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Review: Marquee, The Story of the World’s Greatest Music Venue by Robert Sellers with Nick Pendleton. A guest post by London Historians member, David Gaylard.

Cover_true_200The huge cultural changes in popular music, and society in general, between the late 1950s and the late 1980s, are detailed in this book. If you are at all interested in the music of the time, it is a fascinating story. It is a fitting sequel to Andrew Humphreys’ excellent Raving Upon Thames: An Untold Story of Sixties London, by the same publisher, which covered the music scene in southwest London through the 1960s.

Many of the characters and bands dovetail nicely between the two titles. The most influential of these are Harold and Barbara Pendleton who were both fans of Dixieland Jazz but subsequently provided the venues for young musicians playing widely different styles and nurtured their careers.

Harold was an accountant from Southport who came to London in 1948. He became friends with Chris Barber, whom he met in the late, lamented Dobell’s jazz record shop. A burning ambition to start a jazz venue led him to leaving his job in the City and establish the Marquee in the empty premises of the old Academy Cinema at 165 Oxford Street. It opened as a jazz club in 1958, hosting amongst many others Johnny Dankworth, Dudley Moore, Terry Lightfoot, Kenny Ball and Humphrey Littleton.

At about this time some jazz musicians became interested in American blues and then Rhythm and Blues music, led by Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies. Inspired by them, a succession of young musicians and bands followed, the early Rolling Stones playing there first in 1962.

Another important breakthrough was reaching agreement with the powerful musicians’ union to allow artists from the US, such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Mose Alison and Jimmy Witherspoon, to perform at the club. From that point the 1960’s musical revolution took off in clubs and pubs, but The Marquee was the venue at which everyone wanted to see and be seen, both musicians and audience.

One setback occurred in 1963, when the owner of the Academy Cinema decided that the time was right to reopen it on the site and reclaimed it. Harold then found the empty cutting rooms for clothing manufacturer Burberry at 90 Wardour Street and established the club there, opening in 1964.

It would be futile to try to name all those musicians and acts who were associated with the club, but the complex inter-relationships of these musicians and bands is covered in the sort of detail one would expect from a Pete Frame rock family tree. The styles progressed through from traditional jazz on to blues, rhythm and blues, psychedelia, progressive rock, punk, new wave and so on. Suffice it to say that the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, David Bowie and Steve Winwood, as well as groups such as The Yardbirds, The Who, Cream, Manfred Mann, Jethro Tull, Dire Straits, Motorhead and AC/DC were all nurtured at the Marquee. It became the venue for record company ‘executives’, all based in the area, prospecting for new talent and was thus the launch pad for many.

The Pendletons were also the founders of the original open air music festivals around London, firstly in Richmond and then Windsor and Reading, which are now such a feature of our summers. In addition, they opened a successful recording studio, where Elton John, Joan Armatrading, The Clash, Vangelis and Monty Python all recorded.

By 1987 the lease had run out in Wardour Street, and the façade of the building ‘was crumbling as a result of the vibrations from the Marquee stage’. At the age of 63, and after almost thirty years since its foundation, Harold decided to retire and sold it to the then management, on the basis that there would be no staff redundancies. The club moved to its final address, 105-107 Charing Cross Road, another old cinema, formerly the Cambridge Circus Cinematograph. It is now a Wetherspoons, The Montagu Pyke, named after the cinema’s original architect and with a few suitably music related ephemera within it. However, the magic was lost and it finally closed in 1995.

As one musician succinctly put it, ‘The Marquee was a big venue in a small club.’ The book is entertainingly written, with plenty of anecdotes and an interesting cast of characters. For completists, there is a Marquee Timeline and a list of acts who played Wardour Street more than twenty times. Those London Historians who enjoyed the visit to Eel Pie Island Museum in Twickenham last year, or who are reliving their youth, will find both of these titles very rewarding.

Marquee, The Story of the World’s Greatest Music Venue (320 pp) by Robert Sellers with Nick Pendleton was published in hardback in December 2022 by Paradise Road
ISBN 978-0-9935702-4-7

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