The Camden Music Scene

The Camden music scene began for me way back in 1958.  I was in a new, exciting comprehensive school, the first of its kind, when the skies were blue and we seemed set to transform the London educational scene.  Complications were to arise later, but those first years were like wine.

This was the period of Skiff le, that pre-electronic form of noise, long forgotten.  Guitars were the rage and we began making guitars in the school workshops. It was perfectly normal to see a class of teachers and older pupils making guitars in the evening.  Some quite respectable instruments were made by people who had no idea they could achieve such a standard.  Most were in thin plywood, but the bellies of some guitars were in Oregon Pine which could only have come from old school drawing boards.  We put a stopper on that, but those particular instruments bore the marks of drawing pin holes for ever.

At lunch times my large classroom became a venue for a never-ending concert.  While I sat marking exercise books,  crowds of pupils came in from all over the school. Three double-bases made from tea chests stood permanently in the corner of the room, together with a couple of washboards and an African drum.  Together with three or four guitars, these could drown out conversation along the whole corridor.  The advantage was that almost anyone with a sense of rhythm could join in and beat or bang on something, while those who had no rhythm could become lost in all the din.  Some of the pupils knew Helen Shapiro, a pupil in a neighbouring school, who was becoming famous at that time.  If she could do it, so could they and any group of them might suddenly become famous.  One singer was particularly popular, with a selection of scatt songs, but I never heard that he made any mark.

When the pips went for the start of school, there was absolute silence.  They put everything away and filed out with a quiet word of thanks.  The music may not have been very good, but the therapy was wonderful.  These boys, with their DA haircuts and their hair in a quiff held rigid with sugar water, used to haunt the small clubs and venues in Hackney and Camden Town.

Things have moved on since then, but the atmosphere has changed little. A couple of  years ago a young man said:-

   “Below the railway arch in Chalk Farm Road was the Carnarvon Castle, now the Fusiler & Firkin, a seething mass of Mods and Rockers, mopeds and motorbikes, three-piece suits and leather jackets, but never on the same night.  Outside the pub the bikes and mopeds would always be parked.  Mopeds for Mods and bikes for Rockers. There were always a few bikes around as the bouncers on the door were Rockers.  I remember them as large, aggressive men, older and heavier than us, smelling of petrol and leather, and wondered how they could stand so many Mods.  Because Friday night was Mod night. It was quite rare for a club to play host to two opposing cultures.  Give them your two quid and get in safely.

You entered by the left-hand door into a long thin room.  The left side was raised, with tables on either side of the narrow stage.  On the right were a long bar and a cigarette machine. The atmosphere generated in there was electric. The first reason was the crush. You were so squashed up against each other that you couldn't  help mirroring your neighbour's gyrations.  The second was the Rhythm and Blues - loud, fast and familiar.  There was always a rip-roaring harmonica careering through every song like an out of control steam train.  Bands kept the audience jumping by the fast tempo, speeding up classics like ‘Louie, Louie’ and ‘Green Onions’. Twanging guitars and booming drums would sometimes be drowned by the singer's powerful voice, but the tempo never slowed and we never stopped dancing.”

“In the late eighties, Parkway, the one-way road from Regent's Park, had the Jazz cafe, and still has. It is one of the major jazz clubs in London. All of the world's best  play there when they are in London. Further up is the Dublin Castle. A large trade  pub with thick stair carpet and old wallpaper. At the back is a small door which led to a back room with a bar at one end and a second bar at the other. Always full, it was the place to be in the 1980s and still may be. I remember coming out of the pub one evening and seeing the band ‘Madness’ sitting at a large round table.  It was said to be always their table.

Further up, next to Mornington Crescent is the Camden Palace, the biggest club in Camden. Each evening it set a different style - 60s, 70s Gay, House, etc.  Wednesday evenings were Sixties Nights, when the whole area became alive with people dressed to the nines in their best 1960s clothes.”

By the 1980s,, young people were copying their parents, wearing their clothes and sporting their hair styles.  Fashions go round and round. One of  the ‘Madness’ band went to my school, slightly later than the skiff le time, so some did make it and Helen Shapiro now sings with Humphrey Lyttleton.

Buster Bloodvessel opened an hotel in Margate called ‘Fatty Towers’, designed for the larger person - with big chairs, strong beds which would not collapse under the weight, and generous portions on the plates.  He also promoted the town's lowly football club.

Helen Shapiro sung  with Humphrey Lyttleton for fifteen years.  Jazz at its best.

Ann Scanlon has told the story of Camden Town music in detail in, ‘The Rock and Roll Guide to Camden Town’.  It is a mine of information.

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