Written by taxi tour guide David
Could it possibly be true that the birthplace of British rock ‘n’ roll is a fish and chip shop? (Albeit an incredibly good fish and chip shop, in fact one of the best in London: I can vouch for that.)
The plaque outside this famous Soho eatery states that it was once the site of the 2i’s Coffee Bar, which was the birthplace of British rock ‘n’ roll. In other words, every brick in this building has the DNA of Britain’s rock industry.
How British rock ‘n’ roll came to be
As a born and bred Londoner, I can recall first hand the changes that have taken place in this amazing city since the 1950s. I watched London evolve from the austerity of post war Britain: rationing was ending and, in its wake, came an era of huge social and economic change. A new Queen was on the throne, televisions and washing machines were being sold in stores and a novel word had crept into the lexicon: ‘teenager’.
Teenagers were looking for a new identity that could separate them from their parents, and subtlety was not on the cards. They craved new fashions, music, art, and embraced the sexual revolution. To listen to music, they would tune into Radio Luxembourg or AFN (American Forces Network) on their radio dial, or they could gather in one of the Italian coffee bars in London’s Soho district where the jukebox would be playing American imports. By the mid-50s, there was such a glut of coffee bars in Soho that many were closing or finding a different way of attracting customers.
The 2i’s coffee bar was originally owned by three brothers with the surname Irini. One brother left, leaving two brothers – that’s the origin of the 2i’s. By 1956 the 2i’s had been taken over by two Australian wrestlers, Paul Lincoln and Ray Hunter (Paul’s wrestling moniker was Doctor Death). They introduced live music in the cellar and very soon, young hopefuls would be happy to play in the cramped conditions, on a makeshift stage made of milk crates and a couple of planks of wood, with a single mic and a half shaded light bulb for a spotlight.
The music that was bellowing out of the sweaty cellar was skiffle, a type of jug band music that was popular in America. Skiffle’s roots were found in folk music with heavy influences from blues and jazz – most of the instruments were homemade or improvised. A tea chest with a broom handle and string would work as a bass, a washboard, or a comb with tissue over the top, would imitate the sounds of a harmonica, and an acoustic guitar or a banjo would complete the line-up. Lonnie Donegan, often referred to as ‘The King of Skiffle’, had a massive UK hit when he covered a Lead Belly song called “Rock Island Line” in 1956, which sold three million copies. It was undoubtedly this that was the catalyst for John Lennon to pick up a guitar as a youngster in Liverpool and form his own skiffle band, The Quarrymen (named after his school, Quarry Bank). He was later joined by Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Was this the embryonic Beatles?
Very soon, the 2i’s was attracting large crowds. Young, eager talent would welcome the prospect of showcasing their acts and meeting up with booking agents, managers and talent scouts from recording studios, commonly known in the music industry as A&R: artists and repertoire.
Some of Britain’s fledgling rock stars who gigged at the 2i’s include Joe Brown, Marty Wilde, Adam Faith and Tommy Steele. This is where Cliff Richard and The Drifters first got together, before they became The Shadows. And Cliff Richard’s “Move It” was the first British rock ‘n’ roll single to be recorded at the famous Abbey Road studios in 1958.
One of the most famous A&R men who frequented the 2i’s was the late George Martin. He was working for the Parlophone record label, part of the EMI Records group of companies. He recognised the raw talent of The Beatles in 1962 when he first met them for an audition at the iconic Abbey Road studios and went on to produce some of their finest hits.
Impresario Larry Parnes was also a regular at the 2i’s looking for new talent; his first signing was Tommy Steele. Tommy went on to become Britain’s first rock star when he topped the UK charts with “Singing the Blues” in January 1957. Parnes had the knack of turning artists’ names from something quite ordinary into something more appealing, helping the public to identify with their rock ‘n’ roll music. Reg Patterson became Marty Wilde, father of Kim Wilde. Ron Wycherley became Billy Fury. Britain’s answer to Elvis and Clive Powell morphed into Georgie Fame. Joe Brown wasn’t having any of this and refused to change his name to Elmer Twitch, and I can’t say I blame him! Joe had enormous success with his band The Bruvvers and is still performing today.
Potential fame and fortune weren’t confined to the stage at the 2i’s. Peter Grant, the larger-than-life manager of Led Zeppelin, had previously worked as a bouncer on the door of the 2i’s. Marc Bolan worked as a waiter before embarking on a massive British rock/pop career as T. Rex, as did Lionel Bart and Mickie Most. Lionel went on to write a catalogue of hit songs and penned the amazing musical, Oliver. He was also credited with the first James Bond theme tune with lyrics: ‘From Russia with Love’.
In the early days, Mickie Most was also part of a singing duo who billed themselves as the Most Brothers before turning his talents to managing and recording some of the biggest names in pop and rock history. Some of the artists nurtured into global stars by Mickie’s foresight and talent were Jeff Beck, The Yardbirds, Donovan, Lulu, The Animals and Herman’s Hermits.
Although Mickie Most passed away in 2003, he has left a legacy that laid the foundations for many contemporary British rock stars. They have in turn benefited from the opportunity that Mickie and the other young pioneers of British rock ‘n’ roll were given at the legendary 2i’s.