Tuesday Ten: 278: Camden Town

About eighteen years ago, while I was still reading Geography at King’s College London, the subject of my dissertation proposal came up.

My then tutor didn’t see too much in me until we started talking about this, as I’d decided that I wanted to investigate the growth of Camden Town as an alternative hub. Turns out that my tutor was a frustrated rock journalist (apparently he’d turned down the chance to write for Rolling Stone in 1974(!) to continue his studies, and ended up being a “Professor of the Built Environment”. “We built this city”, etc), and so was fascinated by what I was looking at. It also turned out that there was an amount of research – still a new area, at the time – on urban “tribes”.

Sadly, of course, my degree didn’t work out, I dropped out, and my dissertation was unfinished. Ironically the best mark I got on any section across my two years at University came from this. I could never have foreseen at the time that Camden would be all-but finished as we knew it just two decades later.

It seems appropriate, then, to look back at my own associations and memories of the area, much of which is music-related, of course. I first was aware of Camden through reading the NME, really – and it took me a while to learn it’s fascinating history and didn’t actually go until the year before I went to Uni, when I went exploring while down for a Uni interview. Once I got to Uni, I was there an awful lot (also useful was that it was one night bus home to my halls on the Finchley Road. Well, two if it was cold, and the N31 was not very frequent back then). This isn’t in any order, really, it’s more a collection of short memories, events, music.

Also, what I am missing? What are your memories of Camden as an alternative hub?

There was one pub I used to go to quite a bit, and that was the Good Mixer. One of the bastions of the Britpop movement, it was still a good place to be later in the nineties – although rather off the beaten track nowadays at the far end of Inverness Street, and it’s always been a…spartan…pub.

I remember vividly one lunchtime in there with an old friend (long since lost contact with, sadly): we sit down with our pints, only to realise Headswim are being interviewed at the next table. One of my favourite bands of the time, cue me too starstruck to even talk to them. This was sometime around the release of their second album Despite Yourself, which was released in the UK in 1998, and saw a band that had up to that point had a hard-edged, electronic-tinged alt-rock sound surprise everyone with a more mellow, measured sound that actually suited them very well.

It soon transpired that life events between the two albums had shaken the brothers Daniel and Tom Glendining to the core – their brother died of leukaemia during that period – and needless to say resulted in a period of reflection that changed just about everything. Sadly they were later dropped by Sony and that second album was their last.

Like most of my friends in the “scene” in London, I’ve spent many, many nights at the Ballroom in some capacity or another. Mainly for club nights (so, Inferno and later Sin City) since fuck knows when, certainly since I started at Uni in the latter half of the nineties. It was so much the “thing” that everyone did on a Friday at one point that I reckon we could probably link almost everyone there on one particular night by one degree of separation. Yeah, so the music could be a bit predictable (the industrial half-hour, the trad-goth half-hour, the punk half-hour, the industrial metal half-hour, etc), but it was reliably great fun, and was perhaps a little less snooty than Slimes was at the time.

Alright, so I tried my best to only order drinks that came in bottles or cans, and it was fairly easy to stick to the floor if you stayed still for too long…but I still loved it, and I miss Friday nights there. There were also gigs, and still are good gigs there, but it’s clubbing I’ll forever associate it with, and for some reason I’ve always associated hearing Gravity Kills there in particular.

Camden Palace/KOKO

Another venue that looms large in my memories is down at the bottom of Camden High Street, just over the road from Mornington Crescent Station. When I first began attending – in the weeks after I went to Uni – it was the Camden Palace, and legions of students made the trip on a Tuesday night for Feet First. An indie/rock/metal night that had a relatively open music policy, the crucial selling point was a live band each week, often bands on the up. I wish I could find a listing of all the gigs that happened at Feet First, as there were quite a few, and my memory of the time is hazy to say the least.

One I did see was Pitchshifter in Spring 1997. Sadly the move of my website last year lost the comment on Rearview Mirror: 001 that confirmed that this was the show where Geffen reps attended and offered them the record deal that led to the success of www.pitchshifter.com (and indeed was the first time some of the songs from that album were aired). As for the Geffen signing, it turns out Earache are still bitter after all these years (that post is, by the looks of things, a post by Digby Pearson himself!).

Since Feet First went, though – and perhaps benefitting from the loss of the Astoria – KOKO has become a more popular mid-sized gig venue than ever, and I’ve seen seventeen shows there since 2010 alone.

The Purple Turtle

Just around the corner from KOKO, and very much in it’s shadow, was The Purtle. It was used on-and-off for gigs and club nights for years, with it becoming a regular place to go around 2012/2013 after a number of notable shows were all booked there a few years back. Probably the best of those was the first Seabound show in London in a few years, where they finally debuted tracks from their long-awaited fourth album Speak In Storms (and it took a year or so to be released after that show, too!). Like many small venues, the layout was something of a compromise, with a bar awkwardly situated near the stage and a sound balance that could charitably be called “iffy” at times. But, it was still a useful venue for many bands, and most gigs I went to there were at least well attended.

Sadly, though, it closed for good a couple of years back after the lease wasn’t renewed. What makes it even worse was that Camden Council were the leaseholder. Presumably live music isn’t part of their plans anymore.

Let’s head back to the other end of Camden now, beyond the end of Camden High Street, where it becomes Chalk Farm Road. The Monarch used to be a reasonable Wetherspoons back in the day (The Moon Under Water, if memory serves), and at some point went back to being an independent pub, and became The Monarch. Ever since it has been a music pub, with lots of smaller gigs, a long-running Metal night on Sundays (Metalworks), and for some years, it was home to a phenomenal Britpop night.

