These days its easy to think of Covent Garden as some nightmarish tourist Hades: all identikit pubs and faceless High Street chains, populated by blokes painted silver pretending to be statues, alongside the usual array of jugglers, uni-cyclists, fire eaters et al. All a far cry, then, from the Sixties and Seventies when Covent Garden was not only home to the chaotic fruit and veg market but was also the centre of London counter-culture.
My memories of that time are mostly of the Oasis baths at the bottom of Endell Street and its diving boards that looked down on the neighbouring timber yard. Hair was on at the Shaftesbury Theatre across the road, the streets around the market were still packed with lorries and Tottenham Court Rd was a line of Hi-fi shops – notably the famous Imhofs. There was the giant Horseshoe pub next to the Dominion, the Sundown disco (later Busby’s, later Mean Fiddler 2) next to The Astoria and in the summer the fountains beneath Centre Point would be full of paddling hippies.
In 1974 the fruit and veg market closed and moved south with the buildings thankfully surviving original plans to demolish them and replace them with a dual carriageway. That period just before the market’s closure is captured in photographer Clive Boursnell’s books Covent Garden: The Fruit, Vegetable and Flower Markets: Images from Fruit, Vegetable and Flower Markets and Covent Garden Then & Now both feature a collection of the pictures he took round the market in its final few years.
The pictures, most of them in colour are superb. It’s fascinating to see all the places now so familiar: the “Piazza”, the Apple Store, the various pubs as they were, paint usually fading and invariably a sack of spuds or a pallet load of radishes outside. The text is good too. Boursnell spent time drinking with the porters (tea laced with rum mostly), all of whom lived locally in what were then little more than slums.
You get a good feeling for what it must have been like in Hitchcock’s 1972 film Frenzy [DVD]. Filmed in the summer of 1971 almost exclusively in the bustling market, it’s a dark, disturbing thriller often ranked alongside his best work. In it a pre-Van Der Valk, Barry Foster lives in a bedsit above Duckworth’s publishing house on Henrietta Street, while Bernard Cribbins is governor of the Globe on Bow Street.
You also get Billie Whitelaw, Jon Finch, Anna Massey Jean Marsh, some violent murders and an innocent man trying to clear his name and evade the police at the same time. Standard Hitchcock fare then.
Interestingly Hitchcock’s father William had been a merchant in the market and it’s tempting to view Frenzy as an homage to the London of the young Alfred’s youth, a man in the latter years of his life returning to his (vegetable) roots perhaps. Certainly he seems to be enjoying himself in the slightly odd trailer, which begins with a cadaverous Hitchcock floating face up down the Thames.
Going back even further you get a taste of the old market immediately post-war in Ealing Studio’s Hue & Cry [DVD] when the young George Fowler gets a job there and stumbles across a gang of crooks in the process. Sadly much of Hue and Cry looks suspiciously like a film set, though there is some great footage of a bustling Kingsway and of Holborn tube station.
An altogether more factual look at Covent Garden in its prime, though, can be found in the 1957 slice-of-life documentary Every Day Except Christmas. This short film directed by Lyndsay Anderson and produced by Karel Reisz under the Free Cinema banner provides an evocative and beautifully shot look at a day or, more appropriately, a night in the life of the market. There are some good scenes too in the Dirk Bogarde vehicle Victim [DVD] 1961 shot in the Edwardian splendour of The Salisbury on St Martin’s Lane -a pub which also served as a backdrop for a 1964 Marianne Faithful photo shoot by Gered Mankowitz. Actually Victim is a brilliant film with plenty of good footage filmed mostly round Covent Garden and Cambridge Circus.
By the mid sixties, however there was more going on around Covent Garden than just fruit and veg. In late 1966 the legendary underground club UFO opened in an old Irish Dancehall (now the Odeon) in nearby Tottenham Court Road. Pink Floyd and Soft Machine played on the opening night and on a regular basis thereafter, with groups like The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Procul Harum appearing in subsequent weeks. UFO only lasted a few months, later moving to Camden’s Roundhouse before closing altogether a short time later.
