Caught by the River

Whatever Happened To My Rock’n’Roll?

15th January 2009

One of London’s most heavily frequented rock’n’roll bars silently called a final last orders this week. Although not afforded its own legendary status due to its position as second fiddle to the main event, The Keith Moon Bar (upstairs in the Astoria on Charing Cross Road) has been an unofficial club house for the great, the good and the grot of the music industry for the last 35 years. Tucked away on a mezzanine between the main room and the balcony, the Keith Moon was where people went to meet up at early doors; where they stuck around to avoid the support band; where they sloped off to quickly re-charge their glasses while the headliners hammered out those boring numbers that sag so badly in the middle of the set. Here was where you brushed shoulders with rock stars and with wannabes whose recorded output now escapes you.

The Keith Moon, like its host venue, is bowing down in front of the wrecking ball that is the long procrastinated Crossrail project. The best thing anyone seems to be able to say about Crossrail is that it will connect Heathrow to Canary Wharf within 45 minutes (although this may well come too late for any budding Nick Leeson’s trying to flee the country during this current crisis of tumultuous economics). On the corner of Charing Cross Road where the Astoria stood, a shining new Underground hub will rise from the rubble sometime in the next decade. It will be the midway point between Maidenhead and Shenfield, a convenient pit stop for anyone wanting a quick fix of the West End. A proposed last party by Ibizan dance-music-and-shagging club superstars Manumission had the plug pulled when Transport For London served early notice on the venue. 37,450 people signed a petition to save the venue. Sadly, they found out that you can protest all you want but, in the end, it’s all just hot air blown into the face of ‘progress’.

Soho changed beyond all recognition for gig-goers, club kids and bohemian barroom philosophers between December last and January this year as the West End has faced an unprecedented cull of music venues. London can’t have had such a run on buildings since WWII, the last time a veritable ballroom blitz changed the face of the city. The Westminster district has given up The Astoria and it’s sister venue The Mean Fiddler (aka the LA2 or Busbys), The Metro on Oxford Street, Sin on Charing Cross Road, The Ghetto in Falconberg Court, The End on West Central Street and Dean Street’s Colony Room. Over the year, these venues have collectively provided backdrops for everyone from Francis Bacon to Bono; Radiohead to Roni Size; Nag Nag Nag to Nirvana; Girl’s Aloud to Green Day; The Strokes to Shoom. They have gauged the moods of generations and soundtracked our sub-cultures. Acid house, indie rock, electroclash, speed metal, drum & bass, hi-energy, Northern Soul – all human life was here. There are now only two comparable spaces in the West End – the 100 Club and the Borderline. Neither of these venues has a capacities much bigger than the back rooms of your average high street boozer. Faced with this, one can’t help but quote the Thin White Duke – “This ain’t rock n roll… this is genocide!”

After starting a last minute utterly pointless attempt to Save The Keith Moon Bar with a series of badges and some fired out missives (why do I do these things just to end up like some patron saint of hopeless causes?) I found myself attempting to project ahead, trying to work out what visions folks will be met by when they emerge, blinking and startled from the Underground into another rainy night in Soho? What will be the smears of history left daubed on the walls of the alleyways and side streets of this dirty old town? And will there be anything left that we will recognize and acknowledge as being the beating heart of central London?

One can’t help feel that London is being ethically cleansed. It’s like The Daily Mail has taken control of town planning and the map of the area has been redrawn almost overnight. Just as streets rife with prostitution and drug dealing have been paved over to make the shimmering edifice of the new St Pancras station; just as Hackney is being newly landscaped, removing all traces of Parkesine and decommissioned white goods to make way for the Olympic village, it seems that Soho has quietly been getting it’s own makeover in time for 2012. The London that our Olympians will walk out into will have been swabbed clean of all of its dirty secrets, will have had all the rough edges carefully sanded down.

Whether by convienient accident or clever design, Soho now bears scant resemblance to the louche, bohemian underbelly of London it still was a mere 15 years ago. When I started working in Wardour Street in the early ‘90s, Soho’s red light still flickered from greasy windows like a sexual Bat Signal. The throb of bass could still be heard from unmarked basements, whatever the hour. Rarely did a day go past that you wouldn’t catch a glimpse of a foul mouthed Jeffrey Bernard with a thirst on being wheeled double-quick to The Coach and Horses by some unfortunate sod on work experience. Back then, every other doorway was a Narnia-like portal into a crazed shebeen, variously populated by hookers, dandies, winos, off duty cabdrivers and the occasional enviable soul who met all four of those criteria. In the times before progressive alcohol licensing, the vim and vigour of the area was provided by these unlicensed bars. In the times prior to New Labour and Britpop, these were Soho’s engine rooms, here was where it’s fires were stoked all through the night, fuelled on cans of Hofmeister and speed. Compulsory purchased at the turn of the decade, those drinking dens were leveled. It was as if the spirits that inhabited the brick work were too malevolent to be exorcised out, that those buildings could only ever be condemned. And so, the filth of Dickensian centuries past was wiped away, readying the streets for future generation of prudes, assuaged from a painful world where people still fall over after a few pints, where Ribaud humour might as well be Martian Braille.

So, where does it go from here? We’ve already witnessed a slow, muted march towards the outskirts of town, heralded by the success of the O2 complex in Greenwich. There, the O2 arena and Matter nightclub regularly get the names and crowds soon follow. Here, the rooms are clean, there are great sightlines and you never need queue for the bar. But… but… where’s the randomness factor? What could possibly go wrong here? Is anyone ever going to walk out, supported on the crowds upturned hands, ala Iggy Pop? Can you ever imagine the stage being destroyed in an orgy of destruction, ala the last Manics Astoria gig with Richey Edwards back in December 1994? That night, onstage feedback resulted in the band being crippled by tension headaches during the gig. The resulting carnage at the end was like a fuse being blown, a collective aneurysm rupturing in front of 2000 punters. Now your gig going experience is defined by your mobile phone contract – book early bird tickets by text! Fast track entry with the right handset! As I’m writing this, I notice that HMV have gone into partnership with the MAMA Group, branding 11 venues up and down the country. The plain old Forum now becomes the all-singing-all-dancing HMV Forum. Wonder where they’ll put the 7 inch racks.

On the up side, the members of the Colony are appealing to English Heritage to list the premises, a move that would hopefully see the return of the Dean Street club once christened the “capitol of Soho”.
And, phoenix like, the Astoria may return, albeit in radically altered form as plans are being hatched to build a new venue on rock’n’roll’s Ground Zero. Former Astoria boss Melvyn Benn has stated, “We can do no more than celebrate how good it was and look forward to its replacement being born when construction begins.” Personally, the dulled threat of a purpose built space standing on the grave of the old Astoria is about as interesting as a night spent alone in an All Bar One with only a week old London Lite for entertainment. No, those places are gone for good. Maybe they’ll keep the name, the shape, the awful logo even, but a gleaming new music hall – never having been subjected to years of bitter nicotine, acrid poppers and beer slops – could never be the same.

So what will we do, the denizens of the Keith Moon bar – My Generation? Zimmer frames parked outside, we’ll sit all misty eyed in one of the last few untapped outposts, somewhere like the French House or Bradley’s Spanish Bar – those ugly, lovely alcoholic museum pieces – staring into the foam on the top of our beers, wondering why everything any good is always forced to change.