My first visit was almost exactly six years ago (it came up on my Facebook memories the other day), when our friend Kitty took Daisy and me along to this night called Nuis@nce, and we made a number of friendships that night that have endured to this day – and we became regular visitors to the night in the following months and years. Nuis@nce is no more, but the idea was continued by one of the DJs as Star-Shaped, has gone to much bigger venues in London (on at the O2 Academy Islington this Friday, in fact) and has gone national…

The Roundhouse might be a high-quality arts-space and gig venue nowadays, but it was a very different proposition in the nineties. Frankly, the venue was crumbling, it was freezing cold, and it is a wonder that it was allowed to open at all (the refurb and relaunch didn’t happen until after the millenium).

That said, my first gig there was Suede in December 1996, one of a pair of now-legendary shows that were – I believe – the first shows at the venue in a few years. I’ve seen many more bands in there since – from The Sisters of Mercy to Mogwai, Public Enemy to Swans, and many more besides – but I’m not sure any will top that first time.

The latest Camden institution to go is the Barfly, which apparently closed last summer, to be replaced by The Camden Assembly, with R&B/Hip-Hop nights on Saturdays and by the looks of things, precious few gigs. In the same area of Camden as the Monarch and The Roundhouse, it was for years one of those venues used as a stepping-stone to bigger things, with ample space for support slots and a good set-up that bands generally seemed to like.

One of those bands that followed this pattern were Blindness, who I saw a grand total of sixteen times over a five-year period – and the show I saw them do at The Barfly in August 2011 was the first. They comprehensively blew the headliner off the stage, and this show was one of the reasons that I kept going back to seeing them live again and again. On semi-permanent hiatus at the moment, one new song did get released recently on a Saint Marie Records compilation and is playable in the box to the left.

It wasn’t all small bands, though. I was fortunate to see Ash play a blinding secret, short-notice show there a couple of years back, on Ash Wednesday (arf). But now it’s gone, I’ll definitely miss it.

For years, particularly if you were meeting friends from out-of-town in Camden, the obvious meeting point was always The World’s End. Right opposite the tube station in the heart of Camden, it was easy to find, and everyone knew where it was. Less easy was actually finding your friends in such a cavernous pub, particularly on a weekend, and getting the attention of one of the bar staff was sometimes a job in itself, too. But the music was often good (usually metal of some sort), and it was played at a volume where – generally – a conversation was possible.

In addition, it would be one of the pre-club meeting points for Inferno/Sin City, too, but also somewhere to kill time before a gig downstairs at The Underworld. Not the greatest gig venue in the world – before the recent refit, most surfaces in the venue would leave residue on your clothes, and that pillar right in the middle of the dancefloor (and in front of the stage) made sightlines a bit of a lottery and rowdier gigs an exercise in damage limitation – but it has always had a great list of metal bands big and small playing there, and this is another place where I wish there was a full list of gigs that have been put on there available, as it might jog my memory on some of the past shows I saw (particularly in the nineties).

More recently, though, the highlights have come from two exceptional shows by Arnocorps, full of heroes and sheroes and a band that remembers that gigs should be fun experiences. I look forward to another such show this summer.

The Dev, possibly the most archetypal goth pub, and one instantly associated with the genre, for many years.

It’s been there seemingly forever, and I’ll never forget the horror of those toilets. Or the crap booze. Or the surly service. Or that it was, basically, home from home when out drinking in Camden, despite all the negatives.

I’ve actually not been in over the past year or so. But my last visit was before the The Sisters of Mercy gig in October 2015 – itself the night after Slimelight’s 28th birthday night – it was busy, we were going to a goth gig, and it rather felt like old times. And it was a great night, despite the mixed bag of the gig

Buying Music in Camden

Finally, though, Camden used to be a place to go and buy music, too. There were a number of places that were regular ports of call: first, of course, was Resurrection Records. I was a regular in there from early in my Uni days, and continued to buy music in person from there right up until it closed (and still buy from their online store from time-to-time, too). What they had was unparalleled, and recommendations, too, were often bang on – and I miss the store terribly. Incidentally, it was also the first place where I was recognised away from Whitby as a Real Gothic team member (bizarre place for that to happen) by someone I didn’t know.

Then, down the road, there was Metalheads, a store that was often fairly expensive but was basically the only place to get new imports of US-released metal and hardcore at the time (it was not unusual back then for releases to not otherwise make it to our shores, either at all or for a year or more afterward) – one in particular being the first System of A Down album. That store disappeared some time ago – and never seemed to have a web presence, either.

Another now long gone was The Music & Video Exchange (it remains in Notting Hill at least, I think the Soho one went a while ago as well), which was amazing for finding secondhand rareties or clearing out unwanted CDs.

One survivor – possibly the only music store left in Camden – it that great hardcore/punk shop All Ages Records, hidden away on a backstreet behind the High Street.

So what’s left? The Stables Market is being gentrified out of existence as Teddy Sagi‘s plans continue to change it irrevocably, the Lock Village Market is already gone, and the Buck Street Market clings on. As for entertainment, KOKO seems to continue to thrive, as do the World’s End/Underworld, while the Dev, Camden Head and Dingwalls pretty much go on as ever. The Good Mixer and Dublin Castle still offer something of the old Camden, too, while the only newer venue that feels like it fits in is The Black Heart, well positioned in a hidden backstreet that means it is out of the way of the tourists.

So there is still something there. There are still gigs, there are still alt-friendly pubs. But shopping for similarly minded clothing is now best done on the internet, and the internet is about the only place to go for music now.

But the death throes of the Camden I knew are definitely in progress, and that alone makes me sad.

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