Wembley Stadium in London’s north-west has hosted numerous musical acts since the early 1970s but the most famous event was undoubtedly the British Live Aid concert in 1985.
Organised by Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof and Ultravox vocialist Midge Ure (although it was apparently Boy George who first came up with the idea of a concert), the event featured an all-star line-up of the notable artists of the day.
Held to raise funds to support relief efforts aimed at those impacted by the devastating Ethiopian famine of 1983 to 1985, it followed the release of Band Aid’s single Do They Know It’s Christmas? the previous December (that song closed the British concert while We Are The World closed the US one).
About 72,000 people attended the event held on 13th July which featured artists including Paul McCartney, David Bowie, The Who (who reunited for the event), Queen and U2 (the latter two bands in show-stealing performances) and was held simultaneously with an event at at John F Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia (attended by more than 89,000 people.
There were also concerts held in a range of other nations in Australia in support of the cause on the same day which were woven into the TV broadcast of the event. This was seen by an estimated 1.5 billion viewers worldwide.
The British event kicked off at noon and ran until 10pm that night while the US concert ended just after 4am, giving a total of 16 hours of concert time. Phil Collins famously performed at both events, taking a British Airways Concorde to the US after performing at Wembley and performing there.
Among the crowds watching were Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
Located at 59 Old Compton Street in Soho, the 2i’s Coffee Bar is crediting with playing a key role in the development of Britain’s modern music culture during the mid-20th century with stars including Tommy Steele – described as the first British rock ‘n roll star – and Sir Cliff Richard among those who performed there.
Opened in April, 1956, the coffee house (which was named for the two men Freddie and Sammy Irani who owned building), was run by Australian wrestlers Paul Lincoln and Ray Hunter.
Its basement had a small stage and was used as a live music venue, initially with skiffle groups such as the Vipers and then as a rock ‘n roll venue. Along with Steele and Sir Cliff, others who performed there included Johnny Kidd, Tony Sheridan, Hank Marvin, Rory Blackwell and Screaming Lord Sutch as well as American acts such as Jerry Lee Lewis.
Among those who patronised the venue, meanwhile, was everyone from Beatles producer Sir George Martin to actor Sir Michael Caine and painter Francis Bacon.
The 2i’s closed in 1970. A Westminster City Council Green Plaque was unveiled at the site in 2006, marking 50 years of British rock ‘n roll.
Think of Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and chances are it isn’t London which immediately comes to mind. But it was in a home in Belgravia that the then-precocious eight-year-old composed his first symphony.
Mozart, his father Leopold, mother Anna Maria and his elder sister Maria Anna spent almost a year-and-a-half in London, between April, 1764, and July, 1765, as part of a European grand tour. Having initially taken lodgings above a barber’s shop in Cecil Court in Soho, they moved to the more rural setting of 180 Ebury Street, then known as Five Fields Row, in August so his father could recover from a serious illness which apparently developed after he caught a cold.
Mozart and his sister were both child prodigies and during their London sojourner performed in various London theatres and for King George III and Queen Charlotte at Buckingham Palace on several occasions. But, with his father now needing quiet, they were forbidden to play instruments in the house and so, according to his sister’s writings, in order to keep himself busy it was there that he composed his “first symphony for all the instruments of the orchestra, especially for trumpets and kettledrums”.
While the work she was referring to is now lost, Mozart did go on to compose the symphony that is now seen as his first at the same time. Known as K.16 in E flat major, it was first performed at the Haymarket Little Theatre in February, 1765.
Leopold did recover and so the family moved back to Soho – lodging at 20 Frith Street to be précise – in September, 1764. It was there that Mozart met the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Christian, who was to be a key influence on his musical style. They left the property – and brought their time in England to an end in July, 1765, amid waning public interest in their performances (they gone from performing for the Royal Family to entertaining pub patrons). The family continued with their European tour before eventually returning to their home town of Salzburg (Mozart later settled in Vienna where he died at the young age of 35).
Mozart’s time at the Ebury Street residence (and the composition he wrote there) is commemorated with an English Heritage Blue Plaque (albeit this one is brown) which was erected by the then London County Council in 1939. Following damage in the war, it was reinstated in 1951. There’s also a statue commemorating Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in nearby Orange Square. Designed by Philip Jackson, it was erected in 1994.
Tenor saxophonists Ronnie Scott and Pete King opened their jazz club in Soho in 1959.
Located in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street in Chinatown, the club was initially created as a place where local jazz musicians could jam but was soon attracting a who’s who of jazz to the stage.
The 1965, the club moved to 47 Frith Street where remains today (it took over the building next door in 1968).
Over the years, the club has played host to jazz greats including Zoot Sims, Sarah Vaughn and Count Basie to Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Wynton Marsalis as well as musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Tom Waits, The Who and Mark Knopfler with the Notting Hillbillies.
