A Writer At Large: In Search Of The (Live) Lost Chord;

A Writer At Large: In Search Of The (Live) Lost Chord;


March 7, 2004, Sunday
By Tim Marrs

In Seville recently for the Womex Conference, I fled the official
conference showcases and sought out La Carboneria, a bar I remembered
from years ago. Its signless wooden door in a back alley was marked
only by a row of parked bicycles and a few people exiting as we

You enter an extraordinary room, the high-vaulted central chamber of
what was once a charcoal-maker’s workplace. The walls are covered with
old bullfight ***** faded photos of flamenco singers, abstract
daubs with a Fifties air about them and relics of the craft of turning
wood into fuel. In a corner of the room by a fireplace, a woman
dressed in scarves and a long, flowered skirt and accompanied by a
guitarist sang coplas, a flamenco-esque song form from the
Forties. The crowd was mixed by age and type and paid attention to the
music rather than chatting. Through the far door is a large shed with
rows of benches, a long bar and a small stage. The back door opens
onto a huge hidden garden sheltered by palms and banana trees with
more tables, chairs and a bar. When the coplas finished, an Armenian
trio with clarinet, oud and percussion started in the shed, a
belly-dancer joining them towards the end of their set. By that time
the place was packed and the crowd was younger and hipper. It seemed
to have become more fashionable than I remembered from prior visits
listening to young flamenco rebels jamming after hours, but it had
retained its eccentricity and its atmosphere. It has also, like the
rest of Spain, kept its wilfully egalitarian ethos: the bartender
scrupulously insisted on returning the loose change I left on the bar.

As I sat sipping my ginda, I pondered why no equivalent exists in
London. Our past gets ploughed under by changing trends and rising
real-estate values. Clubs soar upwards on a tide of tribal fashion
then disappear. The Jazz Cafe was a great little joint in Stoke
Newington before it moved aspirationally to Camden Town; now it’s a
cog in the Mean Fiddler machine. The original Mean Fiddler in
Harlesden, for that matter, was once a pretty good place for live
music, but has long been closed. Momo tries to create the equivalent
atmosphere, but it is too relentlessly hip, exclusive and small to
match the democratic flavour of La Carboneria.

It sounds odd to say London isn’t a great city for music. Kids come
from all over the world to go clubbing here. But most London musical
destinations are in thrall to the world of DJs, or the shifting sands
of popular fashion, or both. Dancing, if it is done, is to recorded
music. And to be fair, London has raised the club-DJ scene to a level
of sophistication and up- to-dateness easily the equal of New York or
Paris. But the dance hall or venue with memories of years of great
nights of live music clinging to its unfashionable wallpaper is not to
be found.

There’s Ronnie Scott’s of course, but for decades that has been a kind
of landing strip for American, Cuban or other foreign jazz artists of
international repute. “The Old Place” lasted for a while as a haven
for local jazz talent in the original Gerard Street basement, but
walking through Chinatown now, you are hard pressed to remember which
stairwell once led down to its grimy but soulful rooms. The Pizza
Express jazz venues are good, but adhere pretty closely to the jazz

One problem is that there is no native London musical tradition you
can dance to. You could never imagine a local version of the Mid-City
Rock ‘N Bowl, for example. As the name suggests, this is a bowling
alley, located in a strip mall in an unfashionable district of New
Orleans. Most nights, the lot is full and cars prowl the murky side
streets looking for a place to park while queues form at the foot of
the stairs. Once you gain entrance, you find yourself in a gigantic
hangar where the rumble of bowling balls blends with the clatter of
pins and the creaking of automated machinery re-setting the
lanes. It’s a good bowling alley, one of the best in the city, and in
excellent unaltered condition. Which means it reeks of the Fifties,
even down to the barmaids’ and waitresses’ tight little blue jackets,
pleated mini- skirts and black ankle boots. Murals on the wall
celebrate the Pelicans, the city’s minor-league baseball team, and
their sponsoring local beer.

