59 Old Compton Street — formerly 2i’s coffee bar

59 Old Compton Street — Photograph: Jackie Hopfinger

Have you heard the one about the Welshman and the German who walked into a bar and changed the course of popular culture? Probably not. It’s one of the more obscure stories associated with a building that is now a fish and chip shop. A plaque on the wall above the shop reads: “Site of the 2i’s Coffee Bar — Birthplace of British Rock ‘n Roll”. If anything, this somewhat undersells its significance.

The 2i’s Coffee Bar is where skiffle passed from Pete Seeger’s followers to Cliff, Adam, Tommy and others, and where The Beatles got the big break that would lead to their reinvention of popular music. But none of this would have happened without an itinerant Italian salesman of dental equipment and the lamentable state of British coffee during post-war rationing.

This was a particularly sorry state of affairs given the former prominence of coffee houses in the life of London. Described at the time as “dingy places, reeking of tobacco”, coffee houses were hugely popular in eighteenth century, with over two thousand of them across the city. They were meeting places, convenient and affordable for business and conversation. They were also exclusively male. According to the whig politician and historian Thomas Macaulay “foreigners remarked that the coffee house was that which especially distinguished London from all other cities…every rank and profession, and every shade of religious and political opinion, had its own headquarters.”

In the age of enlightenment, it was not just political ideas and financial dealings that were explored over a coffee. Garraway’s coffee house in the City of London was patronised by wealthy traders, but they were joined by Dr John Radcliffe and assorted apothecaries who would conduct medical consultations there at a set time on a particular table every day. Coffee houses were places where all sources of wealth in Georgian London could be openly traded. In the classified section of London’s Daily Advertiser on 22 May 1761, this announcement was printed: “To be disposed of, a beautiful black Girl, a Native of Bengal, and nineteen Years of Age: She is perfectly good natured, and can talk the English language: Is well qualified to wait upon a Lady. Enquire at the Bar of St. Martin’s, Le Grand Coffee House.” Such announcements were all too common.

The decline of London coffee houses was well under way by the nineteenth century. In part this was because some of them evolved into exclusive gentlemen’s clubs and, of course, because of the rising fashion for tea. So by the time Pino Riservato arrived in town in 1952, a decent cup of coffee was hard to find.

The Italian salesman was finding his job hard work. This was less to do with the market for dental equipment which was buoyed up by the new NHS and more to do with Britain’s coffee which was usually based on a mixture of chicory and coffee essence. So Riservato took matters into his own hands and had one of the new futuristic, steam driven Gaggia espresso machines shipped over from Milan. Lacking an import licence this had to be smuggled via Ireland and the Isle of Man to a basement he rented in Dean Street for demonstrating to the catering trade. His hope was that Soho’s Italian community would create a demand that he could satisfy.

In fact it was Scotsman Maurice Ross who bought the first machine after taking out a lease on a bomb damaged launderette. Out went the washing machines and in came a Formica bar, stainless steel stools, modern decor and, of course, the sparkling, steaming Gaggia machine. Ross’s Moka Bar at 29 Frith Street was an immediate hit with students from nearby St Martins College of Art and with the new demographic creation of the post-war years: teenagers.

By 1956 London could boast 400 espresso bars, with new ones opening every week. Premises were cheap to rent in Soho, and with the Moka Bar selling 1,000 glasses of espresso every day, opening a coffee bar seemed a sure fire route to business success. That year Punch magazine declared: “We have reached the stage where virtually the entire population of these islands goes in hourly danger of opening a coffee-bar.”

These bars had some key advantages over pubs. Because they weren’t licensed premises they could stay open later and were teenager-friendly places. In contrast to male-dominated pubs, they were less intimidating to women. Those in Soho attracted a mix of people — office and local film industry workers, art students and shoppers, theatre staff and theatre audiences — and of course teenagers. Above all they were modern, friendly, lively places without the promise of a drunken punch up. To use a fashionable word of the time: they were cool — especially the 2i’s.

