The Sound of Our Streets

Clerkenwell’s contribution to the music industry covers a century of technological and musical innovation. Andre Paine looks back at EC1’s greatest hits and the local history of early sound recording.

From the emergence of “Tin Pan Alley” in Denmark Street to the gathering of record labels around west London, the music industry has a rich history in the capital. EC1 also played its part: EMI and its Parlophone label – home to Coldplay, Blur and Kylie Minogue – has its origins in Clerkenwell Road. Admittedly, you have to go back to the gramophone era – a revolution (literally) for recorded music. In 1913, the Columbia Graphophone Company moved to 102-108 Clerkenwell Road. It was named Columbia House and fitted with showrooms, offices and recording facilities. In the 1920s, Columbia’s chief engineer, WS Purser, made some of the first electrical recordings in this country in his fourth- floor workshop.

Columbia sold records as well as gramophones; it became the market leader in orchestral recordings by conductors Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Henry Wood. By the mid-1920s, the firm was expanding to house its acquisition of Parlophone Records. Columbia’s main rival was His Master’s Voice, named after the painting of the dog Nipper listening to a wind- up gramophone. It was actually clever marketing – they were officially called the Gramophone Company. The Nipper- inspired brand still exists today as HMV. 

When the gramophone industry was hit by the Depression, Columbia merged with His Master’s Voice in 1931 to become Electric and Musical Industries Ltd (EMI). Clerkenwell Road was no longer big enough – it was also too noisy for recording. So EMI Studios was set up in St John’s Wood. It’s now better known as Abbey Road Studios. Fast forward to the 1980s, and EC1 was once again home to a music revolution. While glossy pop ruled the charts, indie music was shaking up the corporate culture. Alan McGee’s Creation Records moved into 83 Clerkenwell Road in the summer of 1985. As a band manager, he was also cultivating an image of notoriety for fellow Scots The Jesus and Mary Chain, whose on-stage antics earned them tabloid outrage. 

In The Creation Records Story, David Cavanagh describes the “fusty honeycombed corridors” of the tiny office where Creation plotted the careers of Primal Scream, The House of Love and The Weather Prophets. Songwriters would often call by – Nick Currie (known as Momus) recalled being taken to a Burger King on Chancery Lane by McGee and was told the meal was his advance. “Actually, it wasn’t a joke,” said Currie. Creation would go on to become one of the
most important indie labels of the Nineties with Oasis, as well as My Bloody Valentine, Ride, The Boo Radleys and Teenage Fanclub.

But those four years in Clerkenwell were a chaotic learning curve for McGee, who later admitted he was partying harder than the bands. As well as drugs, there were always excuses to decamp to The Duke of York (now The Clerk & Well).

“The office at Clerkenwell never really seemed like a record company,” Cavanagh quotes one industry veteran. “There was always plenty of time to go to the pub for three hours and stay there for another three.”

A move to Hackney was Creation trying to be more professional in a location that was less central and not so inviting for those at a loose end. “There would always be somebody in leather trousers lying on the floor when you went into the Clerkenwell Road office,” said Currie. As the Nineties approached McGee embraced acid house. It transformed the career of Primal Scream, who swapped noisy rock for psychedelic dance grooves on Screamadelica. Creation’s publicist Jeff Barrett launched his own label, Heavenly Recordings, at Clerkenwell Road in 1990. He released a Manic Street Preachers single and had success with Saint Etienne.

They later recorded Tales From Turnpike House, a concept album inspired by the Goswell Road tower block. With Clerkenwell undergoing a property boom, the area was a draw for style bible The Face – and the Pet Shop Boys. Keyboard player Chris Lowe, a former architect, hired his student friend Nik Randall in 1994 for the conversion of a Summers Street penthouse. It later featured in Elle Decoration. The pop veterans also had a studio in an EC1 warehouse they shared with Sam Taylor-Wood. She photographed them (dressed as plague doctors) at the Jerusalem Tavern for single Numb. 

More recently, Ben Watt of Everything But the Girl ran a label in Clerkenwell Workshops, and staged his 2013 comeback at the Slaughtered Lamb in Great Sutton Street. “I really liked the venue and just thought it would be a perfect little space,” he told The Post. Of course, the big record labels have left EC1 (Creation did not survive, while EMI was taken over). But Clerkenwell still has a music industry, as well as club culture at Fabric and live music at the Barbican. There are also several small venues – from the Slaughtered Lamb to The Lexington – that deserve your support. The sound of Clerkenwell is still going strong.