London has been getting better at celebrating its rock ‘n’ roll history in recent years. More blue plaques are going up, you’ve got attractions like the Hendrix flat and generally more and more effort is being made to mark some of London’s historic musical legacy. One place you might want to take a look at if you’re in central London is Poppies Fish & Chips restaurant on Old Compton Street in Soho. True, the fish and chips are indeed very tasty but of interest to rock fans is the fact this premises at 59 Old Compton Street was once the legendary 2i’s coffee bar.
The 2i’s name came from the cafe’s original owners, Freddie and Sammy Irani, who ran the venue until 1955. They then leased it out to two wrestling promoters, Paul Lincoln and Ray Hunter, who opened it as a coffee bar in April 1956.
In his book ‘Roots, Radicals and Rockers – How Skiffle Changed The World’ Billy Bragg writes of the day that the Vipers skiffle group turned up at the 2i’s in need of refreshment after taking part in the Soho Fair parade on 14th July 1956.
“The proprietor of the 2i’s was happy to have the band playing in his cafe. He’s been trying to draw customers in by employing singer Max Bard… but that wasn’t bringing in the teenagers. These guys seemed to have that young sound, so as they finished up their coffees and headed back out into the rowdy rush of the Fair, he invited them to come back and play any time. They promised to return the following week.”
There’s a nice little Pathé news clip here of the 2i’s in action.
Live music performances took place in the coffee bar’s basement which had room for around twenty people and the Vipers became the resident band there. However, during a break in one of the Vipers sets a young guy named Tommy Hicks took to the stage to sing some rock ‘n’ roll. Hick was soon talent-spotted, renamed Tommy Steele and had his first single out ‘Rock With The Cavemen’.
Numerous future recording stars would go on to perform and be discovered at the 2i’s. These include Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Vince Eager, Adam Faith, Carlo Little, Joe Brown, Clem Cattini, Eden Kane, Tony Sheridan, Albert Lee, Johnny Kidd, Ritchie Blackmore and Big Jim Sullivan.
“When Hank and I came to London at the age of 16 we went to the 2 I’s coffee bar to be discovered, as did Cliff as did lots of other people,” recalled the Shadows’ Bruce Welch in a documentary.
The 2i’s closed towards the end of the 60s, becoming a series of cafe bars and restaurants. A plaque was installed in September 2006 but it was only with the opening of Poppies Fish & Chips restaurant in 2016 that they really went to town in celebrating the venue’s historic legacy. There’s old photos on the walls, part of the old painted plasterwork has been uncovered and there’s a neon sign at the top of the stairs to the basement recreating the coffee bar’s famous logo.
And the basement? Now it’s just the gents and ladies toilets and a narrow corridor with some memorabilia on display but you can pop down there and think about all of those who performed down here and helped shape the course of British rock history.
Visit to the Hendrix Flat, London
Visit to the legendary Sun Studios, Memphis
Book review: ‘Roots, Radicals & Rockers – How Skiffle Changed the World’ by Billy Bragg
Peter Donegan: interview with Americana singer-songwriter and son of skiffle legend, Lonnie Donegan