Rocking the Back Room at the Pub

Ringo Starr's Sentimental Journey album.

“We’re about as psychedelic as a pint o’ beer wi’ the lads.” Alan Clark of The Hollies, 1967

The pub can’t claim to be the natural home of British rock and roll — that honour probably goes to the Soho coffee shops where skiffle first found a home in the mid-nineteen-fifties. In the wake of Lonnie Donegan, however, every spotty, posing schoolboy in Britain joined a band, and there weren’t enough cafes to contain them. It didn’t take long for pubs to take up the slack. There had long been music in pubs, ranging from the singalong round the Joanna to very-nearly-full-blown music hall shows, but, from this period onward, some publicans began to see live, amplified music as a possible saviour.

Louder music is required in public-houses to attract people away from television sets, a London licensee told the London County Council Public Control Committee yesterday. His application for a waiver of the special condition attached to his licence, forbidding amplification of music, was granted. The applicant, Mr Harry Sternshine, licensee of a public-house in the East End, said that a skiffle group in a neighbouring house was attracting his customers. (Guardian, 14 March 1957.)

Pubs with ‘back rooms’ (usually gloomy, damp and smelling of stale beer, in our experience) also became rehearsal spaces, in exchange for a small payment or the promise to ‘buy a few drinks’ afterwards. (The Rolling Stones, for example, rehearsed at the now defunct Bricklayers Arms on Duck Lane, Soho.) Those back, upstairs or downstairs rooms also offered temporary ‘clubs’ a home, as was the case with the Princess Louise in Holborn, whose upper rooms hosted some of the coolest skiffle and folk clubs from around 1957.

In their Guide to London Pubs (1968), Martin Green and Tony White offer a summary of the ups and downs of pop music in London pubs from the mid-fifties. Of the early sixties, they say:

Musical pubs became the glory of London pub life. Anywhere you went round London on a weekend evening, you were sure to hear the deafening twang and throb of a hundred guitars with percussion and amplifier… A new young audience of under twenty-fives was created and with a new pub vocabulary. If you went into one of the new musical pubs, you heard talk of others: ‘Heard that new lead guitar down at the Oak?’ or ‘Who’s on the drums now at the Crown?’

Man playin guitar in pub.We are fortunate that this period was captured on film in the 1964 documentary Portrait of Queenie, which includes much footage of bands and singers performing at the Ironbridge Tavern in Poplar, East London. It’s not a concert venue — people are talking and drinking at tables — but nor is it exactly ‘pubby’. A cabaret, perhaps? (At the other end of the cavernous room, an elderly cockney tries to drown out the bands by bashing away at the Old Pianner.)

As skiffle gave way to harder-edged R&B, some pubs gained double identities: decrepit Victorian piles by day but better known, to the hipsters who came out at night, by faux-American names.

I went to the end of the District Line and found a place in the back of a pub called the Station Hotel, in Richmond. I started a blues club there on Sunday nights, the worst night o the week. That’s how the Crawdaddy Club started. The Rolling Stones used to do their own version of a Bo Diddley tune called ‘Let’s Do the Crawdaddy’. When Long John [Baldry] asked, ‘What do you call your place?’ I replied that I didn’t have a name for it. It just came out ‘Crawdaddy’, and from then on we were the Crawdaddy Club. (Giorgio Gomelsky in It Ain’t Easy, Paul Myers, 2007.)

The Crawdaddy was just one of a circuit of such venues around London. The blues and R&B bands that played in them spawned rock groups like The Who, The Yardbirds, The Small Faces and The Kinks, and musicians like Baldry and Rod Stewart. It was at the Railway Hotel, Wealdstone, Middlesex, in 1964, that Pete Townshend of The Who first accidentally smashed his guitar.

Detail from a The Who poster.

With Beatlemania and the ‘beat boom’, Green and White record a slight decline after 1965, though pubs continued to offer a proving ground for young rock musicians, along with church halls, on their way to new, specialist venues, or package tours of cinemas and ‘winter gardens’ around the country. At the same time, more and more pubs turned into (crap) ‘discotheques’, losing their essential ‘pubness’ along the way. In The Beverage Report (1970), Derek Cooper wrote disparagingly of this trend:

Symptomatic of the growing move towards food and music in what was formerly a pub outlet are the Courage Barclay and Simonds discodine centres. On Saturday night at their Kew pub 500 customers throng to see a disc jockey, meet go-go girls and eat chicken and chips at 10s 9d a portion.

