The cultural impact of London's Carnaby Street is currently being celebrated by Carnaby Echoes, a new project that marks a hundred years since the thoroughfare's first jazz club opened. A series of plaques at key Carnaby locations went up yesterday (5 September), while a free exhibition will run until 30 October. See Carnabyechoes.com for details. One of Carnaby Echoes' contributors is Q's founding editor Mark Ellen who worked in on the street when much of Britain's music press was based there (and we're actually based not too far away these days). He returns to our fold - albeit in digital form - with this guest column.
Anyone wandering around the Carnaby Street area from 5 September will notice a series of plaques appearing at key locations. There'll be one at 16-18 Beak Street to mark the spot where Murray's cabaret club opened in 1913, the place where Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies worked as hostesses in the early 60s and became entangled with the war minister John Profumo. There'll be one round the corner at 9 Kingly Street where the Bag O' Nails still thrives: Rod Stewart and Georgie Fame used to play there, or watch rare, imported blues sets from Ben E King and John Lee Hooker.
The Cat's Whisker will be picked out too, the 50s rock and roll and skiffle bar at 1 Kingly Street whose tiny, jam-packed dancefloor gave birth to a brand new dance called "the hand-jive". And had you ventured down to Number 23 just before the outbreak of the Second World War you'd have found one of its "basement bottle parties" in full swing, a cunning circumnavigation of the licensing laws, and its bar propped up by Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and members of the Duke Ellington Band.
I wish I'd known all this when I worked at NME in Carnaby Street in the late 70s. Back then the strip was still basking in the glow of its mid-60s resurgence, when shops like Lord John and Kleptomania supplied The Who with mod suits and the Stones with exotic shirts and candy-striped trousers. Tourists flocked to the place expecting to find Keith Richards stumbling about in a fur coat and psychedelic shades followed by gaggles of thin-stemmed girls with miniskirts and big felt hats. Instead they got acres of mod revival shops selling skinny ties and shiny three-button jackets, and punk boutiques full of strategically ripped plastic trousers, tartan bum-flaps and Sid And Nancy t-shirts that shrunk three sizes in the wash. By the time I'd moved over the road to Smash Hits in the early 80s, they got brassy new stores playing Blondie singles where the big-fringed staff sold espadrilles, capacious New Romantic blouses and boob tubes.
Happily - wonderfully - both the NME and Smash Hits have now been recognised as part of the whole area's rich cultural history. Carnaby Echoes is a project by artist Lucy Harrison to track down and interview anyone involved in any of the shops, clubs, record stores and magazines that traded within spitting-distance of its gum-mottled asphalt. I told her stories about my time at the NME when Danny Baker was on reception - "City morgue!" he'd trill when he answered the phone, "you stab 'em, we slab 'em!" - and The Clash and Pistols wandered up our fragrant stairwell to hand-deliver their new records. And The Jam, in their two-tone Shelly's shoes, shot the cover of their News Of The World single just along from our office, near the Shakespeare's Head pub.
The street's main figure in 1981 is also part of Lucy's ever-expanding sound and film archive. Back then he decorated the windows at a store called The Foundry in Ganton Street, and was so beloved by the Smash Hits staff we used to run pictures of him in the magazine. Readers wrote in by the sackload, thrilled by the sight of this unknown Irishman in big boots with a ballgown, vertical hair and eye-shadow, and demanding "more pictures of Boy George O'Dowd". And they got them: when Culture Club took off a year later, George and his band wore clothes designed by Sue Clowes and sold at The Foundry, as did both The Cure and Bananarama.
Carnaby Echoes exhibition is running at 20 Foubert's Place from 5 September, where you can see footage and memorabilia from a century of its thrilling pop legacy. Download their free phone app and you can hear the fascinating interviews about the top landmarks. Find the plaques on the wall and you can play these stories at the precise place where they happened. Mark Ellen
Head to Carnabyechoes.com.