Exploring Soho’s musical history
A project by Jackie Hopfinger and Mike Press
Musical ghosts live in Soho’s architecture. Down its narrow streets, in cramped cellars and up narrow stairways most of the major shifts in our musical culture were heard for the first time in the quarter’s clubs, bars, cafes and studios. Songs were written on rooftops, in basements and during drunken moments in pubs. Legendary albums were recorded and their covers photographed down darkened alleys and courtyards — and new musics created and shared in smoky cellar clubs.
We aim to reveal the ghosts in the architecture — a tour of Soho that captures the stories of Soho’s musical past through photography and text. Our ideas are open, but we currently envisage an exhibition and/or book/website. This Medium publication is where we will first share this, and invite people to contribute. This separate post explains how this will work.
The objective is to encourage and enable people to appreciate the richness of experience and culture created and enjoyed in this unique square mile of London. We aim to reveal hidden stories and neglected music. From Teresa Cornelys and Ignatius Sancho to Yiddisher Jazz and expatriate South African big bands, there are people to be inspired by and sounds that thrill.
Culture, politics and community
In telling the stories of music in Soho, we will explore the connections between the cultures, politics and communities of this unique part of London — along with the contradictions and conflicts that are part of its very nature. As Peter Ackroyd describes it: “London is not a civilised nor a graceful city. It is tortuous, inexact and oppressive… built upon speculation, not upon need.” And yet, despite the best efforts of speculators, landlords and criminals, Soho has since the seventeenth century offered the most marginalised of people small islands of liberty and liberation to exist, be accepted and be heard. And often there were tunes in what was heard.
West End Girls had its genesis just yards from where Blake penned the words to Jerusalem, and Communism came into the world around the corner from where Glam Rock was first imagined. From Marx to Marc, Soho’s acceptance of ‘outsiders’ and welcoming of radicals has provided fertile ground for pushing boundaries in music, theatre, literature and politics. And geography helped too.
As refugees, Huguenot jewellers and East European Jewish tailors set up workshops in the constricted spaces afforded by the narrow buildings in Soho’s more congested west side — a compact and in places confused arrangement of streets that reflect medieval field patterns. These spaces went on to become home to mod fashion designers and music clubs.
With an urban geography that provides accessible spaces, a social history that not just tolerates but often celebrates difference and diversity, and a club culture with a lineage that dates back to the world’s first nightclub and includes the first queer clubs, Soho has a rich history in which music plays a vital part. We will draw these threads together through photography and storytelling to evoke the area’s unique spirit of creative enterprise.
Most of the stories we will tell are bookended between Windrush and BritPop. There are necessarily some outliers to place those stories in context and show how Soho is developing today, but there need to be temporal boundaries. The historian Eric Hobsbawm describes much of our period as the golden years — when homosexuality was legalised and racial discrimination outlawed, mass and niche media created, teenagers invented, empires dismantled and cultures liberated, class struggle overlain by feminism, LGBTQ+ politics and the voices of Britain’s black and Asian communities. In all of this, music became a vital expression of change, so there’s a remarkable story even if we just focus on four decades. We cite Eric Hobsbawm here, not only because he was one of the 20th century’s finest historians, but because he used to hang out in Ronnie Scott’s and the Colony Room Club and was the New Statesman’s jazz critic.
What’s fascinating and unique about Soho is how compressed it is, and how different musics interacted and influenced each other. There’s also the proximity to Theatreland, variety shows and stand up comedy. There’s the politics of the area — the Polish Jews, the Greeks, the Italians, the French and others who settled there over the years. US service personnel would visit, bringing records. Jamaicans, Trinidadians and Africans brought their music to Soho. America meets Europe meets Africa — R&B and Kraftwerk, Ska and Salsa, Rock and Rocksteady, Highlife and Hip Hop.
How the stories work
This is very much work in progress — early prototypes of stories exploring this history. This separate post explains the detail of how it works, and how you can help us improve it!
Over the coming weeks and months we will post stories. Each one will focus on a specific building in Soho and describe the people and events behind its unique significance. Alongside the text, Jackie’s photographs will suggest musical ghosts in today’s architecture. For each location there will be songs relevant to the stories. Together, these stories will reveal Soho’s unique contribution to music, and describe the interplay between three forces of musical innovation.
The first is community. These are the places and spaces that brought people together — performers and audiences, schemers and dreamers — to create shared cultures. And through these communities to learn from each other, inspire each other and make new things happen.
Second is ambition. This could be the ambition to be bigger than Elvis, to leave a violently abusive partner, to find that new sound or simply to be heard. A recurrent ambition we find in Soho is that of just being accepted. So many ambitions that all seem to come together in a place of mutually supportive dreaming.
Third is struggle. In the main it is struggle between some of those ambitions and the wider society. Most of these musics are those created through oppression and liberation. Great popular music fuses hedonism and idealism, and we see that from Brecht to Bowie, Siouxsie to Simone. You don’t have to study Marxism to see culture as a crucial domain in which power is expressed, experienced and contested — just a few bars of Nina Simone generally does the trick.
Jackie lives in London and is a photographer whose work has been exhibited at the Royal Academy. Mike lives in Dundee, a former academic who has authored three books. In the five decades they have known each other, this is their first collaboration.