I was born as the end-of-the-decade optimism of the 1950s blazed into the ‘Swinging Sixties’. A social and cultural revolution would take London by storm: Carnaby Street, The Beatles, Mary Quant, Twiggy, James Bond… if the fifties were tinged a tad black and white, the sixties went full-blown technicolor.
My Father (Donald), Mother (Gaenor) and I lived in the garden flat (it seemed vast to me) of a grandly dilapidated Victorian house in Streatham, South London. A stone’s throw from Streatham High Street, and a short bus ride to Clapham Common, The Oval and the Elephant & Castle.
Music came into my life with the force of a hurricane from the very beginning. My parents were classical musicians. They had met at the Royal College of Music, conveniently next to the Royal Albert Hall on the southern perimeter of Hyde Park. The Streatham flat was full of Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and numerous other classical luminaries. I remember Donald playing the hell out of a Steinway grand piano and my mother singing with the power to shatter glass. Gaenor had a beautiful light soprano, quite the star with the looks of a young Audrey Hepburn. I must admit here that very regrettably I once took a poker to the Steinway, and chipped off the edges of the keys in the upper octaves. In my defence, I was only two at the time. My father heard the din and rapidly appeared, speechless with horror, on the threshold. Needless to say, he quickly disarmed me, preventing further wanton destruction of the precious Steinway. Happily, the piano survived to have a lot more music played on it. For music was a constant thing, and I soaked up the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at an early age.
However, one of my first passions was buses – the famous red London Buses. They took me to the most exciting places: Piccadilly Circus, the epitome of bright lights, the glittering sweep of Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue, the West End and theatre land. I loved Trafalgar Square with old Admiral Nelson standing up there in the sky. I was smitten by the four magnificent lions at the foot of Nelson’s Column, and I regretted very much that I was never allowed to climb on them. It’s a shame the pigeons aren’t there any more. They used to be an integral part of the Trafalgar experience. People flocked to feed them, which is why I suppose the pigeons also flocked there! Today, Westminster Council will fine you 500 pounds for feeding pigeons on the square. How times have changed!
The buses have changed too; today’s versions are modern and sleek. Double-deckers in the sixties had an open entry at the back for people to hop on and off. It was both convenient and fun! On many occasions, I would sprint after the bus and hop on at full tilt. Exhilarating and good exercise. There were two London Transport staff on board: the driver and the conductor. The driver just drove, while the conductor dealt with the passengers, ensuring they paid their fares. They darted about their work with the panache of ballet dancers, leaping up the stairs and bounding along the aisles with the agility of circus performers. They could be male or female, generally fit and trim, and had smashing uniforms. Conductors, (‘clippies’ in London slang), seemed the next best thing to pirates to me. They cajoled, scolded, and shrilled the cost of fares and destinations. What heroes! Unfortunately, you can’t leap on and off buses in London any more.
I was once the butt of a London bus conductor joke, when I proudly informed some wag that my father was a conductor:
‘Oh yeah! The Number 12 to Clapham?’ they asked.
‘No! The London Festival Ballet*!’ I retorted, indignantly
‘Oh! So he’s the bloke who waves a stick around?’
This neatly characterises the sharp wit of Londoners. Anyway, my father was a musical director at The Festival Ballet* and the ‘bloke’ with the stick. Meanwhile, the buses took me to all the shows and concerts: The modern Festival Hall on the South Bank; to the grandeur of the Albert Hall, and theatres, such as The Alphi, where my father was the musical director of a hit musical (Charlie Girl) in the mid sixties. Theatre land is packed between the Strand and Shaftesbury Avenue. If you can afford them, these venues are alive and kicking today.
Later, when I was a teenager, with the thunder of Rock n Roll in my veins, I saw all the bands, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Clash and countless others. Many of the clubs and venues are defunct. The Rainbow was one of the places to see bands. In the 1930s, it was a cinema – the Finsbury Park Astoria. It became a huge music venue. Deep Purple and a host of other stellar acts played on its hallowed stage. Today, the building in Finsbury Park is used by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, an evangelical church. As I said, times change. However, the Hammersmith Apollo is still going. It’s a history of rock and a must-visit venue for fans of ear-splittingly good music. Coincidentally, I was born in Hammersmith – Hammersmith General Hospital to be exact. There’s a big flyover there, along the main road into London from the West.
