Former Creation Records boss Alan McGee and musician and Save Soho founder Tim Arnold are launching a club night in Soho to help keep live music in the central-London area.
Due to the government’s Permitted Development Rights, the increase of residential conversions in Soho means small venues have been constantly under threat, while venues including The Astoria, Metro, The 12 Bar and the Black Gardenia have already closed to make way for London’s new east-west transport link, Crossrail.
Save Soho, chaired by Stephen Fry with a committee featuring Benedict Cumberbatch among others, will continue to work with London mayor Boris Johnson and the new Music Venue Alliance for a long-term solution, but in the meantime, the campaign group have launched a new night of new music.
The night, called The Reservation, will see a number of performers at Blacks on Dean Street, usually a private member club but opening its doors to the public for three consecutive Sunday evenings in April.
“I started Save Soho for music, but it’s since become about all arts. I’ve lived in Soho for 20 years, and my generations of my family before me,” says Arnold, who performs under the name The Soho Hobo. “I’m an independent artist and I don’t have anywhere to play. There are thousands more in the same boat.”
Arnold says Blacks contacted him to say they understood his campaign, which he founded when Madame JoJos announced it would be closing, and offered to open their doors for three nights of music. He says there are several more willing to take part, and should The Reservation take off, it will be rolled out across Soho and include many more bars.
“Live music is inclusive, not exclusive, and music in Soho has always been like that, it’s for everyone, from any culture or background, straight or gay. Soho covers Shakespeare to rock n roll. Benedict and Stephen are involved, so people think it’s some luvvie thing, but it’s really not. The reason they’re involved is because they know me and see how difficult it is for an artist like me to do what I do, plus they just understand popular culture and how important these venues are. Stephen Fry started off performing cabaret to students in tiny venues when he was at university, so he knows the value of these places.”
McGee adds: “People get blinded by the fact so much money can be made from property. That’s understandable. But in clearing up Soho to the point of sterilisation, you’re talking about turning it into an upmarket model village. Flats for bankers and people in the media and nothing else? Is that what we want? It’s scary. What’s happening is basically social cleansing, just like happened in New York.”
With such big names on the committee, however, and many more starry names signing up to Save Soho in support, what’s stopping them clubbing together to found their own venue?
“It’s not about that,” says Arnold. “Of course people will ask the question, and as a musician who started this, I asked it myself. There’s this opinion – and I think it’s wrong – that music has had its day in Soho, so I want The Reservation to prove that’s not true, and to do that, you can’t buy a venue, you have to use the existing venues. If no one turns up, I’ll accept it, but I think we’re going to prove music is alive and well in Soho, and then we may well look at getting our own venue together and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the people on our committee help make that happen.”
“It’s about preserving heritage, not just bankrolling something,” says McGee, who owns his own venue in Talgarth, south Wales. “British Rock ʻnʼ Roll was born in Soho, with Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde and Cliff Richard performing, and NME round the corner putting them on the cover. There’s been a tradition ever since; The Who at The Marquee in the 60s, Sex Pistols and punk in the 70s, Spandau Ballet and the New Romantic scene in the 80s, Britpop in the 90s, and loads and loads of new bands since. It’s important new artists have somewhere to play in central London.”
It’s not just a London thing either. Small venues are under threat all over the UK. The Leicester Charlotte and Cardiff’s Barfly have closed in recent years, along with a number of venues in Liverpool, while the Roadhouse in Manchester announced its closure last month. Only today Glasgow’s Arches announced it would be shutting its doors.
“London is a Petri dish,” says McGee. “What happens here spreads, and if these developers can close venues to build flats, they’ll soon be doing it in Liverpool and Manchester and Glasgow and every other city. Britain isn’t selling a lot to the rest of the world at the minute, but we’re doing pretty well with music.
“We’ve got to have places to nurture that talent.”
The Reservation begins at Blacks on Sunday April 12, and continues on April 19 and 26. Tickets are available from www.savesoho.com