But what sets Mid-City Lanes apart is the huge dance floor between the
bar and the bowlers. The space is about 30 lanes wide, with a stage at
either end for the busy nights when two groups alternate until two in
the morning. Week nights, they tend to have zyedeco or cajun bands,
with R&B or Latin music on the weekends. The roar of the lanes is
curiously supportive of the music, like a drone that never goes out of
tune. There are two-step lessons for the newcomers at 7pm on Wednesday
and Thursday evenings. By 11, the place is heaving, with dancers of
all races, ages and classes mixing it up and girls sitting on the
banquettes in hot dresses waiting to be asked. Couples come and bowl a
few frames, drink a few beers, eat some fried chicken, then have a

London’s closest equivalent to the democratic mileu of Rock ‘N Bowl is
the DJ Gaz Mayall’s Rockin’ Blues which has made its home in various
dives over many years. I remember running into an ex-girlfriend at a
dinner party 20 years ago who wanted me to take her, her Tory minister
husband and their friends out dancing after the meal. We ended up at
Gaz’s listening to early reggae and R&B while the minister rubbed
shoulders with a party of skinheads at the next table toasting one of
their number who was shipping out next day for the Falklands.

In later years, Jerry Lyseight, Max Reinhardt and Rita Ray opened the
legendary Mambo Inn which specialised in Latin and African music and
would present live bands in one of the rooms of the glorious
rabbit’s-warren that is Brixton’s Loughborough Arms. But it died at
the end of the Eighties, leaving Gaz to carry the roots torch
alone. Bricks and mortar are a problem in a prosperous place like
London. Seville and New Orleans are wonderful cities, but one has very
strict preservation orders to protect the old quarters from
development and the other is too poor to grow. Both recognise that
preserving their past is a better economic plan than developing it.

It sounds as foolish to accuse London of having no sense of history as
it does to accuse it of having no good music. But think about it – in
Seville and New Orleans, the past comes right up to the
present. London’s past is safely preserved in architecture from
distant centuries. Punk clubs? All closed. Murray’s Club, where
Stephen Ward first danced with Christine Keeler? Long gone. Eel Pie
Island, home to trad, skiffle, the blues, and finally The Who and The
Stones? No preservation order saved that century-long mecca of
decadence from the weeds. And don’t get me started on Battersea Power
Station …

Readers who may have gone along with me thus far would quickly turn
the page were I to suggest that London ought to preserve its own
native musical past the way those other cities do. What would that be?
The country dances brought into sweaty city dance palaces that Charles
Dickens so admired? The big dance floors and the equally big bands of
the Forties? Clearly, there is no chance of that. What, come to think
of it, is London’s musical culture? Cockney Music Hall?

No, London is a chameleon city, turning absorbed styles from across
the Atlantic into something it can call its own. Eric Clapton and Mick
Jagger did America’s white blues wannabes one better, as did Zep, Roxy
Music, The Clash, Britpop and Radiohead with their Transatlantic
equivalents. But these groups were primarily turns. They didn’t meet
kindred souls at after-hours clubs and jam. English pop groups work
out their act and then show it on a stage for kids their own age or
younger. Its whole point is to violate whatever tradition is
around. There is no undercurrent of musical texture seeping up from
London’s earth. Unless you count reggae and calypso – but the question
of why there has never been an established venue here for live West
Indian music is another subject entirely …

Bordeaux has a reputation as an up-tight bourgeois city. The beauty of
its 17th century river-front buildings is chilly and severe and the
place reeks of money and respectability. Spending time in the
countryside nearby, I despaired of ever having a Bordelais laugh. One
day I was sipping a pastis and idly thumbing a copy of Sud-Ouest when
I spotted a small notice announcing the Kocani Orchestra, the Balkan
brass band who appeared in Emir Kosturica’s films Underground and Time
of the Gypsies. Where on earth could they be playing in Bordeaux?