After the gigs, we’d head for somewhere for a bite to eat, having leapt about and drank ourselves stupid. Often, we got distracted by London’s pleasures along the way, and were compelled to roam its humming, thrumming streets, in search of more music; something was always playing somewhere. In the wee hours, we’d make a beeline for Brick Lane, and Beigel Bake, for the world’s most delicious bagel at three in the morning. Happily, this is still a London tradition. It’s open 24 hours. So, if you’re out late and feel peckish, head for Brick Lane.
If you fancy something grander, have tea at Harrods, although not at 3 am! My mother still loves going there. Harrods is an emporium of expensive taste in Knightsbridge, noted for its vividly themed halls; the Egyptian Hall was a favourite of mine. Everyone from royalty on down visits when in Town. But I prefer Fortnum and Mason, at 181 Piccadilly. You can enjoy a sumptuous tea with all the trimmings in this upscale department store in St James’s. There’s an amusing music/royal story connected to the place, concerning the great conductor of symphony orchestras, Sir Thomas Beecham. One day, he bumped into a charming lady there. She engaged the great man in conversation. Beecham was mortified that he didn’t recognise her. He asked a question, hoping to jog his memory: ‘How is your husband? Well, I trust?’ ‘He’s still King!’ was the response from the Queen consort, wife of George V1. What a royal how-do-you-do, you might say, and another example of how things change. Not so long ago, kings and queens were allowed to frequent public places with light security and bamboozle great men. At any rate, Fortnum and Mason is still going strong, patronised by wealthy Russians, Arab sheikhs, Chinese millionaires, flush Europeans and Americans, and the odd Londoner or two.
In the sixties, we also went to the ubiquitous Lyons Tea Houses, the cheap and cheerful dining alternative. A cup of tea and a bun cost virtually nothing! It was a chain of tea shops that opened in 1894 and closed in 1981. There were also the famous Lyons Corner Houses in London’s West End, a kind of Starbucks of its day. Often, we made do with a cheap but generously portioned bag of chips. Fish and Chip shops (chippies) were plentiful in London. Hence, the phrase, cheap as chips! Beer was also economical for lads intent on consuming a few pints, a good thing since it allowed them to afford fish ‘n chips after the pints! You can still get Great British Ale and Fish and Chips in London but they’re not so cheap these days. Fish and Chips seems to have gone upscale and is no longer served in last night’s edition of the London Evening Standard.
Young people radically changed the way they looked in the sixties. London is nothing if not a fashion town. Recently, I was looking at pictures of London folk in the early ‘60s and comparing them to the fashion in the latter part of the decade. In the early 60s, it was all short hair (short back and sides) for the boys, and suits and ties, while the girls looked neat in their modest dresses. In other words, it still looked like the fifties. To appreciate the contrast, have a look at early Beatles’ photos, and notice how John, Paul, Ringo and George had dramatically changed their appearance by 1967. And so, of course, had the bulk of the youth, much to the consternation of the older folks. Flower power, bell-bottoms and beads were all the rage now.
The Times They Are A-Changin’ sang Bob Dylan. And while they were a-changing, things were swinging along to the soundtrack of young Bob, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Who et al. 1967 was the Summer of Love. Fashion went kaleidoscopic. Art went pop. It was ‘boo’ to the establishment. It really was the decade that swung. And much of it swung from London! Later, I began to write songs of my own. Many of the better ones are about London, such as Rainy Day. Did I mention that it rains a lot there? Some things never change! Apparently, it rains more in Belgium, but I recall many rainy London days and so I wrote a song about it. I play Rainy Day live with my band these days. Another one that’s been popular is Little Bird, about an old pigeon fancier. ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner…’ as the misty-eyed old London song goes.
Throughout its long and chequered history, the city has always had a strong heartbeat, an unmistakable pulse. London is a magnetic attraction, and it’s often referred to as just ‘Town’, as in, ‘While I was in Town…’ or ‘What’s going on in Town?’ and ‘Let’s go into Town.’
Bustling metropolis, cradle of Shakespeare, hub of culture and art, music town, and retail therapists’ heaven… the capital dazzles and bewitches the world. Most people you meet want to visit, and if they have already, they tend to gush with praise. London Town, mecca for tourists, culture vultures, fashionistas, and those who crave the world’s finest musical and entertainment vibes.
As my mother would say, ‘Let’s pop up to Town.’
Writer: Steve Elliott (STEVEE)
Steve is writer, narrator, songwriter and guitar player based in Moscow. Frontman for The STEVEE Band, an international Rock n Roll group with a British flavour.