gigs at the end of 1976 – on the 1st Jan 1977 the club formally opened with “The Clash” headlining.
Throughout the following year, most of the top ‘punk’ or ‘new wave’ bands of the day, played The Roxy, and it soon became one of London’s top ‘live’ punk-music venues, that punks from all over the country would travel to, to be a part of that movement – to watch bands such as The Jam – The Buzzcocks – Generation X – The Damned – Sham 69 – The Police – The Stranglers – XTC plus many more play ‘live’.
By the end of 1977 a ‘live’ album of bands that had played The Roxy, was released – and it made the Top 20 of the UK Album Charts – which just goes to show how popular and influential the venue was.
However – similar to the nearby Vortex club, the life of The Roxy club was short-lived, probably because of all the trouble that tended to flare-up at the gigs – and by the end of 1978, The Roxy was no more.
In 2017 a commemorative plaque was put on display on the exterior of the building, to commemorate the fact that it was once the famous Roxy Club.
Up until recently, the old Roxy club venue had been the flagship store for Speedo Swimwear – a massive difference to its previous lives.
The day I visited the site, it was evident that the old club was undergoing another massive renovation – as the building was completely scaffolded up – but I don’t know whether it was a result of the local council regulations, but the exterior of the building was completely wrapped in a picturesque covering depicting a street scene – presumably to prevent the building works damaging the touristy ‘vibe’ of Neal Street – a very nice little touch I thought.
So – having wandered around my old work manor in Soho – before setting off back home – I popped down to the famous Soho Square, to rest me ‘plates’ for a few minutes in the lovely gardens situated bang in the middle of the Square.
Records show that the existence of Soho Square dates as far back as 1681.
In 1895 the Victorians built a very small mock Tudor building in the middle of the Gardens.
Throughout WW2 temporary air-raid shelters were erected in Soho Square Gardens to help protect all the Soho’ites from the Blitz.
Today – the eye-catching mock Tudor building is still the focal point of the Square – and it is now used to store garden tools. However, the story goes that there are believe to be a number of ‘secret’ underground tunnels that lead out from beneath the building, to secret locations throughout Soho.
The reason I chose Soho Square to rest me plates, was for the specific purpose of locating and photographing a memorial bench that commemorates the life of the late great singer/songwriter ‘Kirsty MacColl’ (1959-2000).
Kirsty MacColl was a prominent well respected singer/songwriter & performer throughout the 1980’s -knocking out hits such as:- Ray Davies’s ‘Days’ / ‘There’s a guy works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis’ / ‘Don’t play the Cowboy with me Sonny Jim’ / ‘Walking Down Madison’ / ‘Free World ‘ / Billy Bragg’s ‘New England’ – Kirsty also provided backing vocals on records by top 80’s artists such as:- The Smiths / Simple Minds / Talking Heads / Alison Moyet / Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant / Tracey Ullman.
However – it’s her brilliant shared vocal with Shane MacGowan on his band ‘The Pogues’ monumental 1987 Xmas hit – the legendary “Fairytale of New York” – that Kirsty MacColl is, and will probably be best known for – even though she has her own fine body of acclaimed solo work, left as a legacy.
Sadly – in 2000, whilst holidaying in Mexico with her 2 young sons, Kirsty MacColl was killed instantly whilst swimming in a bay, when she was hit by a speedboat, whilst trying to shield her sons from the on-coming vessel that was being illegally used in speedboat restricted waters.
In 2001 Kirsty MacColl’s family & friends obtained agreement from the authorities to dedicate a memorial bench to her memory, in Soho Square Garden.
Displayed on the memorial bench is a commemorative plaque which quotes a couple of lines of the lyric from her song “Soho Square”:-
“One day I’ll be waiting there – No empty bench in Soho Square” – A very touching tribute to a very talented and under-rated British artist.
So – having grabbed a quick 5mins rest on Kirsty’s bench in Soho Square, it was time to head off home via a deserted Oxford Street and an even more deserted Tottenham Court Road tube station…….and this was BEFORE the commencement of the 2nd lockdown restrictions……where the hell is this all going.
Hope the muso fans reading this enjoyed reminiscing about the old Vortex and Roxy venues
See below the entire gallery of photos taken to accompany this blog