With the nineteen-seventies, though, the pub came back into focus, at least in superficial terms. All those ‘veteran’ rock groups, their members nearing  or having hit 30, often divorced and coming down from a decade of partying, began to look back wistfully towards their early years and a simpler life. The Who’s 1971 ‘best of’, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, featured a sepia-toned portrait of The Railway Hotel, and The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies, released the same year, used photographs of the Archway Tavern in North London. In his biography of The Who’s Keith Moon, Dear Boy, Tony Fletcher tells the story of the drummer’s chauffeur-driven visit, in the aftermath of a disappointing stadium gig, to the Hole in the Wall in Waterloo, then a rough cider drinkers’ hangout, where he felt quite at home. It is perhaps Beatle Ringo Starr who sums up this instinct best with the title of his 1970 album, which also features a portrait of a Victorian pub on the sleeve: Sentimental Journey.

As the decade wore on, and rock struggled to reconcile its ‘down home’ roots with the excess of stadium tours, concept albums and ‘glam’, the pub really had its hour, giving its name to an entire genre: pub rock. A musically diverse ‘movement’, the only thing many of the bands involved had in common was what they were reacting against, and the venues where they played. Crumbling, smelly Victorian pubs were the natural home for denim and leather clad guitar bands playing blues, R&B, country rock and ‘power pop’, and their fans. The venues, such as The Hope and Anchor in Islington, were more famous than many of the bands.

Once again, though, even vast Victorian gin palaces weren’t big enough: bands that ‘made it’, like Elvis Costello or Dr Feelgood, moved on to bigger venues. At the same time, ‘pub rock’ mutated into punk — a much more easily packaged scene, fueled by speed rather than beer, which didn’t quite belong in the blokey atmosphere of the boozer, but rather the basement club, student union or municipal hall.

The story arguably came full circle when crack London session rock musicians Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock formed a duo, Chas & Dave, in the mid-seventies, and invented a sound they called ‘rockney’. It had elements of boogie woogie and R&B, but also featured melodies and lyrics, performed in strong London accents, which harked back to pub piano singalongs of the pre-skiffle era.

When the barman won’t serve him anymore.
Gertcha, cowson, gertcha.
Bar stool preaching —
He’s always been the same.

They had breakthrough success when, fittingly, when several of their songs were used in a series of nostalgic black and white adverts for Courage Best. When Chas & Dave appeared on TV, it was often in the setting of a pub.

In the years that followed, pubs and rock music continued to collide — the Camden Crawl, one of the coolest annual events in the Britpop era, began with ‘a couple of pubs’, for example — but it was also during this time that ‘pub rock’ and its cousin ‘dad rock’ became insults, implying a certain plodding conservatism.

These days, it seems to us that, as an idea of ‘the perfect pub’ has solidified, rock music and the pub as concepts have been more-or-less entirely decoupled. Pubs still have music, and musicians still like pubs, but they don’t need each other as once they did.

12 thoughts on “Rocking the Back Room at the Pub”

  1. There was some excellent late 70s/early 80s pub footage of Chas ‘n’ Dave in the recent BBC4 doc ‘Chas & Dave – Last Orders’. Pretty sure it was filmed in The Birdcage, Bethnal Green – a pub which at the time would have been rock solid, cast iron, copper-bottomed, unreconstructed gorblimey East End.

  2. Chas and Dave used to have a pub in Stock Newington, can’t remember its name now, was owned by Charlie Wells last time I went there in the 1990s and watched Wales lose to Romania in a World Cup qualifier — played some of my favourite gigs in pubs, the Great Northern and the Midland Tavern Cambridge, the Gladstone Peterborough. It always felt good to play in a pub.

    1. Ah, the good old Bull and Gate. Only pub where I’ve contracted pneumonia and been offered crack cocaine on the same night.

  3. The Half Moon in Putney was my favourite music pub when I lived in London, mainly becuase it was a Youngs pub and also because you never knew who would turn up.
    I vividly remember watching Steve Marriott in the back room when he announced that an old mate wanted to join him on stage for a few numbers and up popped Pete Frampton, then at the height of his US fame.
    Happy days.

Comments are closed.