“One of my keenest memories of the Marquee in the sixties,” says David Bowie, “was having a permanent erection because there were so many fantastic looking girls there.” Among the girls who no doubt caused this reaction in David was Dana Gillespie, 15 years old with plenty of front, who was standing at the back of the club brushing her hair when David snatched the brush from her hand. His hair was blonde, straight and even longer than hers in those days, and it evidently required brushing. “David taught me a lot…” says Dana.  

        This little gem is extracted from Marquee: The Story Of The World’s Greatest Music Venue by Robert Sellars with Nick Pendleton. Broadly speaking, the story runs parallel to the rise of rock in London, initially for those groups and singers whose music stemmed from rhythm & blues but later pretty much every genre you care to name. Celebrated Scousers aside, just about every major UK artist of the sixties and seventies played there on their stairway to stardom, so the club became a sort of rite of passage along the way, like blistered fingers, uncomfortable Ford Transits and sacking the drummer who always seemed to disappear when it was his round.

        I arrived a bit late for the Marquee and certainly left too early but between 1970 and 1973 it was a regular haunt of mine. I’d wanted to go inside since August of 1968 when, on my first unsupervised visit to London, I saw a queue stretching up Wardour Street towards The Ship. “What’s on?” I inquired of a long-haired bloke in loon pants and a great coat. “Tull,” he replied. I was none the wiser.

        Two years later, newly appointed as News Editor of Melody Maker, I knew precisely what Tull meant, and before long I was very familiar with the club at 90 Wardour Street, grandly described here as the World’s Greatest Music Venue. It’s hard to argue with that really because for decades it was the crucible of British rock, its stage playing host to the Stones, Who, Bowie, Floyd, Jimi, Elton, Faces (Small and Rod-led), Zep, Slade, Queen, folkies, prog rockers, punks – including the Pistols  the cream of UK metal, U2, goths, a host of aspirational Americans, Metallica, R.E.M. and G’n’R among them, and scores more besides. 

        I suspect this book has had a long gestation period for I lost count of how many times I was approached at Omnibus Press with proposals for a book about the Marquee. I usually sent would-be authors away with a request for a sample chapter or two before I’d commission them. Either I never received anything back or their sample was insufferably bland, little more than a listing of acts who’d played there. If this book had crossed by desk, however, I’d have snapped it up as it’s a fine tale, well told, with just the right amount of entertaining, often enlightening, anecdotes to moderate what is essentially a chronological name drop.

The brainchild of Harold Pendleton, father of co-author Nick, the Marquee opened in 1958 as a jazz club at the slummy end of Oxford Street before moving in 1964 to its best-known location in Wardour Street. This was where the fun really began and 90% of the book is devoted to fascinating accounts of how bands and singers, many destined for the big time, hauled their gear into the Marquee through the back doors in Richmond Mews. To a man (there aren’t many women, unfortunately) they iterate in interviews old and new how important the club was to them and their careers, with an agreeably large number first entering the venue as fans. After 24 mostly glorious years in Wardour Street, the club moved to a disused cinema in Charing Cross Road, and seven years later the franchise was sold to others who ran two clubs with the same name elsewhere until 2006, though not much space is given to the post-Wardour Street era. 

Also featured are tales of Marquee spin-offs, most notably the National Jazz Festival which morphed into the National Jazz & Blues Festival, launched at Richmond in 1961, moving to Windsor, then Sunbury, then Plumpton and, finally, Reading. The changes in venue are attributed to nimbyism, while overzealous policing was a constant, unnecessary burden the mostly trouble-free festivals had to endure. Then there was Marquee Studios in the basement, the Marquee booking, publishing and management agencies and La Chasse, a members-only drinking den above a bookie’s shop midway between the Marquee and The Ship, fondly remembered by this writer. This was where bands and their retinues liked to tank up before and between sets, being as how only non-alcoholic drinks were available at the club, at least until 1970. Phil Collins was surprised to find Keith Moon behind the bar one night. “I bought a round from him and he gave me back more money than I’d handed over,” he recalls.

Listings at the end, as well as the index, offer a comprehensive guide to the sheer number of great acts who played the Marquee. There’s also a list of live albums recorded there (over 40) and a chart of who holds the record for the number of Marquee appearances (Long John Baldry on 200 tops the list, followed by Manfred Mann [and derivatives] on 99, with The Who way down on 30). 

        Finally, I began the first paragraph of this review with a quote from Dana Gillespie, mischievously (and deliberately) omitting 14 crucial words for effect. In reality Dana is quoted in the book as saying: “David taught me a lot of my first chords on the guitar, and he taught me a few songs.” 

        An explanation. On March 23, 1971, I was among the crush of fans crowded into the Marquee – official capacity 700, but there were probably over 1,000 that night – to watch Led Zeppelin, who the previous summer had attracted over 150,000 to the Bath Festival. The gist of my review in Melody Maker was that it was ill-advised for a group of Zep’s stature to play a venue this small. However, on page 129 of the book an unidentified MM writer (which was me) is quoted as writing: “The Marquee in all its long history has probably never seen a night like it.” In reality the quote went on to say: “… but I still doubt the wisdom of choosing the club in favour of a larger venue.” 

The authors of this book omitted these 16 crucial words, just as I did with Dana. Just so you know, Messrs Sellers and Pendelton, two can play at that game. Here’s proof: 

Grateful thanks to my friend Dave Lewis, the worlds foremost Led Zep historian, for finding this among his archives, even if he did chop my name off the end. 

The book costs £22 (£18.60 on Amazon) and can be obtained from http://www.paradiseroad.co.uk/marquee-the-story-of-the-worlds-greatest-music-venue


Unknown said...

A real thank you Chris from Nick Pendleton for your kind words and review. It means a lot to me that you feel we have done the club and those who played there some justice. I was of course keen to celebrate my parents legacy but the ambition was wider, to capture the role the club played for so many artists, managers, record labels, journalists and of course gig goers and record a unique time and place in society and cultural history. Together with my co-author Robert and editor/publisher Andrew this was a 5 year journey. Hopefully the book will bring back some fond memories and reveal a few bits of information that surprise. If readers share one new fact they have discovered from the book or dig out an old recording or discover a new act - then we can say job done! PS over the years we have also been approached many times with people who wanted to write a history of the club but were never happy with the result - so we ended up deciding to do it ourselves, better late than never!

John Medd said...

I must get a copy. Tho' the review I read in Shindig said there was a dearth of photos; you must have some? I know I have.

Unknown said...

Thanks John, yes I saw that. Our publisher was disappointed with the comment as they are very proud that the book has high production values, a very comprehensive index, timeline and definitive appearances list. It also has over 20 photos, many double page (some of which were quite expensive to licence) and a lot of Marquee listing ads. So the comment seemed a little harsh. Separately we are working on a Marquee photobook - so we'd be interested to learn more about any images you have - as I agree it would be great to share more! I'd love to hear what you think when you get the book. Nick

John Medd said...

A photobook sounds great, Nick. And, yes, I'll feedback when I've read this one.