In search of Soho’s soul

Central London’s buzzing, hedonistic center may be changing fast — but its soul is still very much intact

(First published in American Way magazine, January 2017)

The cellar of Soho’s St. Moritz Swiss restaurant isn’t much to look at, but it’s a cultural institution in London, the venue for the city’s longest-running club night, Gaz’s Rockin‘ Blues, which hasn’t missed a Thursday night since 1980. The weekly event has a rich, slightly off-kilter history, and its founder — a trilby-hatted, fifty-something dandy called Gaz Mayall — is more than happy to share it with his guests.

“Over there, that’s where Lemmy from Motörhead used to stand all night playing the fruit machines,” says Mayall, who also fronts ska band The Trojans, and whose father is the great bluesman John Mayall. He points to a series of framed comical postcards sent by Lemmy from around the world. (“This is not the Sunshine State at all,” Lemmy writes of a visit to Miami. “I’m in a terrible state.”)

“There’s always been a colorful crowd, but it’s never been about famous people,” Mayall continues. “It’s been about generation after generation discovering great music, larking about and falling in love.” That said, Mick Jagger and David Bowie were among the famous regulars, along with a who’s-who of British art, from Damien Hirst to Lucian Freud and Tracey Emin, who used to work the cloakroom.

The owner of the St. Moritz is Armin “Sweety” Loetscher, who introduced London to Swiss fondue in 1960, and graduated from bratwurst and glühwein parties to hosting rock ’n’ roll royalty in his alpine-themed basement, which has barely changed in half a century. For a quiet-spoken Swiss gent in a check shirt and gilet, he has some past.

“I remember Joe Strummer [of punk band the Clash] pointing at the tiny stage and saying: ‘How the heck can we play there?’” he says.

“I told him that it was enough for the Kinks’ first gig, so he’d better get on with it.” Strummer did as he was told, and with his first band, the 101ers, he wrote the song “Sweety of the St. Moritz,” whose lyrics are framed on the wall (“It don’t look like the home of rock ‘n’ roll/It looks more like a hole”).

The St. Moritz is a classic Soho dive bar, in a part of the city that has always marched to its own beat. This is the London district that first heard American jazz, skiffle, Bowie and the Stones. It birthed British rock ’n’ roll in the late 1950s, when Cliff Richard played the 2i’s Coffee Bar, and hosted a thriving red-light industry in the 1960s. It has drawn jazz-era intellectuals and beatniks, housed the new romantics and beeen central to London’s gay scene, which came of age in the 1980s. For as long as anyone can remember, Soho has been at the literal and figurative center of it all.

But the square mile or so between Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue is evolving. Many of the red neon signs and lurid dives have given way to well-funded, well-PRed restaurants, and stricter licensing laws have calmed the hedonism. “People say it’s losing its soul,” says Mayall. “But then they were saying that back in the ’60s. A lot of the old places have closed, but we’re still here doing our thing, and praying that they won’t turn this place into a block of flats.”

There are still many places to get a feel of old Soho, like Bar Italia, which has been run by the Polledri family since 1949, or Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, where Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald played their first U.K. gigs, and where Jimi Hendrix played for the last ever time. Today, the Ain’t Nothin’ But blues bar on Kingly Street does a raucous nightly impression of down ’n’ dirty Memphis.

For a more traditional English boozer, the Victorian-era Coach & Horses is famous for its association with the staff of the satirical magazine Private Eye, and for the now-departed Norman Balon, who was  deservedly honored with the title as “London’s rudest landlord.”

The French House, where Charles De Gaulle wrote a speech rallying the French people during World War II, is another legendary spot. Today “The French” sells more Pernod than anywhere else in London, and only serves half-pints of beer except on April 1st (when the first pint is customarily poured by Suggs, lead singer of the ska band Madness).

The food isn’t bad, either. Since the mid-19th century, when Italian and Greek immigrants opened restaurants here, Soho has been the place to eat in London — and the area could today claim to have the greatest concentration of good restaurants on the planet. They run the gamut from hipster takes on street food, like Taiwanese steamed bun joint Bao, to venerable establishments like Quo Vadis, which has operated since 1926 and offers a modern take on classic British. You can also pop across Shaftesbury Avenue to The Ivy, which has hosted London’s theater set for 100 years (Soho is also London’s Theaterland).

There is also a new generation re-tooling the Soho spirit. Like the eclectic and fiercely independent Soho Radio, which formed in 2014 and broadcasts live from a little room off Great Windmill Street. “We sometimes get people who wander off the street and start freestyling, and the guys who come on after me sometimes cram a hundred musicians into this little space,” says ebullient Australian DJ Tasty Lopez. “We just go with the flow.”

Just up the road, Lights of Soho is a good example of a new breed of local institution. It’s both a bulb-and-neon art gallery and private member’s club, staffed by some of the most beautiful young things in London. This being Soho, the gallery showcases the work of the late Chris Bracey, the neon artist who literally lit up the district in the 1960s, before designing neons for the likes of Stanley Kubrick.

Whatever your take on the area’s transformation, Soho is an intoxicating mix of history, hedonism and the best people-watching in town. And if you simply want to return to the good old days, there’s always Thursday night at Gaz’s.

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