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London Rocks

Blue Badge Guide and music fan Glen Portch traces the history of British rock and roll in the capital.

In March 1980, Glen Portch set off from his family home in the hinterlands of suburban south-east London. The 14- year-old headed west to the Hammersmith Apollo, handed over £3 and sat down to see his first concert: the band Genesis. Not the typical soundtrack to a teenage music rebellion. “My mates were pogoing to the Sex Pistols, while I was listening to rock music,” says Glen. “It was the last throes of punk and the early days of bouffant-haired New Romantics, but for me, it was all about Pink Floyd, AC/DC and, of course, Genesis. I bought a guitar and taught myself to play their songs.

“With my first job I spent a chunk of my salary on tickets to the Marquee Club. In true rock and roll tradition, I don’t remember many of those gigs, but the best concert was Queen at Wembley in 1986. 70,000 people all singing along with Freddie Mercury – the ultimate rock concert.

“I had my own band Ugley, with an ‘e’. We’d fit rehearsals around babysitting and managed a few gigs, covering songs by the Kinks and Elvis Costello, but our tour de force was a rocked-up version of Play That Funky Music White Boy. There’s a cassette demo recording of our songs lurking somewhere.

“Struggling with the tedium of a local government job, I saw an advert for TEFL teachers in Japan, handed in my notice and headed to Tokyo. Two years later I was back in London to try my Japanese language skills in tourism. In 2004, as a freshly minted Blue Badge Guide, I started a London rock and roll tour.

Green plaque for the legendary 2i’s Coffee Bar

Green plaque for the legendary 2i’s Coffee Bar, Soho

“British rock and roll started in Soho in the late ‘50s at the 2i’s Coffee Bar on Old Compton Street. Why a coffee bar? There was no rock and roll on the radio, so fans would gather at the bar and listen to jukebox records. The 2i’s crowd began to bring in guitars and play, so they set up a stage. Early Brit rockers Marty Wilde and Billy Fury sang there. Talent scout Larry Parnes – the Simon Cowell of his day – signed up Thomas Hicks at the 2i’s. Hicks changed his name to Tommy Steele and became Britain’s first music teen-idol.

Denmark street London

Denmark Street, London’s Tin Pan Alley

“A few streets away jazz venue the Marquee Club had started to book rhythm and blues bands. In July 1962 a little known R&B covers band played their first gig there. They might have been a footnote in music history if the Beatles hadn’t encouraged them to perform
original material, gifting them the Lennon and McCartney composition I Wanna Be Your Man. It was a top 20 hit for the Rolling Stones. Six decades later they are still gigging.

“If British rock was born at the 2i’s, it grew up at the Marquee. The club launched the career of our greatest rock guitarist, Eric Clapton, as well as David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Queen and Led Zeppelin. The Who had a residency at the Marquee, and there’s a plaque on the wall to the band’s drummer Keith Moon. Wham filmed their video for I’m Your Man on stage at the club.

“In 1988 the Marquee moved to Charing Cross Road. It’s now the Montagu Pyke, and if you stick your head in the pub, you’ll see a history of the rock club written up on the wall.

Shop front of Regent sound studios

Regent Sound Studios, where Genesis made their debut album

“Cross the street from the Montagu Pyke and you’re in Denmark Street, London’s Tin Pan Alley. Home to songwriters and music publishers since the days of music hall, Regent Sound Studio opened here in 1948. That’s where Genesis made their debut album, From Genesis to Revelation, which I still own – and the Stones recorded their first LP. Elton John worked at Mills Music as an office boy and name-checked the street in Bitter Fingers. During the ’70s the Sex Pistols rented number 6 where Johnny Rotten drew cartoons on the walls – today it’s the only Grade II listed status graffiti in London.

A house on Savile Row

Savile Row

“Heddon Street has a plaque on the wall to David Bowie’s album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The album cover photo features the street’s red phone box, a pilgrimage site for Bowie fans. It’s London’s most famous phone box, but the one there now is not the original.

“The Beatles began in Liverpool, but from 1963 lived and worked in London. During the ’60s, 3 Savile Row was Apple Corps – pun intended – headquarters. In 1969 the band was working on a movie project here, but time ran out and they went up on the roof to film. The bank across the road called the police who broke up the concert. The only track recorded was Get Back – the last song the Beatles played live.

Abbey Rd Studios

Abbey Rd Studios

“The most iconic Beatles London location is Abbey Road Studios. They recorded nearly everything here: from Please, Please Me to their final album Abbey Road. For decades known simply as EMI Studios, in the ’70s it was renamed Abbey Road in honour of the band. The cover photo for Abbey Road is the best known album image in the world, with thousands of people visiting the street to recreate the shot of the fab four on the zebra crossing.

The Royal Albert Hall

The Royal Albert Hall, London

“London’s most famous music venue is the Royal Albert Hall. It’s the only place where the Beatles and the Stones ever played on the same bill, in September 1963. John Lennon name-checks it in the Beatle’s song A Day in the Life: ‘Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall’. In 1969 Pink Floyd fired off two cannons during a live concert and are banned for life. Ironically Floyd tribute bands regularly play the hall. I saw The Who there, a great rock band in a great rock venue – the best way to appreciate London’s fantastic music legacy.”

Book a rock and roll tour with Glen Portch