Berwick Street Market

Berwick Street — Photograph: Jackie Hopfinger

London has a long-established Jewish community which grew substantially in the latter part of the nineteenth century with refugees from Eastern Europe fleeing persecution, many of whom settled in Soho. A number moved into the rag trade — tailoring, dressmaking and haberdashery — finding small workshop spaces down the narrow alleys and cramped buildings of Soho’s west side, while others set up enterprises around Berwick Street Market. The market dates back to the eighteenth century, catering for the diverse communities living in Soho — but by the 1920s more than 70% of the businesses in and around Berwick Street Market were Jewish owned.

Many of those who didn’t make their home in Soho joined Whitechapel’s Jewish community in London’s East End, with its lively and distinctive musical scene. Lionel Bart, Joe Loss, Ronnie Scott, Anthony Newley and Alma Cogan were among the Jewish composers and performers who made their mark on Britain’s music, finding their inspiration from the fusion of jazz with London’s Jewish culture.

Hebrew dances blended with the new sounds of the twenties creating Yiddisher Jazz. Johnny Franks & his Kosher Ragtimers were among the groups performing a sound that was unique to the city and enlivened many a barmitzvah and wedding. During the 20s and 30s, young Jewish musicians found themselves in demand in the dance bands that played in fashionable Mayfair hotels. In the evening they would make their way to Soho from the East End, congregating in cafes and bars around Berwick Street on the look out for gigs. This follows a pattern we see with other immigrant groups, especially those from the Caribbean. Those born to the people who emigrated often embraced their new culture, but did so in ways that wove it in with their parents’ culture — hence Yiddisher Jazz and Lovers’ Rock: musics of the new generations.

Simeon Feld was born in the age of Yiddisher Jazz to a Jewish family of Polish-Russian descent in Bethnal Green. After marrying Phyllis Atkins in 1945, they moved moved from the East End up to Stamford Hill and ran two market stalls. Phyllis took care of one on Berwick Street, while her husband ran a weekend stall on Petticoat Lane, driving lorries the rest of the week. As a teenager, their son Mark was often found helping his mother at Berwick Street Market. He also worked on the counter at the 2i’s coffee bar on Old Compton Street, and to be honest his passions were focused more on music than fruit and veg. He used to sit with his friend David Jones in the Gioconda coffee bar on Denmark Street, the two of them sharing their dreams of success in music.

He cut the figure of a stylish young mod about town, so much so that a men’s fashion magazine ran a feature on fourteen year old Mark: “I’ve got ten suits, eight sports jackets, 15 pairs of slacks, 30 or 35 good shirts, about 20 jumpers, three leather jackets, two suede jackets, five or six pairs of shoes and 30 exceptionally good ties.” Being at the heart of Soho’s rag trade clearly contributed to his generously filled wardrobe, although we have to take into account his reputation for self-mythologising. Many years later his producer, Tony Visconti, reminisced on their first encounter. “One of the first things he did was he gave me the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and he said, ‘If you want to understand where I’m at you’d better read these books.’ So I said OK.” Visconti was then asked if he thought he had read them himself. “No. He was dyslexic.”

Mark Feld was very deliberate in the identity that he created for himself, transforming himself from mod to hippy and adopting a stage name. Marc Bolan’s group — Tyrannosaurus Rex — became the darlings of the ‘underground’ scene, championed by DJ John Peel, and attracting such a following for their psychedelic folk that they became the obvious choice to headline the first ever Glastonbury Festival in 1970.

While Marc Bolan looked and sounded the part of a folkie hippy, his musical ambitions lay well beyond this. By 1970, music had become a serious business. The Beatles had disbanded acrimoniously, Hendrix had died, the Motown artists such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were using soul music less to dance in the streets and more to describe the inequities of living in the city. On this side of the Atlantic the race was on between progressive rock bands to create songs that lasted for a whole side of an LP (probably a dead heat between Pink Floyd and Emerson Lake & Palmer). A hitherto unknown Andrew Lloyd Webber had just released the first rock opera. For those too young to have enjoyed Motown at its joyful prime, or the mania generated by the fab four, pop music was becoming just a bit joyless and… well operatic frankly.

Young people in Britain were waiting for something to happen. Then on Thursday 25 February 1971 it did. On Top of the Pops Marc Bolan and the newly renamed T-Rex performed Hot Love in a silver lurex suit with glitter under his eyes, and in a moment launched Glam Rock on the world. Writing in Cream magazine, Nick Kent described the music as “bogus… a crass package of synthetic rock and roll music”.

The delight and joy of Marc Bolan’s music lay in its very synthetic nature — drawing on theatricality, androgyny and a playful collision of 50s rock and roll with 60s pop. For a brief period T-Rex captured the spirit of the time and gave a new generation a reason to enjoy a pop music that was theirs — and not their older siblings. And in doing this, set pop music off in a new direction. Without Marc Bolan — no David Bowie or Elton John. No Prince. And punk would have been a far duller affair.

This was a revolution made in Soho. It’s a five minute walk from Berwick Street market to Trident Studios where Marc Bolan and producer Tony Visconti created some of the most extraordinary pop music of the early 1970s. But Bolan’s real genius was in creating a persona that connected the music to a new generation seeking a novel form of liberation. Marc Bolan was an invention that drew on Feld’s experiences as a Soho modernist, barrow boy trader, psychedelic wizard and pop storyteller. As the writer Simon Reynolds explains: “There’s this kind of originality in pop music which is not necessarily to do with inventing new kinds of music but of vision, of personality, of charisma, of the total audio-visual, spiritual thing of it.”

The 1970s woke up and put on its makeup at Berwick Street Market.

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Songs

Selection of Hebrew Dances No 2 — Ambrose and his Orchestra

Mambo Sun — T-Rex

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Sources

Marc Bolan quote John Bramley (2017) Marc Bolan — Beautiful Dreamer: Beautiful Dreamer, p.34

Nick Kent quote: Peter Doggett (2016) Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the IPhone — 125 Years of Pop Music, p.428

Simon Reynolds quote: Glam rock was about much more than glitz and hits, Irish Times, 10 November 2016

Alan Dein is a broadcaster who has done much to rediscover Yiddisher Jazz: https://spitalfieldslife.com/2018/10/09/east-end-yiddisher-jazz/

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