245 Oxford Street

Oxford Circus tube station — Photograph: Jackie Hopfinger

Within little more than two decades, Soho was surrounded. And transformed.

The roads came first. In the late nineteenth century Charing Cross Road and Regent Street were both constructed, defining Soho’s east and west boundaries, while Shaftesbury Avenue sliced through Soho’s southern neighbourhoods. These roads ushered in the age of the department store which began to flourish on the edges of Soho. Only Liberty with its mock Tudor splendour on Great Marlborough Street had the temerity to build within Soho itself. But it was the tube that brought in the shoppers and workers that allowed the retail revolution to take hold.

Four tube lines were dug beneath Soho’s boundaries. The Central Line came first in 1900, running under Oxford Street to the north. In 1906 the Bakerloo and Piccadilly Lines were tunnelled underneath the western and southern boundaries, while a year later the Northern Line followed a route beneath Soho’s eastern periphery. It took a further one hundred and fifteen years for another track to be laid as Crossrail’s Elizabeth Line tore beneath the Central Line and gouged a corner out of Soho.

Historically the tube is usually viewed in terms of opening up Metroland, the swathes of suburban development in the first half of the twentieth century. But the changes that the tube brought to Soho and other districts within the centre of London were no less profound. While the Central Line was still being bored twenty metres below Oxford Street, Soho was still largely a working class neighbourhood characterised by poverty and overcrowding. Within just a few decades it became known more for its leisure industries, fashionable shops and creative businesses. While the qualities of diversity and tolerance remained, they became the foundations upon which new cultures and experiences were created.

The shift from predominantly a place where people lived to a place where people worked took place rapidly. While Soho’s population was 24,000 in 1900, it had fallen to 7,240 by 1939. It retained its multicultural character and if anything built on it further. The Jewish and Italian communities grew, alongside other nationalities who had made Soho their home. They all found a sure way of profiting from Londoners and tourists. They fed them.

British food had become dire. But as Peter Ackroyd observes in his history of London “In Soho the restaurant trade flourished because of the influence of French, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Chinese cooking. In the purlieus of Soho, too, an informality of eating was introduced or, rather, reintroduced.” An example of this informality is Soho’s unique contribution to the culinary world — the sandwich bar. The first one to open was Sandy’s in 1933, followed very rapidly by other snack bars across London.

Pubs, clubs, cafes and restaurants were built from the enterprise of Soho’s residents, catering for those who shopped in the new stores, visited nearby theatres and worked in offices of the new service industries. Small workshops provided services for the department stores and theatres, everything from tailoring to musical instrument repairs and prop making. And from the mid 1950s Soho’s unique coffee bars catered for the new phenomenon of the teenager.

If you can squeeze in between the tourists and shoppers, avoiding the commuters who use one of the busiest underground stations in the world, then stand at the very top of Argyll Street facing south, as close as safety allows to Oxford Street’s kerb. You’re standing on the very edge of Soho looking in — where the unique spirit and creative drive of the neighbourhood meets the mass consumerism.

Indeed, this is the very spot that British pop music was transformed from a passion to an industry. Take a close look at the tube station entrance to the left, decorated in pale pink terracotta, with four storeys of offices above it. This Grade II listed building is held to be one of the best examples of station architecture from this period — and two floors up is the office where the rock and roll alchemy happened.

The 2i’s coffee bar on Old Compton Street was where raw talent flourished, but it was in this office that talent was turned into a very successful business. From an East London Jewish rag trade family, Larry Parnes had no interest in music until by chance he found himself in The Stork Club, just behind Piccadilly Circus, one evening in August 1956. Watching teenage Tommy Hicks perform, Parnes immediately realised there was money to be made in this embryonic rock and roll — and nobody else was making it.

His new office at 245 Oxford Street was where he signed up Hicks to a business model that was repeated over the years, and served him extremely well until the guitar group revolution of the early sixties swept it all away. The model was a simple one — take a good looking working class boy with a hunger for fame and a natural charisma, give him a new persona, find songs in Denmark Street that matched the persona, sign him to a record label and count the money rolling in. The 2i’s coffee bar on Old Compton Street was his favoured venue for talent hunting. His signings had a choice — pay Parnes an eye-watering 40% management fee, or take a guaranteed weekly salary of around £25 — roughly double what they’d earn working in a factory.

Tommy Hicks became Tommy Steele, Reg Smith was rebranded as Marty Wilde, Clive Powell as Georgie Fame, Ron Wycherley found fame as Billy Fury, alongside others who had their moment in the charts with a new Parnes name. It was only Joe Brown that successfully held out against becoming Elmer Twitch.

Eventually Parnes, along with Tommy Steele, shifted his business interests out of pop and into theatre land. Marty Wilde pursued a successful career as a manager (mainly for his daughter Kim Wilde) while Georgie Fame remains a critically acclaimed performer to this day.

For every Steele, Wilde, Fame and Fury there were many others whose careers either never took off or fizzled out shortly after they started. The future welfare and careers of these young talents were simply not part of the equation, whether or not the Parnes formula worked. The main legacy of Parnes’ Pop was the demonstration that Brits could have hits. The other legacy, was his role in giving a big break to the musical act that made his formula redundant.

In April 1960 Parnes made a phone call from this office to Liverpool pop promoter Allan Williams booking one of his acts to be a backing group for his latest signing — Johnny Gentle. The deal was for a one week tour of pubs and mechanics’ institutes in the north east of Scotland. The tour would test whether Gentle could command an audience, and all he was looking for in the backing group was basic musical competence.

And so it was in May that The Silver Beetles — John, Paul, George, Stu and Tommy — embarked on their first ever professional tour. It was also to this very same office allegedly that John Lennon made an urgent phone call asking “where’s our fucking money Larry?” when they had to do a runner from a hotel in Forres due to lack of funds. He wasn’t called “Mr Parnes, Shillings & Pence” for nothing. It was on this short tour of Scotland that the teenage Silver Beetles decided on a new name. That week, somewhere on the road between Inverness and Fraserburgh they became The Beatles.

Walk 50 metres south from Parnes’ office, and there on the left is the London Palladium where on 13 October 1963 Beatlemania, if not exactly born, at least was given its name. ITV’s weekly Sunday Night at the London Palladium was a firm family favourite, attracting audiences of up to 15 million for its variety show acts. Argyll Street was packed with hundreds of screaming fans, and when The Beatles started the first of their two performances that evening, the screaming continued inside the Palladium itself. While the British press had studiously avoided any mention of the adulation surrounding the group during that year’s run of chart topping singles, it could clearly be avoided no longer. While the fans’ reaction was covered on the TV news bulletin immediately following the live show, the journalist for a leading newspaper was penning his headline for the following day’s front page: Beatlemania.

Larry Parnes retired in 1981 and died a few years later, while Tommy Steele received his knighthood in 2020. Johnny Gentle’s career never really took off, so he reverted back to being John Askew and worked as a joiner. But he was part of it, as much as all the others. There, right on the northern edge of Soho, above the tube station, is where British pop began.

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Song

Singing The Blues — Tommy Steele and the Steelmen

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Sources

Historical sources used include:

Peter Ackroyd (2000) London The Biography, Chatto & Windus

Peter Speiser (2017) Soho: The Heart of Bohemian London, British Library

Dan Cruikshank (2020) Soho: A Street Guide to Soho’s History, Architecture and People, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Other sources:

Russell Clarke (2015) Mr Parnes, Shillings & Pence — https://rocknrollroutemaster.com/2015/09/16/mr-parnes-shillings-pence/

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