Various Artists – Soho Expresso
Released 28th October 2016
Follow up to the much acclaimed “Soho Continental”, this time focussing on the smoky atmosphere of the London coffee bars which played an integral part in the development of British Rock n Roll and outsider culture….LTW’s Ian Canty foregoes his usual brown ale and game of darts at the Flying Horse for a touch of neopolitan glamour “Up West”….
When Rock n Roll exploded out of the USA, heralding with it the “birth of the teenager”, young people in other countries responded in a variety of different ways. It was a problematic time for the youth in the UK, which appeared from most angles, hopelessly stuffy in the 1950s. In the provinces things were slow to change, but Soho, ever the centre for the exchange of ideas, schemes and fashions, was now the new stomping ground for the gangs of teens hope to catch a bit of the American Diner atmosphere and genuine Soho sleaze in the rash of coffee bars that had sprung up with the previous generation of Italian immigrants. Originally the haunt of Jazz devotees and Beatniks, the coffee bar now became the home of these US obsessed youngsters, knocking back cappuccinos in spitting distance of the centre of the UK’s music industry, Denmark Street’s Tin Pan Alley.
This influx did not go unnoticed by the local record label talent spotters and they began to scour these bars in the search of that mythical creature, the “British Elvis”. As was always the case on this side of the Atlantic, soon after discovery they would work to neuter the rebel aspect in their “client” and turn him into an all-round “entertainer”, before the craze burned out (“This Rock n Roll is just a fad anyway”). The film “Expresso Bongo” (recently issued on BFI’s Flipside on DVD and Blu-ray) showed how this kind of scene played out, with hustler Laurence Harvey finding “Bongo Herbert” (played by the person who mostly fitted the bill of the UK Presley at the time, Cliff Richard) and propelling him to stardom, with the Soho coffee bar scene as central to the plot. It was a story that had definite roots in reality. Also, along with this new influx to Soho, you also had the jobbing musicians trying to earn a living in the rapidly changing times and all the extant outsider life going on as well. Thus a mixture of cash-ins, true early rockers and novelty records became the UK’s muddled answer to America’s red hot Rock n Roll, with coffee bars both a host to the phenomenon and also a trend to celebrate in its own right. Which is where “Soho Expresso comes in.
So enough of the history, how does this new compilation go about capturing that brief moment in British Pop, when the record companies unsure of the veracity of unruly home-grown talent, pounded the Soho coffee bar beat for hopefuls and the youth supped up a heady cocktail of the Jazz that was always a part of the area, Calypso and the Rockin’ beat they craved to emulate? Well at the very least, seeing as it is on Croydon Municipal, you’ll know they’ve done their homework. Soho swung with the times so we get some rare early Rockers who attempted to follow the route to stardom via being spotted at the 2I coffee bar. Some of them were even successful – a raucous Adam Faith number “Carve Up” (from Lionel Bart’s “Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be” musical) is great, campy fun, a possibly source of Kilburn and the High Roads “Rough Kids” and Bert “Play In A Day” Weedon may not have been Link Wray-tough but “Fury” is as good as it got with regard to the UK and instrumental Rock n Roll havoc.
Also the bars and the coffee served there are exalted in song too, in probably the only time hot drinks were a craze in music. To this end, the Pines patented a Shadows-to-a-Samba-beat sound for “Espresso”, whilst hard-bitten cockney actor Dave King discovers his inner Dean Martin on “Hotta Chocolotta” and Joe “Mr Piano” Henderson’s “Coffee Bar Jive” pinches a little of both trends to fall spectacularly between two stools in a charming fashion. The Jazzy intro to the Barons’ “Cossack” gives way to a seedy but satisfying spy theme instrumental, the Shadows’ massive influence again overtly on display.
Even further down the cool chart, MOR artists tried to pick up a little of Soho’s joy de vivre in an effort to bolster their sales and make them appear less fuddy duddy. This seldom worked but from the distance time gives us records like “Squatty” by Ken Mackintosh and Les Howard’s “Sweet Tooth” have a huckster charm – after all sleight of hand and slippery characters always ran the Soho.
Whatever their musical merits, the more authentic Rock songs speak to the teenagers in their own language. Suzy Cope’s “Teenage Delinquent” may be more of a novelty ditty, but that sort of name was being tagged on every young person who didn’t come home on the dot of 9:30pm when they were told, so it captured the moment perfectly. Billy Boyle’s future was not as a tough rocker as “Held For Questioning” might have made one suppose, but as a foil for Basil Brush. In a nutshell, that is the original UK Rock n Roll for you! Ricky Wayne, discovered by Joe Meek, storms in with the guitar-fuelled Teddy Boy-friendly “Goodness Knows” and although Danny Rivers’ London beat would be less Soho coffee bar and more “the Knowledge” in the future (after his brief spell in the spotlight he became a cabbie), there’s no doubt that “I Got” is the real deal, vibrant and full of ton-up attitude.
“Expresso Soho” throbs with the uncertainty and excitement of the formative years of British Rock n Roll and although reserved when compared to Gene Vincent, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, this marked the first time when unruly UK youth kicked out on their own, the coffee bars their natural habitat. The atmosphere of the quick buck and the hustle is shown in some of the more opportunistic efforts here, but the flim-flam aspect was always part of the Soho feeling, well until the last decade knocked the guts out of the place. It is a shame but as long as we don’t forget that it was the centre of great underground spirit, it will endure. “Expresso Soho” certainly helps keep that feeling alive.
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All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here