The current demolition of many of the buildings, bars, night-clubs and cafes within London’s Soho risks destroying one of the UK’s most idiosyncratic areas. The on-going demolition with its subsequent destruction of the small-grain, combined with the privatisation of public space is erasing the areas history and breaking the continuity with activities that many of the buildings and streets have maintained for decades if not centuries.
British culture is peppered with references to Soho and this is the first in a series of pieces looking at moments from Soho’s cultural history.
Expresso Bongo and the birth of the British teenager.
“Within a decade of the first Soho espresso bar, The Moka at 29 Frith Street, being opened in 1953 London became the worlds hippest city; a ferment of music, fashion, film, photography, scandal and avant-gardism. The cafes were the creative enclaves where this new order was forged”. – Adrian Maddox, Classic Cafes.
Historically a place of immigration, Soho was in the 1950’s a Little Italy with a many cafes making Italian coffee. Coffee bars became what George Melly called “the first exclusive teenage meeting-places”. Combined with the area’s basement jazz clubs turning their attention to the rock and roll fad, the cafes made Soho THE popular destination for the adolescent Baby Boomers.
This burgeoning youth scene and cultural mix was captured in the 1959 film Expresso Bongo, a film that was, at the time of its making, not only censored but considered harmful to the nations teenagers. Although the key elements of youth culture, urbanism, multi-culturalism, and sleaze are central to the film, it is the film poster that distils them into simple messages that sum up 1950’s Soho.
“Teenage rebellion” shouts the headline of the newspaper held in the hand of spiv-like Johnny Jackson, his arm around his young protégé, Bongo Herbert. Herbert sits hair greased and quiffed, singing and playing his bongos.
The two sit in front of a fly-posted wall that carries messages of the cultural milieu the two inhabit. The messages on the fly-posters highlight issues perceived by many at the time as some of the biggest threats to the nations youth enticing them to taste forbidden fruits. The criminality of the scene is emphasised by the pasting of the posters onto a wall bearing the sign “POST NO BILLS”.
And the threats the poster highlights;
“INTIME THEATRE” – Paul Raymond opened his “Revue Bar” in Soho’s Walkers Court in 1958 and gave the UK its first legal venue to show full-frontal nudity. This was a direct challenge to the obscenity laws of the time. Challenging this rule was seen by many as a blow to decency and a gain to what would soon become known as the “permissive society”.
“Soho was hardly considered an appropriate place for decent young folk to be spending their time. Yet, just as jazz was born in Storyville, New Orleans’s red-light district, so it was that skiffle and subsequently British rock and roll were to find their birthplace in the most disreputable part of London” – Alwyn W Turner, Halfway to Paradise. The Birth of British Rock.
“WEST INDIES SWINGSTERS; JAZZ SESSION” – In 1948 the ship Empire Windrush sailed into British history with the first large group of West Indian immigrants to the UK. Many of the migrants moved into run down inner city areas, mainly in London. Local (and national) racism towards the newcomers reached crisis point with the Notting Hill Riots of 1958. Many people in the UK saw immigration as a source of trouble; trouble from the migrants themselves, and trouble in the form of the reactions they generated. A specific element of discomfort and nervousness over West Indian immigration was the music the immigrants brought with them and its popularity with young people.
(Interestingly in the poster Cliff Richard has had his skin tone darkened to a hue far darker than his usual pasty white.)
“ROCK ‘N’ ROLL” – In 1958 Link Wray’s instrumental single Rumble was banned from radio play by US censors for fear that it would incite gang violence. Such was the perceived power of Rock ‘n’ Roll at the time.
“AT LAST- CONTINENTAL CUISINE” – Despite an almost non-existent national food culture the English disliked what they referred to as “foreign food”. A cause for celebration to some but a threat to others, this fly-poster is a comment on British food from habitués of the cultural diversity of Soho.
All these are major elements in a film chronicling the early days of British rock and one of its early rock and rollers. The fledgling teenage world is shown springing to life within a setting of cramped and multi-cultural urbanism.
“A brisk walk across what journalists like to call ‘the Square Mile of Vice’ was akin to twiddling an old-fashioned radio dial. Snatches of Italian, French, Yiddish and English…” -Paul Willets, The Look of Love; The Life and Times of Paul Raymond, Soho’s King of Clubs.
Not Fade Away
The decades following the 1950’s saw things that had been specific to Soho enter the cultural mainstream. Yet despite the export and normalization of youth culture, rock and roll, and continental cuisine, Soho remained a place to go to find the exciting and the exotic. With narrow streets and alleys packed tightly into the centre of a densely populated city, and with buildings, shops and basements having footprints too small to meet the needs of more corporate tenants, Soho continued to be home to a culture that embraced the areas historic links with a risqué past.
The current development of Soho is putting the ad-hoc, untidy and small-grain fabric that has been key to its unique character as risk. It is by looking at cultural artifacts such as Expresso Bongo that we can see how the delicate cultural eco system worked and evolved, and how, if not carefully considered, could be lost.
Copyright – Roger Crimlis – 2017