Its immediate successor, though was Middle Earth in the heart of Covent Garden in a once grand Georgian Mansion at 43 King Street. John Peel and Jeff Dexter (ex-UFO) played records and again Pink Floyd and Soft Machine played a number of times as did bands like Tyranosaurus Rex, The Byrds, and Fairport Convention. What a joy it would have been to witness the long-haired, possibly chemically-altered emerging blinking into the bustling market in the early hours. Or perhaps arriving late in the evening suitably attired and mingling with the strait-laced crowd departing the Opera House.
The summer of 1967 also saw the opening of The Arts Lab – a cinema, theatre and gallery space at 182 Drury Lane, complete with a restaurant and ample space for happenings. Famously Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s first collaborative work debuted here in 1968. The real epi-centre of underground London, however, was a short walk away at 102 Southampton Row in Holborn where the Indica Bookshop sold alternative literature from Burroughs, Ginsberg, Alex Trocchi, Aleister Crowley and the like.
Downstairs from the bookshop IT (International Times) was published initially as a news sheet to publicize underground events, and write about the emerging counter culture. Run on a shoestring and subject to constant police harassment, by 1968 40,000 copies were being sold. IT still exists today albeit in online form but it’s well worth a visit
http://www.internationaltimes.it not least because it has an archive of back issues. IT editor, Barry Miles’ book London Calling documents this scene brilliantly as does his In The Seventies: Adventures in the Counter-Culture For a visual record of the era, IT photographer John Hoppy Hopkins From the Hip a black and white photo book – is essential. Oh and just so you know, 102 Southampton Row is now home to a branch of Pret A Manger.
On September 20th 1968 into this hippy nexus landed the, aforementioned musical, Hair, at the Shaftesbury Theatre. By happy coincidence one of the chief voices of the emerging underground, Mick Farren ended up living in an apartment housed within the same Edwardian block as the Shaftesbury Theatre for much of Hair’s five year run. Farren was a contributor to various alternative publications including IT and his band Social Deviants (later Deviants) were regularly on the bill at both UFO and Middle Earth. The flat was by all accounts no ordinary hippy crash pad: aside from the handy West End location it was accessed by a lift, had three bedrooms a balcony and one of its rooms had a turret. Sadly, Mick Farren died in 2013 but his book Give The Anarchist A Cigarette (Pimlico) is a graphically compelling account of life in sixties and seventies counter culture London.
For much of its life the Covent Garden Market was owned, oddly, by Beechams (they of the Powders) but by 1962 it had been acquired by the GLC who opted to close it in 1974. By then the sheer volume of traffic in the Market had made it pretty much unsustainable. As with Billingsgate and Spitalfields trying to operate a wholesale market in the midst of twentieth century London had become unviable. A plan was hatched to demolish the market and much of the surrounding area as well as widening its principal roads. The Strand, for example was to be expanded into a six-lane motorway and underpass.
Thankfully the plan was kiboshed and Covent Garden was saved, although for much of the rest of the decade it became something of a ghost town. On Long Acre the old Odhams Press works – which had survived a World War1 Zeppelin raid in 1917 – was demolished leaving a gaping hole surrounded by the ubiquitous corrugated iron. Around the same time Charing Cross Hospital (now home to Charing Cross Police station) off The Strand moved, somewhat incongruously, to Fulham. With the market gone, the people who had worked there left too leaving a lot of empty tenements and run down flats. These, having been saved from demolition, were either squatted or let on a short-term basis mostly to young artists, teachers and the like, thereby further contributing to the area’s hippy, counter culture feel.
Community gardens began to spring up (of which Phoenix Gardens across Charing Cross Road survives to this day). In 1976 Nicholas Saunders opened his wholefood store Neal’s Yard in a derelict, rat-infested clump of warehouses at the address of that name. Apparently Neal’s Yard didn’t even appear in the A-Z at the time. The business thrived, selling hippy foods on a more or less hippy co-op basis. Other like-minded souls soon followed, lending Neal’s Yard a community feel which it sort of retains today. Meanwhile directly above the tube station on the corner of Long Acre and James Street, music paper Sounds had an office. In the, 1978, documentary, Punk In London [DVD]
there’s an interview filmed in their news-room, a brilliant flashback to a time when offices were shrouded in cigarette smoke and echoed to the sound of clattering typewriters. Almost certainly there are a couple of half dead spider plants in there somewhere too.
