My next book. At the moment it’s a soup of ideas. Churning around in my head. Waiting to congeal into something wholesome. A little thinner than I would like at this stage, to be honest. More a french onion than a hearty pea and ham. But good things come to those who wait and all that.
Anyway, venues. I’ve been thinking about them. Along with plots, of course. But I do like a good venue. They fire my imagination. Get the old creative juices flowing. As you may have noticed (if you’ve been paying attention). ‘The Shelter’ featured several, but most particularly the deep level air raid shelter at Belsize Park. There was Excalibur House in ‘The Battle of Wood Green’ and, of course, Building 41 at Bletchley Park, that most atmospheric of places…
So where next? I have several venues in mind for my next outing. One of them being The Scene Club in London. This little dance club and music venue was in Ham Yard, off Great Windmill Street in London’s Soho. The Scene Club had been a jazz venue in the very early sixties. Jazz – mainly traditional jazz – had been the music of choice for many young people before the advent of rock and roll. By 1963, the DJ’s at The Scene Club, most notably Guy Stevens (who went on to work with Island Records and produced The Clash’s acclaimed album, London Calling), had started to play rhythm and blues and soul records imported from the United States. Recordings by artists like Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, Howling Wolf, Big Joe Turner and Chuck Berry. While many went on to become household names, in 1963 much of this music was new to Britain and to the British youth.
As a jazz club, The Scene was already the venue of choice for the emerging youth subculture known as modernism. The subculture had its roots in an small group of London-based stylish young men. They were labelled modernists (or ‘mods’), mainly because they listened to modern jazz but they readily embraced the new brand of music played by Guy Stevens and the other DJ’s at The Scene Club and elsewhere (at clubs like the Whisky a Go Go, La Discotheque, and Georgie Fame’s The Flamingo Club, all on Wardour Street).
Modernism was by no means the first such youth subculture in Britain. The mods were preceded by the teddy boys of the 1950’s, with their draped long coats and crepe-soled shoes, and the rockers and ton up boys who followed, who wore jeans, leather jackets and rode motor cycles. It has been suggested that modernism was, in part, a reaction against the fashion, aggressive stance and perceived ‘dirtiness’ of the rockers by the more style-conscious mods.
Undeniably, the scenes portrayed in the British press, through their coverage of several violent seaside confrontations between marauding mods and rockers in 1964, gives evidence to the rivalry that developed between the two subcultures. But in 1963 these rivalries were less distinct. Many of the bands emerging in London and elsewhere, adopted subsequently by the mods, had their roots in rock and roll.
Some, like The Animals from Newcastle, who played at The Scene Club in 1963, had never even heard of modernism. When I interviewed John Steel, the drummer of The Animals, in May 2006, he told me:
“We couldn’t really understand it. We were just a bunch of northern rockers. The fact is that we didn’t even know what a mod was until we arrived at The Scene Club. It was purely a London phenomenon at that time. When we arrived at our first gig [at the Scene Club], the yard outside was absolutely packed with Lambrettas and Vespas, you know. Loads and loads of chrome. Lights. Long aerials with foxtails. And guys in suits and parkas. We’d never seen anything like it. It just wasn’t anywhere else in the country at that time.”
The Scene Club was a tiny and, by all accounts, rather dingy venue. The entrance was via a doorway in a corner of Ham Yard and access was a via a flight of steps down to the basement.
“You went down a staircase, paid your money, had your hand stamped… and went into a rectangular room. As I recall the DJ was in a little box to the right of the entrance, but it was flush to the wall. In the right hand corner opposite the DJ was a bar, that only sold soft drinks (I remember cola that was made from powder and water, really horrible).”
“A bit further to the left of the entrance was a passage to the cloakroom. Along the far wall to the left were booths, I think the first few times I went there you couldn’t see what was going on, but later they were opened up, I think this happened after a raid for drugs. And I think on the right hand wall between the bar and DJ booth were benches.
The rest was a dance floor (I seem to remember a pillar or two, but again I could be wrong). People stood around or danced. A lot of the time it was a case of being seen at the right place.”(1)
(1) ‘London: The Scene Club and Soho’, Geoff Green, Alice Fowkes and Chris H, http://jackthatcatwasclean.blogspot.co.uk)
The mod subculture expanded rapidly and by the mid sixties was driving mainstream fashion, popular music and art. To the original mods this was anathema and by late 1966 they were moving on and The Scene Club had closed.
As recently as 2008, the entrance to the premises and presumably the basement below, still existed behind an imposing steel barrier in the corner of Ham Yard (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJtTUf25ULA). However, in recent years Ham Yard has been developed and whether it still exists is unknown to the author. I am planning a visit to Ham Yard in the near future and will report my findings here soon.
If you attended The Scene Club, have any memories or pictures that you’d be willing to share, I would be delighted to hear from you. Please contact me via my email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by leaving a comment here.
If you’re interested in my interview with John Steel of The Animals, you can listen to it here: – John Steel Interview, May 2006