Patrons, meanwhile, have included everyone from Harold Pinter and the Beatles to Peter O’Toole and Spike Milligan.
Scott died on 23rd December, 1996, and King continued to run the club for another nine years before selling it to theatre impresario Sally Greene.
The club celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019 and was honoured that year with an English Heritage Blue Plaque commemorating the original site.
Arguably the grandest music venue in London, the Royal Albert Hall, named in memory of Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, has been hosting musical events since it first hosted a concert in 1871.
The Grade I-listed hall, which has a seating capacity of more than 5,000 and which did suffer from acoustic problems for many years (until mushroom-shaped fibreglass acoustic diffusers were hung from the ceiling following tests in the late 1960s), has been the setting for some of the most important – and, in some cases, poignant – music events of the past 150 years, not just in London but the world at large.
Among some of the most memorable are the Titanic Band Memorial Concert – held on 24th May, 1912, just six weeks after the sinking of the iconic ship to remember the 1514 people who died with a particular focus on the eight musicians who played on as the stricken vessal sank, the ‘Great Pop Prom’ of 15th September, 1963 – only one of a handful of occasions when The Beatles and Rolling Stones played on the same stage, and Pink Floyd’s gig of 26th June, 1969 – coming at the end of a UK tour, the on-stage antics saw the band banned (it was short-lived, however, they returned just a few years later in 1973).
Other musical figures to have taken to the stage here include everyone from composers Richard Wagner, John Philip Sousa, and Benjamin Britten to the Von Trapp family, jazz greats Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and the likes of Shirley Bassey, Bob Dylan and Elton John – a veritable musical who’s who of the past 150 years. The venue also hosted the 13th Eurovision Song Contest in 1968.
Of course, Royal Albert Hall is famous for The Proms, an annual festival of classical music which was first performed here in 1941 after the venue where it had been held since 1895 – the Queen’s Hall on Langham Place – was lost to an incendiary bomb during World War II.
Prom stands for ‘Promenade Concert’, a phrase which originally referred to the outdoor concerts in London’s pleasure gardens during which the audience was free to walk around while the orchestra was playing (there are still standing areas during performances). The most famous night of the season is the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ which, broadcast by the BBC, features popular classics and ends with a series of patriotic tunes to stir the blood.
Westminster Abbey is important for many reasons when it comes to London’s musical heritage but among them is the intrinsic connection the grand building has with Restoration-era composer and musician Henry Purcell.
Purcell, who was born in Westminster in 1659 and who died there in 1695, is famous for having composed music in a range of genres including the first English opera as well as being the organist of the Westminster Abbey (from 1679) and that of the Chapel Royal (from 1682).
Fittingly, Purcell, who died at the age of just 36 leaving a widow and six children behind, was buried beside where the organ was then located in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey. The grave, which also contains the remains of his wife Frances, is inlaid with brass letters written in Latin.
It reads: “Here rests Henry Purcell, Organist of this Collegiate Church. Died 21 November aged 37, A.D. 1695. Immortals, welcome an illustrious guest, your gain, our loss – yet would not earth reclaim the many-sided master of his art, the brief delight and glory of his age: great Purcell lives! his spirit haunts these aisles, while yet the neighbouring organ breathes its strains, and answering choirs worship God in song. Frances, wife of Henry Purcell, is buried near her husband 14 February 1706.”
A memorial tablet to Purcell was erected on a nearby wall by Dame Annabella Howard, a former pupil of Purcell’s. The inscription in English and Latin “Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life and is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded. Died 21 of November in the 37th year of his age, AD 1695”.
There is also an elaborate statue, The Flowering of the English Baroque, commemorating Purcell located just down the road from the Abbey in Christchurch Gardens, Broadway. Designed by sculptor Glynn Williams, it was unveiled by Princess Margaret on the tercentenary of the death of the composer – 22nd November 1995.
Located by the side of a road in Barnes is a memorial to the former singer and guitarist of glam-rock band T.Rex, Marc Bolan.
The memorial on Queens Ride, close to Gipsy Lane, marks the spot where the 29-year-old Bolan died on 16th September, 1977, after the purple Mini he was a passenger in – driven by his girlfriend, singer Gloria Jones – left the road and struck a fence, coming to rest against a tree.
The site of the crash quickly became a place of pilgrimage for fans and in September, 1997, the Performing Right Society installed a memorial stone for Bolan. It pays tribute to Bolan as a “musician, writer, poet” and says it was erected “in recognition of his outstanding contribution to British music”.
In 2002, a bronze bust of Bolan, the work of Canadian sculptor Jean Robillard, was installed behind the memorial stone by the T.Rex Action Group in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of his death.
The TAG had taken over care of the site – including the ‘Bolan Tree’ – in 1999 under a perpetual lease and, prior to the bust’s arrival, had added since added a series of steps at the site.
The bust, which was paid for by the group’s founder Fee Warner and is located at the top of the steps, was unveiled by Bolan’s only child Rolan.
