All over the city, bars, clubs, theatres and halls bore witness to this musical history, rooms where crowds pinched themselves as they stood mere feet away from their idols. Still to this day, being at the right place at the right time can mean seeing someone who usually fills stadia playing on a tiny stage, just so they can trace the steps of their influences. If you’re looking to trace these steps for yourself, here are some of London’s most iconic venues.
The 100 Club
Hidden in between the shops of Oxford Street is a glass doorway that looks like it leads into an office building. It’s only the sign overhead that signals that this is the entrance to the legendary 100 Club, one of the capital’s most iconic venues for over 70 years. The list of names who’ve played here is mind-boggling. In its 1950s jazz heyday, it hosted Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and BB King, while its 1976 International Punk Festival brought The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Buzzcocks and The Damned to its stage. The Stones played here twice in the 80s, while Sir Paul McCartney made his first appearance in 2010. The historic venue has been on the brink of closure several times in the past but its fans have always rallied round to save it. It’s worth keeping an eye on the listings, as bigger bands still have a habit of popping in every now and then, just so they can say they’ve played here.
Not to be confused with the Hammersmith Palais, as made famous by The Clash song ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’, Hammersmith Apollo entered the rock‘n’roll history books in 1975 when Bruce Springsteen played his first ever UK show here. Legend has it that Springsteen – a man eternally plagued by self-doubt – arrived at the venue to discover posters and flyers proclaiming, “Finally, London is ready for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band”. Enraged by the attempt to inflate the hype surrounding him, he tore down every single poster in the venue. Springsteen came off stage thinking his performance had been a complete failure, but history has disagreed. To this day, it’s still regarded as one of his finest ever performances and irrefutable proof that the hype was totally unnecessary.
The basement venue off Charing Cross Road has a well-earned name as a stepping stone from smaller clubs to the big leagues and is rightly held in high esteem by bands and gig-goers alike. However, some might have questioned the wisdom of booking a completely unheard-of band called ‘Bingo H*** J**’ for two consecutive nights in 1991. It didn’t take long for word to get out that the dubiously monikered band was none other than R.E.M, resulting in one of London’s classic “I was there” moments. While the similarly historic nearby Astoria was recently demolished, thankfully the Borderline has survived.
This tiny club in South Kensington was something of a miniature London outpost of Greenwich Village in the 60s, playing an integral part in the folk scene at the time. In 1962, Bob Dylan played here under the name Blind Boy Grunt. His mentor Pete Seeger had told Dylan just one thing for his first trip to London: “Seek out Anthea at the Troubadour”. Over the years that followed, Paul Simon, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Elton John all followed suit. Led Zeppelin famously used to come down and jam after they’d played in nearby Earl’s Court. More recently, singer/songwriters such as Jack Peñate, Jamie T and Morrissey have played here.
The Water Rats theatre on Grays Inn Road actually preceded the Troubadour on Dylan’s first UK trip. His gig here was his first ever in the UK, but the great man isn’t the only one to have made his debut here. The Pogues played their first gig here, albeit under the name The Pogue Mahones (which means something slightly rude in Irish), in 1982. Oasis also played their first ever London gig here, while a pre-super stardom Katy Perry appeared here in 2008 to just 200 people, even though ‘I Kissed A Girl’ had already been number one for five weeks. The Guardian review of the gig gave it a paltry two stars out of five. She returned to the venue in 2017.