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Hot Spots on British Rock Trail

November 11, 1990|JEFF KAYE | Kaye, who lives in London, is a frequent contributor to The Times' Calendar Section.

LONDON — Screaming Lord Sutch stood on a Soho district sidewalk one recent afternoon doing what he does best--screaming.

"Tony Sheridan taught the Beatles everything they know," he yelled into a megaphone, while the crowd around him admired his sentiments and sparkly, tiger-print suit.

It was a special day for Lord Sutch, the veteran musician and head of the Raving Looney political party, and a graying pack of fellow pre-Beatle pop stars who had gathered to pay tribute to the spawning ground of British rock 'n' roll.

An official Harp Beat Rock Plaque was being unveiled to commemorate the former site of the legendary 2 I's Club, the tiny coffeehouse where England's original rockers got their start. A restaurant called Le Bistingo now occupies the premises at 59 Old Compton St.

The Soho ceremony was part of an ongoing program to put up plaques at sites of historical significance to British rock music.

Previously honored with plaques were the Widnes railway station in the county of Chesire, where Paul Simon wrote "Homeward Bound" in 1965, and the town hall in Walsall, some 150 miles northwest of London, where Slade played its first concert.

The plaque project is an offshoot of a remarkable book published last year, called the "Harp Beat Rock Gazetteer of Great Britain," by rock historian Pete Frame. (Harp is the beer company that sponsors the project.)

Organized city by city, Frame's guide compiled hundreds of listings noting births, deaths, important gigs, scandals and other bits of fascinating rock history and trivia.

"It's like a normal gazetteer," says Frame, standing amid the Soho hubbub, "except it doesn't show you where castles are and where monks are and where Henry the VIII got his head cut off and things like that. It tells you where Keith Moon burned hotels, where P. J. Proby split his pants and where Screaming Lord Sutch, there"--he points across the room to the loudest person--"won election campaigns and things like that."

After the book came out, Frame said, he and the publishers decided it would be a good idea to put up plaques at landmark sites.

"All over England we have these plaques that tell you where novelists and scientists and politicians or whatever lived," he said. Frame and his publishers decided that rock 'n' roll, with all its cultural importance to Britain, should be included.

Few places seemed as deserving of a plaque as the 2 I's. "This is the birthplace of English rock 'n' roll," says Frame. Tommy Steele was discovered there in 1956. Cliff Richard played there under his real name, Harry Webb. Lionel Bart, who wrote rock songs before composing musicals such as "Oliver," had painted murals on the club's walls.

Gary Glitter, whose career peaked in the early '70s, was playing there under the name of Paul Raven in the early '60s. (His rendition of "Walk on By" was a big hit in the Middle East in 1961.)

Dressed all in leather for the plaque ceremony, Glitter sang a rap song he'd apparently just written. Later, Lord Sutch joined him for an a cappella "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On."

Adam Faith, in a conservative suit, recalled that more than 150 people used to crowd into the living-room-size club. "It would get so hot," he recalled, "that people would faint and would have to be carried outside."

"And they'd make them pay to get back in again," cracked the ubiquitous Lord Sutch.

"The 2 I's became the magic place of its time," said Paul Lincoln, who co-founded the club in 1956. He recalled how American stars--Connie Francis and Paul Anka among them--used to drop in when they were in London.

Lincoln even helped launch the music career of Kris Kristofferson, who was attending Oxford University in the late '50s. The American won a music competition at the club, but Lincoln, who began managing him, made him change his name to Kris Carson.

"I told him, 'You'll never make it with the name Kristofferson,' " said Lincoln.

Frame, who is also noted for his genealogy books of rock family trees, says he's not certain where the next rock plaque will go up. A likely spot is the east London gas station where the Rolling Stones were cited and fined for urinating on a wall in June, 1965.

"They were coming back from a gig," says Frame, "and they stopped at a petrol station to (urinate) and the bloke there said, 'Sorry, we're not opening up the loo for you.' So they said, 'All right, we'll (urinate) on the wall,' and he went in and called the cops and they got fined. Of course, that just enhanced their rebellious image."

Another possibility for a plaque is the Hope & Anchor pub in the Islington section of London (207 Upper St.).

According to Frame, the place was "pub rock Mecca" for more than a decade with Stiff Records chief Dave Robinson running a recording studio inside and many provincial bands, including U2 and Joy Division, making their London debuts there.

One of Frame's favorite nuggets of Brit rock esoterica--and another prime candidate for a plaque--is the Fox and Hounds pub in Caversham (Berkshire County), where Paul McCartney and John Lennon spent a week's holiday in April, 1960.

McCartney's cousin ran the place and the two future legends played an Everly Brothers-style acoustic set there, billing themselves as the Nurk Twins.

But maybe Frame and the others behind the Harp Beat Rock Plaque scheme will decide on something a bit more obscure for the next commemorative ceremony? How about the spot in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, where idiosyncratic mid-'80s cult favorites Half Man Half Biscuit turned down a television appearance because their favorite soccer team, the Tranmere Rovers, were playing at home that night?

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