In 2005, further plaques were added at the site commemorating the other members of T.Rex who had died – Steve Peregrin Took, Steve Currie, Mickey Finn and Dino Dines – as well as Bolan’s widow June Bolan (they were married in 1970).
Nicknamed ‘Tin Pan Alley’ after a famous New York City area associated with music publishers and songwriters, Denmark Street in Soho is famous for its 20th century music connections.
The street, which is just 100 yards long, was home to most major music publishing and management companies during the 1950s and 1960s as well as recording studios while publications Melody Maker and New Musical Express (better known to some as the NME) were also founded there.
Artists with a connection include David Bowie, Paul Simon, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Sex Pistols (who reportedly left a considerable amount of graffiti at number six), while two members of Bananarama apparently lived there in the 1970s. Lionel Bart, writer of the musical Oliver!, also started out here and was later known as the “King of Denmark Street”.
The street was also home to the famous Gioconda Cafe – whose patrons have included Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Elton John.
These days home to many musical instrument shops, the future of the Denmark Street has been a matter of some controversy in recent years with a planned redevelopment attracting considerable protest.
A plaque – put in place by the British Plaque Trust (pictured above; it’s not to be confused with the English Heritage Blue Plaque commemorating dive helmet pioneer Augustus Siebe on number five) – was unveiled at number nine in 2014 commemorating the street’s musical connections between 1911 and 1992. It reads “Home of the British Publishers and Songwriters and their meeting place The Giaconda.”
Sixties pop singer Donovan, who recorded here, performed a song he’d written specifically for the occasion – appropriately named Tin Pan Alley.
This property (and the street, which runs in a horseshoe off Regent Street in the West End, I which it sits) is famous for its appearance on the cover of David Bowie’s 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stadust and the Spiders from Mars.
The cover – which features Bowie (who was ill with the flu at the time) dressed as Ziggy Stardust standing outside the building under the light of a lamp – was one of several shots taken by photographer Brian Ward on a cold and wet night in January, 1972.
Originally taken in black and white, the selected image was subsequently hand-coloured by artist Terry Pastor for the album cover.
There’s been much commentary over the years about the sign which appears over Bowie’s head in the shot and reads K West. Bowie himself, lamenting the fact the sign had been removed when the furrier moved out in the early 1990s, commented later that that it had taken on “mystical overtones” for some fans who thought it was code for the word quest. But the truth is more mundane – it was apparently the name of a furrier who at the time occupied part of the building.
The back cover of the album featured Ziggy inside an iconic red phone box which was located just around the corner from number 23, still in Heddon Street. One of the K2 boxes, it’s since been replaced.
While the street has been considerably gentrified since Ziggy stood there (rather than a deserted back street, it’s now a popular al fresco dining area), a plaque was unveiled commemorating the role of the building in 2012 (pictured above).
The album, meanwhile, was released on 16th June, 1972, by RCA Records to what was generally a favourable reception.
OK, so we all know about the Abbey Road crossing and its connection with the Beatles, but where are some other sites of historic musical significance in London?
First up, it’s the Mayfair home where 18th century composer George Frideric Handel lived from 1723 until his death in 1759 – and where he composed much of his best known work including masterpieces such as Zadok the Priest (1727, it was composed for the coronation of King George II), Israel in Egypt (1739), Messiah (1741), and Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749).
The German-born Handel, who settled permanently in London in 1712 (and who became a naturalised British citizen in 1727), was the first occupant of the terraced house located at what is now 25 Brook Street (but previously known as 57) which is now a museum dedicated to his life and work.
The property, which is today decorated as it would have been during early Georgian times, is thought to have been convenient for its proximity to be the theatres where his works works were performed and St James’s Palace, where he served as Composer of Music for the Chapel Royal.
A small room on the first floor is believed to be where Handel did most of his composing. He is also understood to have used the larger adjoining music room for rehearsing his works from the 1730s (possibly due to a lack of space at the venue where he mainly performed, the Covent Garden Theatre).
Handel died in the house on 14th April, 1759. The property, which subsequently was lived in by various people, became a museum dedicated to the composer in 2001.
Known for the first 15 years of its existence as the Handel House Museum, in 2016 it was expanded to include the upper floors of the adjoining home, 23 Brook Street, a flat which served as home to another musical great, Jimi Hendrix, in 1968-1969. The museum is now known as Handel & Hendrix in London.
Both properties have English Heritage Blue Plaques upon them. The first plaque were erected on Handel House in about 1870 by the Society of Arts and was replaced in 1952 and again in 2001, when his middle name was corrected to Frideric from Frederick. The plaque commemorating Hendrix’s residence in Number 23 was erected in 1997.
The museum is closed, with limited exceptions, until March, 2023, for a refurbishment project called the The Hallelujah Project. But you can head to the website to take a 3D virtual tour: https://handelhendrix.org.