Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Soho’s haunting spot where the stars came out to shine

St Giles in the Field

St Giles in the Field - Credit: Archant

It stands at the junction of Denmark Street and St Giles High Street, as it has done since first opening its doors in 1734. St Giles in the Fields, England’s first Palladian church, overlooks a stockade of tall hoardings, hiding the building site where the construction of London’s Crossrail project continues. I have known Denmark Street and the St Giles area since I was a guitar-obsessed schoolboy wandering Soho in the late 1960s.

The idea, even during the mid 1980s, when I was making records here, that I might ever play a concert in this church, never crossed my mind. Yet, here I am playing a three-set ‘songbook’ concert on a sunny autumn Saturday in September of 2015. It’s a strange feeling.

There’s been a church on this site since Saxon times. St Giles, two miles west of the old City, was once marshland on London’s main Saxon highway to the west. Matilda, or ‘Good Queen Maud’ the wife of Henry I, founded a leper hospital and chapel here in the early 12th Century. After the disease had abated, the church dedicated itself to beggars, cripples and the homeless. Unfortunately, business is still brisk.

For centuries, the St Giles area was one of the poorest in the entire kingdom, let alone its capital. The parish was also cited as the epicentre of the 1665 plague, which eventually caused the church’s graveyard to overflow. As is nearly always the case, however, wherever there is poverty and destitution, entertainment and music are sure to be close. Nearby are Drury Lane and St Martin’s Lane, the centre of London’s earlier theatre-land.

Denmark Street itself, once the haunt of penny-ballad sellers, became in the early 20th Century, the home of pop music publishing. By the 1960s, it was a rat-run of basement recording studios, their upstairs offices occupied by agents, managers and other pop svengalis. At pavement level were the street’s now famous guitar shops. Many rock stars began here here. The Stones made their first album at Regent Sounds, only yards from St Giles Church. David Bowie lived here briefly in the mid 60s, sometimes sleeping there in the old ambulance which his band used for travelling to gigs.

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The Sex Pistols in early days, squatted here in a run-down house. At the long-gone Giaconda café, in early 1971, your 17-year-old correspondent had his first music biz interview for a possible songwriting job.

Over subsequent years I returned many times. Between autumn of 1986 and spring of 1988, I recorded at Tin Pan Alley Studios in the basement of 22 Denmark Street. When I wasn’t making records, I was helping others to write and record theirs. We often finished work in the small hours, so I sometimes slept in the control room under the mixing desk.

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Because the room was sound-proofed, the noise made by the record-company staff in the office down the corridor, didn’t wake me up. The 80s pop star Captain Sensible, if we were working together, sometimes slept under the grand piano in the main recording room. We often didn’t know whether it was light or dark outside until we emerged frazzled onto the street.

After you’ve lived in this fashion for a time, Soho’s chancers and sundry vendors of naughtiness begin to recognise you and stop bothering you.

The lifestyle, however, was anything but healthy. Perhaps something of the area’s old marshland miasma began to get into me. I developed a permanent mild fever and cough which wouldn’t go away. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether during my time in St Giles, I possibly tuned into something rather older and nastier than its mere history.

When I was first recording there, Peter, a young studio manager told me a garbled story about a horrendous fire which had swept through an illegal gambling den, somewhere nearby, killing many people. Peter couldn’t tell me exactly when the fire had happened except that it had been in recent times. Over years, I occasionally tried, if not particularly diligently, to trace the story’s origins. Then, last week, while I was at St Giles, someone I met confirmed it.

The Denmark Street Fire, as it’s now known, occurred on August 16, 1980. After a dispute with a barman, a drunk customer, having been ejected for fighting, returned with a can of petrol, poured it through the downstairs letterbox and tossed a match in after it. The resultant conflagration tore through two clubs, Rodo’s and The Spanish Rooms. Both clubs were upstairs on the second floor. It killed 37 people and injured many others. Because the clubs were unlicensed, the downstairs exit doors had been bolted shut and the windows shuttered.

It was the capital’s biggest death toll from fire since the war and yet, the story was soon forgotten, remaining so until very recently. Reasons for this remain unclear but it’s possible that coverage of the incident was obscured by other news stories of the time concerning, respectively, two notorious mass murderers, Peter Sutcliffe and Dennis Nilson.

The man who started the fire, a small time drug-dealer called Thompson, received a life sentence, dying in prison in 2008. I also discovered that the Denmark Street fire happened in a building backing onto the very studio, where l’d worked – and often slept.

Twenty seven years after leaving my Denmark Street, I return there, to haunt the place, discovering to my discomfiture that the place also haunts me...

See more from Martin Newell in our Essex section

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