London calling:

a guide to London’s music history

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In between such attractions as Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and the London Eye, a tour of London's musical influences

 

Musical city

There is no London cabby whose patience hasn't been tested around number 2 Abbey Road. At all hours of the day, groups of nostalgic fans pile up on the sidewalks to repeat the routine – striding the white crosswalk, extending their arms and legs and shooting their own version of one of the most emblematic album covers of all time.

 

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It was 1969 when the Beatles lined up in front of Abbey Road Studios and made it the most famous crosswalk in the world. But this is just the tip of the iceberg of the musical history of London, the promised land for so many garage bands since the mid-20th century. The references are scattered across neighborhoods and decades and blend with the city's great iconic landmarks. A tour capable of pleasing fans of the bands that were born there as well as just curious visitors. 

 

Mayfair and Soho

In a matter of four blocks, three distinct places profess to the birthplace of rock. Which one is right? All of them, and perhaps none. 'There is no beginning of rock. The style was developed out of jam sessions in which guys playing jazz, blues, and R&B experimented with bolder sounds,' explains Bruce Cherry, a former music journalist and guide for London Rock Tours, an agency that offers customized tours of the city. 'Everything is shrouded in mythology; each one has their own version of history.'

 

It seems correct to say that the roots of the genre are in the region of Soho and Mayfair, known for being posh. The two neighborhoods are home to some of London's main attractions, like Hyde Park, and are a few subway stations away from the London Eye, the British Museum, and the National Gallery.

 

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Before or after strolling around the park or checking out the city's emblematic museum collections, take a gander at the facades of the houses, which have more stories to tell than you might imagine. The Beatles, already big in Liverpool, shared an apartment at 57 Green Street in 1963. Years later, the band's career came to an end just five blocks from there, in a tiny concert on the roof of the building at 3 Savile Row. The performance took everyone by surprise: soon, the adjacent streets and terraces were packed, and the police had to climb up on another roof to cut the power.

 

A bit farther on is Denmark Street (AKA Tin Pan Alley), where instrument shops are lined up next to studios like Regent Sounds – which also sells guitars and the like –, where the Rolling Stones recorded their first album.

 

Chelsea

Suddenly, London turns more elegant, which signals that Chelsea's arriving. Its main thoroughfare, King's Road, is one of the biggest shopping spots in the city, frequented by celebs and British royalty. Just wandering around the area is excitement enough.

 

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In music history, King's Road was the setting for the germination of London's punk rock scene. The area was a hangout for young people who, according to Bruce Cherry, “were sick of listening to their older brothers' music.” A discreet little blue door and a large clock that turns in reverse mark number 430, home to Vivienne Westwood's store World's End. Formerly known as Sex, the shop, whose slogan was “latex clothing for the office,” was prominent in the formation of the Sex Pistols.

 

The band was organized by Malcolm McLaren, Westwood's boyfriend, who brought together members Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. They would curse on TV, slander the queen in their songs, had rifts with virtually all the other bands of the day, and imploded in less than three years.

 

Camden

Punk rock in London may have emerged in Chelsea, but no place else absorbed it so much as the neighborhood of Camden Town. Today, Camden is a habitual stop for visitors who want to see London's alternative characters up close (think colorful mohawks and piercings, lots of piercings), and also get lost in the maze-like market, which sells everything from street food and vintage clothes to boots and modern accessories.

 

Though now popular among tourists, the neighborhood maintains a certain air of decay, preserved in the architecture of old factories, dark shops, and tattoo parlors. The Clash recorded their first album inside the market Camden Stables (you can still see the staircase where the band was photographed for the cover), home to a statue of Amy Winehouse, inaugurated after her death.

 

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Amy was, from the very beginning until the end, a Camden girl. Her favorite pubs – the Hawley Arms and the Dublin Castle – have photos of her on the walls and are great places to see small bands perform. On any given day, the sign in front of number 30 Camden Square, the place where Amy lived, is covered in messages and small tributes from fans.

 

Camden Town is also where the genre that came to be known as Britpop developed, nearly 20 years after the heyday of punk. Born in the 1990s, the style was led mainly by Oasis and Blur. They say that the rivalry between the two bands started at a pub called The Good Mixer, when Noel Gallagher is said to have looked at Blur guitarist Graham Coxon and said, 'Good music, horrible clothes.'

 

The stages

From Adele to Ed Sheeran, British music is huge all over the world. Performances by these acts can be seen in big concert venues like Royal Albert Hall and the O2 Arena. But London continues to introduce new talent on small stages which today have become decentralized and spread all over the city.

 

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In Shoreditch, in the city's east side, an old renovated pub is now home to The Old Blue Last, a bar where every band about to blow up has to clock in at least once. In South London, the bar known as the Birds Nest welcomes bands with a political activist slant.

 

No matter if you're talking about kids in working class cities or hipsters gathered around a bar table: wherever there's a high concentration of young people, there will always be the germination of creativity.

 

LATAM has flights to London from São Paulo.

Special thanks: London Rock Tours, VisitBritain.