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A history of London's live music boom in the 1970s

BY Simon Matthews

19th Sep 2023 Culture

3 min read

A history of London's live music boom in the 1970s
The 1970s was a golden era for live music in London, often labelled "pub rock". Simon Matthews explores the music that rocked London's pubs
Mention the 1970s and most people will have an opinion. It will be mixed up with memories of strikes, power cuts, bombs in London, naff fashions, joining the Common Market and the Silver Jubilee. Domestically, there was the novelty of colour TV and, for many, going on a package holiday abroad for the first time.
Go deeper and they might mention the ease with which people could change employment, access free higher education and cheap housing, even in central London. And what of their social life? Well, there were plenty of pubs (many more then than now) and in a world where terrestrial television was limited to three channels, and cinema chains—Odeon’s, Gaumont’s, ABC’s—that often changed their programmes twice weekly, or had late night screenings. 
" London enjoyed an abundance of smaller locations that hosted rock, folk or jazz acts several nights a week"
Best of all, though, was live music. Every town had its established venue for touring bands (many of these were cinemas, doubling up) but London enjoyed an abundance of smaller locations that hosted rock, folk or jazz acts several nights a week. Many of these were Irish owned or managed, and part of a tradition where providing live music was part and parcel of running a pub.
In fact, including the student entertainment provided by colleges, universities, polytechnics and art schools (all of which welcomed the wider public), this meant there were an awful lot of bands and singers you could see on a regular basis within 25 miles of London. Even better, admission was free in many of the smaller venues.  

The rise of pub rock

The concentration of so much of this in such a small geographical area was a comparatively recent development, and can be traced to the impact the 1973 oil price hike had on the record industry.
Against the backdrop of the strikes and power cuts that everyone experienced, would-be rock stars found that touring up and down the UK in a van and staying overnight in bed and breakfast suddenly became prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, for record labels, the cost of vinyl increased.
Victoria Street in London, 1973
It was hardly surprising that bands concentrated on venues closer to home to lower travelling and accommodation costs, and labels rebooted the seven-inch single.
There were other factors at work too. The sudden rise in the number of music venues brought with it a rise in the number of bands seeking to play them. Why was this? Well, it’s worth remembering that the London of the 1970s was a city with a steadily declining population. There were many empty houses as well as local authority flats that were deemed “hard to let.” And commercial space too, which meant plenty of recording and rehearsing studios.
"This was the world that gestated and gave birth to 'pub rock'"
If you were creative, it was easy to live in inner London. Put together an adequate band and play an adequate set of covers with 2–3 originals and, provided you had a third-hand van and a small PA, you could get 100 gigs a year. It was rough and ready, but audiences wanted simpler stuff too; shorter songs at a volume below that deployed by big established acts in large stadiums. 
This was the world that gestated and gave birth to “pub rock” which, in truth, was never a single distinctive sound, but more a collection of different styles. There were rock and roll revival groups, leftovers from the 1960s blues boom, a raft of acts from Southend, the scene that came out of the Tally-Ho, Kentish Town when it switched from jazz to rock (considered by some to be the truest exemplars of the pub rock style), others that simply came to prominence playing on the newly created circuit, a surprising amount of funk and soul, the latest wannabes to come out of the art schools and finally stripped down, faster, guitar-bands that pointed the way to what came post-1976. 
Ian Dury in concert, 1978
In short, an astonishing amount of talent: Shakin’ Stevens, Eddie and the Hot Roads, Brinsley Schwarz, Ace, Graham Parker and the Rumour, Kokomo, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Ultravox, Café Society, Tom Robinson and, in time, Joe Strummer, The Damned, The Stranglers, The Jam and Squeeze. Acting as midwives to this, as either session men or producers, were Dave Edmunds and Chris Spedding. 
"Without engaging in hindsight, or uncritical nostalgia, this was a time that had many positive attributes"
Given that the same scene also acted as a testing ground for Elvis Costello, Dire Straits and The Police isn’t it time to reflect whether the noise around punk and The Sex Pistols was justified?  
Without engaging in hindsight, or uncritical nostalgia, this was a time that had many positive attributes. Forget the negative critiques of the 1970s, and with vinyl more in demand than ever, especially among younger generations, we should celebrate the sounds that came out of the pubs half a century ago as part of our rich musical heritage.
before it went rotten jacket
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