Tag Archives: history

Visit to the birthplace of British rock ‘n’ roll – the 2i’s coffee bar, Soho

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.

2is outside

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.

2is old

 

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’.

2is display

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.

2is plaque

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.

2is neon

 

Related posts:

The Hendrix Flat, London

Sun Studios, Memphis

Book review: ‘Roots, Radicals & Rockers – How Skiffle Changed the World’ by Billy Bragg

 

Live review: The Story of The Blues at The Printworks Hastings 21/3/19

Tonight’s The Story of the Blues tells the tale of one of Black America’s most celebrated and influential contributions to popular music through a combination of archive film footage, spoken narration and live performance. Put together by Hastings’ own Green River Blues Band, the town’s Printworks venue is absolutely packed out for them.

Having a fascination with this genre, both in its original country blues acoustic format and its later electrified form (not to mention the influence it had on both American rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s and the British beat groups of the 60s) this was always going to be a must-see for me as soon as I saw it advertised. I was a little worried that if the band didn’t quite get the tone right that, however accomplished they are as players, we might end up with something that ends up being over-romanticised and shall we say a little saccharine Opening with Sam Cooke’s 1961 hit ‘Working On The Chain Gang’ I thought we may be at risk of going down this route but any notions that they might not pull this off are soon dispelled. Narrator Jonathan Linsley talks us through the early roots of the blues starting with the shameful brutality of the slave era and the spirited songs of defiance that arose from that. The film footage that plays on the screen behind reveals a highly moving montage of images, from the almost impossible to absorb images of slave-sale stores on US high streets through to footage of some of the heroes of the emerging blues scene in action. The six-piece Green River Blues Band deliver a passionate and skillfully-played set taking us through early songs like ‘Take This Hammer’ and ‘Pick A Bale of Cotton’ through to later songs like ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago’. Between songs narrator, Jonathan Linsley gives us glimpses into the lives of some of the performers like Lead Belly, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Johnson.

After a short interval and the band are back one stage, the acoustic guitars now being replaced with electric. Now we move later into the mid-twentieth century, the band presenting us with timeless classics like ‘Got My Mojo Working’, ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’. Of course, though these remain well-known classics today by the 1960s many of the songs, and certainly many of the performers, had fallen into obscurity – until, of course, picked up, adapted and re-popularised by a bunch of middle-class white boys on the other side of the Atlantic. The show touches on this and clearly this was the entry-point for where the blues came into the lives of the guys on stage tonight.

The show celebrates the songs and those who created and performed them while pulling no punches in terms of the poverty, the hardship and, often, the brutality of the environment that the blues sprang out of. A moving and passionate celebration of the genre the biggest surprise is possibly that this is not some slickly-produced show that regularly tours the country but that tonight is strictly a one-off, put together out of love with all profits going to a local good cause.

If the Story of The Blues were to be rolled out beyond a one-off night in Hastings Printworks, however, I am absolutely certain it would find appreciative audiences in many venues. The Story of The Blues is a genuine triumph for those who put this together.

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