In a converted warehouse a few blocks down from the Intrepid Fox public house on Wardour Street came the sound of a measure out-pacing prediction. It was the kind of sound that gave a distorted view of a see-thru baby-blue cross-dresser. A children’s tea party and a coven of warlocks with a splodgy light show. Sirens, scarves, suede-fringed jackets and kaftans. The Paris revolution of ’68 was youth culture’s most successful happening. Soho’s of ’66 was one of its weirdest. Mad, staring orbs, power cuts and surges. Sid Barrett’s pale, dark-eyed face impassive as he unleashed his upside-down music. The reverberations would fly through decades, travelling by telephone, watching ipads come alight.
After the Mods and speed, the Marquee was offering a whole new sensory overload. Originally opened on 19th April 1958 as a jazz, skiffle and blues club on Oxford Street, the Marquee featured acts such as Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. It was the venue where, on 12th July 1962, The Rolling Stones played their first gig. In 1964 the Marquee relocated to the old Burberry warehouse at 90 Wardour Street. The opening acts included the Chicago bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson and the British act, The Yardbirds. Along with The Who and the Small Faces, the Yardbirds made the Marquee “the most important venue in the history of pop music,” according to Melody Maker. Certainly, a strange music was issuing forth. The strains of medieval liturgical chant and Indian ragas were zinging along Wardour Street. The Yardbirds had been expanding their horizons. What the African American did for skiffle, the Indian Raj was about to do for pop.
At the same time, Lysergic acid diethylamide had replaced dexamphetamine sulphate and amylobarbitone. Now it was a quest for enlightenment rather than obliteration. Psychiatrist R. D. Laing was carrying out his work with the drug at Kingsley Hall in Bethnal Green, east London. He worked primarily with schizophrenics, encouraging them to take a trip down memory lane then find their way back to consciousness. Back in the Wild West, the Marquee was serving a similar function.
In 1966 a New Yorker, Bernard Stollman, arrived in London to begin a Sunday afternoon tea party. He called it the Spontaneous Underground. In the US, Stollman had recorded with avant-garde jazz musicians, the poet William Burroughs and trippy Timothy Leary. Stollman was in Soho scouting new music for his ESP label. He put out flyers that promised “poets, pop singers, hoods, Americans, homosexuals (because they make up 10% of the population), 20 clowns, jazz musicians, ‘one murderer’, sculptors, politicians and some girls who defy description”.
The folk singer Donovan sat centre stage ringed by six sitar players and two conga drummers. The Sunday Times reported a new phenomenon: it was not so much the acts but the audience who provided the entertainment. Donovan had no memory of being there so he couldn’t say. Graham Bond of the Graham Bond Organisation was there although he probably couldn't remember either. Bond is one of those Soho rabble-rousers who arrives from nowhere to perplex and amuse. He was dressed in a pirate costume. He growled over his Mellotron; his bandmate Dick Heckstall-Smith protested with his saxophone. A free-form improvising group called AMM played a coffee tin and a glass jar. The result was described as eerie or even horrifying.
Finally and most famously, Pink Floyd soaked up the do-as-you-like atmosphere of Soho as manifested in 1966 on Wardour Street. They jammed atonal chords over Junior Walker and Chuck Berry for an unfeasibly long time. “History,” said Winston Churchill, “is now and England.” As of January 1965 Churchill was dead. Howls of echo and feedback were heard at the Marquee as the band set the controls for their instruments. They were playing the Eternal Present.
Pink Floyd were a regular fixture at the Sunday Marquee led by sensitive schizophrenic Syd Barrett. Admission was six shillings and sixpence, and money raised went to Kingsley Hall, Laing’s community project. Young Davie Jones popped in one Sunday and was impressed by Barrett – his white face and black eyeliner not giving anything away.
If we leave Syd Barrett for a moment to his on-stage reveries, the shaken and stirred Graham Bond comes into focus. Since the 16th century Soho has provided a living for unintelligible poets, absurd legislators, student artists and penniless entrepreneurs. If a place can be said to have a character then charity, solidarity and compassion are this place’s pronounced characteristics. Graham was a drifter who came to Soho by way of a Barnardo's Home near Romford, Essex.
Abandoned at birth in October 1937, he was a solitary, asthmatic boy, who cured his asthma through yogic breathing and blowing alto sax. At school he back-chatted the bullies with Goon impersonations. After trying his hand as a Frigidaire salesman, he ran arpeggios up and down keyboards in continental cocktail bars. He once told friends that he had attended an orgy on Errol Flynn’s yacht off the coast of Majorca.
By the time he arrived in Soho in 1958 he was a hulking six-footer in a single-breasted suit sporting a pencil moustache. He puzzled the trad jazz purists. He was more into what the new American jazz heads were doing. But he used his salesman’s patter to blag his way into the Pad on Berwick Street. Here he found the future Cream drummer, Ginger Baker, and British blues legend, Alexis Korner. They invited him to join Blues Incorporated. He started playing the Thursday Marquee residency with them – roaring away on his Hammond organ.
Alexis tried his best to confine Bond to geeing up the rhythm section. The next thing he knew Bond had run off with his rhythm section. By June, guitarist John McLaughlin (aka Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, co-parent of Miles Davis’s electric masterpiece, Bitches Brew) had joined Bond and Baker. They became the Graham Bond Organization.
“In the sixties I worked in Dobell’s with Graham Bond,” said Ron Gould, skiffle historian. Ron had his own band in the Sixties who gigged by night. By day he was behind the till in one of London’s legendary vinyl shops.
Graham was cheerful but he was always looking for the next fix. I also worked at the Modern Music Club in Gerrard Street run by Jimmy Tate, called by a judge the ‘wickedest man in England’. The only reason I can think of is that he owned flats occupied by prostitutes and sold drink illegally. Jimmy booked bands to play at the club. Graham walked in one night and asked if he could play. We said, ‘Yes, let’s see how good you are.’ Right from the start everyone realized he was brilliant. That was Graham’s first regular gig in the west end of London.
Fans Oh yes, there were fans, but fans with a difference. Fans who looked completely enraptured and stood in a trance-like stillness. On his Thursday night residency, Bond was on seismic form in a sleeveless jerkin pummelling his Hammond organ on which rested a silver ankh and a packet of 20 Chesterfields. He screamed R&B war cries. He mashed up Bach’s toccata and fugue in D minor with Ramsey Lewis’s “Wade in the Water”. Donovan thought the Graham Bond Organisation were the greatest.
Ten years later Bond died in a mysterious rail accident. Not unusual for a Soho face. He had been dabbling with Occult rituals (a well-worn excuse for excessive drug-taking) and had got very paranoid, refusing to come out of the cupboard in his bedroom. He was one of the catalytic figures of Sixties rock. Like Floyd's Sid Barrett, Bond took from the English folk tradition so recently revivified in Greek Street to create a music formed of melancholy, whimsicality, mimicry and stream of consciousness. They turned it into an audibly motley modernity.
In 1988 The Marquee relocated to Charing Cross Road because the vibrations from the sound system had caused damage to the structure of the Burberry façade. Although the original entrance remains to what is now Soho Lofts apartments, the club room was demolished and replaced with a Terence Conran restaurant.
Back through the original entrance on Wardour Street, Pink Floyd were stretching the parameters of the standard pop set, elongating three-minute songs into half-hour improvised mantras, locking on a single chord, twisting it inside out. On centre stage, with a schizophrenic’s glee, Syd Barrett detuned his Telecaster’s strings and attacked it with a Zippo lighter.