Many wrong turns later, I found myself in what resembled a scene from
one of those films. On the dingy far bank of the Garonne
Christmas-tree lights were strung along a chain-link fence between two
forbidding warehouses beside a disused railway line. The signs
announced two names, take your pick: La Guinguette and Chez
Alriq. True to guinguette tradition, it has tables, a dance floor and
a stage under the trees by the river. The bar and restaurant are
inside a crumbling workshop. You fetch your (excellent) food from a
counter and enjoy the summer breeze off the river. In winter, there’s
a stage at one end of the workshop and the tables crowd together
around a dance floor.

And behold, here was the Bohemiam Bordeaux I had been searching for:
art teachers, overgrown moustaches, charity-shop fashion, mixed-race
couples, teenagers hanging out contentedly with their parents
… Alriq’s wife, Rosa, greets and looks after the bar and the
musicians, and together they create an admirably louche
atmosphere. Every night there is music: cajun, musette, jazz, Latin,
gypsy, flamenco, tango. Never a DJ, always a band.

The atmosphere generated by live musicians playing danceable music is
impossible to replicate with recordings. People behave differently
towards each other. Electronic beats have the effect of hardening
manners to match the punch of the rhythm tracks. Watching the music
take shape in front of your eyes and touching your dance partner
softens people. At least that is my experience.

London does have a market for this musical agenda. The audience for
real musicians playing real music with a bit of history is satisfied,
to a degree, by our public spaces. We are lucky to have people like
David Jones of Speakout, Bryn Ormrod from the Barbican, David Sefton
of the South Bank (head-hunted and now running Royce Hall in Los
Angeles) and Andy Wood from Como No. They manage to parade a series of
concerts and musical events not just onto the formal stages but into
the foyers of the Barbican and the Festival Hall where there is room
for dancing. Mambo Inn’s Max and Rita now run the periodic Shrine and
try to blend their beats with live music in imaginative ways. The
Lyric Hammersmith fills time between plays with imaginative music
programming. The crowds at these events show that there would
certainly be an audience for a London guinguette. Maybe someone should
bring Eel Pie Island back to life.

I ran a club once: “UFO” Friday nights in a Tottenham Court Road
basement. Pink Floyd were our resident group, there were light shows
and Kurosawa movies at 4am, Yoko Ono cut a paper dress off a naked
girl on a stepladder with amplified scissors and it became the centre
of the annus mirabilis of 1967. History has memorialised it as the
cradle for groups like the Floyd, the Soft Machine and Arthur Brown.

But we used to present jazz, theatre, folk and the uncategoriseable
avant- garde as well. The openness of the programming was part of the
point. When my partner, Hoppy, was jailed and I found myself running
it on my own, I made the mistake of trying to keep it at the centre of
the new scene instead of maintaining its original free-form spirit. In
trying to become a commercial succes, it lost its way and
disappeared. (Having police and skinheads busting and beating up our
crowds probably didn’t help much, either …)

New York has recently lost both The Bottom Line and Village
Underground, but still boasts the Tonic, Joe’s Pub and The Knitting
Factory. Moscow now has great live venues, led by the quirky
Jao-Da. LA has Largo, Paris La Java, Cafe de la Danse, Divan du Monde,
Amsterdam the venerable Milkveg and Paradiso. Here, Stuart Lyon’s
Sunday nights at Ronnie’s carry on, while the admirable Kashmir Klub
has lost its lease. The Jazz Cafe, Spitz, 12-Bar, Cargo and Borderline
have their merits, but you wouldn’t send an out-of-town visitor to any
of them for the crowd and the ambience.

Is there room for a place in London with the Bacchanalian spirit of
Eel Pie Island, the agape booking policy of Chez Alriq, a dance floor
as big and springy as Mid-City Rock ‘N Bowl and the atmosphere and
cheap drinks of La Carbonaria. Well, I am certainly not going to open
one. But if someone is brave enough, he or she can count on my buying
a round on opening night.