Despite living in the city, it had been a few years since I’d headed into central London to take a look around the rock and roll revelry that surrounds Carnaby Street. The pandemic had rendered the area a no-go zone for many months, but as Britain’s capital now relishes in its open doors, the hum of excitement and enthusiasm is almost palpable. Whether finding your way to a local bar or cafe or even just pitching up to work a day shift, Soho and the surrounding area is starting to feel, dare we say it, normal?
It is an outlandish thing to say, too, especially about a part of the city that has not only emboldened London’s inhabitants to pursue a life outside of the box, but an area that has provided the vibrant backdrop to some of the British music scene’s landmark moments. But, in honesty, I had always known that. I knew that the streets surrounding Carnaby were flecked with the blood, sweat and tears of the 1960s masters of pop, that it worked as a pavement-strewn catwalk for the great and the good of the bustling shops that surrounded it. But what I hadn’t banked on was just how enveloping its influence was.
Starting off with breakfast (a very good place to start, Julie Andrews may have said), the area is packed to the brim with everything you’d expect the fastest growing foodie city in the world to have. Throw a stone, and you’ll find all manner of different cafes, restaurants, bars and coffee shops to start a day properly. While finding yourself in the left ventricle of Britain’s capital, there’s a distinctly cosmopolitan feel to the food on offer. Without a shadow of a doubt, the standout establishment is the Soderberg Bakery, which not only provides an array of stunning jentacular delights but also shows off one of Soho’s most chic nooks to set up your day or settle down for lunch.
I’m not normally one to revel in breakfast, but with a full day ahead, a full stomach was imperative. In truth, what I was unaware of was just how full my day would be. Getting to grips with the creative centre of London was one thing, but the sheer volume of music history that awaited me was quite another. Luckily, I was equipped with the Carnaby Echoes Tour app.
The app is a simple way to deliver a ream of information about the history of Carnaby Street through an interactive walking tour. As a bit of a music historian myself, I was reasonably confident that I would not only know everything I was about to be shown but could add a little more colour to it. How very wrong I was. The app allows you to walk in the footsteps of some of the greatest musical minds of all time, providing talks, images and in-depth history about the entire area.
Stop and see where Jimi Hendrix played his first UK show at the Bag O Nails club, visit the birthplace of British goth in the Bat Cave, and get lost in the deepening history of the area. There’s a lot to get lost in too, the depth of knowledge provided by the app is more than admirable, and it offered me a robust and ready rundown of every vital piece of information I’d need. One top tip from me is this: if you’re feeling a bit odd about standing in the middle of a bustling Carnaby Street trying to learn more about The Kinks, Rolling Stones etc. make your way to a nearby pub (Shakespeare’s Head and The White Horse are personal favourites) sit down, grab a pint, and peruse the app with ease.
It’s not all rock and roll, either. Though Carnaby Street may be famous for its role in levelling up the swinging scene of the sixties, its passion for music runs far deeper. Visit the site of Murray’s club, one of London’s premier jazz institutions, or head over to where skiffle reigned supreme at The Cat’s Whisker or the phenomenal Deal Real, which arguably brought the very essence of hip hop to the centre of London through a record shop experience.
It provides the perfect gateway to visiting some of the areas other landmark record shops, including both Reckless Records and Sister Ray, which are almost considered sites of cultural heritage on Berwick Street. The truth is, no matter where you look, there’s a good chance that you’ll be staring at a vital piece of pop culture history. Of course, if seminal sub-culture history is what you’re after, then there is one spot on Carnaby Street that is essential viewing: Museum of Youth Culture.
The museum, which initially started out as one man’s personal quest to archive the unique and diverse musical creativity of the area, has now become a stalwart of the scene. Providing not only a vital look at real people’s real-life stories and how they’ve intertwined with what we would now deem as essential artistry, but the museum also offers up installations, a gallery and an independent shop to ensure the spirit lives on. It was here that my day really turned itself on its head.
I had spent much of my earlier hours fretting and complaining. Worrying that central London posed too much of a risk to my mental wellbeing and that I had perhaps been more affected by lockdown than first feared — moaning that I needn’t go because I had seen it all before. But as I walked down Carnaby Street once more, with the spirit of sub-culture in my heart and the words of Boy George in my ear, I realised that London’s premier creative district lives once again.
Look around, and you’ll see the finest shops and the most innovative street art. Peer a little further into the horizon, and you’ll see the streets that Mick Jagger, John Lennon and the rest of rock and roll’s golden generation, are once again lined with the free-thinking, creatively driven, expressive and excited people. Soho and the surrounding area is once again alive with the possibilities of hope and alert with artistry.
Yes, the shops and designer outlets that provide shelter from the city are still here, with the odd interesting addition like Rolling Stones’ flagship RS No.9 store, but something in Soho has changed. Restaurants are now brimming with people – Bar Crispin providing one of the most sweetly succinct menus in the area, perfectly balancing value and seriously good eating – and the street art that litters the area are invariably surrounded by appreciative audiences. Hell, there’s even blues club enjoyment to be had from Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues Bar, full of blistering grooves and foundational education, to seal the deal. It’s a lot to take in.
At the end of a hard day, what everybody needs is a proper rock and roll hotel. Retreating to the elegant rooftop bar of Karma Sanctum, safe in the knowledge that a bartender will be available “until you need them” and that my bed was as big as a house, I looked back on my day and realised just how much everything had changed but had, somehow, remained the same.
Yes, Soho is destined for a boom of footfall as tourism becomes normality once again, and, when those tourists arrive, they will be greeted by a shiny set of new shops, a heap of new art installations and the kind of sincere creativity that is the heart-blood of this area, but they’ll also get just a glimpse of what it was like to be here during the swinging sixties.
Soho is back and better than ever.