Around the same time the Rock Garden opened just down the road at the bottom of Bedford Row, as a poky underground venue for mostly punk and later post-punk bands. Songkick tell us The Stranglers played on opening night in the summer of 1976 with appearances from the likes of The Damned, The Police, Talking Heads, U2, Dire Straits, Bauhaus, Theatre Of Hate, Southern Death Cult, The Smiths, until the night of October 22nd 2008 when the, er, Rosie Taylor Project performed and the venue closed to make way for the Apple store. Oddly, back in 2008 the ending of four decades of musical history seems to have gone largely unremarked: there’s not much documentary evidence of the Rock Garden online and no sign of a, CBGB’s-style, campaign to save it. It’s certainly difficult to reconcile the pristine airy spaciness of Apple’s cathedral of technology with it’s noisy, sticky-floored past.
The Rock Garden, of course, wasn’t the only music venue in the area. Across Long Acre in1970 an old potato warehouse at 41-43 Neal Street had been converted into a late night drinking club called Chaguaramas (after Chaguaramas Bay in Trinidad) by, Trojan Records producer, Tony Ashfield (2000 Volts of Holt). By the mid-seventies the club was a seedy, down at heel, after-hours watering hole with a largely gay clientele making it an ideal home for a nascent punk audience. Usual suspects Siouxsie Sioux and assorted Bromley Contingents began showing up as did Gene October of Chelesa who convinced Chelsea manager Andy Czeowski to take it on and run it as a club where punk bands could play. The rest is all pretty well documented punk history. Having changed it’s name to the Roxy, the club opened on December 14 1976 with the Andy Czeowski-managed Generation X closely followed in subsequent weeks by The Heartbreakers and Siouxsie & The Banshees. The club in it’s original form carried on until the following April when Czeowski was ousted and left to start the Vortex at Crackers on Wardour Street. The Roxy ran for another year but its original atmosphere was lost. In 1977 EMI offshoot Harvest released the mostly unlistenable (and apparently now deleted) Live at the Roxy with contributions from Wire, Slaughter & The Dogs, Buzzcocks, The Adverts et al. Perhaps a more rewarding listening experience though can be found in Social Classics Volume 2: Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown – a collection of reggae tunes played by Don Letts as Roxy DJ. Talking of Don Letts, when not playing records at The Roxy he was filming both bands and their audiences there on Super 8. This footage was later released as The Punk Rock Movie [DVD] in 1978. It’s available now on DVD augmented with additional material making it, arguably, a bit over long. For all that though it does provide a rare insight into the rawness of the early punk scene. If you want more there’s Paul Marko’s book The Roxy London WC2: A Punk History a pretty detailed and definitive guide to the whole thing and a decent website http://www.boredteenagers.co.uk/ROXY%20CLUB.htm and, of course, Don Letts book CULTURE CLASH: Dread Meets Punk Rockers
By 1975 building work had begun on the central market and in 1980 it reopened in it’s present guise as a shopping centre and pub: The Punch and Judy (worst pub in London, anyone?). The ensuing gentrification pretty much marked the end of the area’s counter culture, bohemian feel. The last gasp came in 1979 when Steve Strange and Rusty Egan transported their Tuesday night club from Billy’s (later Gossips) in Soho to a wartime- themed wine bar on Great Queen Street called Blitz. Like the Roxy, the Blitz club only existed in its original form for a short while but was hugely influential. in that brief period Boy George worked in the cloakroom, Spandau Ballet played and Mick Jagger got knocked back at the door. Over the years The Blitz scene has been done to death in the mainstream media, mostly as the origin of the New Romantic (dreadful name) movement with its frilly shirts and make-up. Go to http://www.theblitzclub.com the official and regularly updated site for plenty of archive stuff, playlists etc.
The Blitz these days has been transformed into a “gentlemen’s club”. The site of the Roxy a branch of Speedo swimwear, the fountains under Centre Point are long gone and with them the Horseshoe, The Sundown, Imhofs and most of the other Hi-fi shops on Tottenham Court Road.
There’s been a subtle change in Covent Garden recently – the shops have moved a little upmarket, and the expanded London Transport Museum is superb – but it’s often still as grim as Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon. Who knows then what the future holds once Crossrail, with its 24 trains an hour, comes to Tottenham Court Road.
RIP: Mick Farren, “Hoppy” Hopkins, Steve Strange