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Music

The Chelsea Drugstore: Remembering the glittering heart of swinging London

@SamWKemp

I went down to the Chelsea drugstore
To get your prescription filled
I was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy
And, man, did he look pretty ill
.”

– The Rolling Stones

If you’re looking for a pathway to the heart of swinging London, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more direct route than the Kings Road. In the 1960s, this two-mile stretch between Sloane Square and Waterford Road in Chelsea, London, was where life began. Anyone who was anyone could be found weaving a course between the numerous boutique stores that defined the look, sound, and texture of the day.

It was here, after all, that Mary Quant created the mini skirt; where Twiggy was photographed screaming into the wind on a high-handled bicycle; and where Mick Jagger was inspired to write one of the most famous lines from The Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’

Located on the corner of Kings Road and Royal Avenue, The Chelsea Drugstore was the glittering heart of ’60s London. By the time Stanley Kubrick used it to shoot the Disco Bootik scene in his 1969 film A Clockwork Orange, it had been open for less than a year but had already developed quite the reputation. While it was more of a mini-mall than a drugstore, it did contain a chemist. It’s just that it also included record stores, clothing boutiques, newsstands, and food outlets – the sheer spectacle of which somewhat overshadowed the humble pill dispensary.

The building was modelled of Le Drugstore on Boulevard St. Germain in Paris and was designed to be utterly unignorable. Featuring a hyper-modern exterior of mirror glass, aluminium, marble, and brass, the modernist structure stood apart from the area’s existing architecture, much to the chagrin of Royal Avenue locals, who found the conspicuous shopfront nearly as offensive as the thigh-high boot wearing clientele who stepped inside. They were even less impressed by the fact that it was open 16 hours a day, seven days a week at the peak of its popularity. During that time, it also boasted its own “flying squad” – a team of female delivery drivers who wore purple catsuits and delivered customer orders on matching motorcycles.

The store was split into three tiers, each offering a different thrill. Every corner of its interior was decorated with something eye-catching. Even the soda fountain on the upper floor was cast in chrome and neon. Despite being a breeding ground of countercultural trends, the shop also had something of the luxury department store about it. The experience of wandering its three levels was supposed to be intoxicating in itself. The fact that you had to be 21 or over to even step through the door helped in this regard, giving its frequenters the sense that they were in some private club. The boho formality of the store was further heightened by the strict dress code, which required all female employees to wear the same silver mini skirt. In the 1970s, the upper floor even boasted its own strip club, where dancers performed their routines to the sound of heavy rock.

The original Chelsea drugstore was only open for three years, shutting its doors in 1971 only to reopen the following September. The pub and retail stores remained open throughout the punk period, acting as a haunt for a new generation of disenfranchised youths keen to make their mark. Then, in the late ’80s, the owners finally folded. And with that, what had once been the mesmeric underbelly of subcultural London, became a luxury wine bar. Still, the store lives on in the memory of the people who were there, and in the songs that it inspired.