Named after the two Irani brothers who formerly owned it, the 2i’s coffee bar was acquired by an Australian wrestler, Paul Lincoln (known professionally as Dr Death) who was looking for a novel edge that would mark out the 2i’s in what by then was a very crowded market. He found it on 14 July 1956. The annual Soho Fair was a week long carnival, by then in its second year, organised as an attempt to show that there was more to Soho than sweatshops and stripclubs.

As part of the fair, trundling through the street of Soho was a truck with three young men playing Pete Seeger style American folk and political songs. The truck had started at Soho Square and wound its way around the Carnaby Street area before coming to a halt at the end of Old Compton Street. It was raining and the group was thirsty. The young men — who called themselves The Vipers — drank their coffees, strummed a couple of songs and, as they prepared to leave and continue with their slow drive around Soho, Paul Lincoln asked them if they’d come back and play again in the basement where there was a small stage made of planks and milk crates. And so it was that The Vipers launched the 2i’s as Britain’s first rock and roll venue.

Within a few weeks, the 2i’s was well on the way to gaining its reputation as “the most famous music venue in England”. With standing room for twenty people, it was also one of the smallest venues, but this didn’t put off the talent and the talent-spotters who were attracted to the tiny basement.

The 2i’s became the focus for Britain’s rock and roll scene. Adam Faith, Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, the various Shadows, Vince Taylor and many others performed there. Lionel Bart worked behind the bar and Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, began his music career as the 2i’s bouncer. In the big Bang of British Rock and Roll, it was where you went to play, to meet other musicians and to get noticed. What is less well known is the part the 2i’s played in the rise of The Beatles.

Allan Williams was a Liverpool-based promoter who had set up The Jacaranda — a basement coffee bar in the city modelled on the 2i’s. He managed a number of groups in Liverpool which by 1960 was a city with a growing reputation for the quality of its music acts. It was in May 1960 that he was asked by Bruno Koschmider to provide a group for a residency at the latter’s Indra Club in Hamburg. An audition was arranged at the 2i’s, for which Williams drove down Liverpool’s top act — Derry & The Seniors. Koschmider liked what he heard and booked them on the spot. He then took Williams next door to the Heaven and Hell coffee shop, where they sat in the window, had a chat and shook on a deal. The deal was that any group Williams thought good enough for the Indra, Koschmider would take without question.

And so it was that three months later Koschmider called Williams asking for another group. Unfortunately, Liverpool’s next best group — Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (with Ringo on drums) — was engaged in a residency at a North Wales holiday camp. So Williams hurriedly arranged passports for the untested, often unreliable and generally unprofessional Beatles. But passports were the least of their problems — when the call came through The Beatles were a group without a drummer.

On 16 August 1960 with Allan Williams behind the wheel of his green Austin van, John, Paul, George, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe and new recruit Pete Best on drums set off from Liverpool along with Allan’s wife Beryl, her brother Barry Chang and Trinidadian calypsonian and music promoter Lord Woodbine. After several hours in the cramped van that had no seats, they pulled up on the kerb outside the Heaven and Hell cafe to pick up the tenth passenger — Herr Steiner — an Austrian working at the cafe, who was to be Koschmider’s interpreter. They drove away from Old Compton Street as unproven teenagers. In the following weeks and they would be commanded to “mach schau, mach schau!” and learn their craft. They were booked to play for five or six hours at a stretch over 48 nights. Eighteen hours after leaving London, they ended up in Arnhem after Williams took a wrong turning, and were photographed at the war memorial.

All Clubs have their time, and the 2i’s time lasted until the early 1960s. By this point the early discoveries at the coffee bar had established themselves as stars, rock and roll was moving on, and clubs like the Flamingo on Wardour Street were offering American Soul and Jamaican Ska to the emerging generation of mods. The club continued throughout that decade, serving its last espresso in 1970 — the year The Beatles disbanded.

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