London calling: A short history of the capital’s music scene

September 21, 2018

From skiffle to punk to grime, London has been the epicentre of a fair share of music scenes. The capital has produced musicians and bands of all genres from all walks of life; it’s certainly a city with music flowing through its veins. But when did London’s modern music scene begin and how did it come to explode onto the international stage the way it has done?

In this article, the Kore Studios team take a look into the London music scene since the 1950s and discover how one city somehow managed to give the world artists as diverse as Boy George, Iron Maiden and Dizzee Rascal.

What the hell is skiffle?

Considering London has been sitting on the banks of the Thames since before the Roman invasion, it may be a little too ambitious for us to cover the city’s musical history from the very beginning. Instead, we’ll be skipping all the way up to the birth of popular music for the masses, when London really started to develop its own sound: the 1950s.

With Vera Lynn’s rendition of There’ll Always Be An England still ringing from the wireless, ration books in everyone’s pockets and post-blitz reconstruction happening across London, young people were looking for an upbeat musical outlet. Thanks to the growth of rock and roll across the pond, young Londoners started moving away from traditional jazz and putting together their own instruments to create a new genre of music: skiffle.

By the late 50s, it’s suggested that there were up to 50,000 skiffle bands across the country, with members of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Shadows all getting involved with the craze at one point or another. However, it was in the coffee shops of Soho and Oxford Street’s 100 Club that the genre propelled itself to its eventual national heights.

With Skiffle, London had cemented itself as the place to be for the UK’s young musicians, a place where – with a little musical training, homemade instruments and a lot of can-do attitude – you could be a superstar, just look at Lonnie Donegan.

This DIY attitude to music that came out of post-war London was carried on by punk in the 70s and even exists today in London’s backstreet metal and grime clubs.

The 60s

Seriously popular, if short-lived, skiffle opened the doors for the next big trend to hit the London music scene. Beat music was a more rock and roll influenced version of skiffle when it began and lent its name to one of the most successful bands of all time; the Beatles. Now, the Fab Four may have been blowing up in Liverpool’s Cavern Club, but they kickstarted the swinging sixties. Nowhere was more swinging, nor more 60s, than London’s Carnaby Street.

With bands like The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds emerging from the London scene, and Carnaby fashion taking the world by storm, London was the centre of the rock music universe in the mid-60s. As the decade came to a close, psychedelia took root with Eric Clapton’s Cream, Pink Floyd and even the Jimi Hendrix Experience – except Jimi himself – all having their roots in London.

It wouldn’t be long before the bluesy sounds of London’s 60s rock became more progressive, more brash and a lot heavier, leading to the creation of seemingly dozens of new London-based scenes in the coming decades.

The scenes

Think Camden Town and you’re likely to think of punk – or at least more alternative music and fashion in general. Possibly the most groundbreaking scene to come out of London in the 1970s, punk combined fashion, attitude and abrasive tunes to create a distinct scene. The likes of The Damned, Sex Pistols and The Clash – as well as fashion designers Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood – helped make London’s punks iconic. While the floppy haired Ramones and Iggy Pop were performing their own brand of punk in New York, it was the bleached denim cut-offs, glue-spiked mohicans and “we don’t give a damn” attitude that has summed up the movement in popular culture.

Punk would go on to morph into post-punk in the late 70s and early 80s, but this was a scene spearheaded outside of London by the likes of Joy Division and The Smiths from Manchester and Liverpool’s Echo and the Bunnymen. Post punk and goth scenes eventually made their way into London but, despite The Cure forming just down the road in Crawley, the city never became a hub of the scene as it had for punk.

With the dark look and somber tones of goth reflecting the state of the north of England in the early 80s, London’s scene became a little more… different. Regency-era jackets, bright silk scarves and over the top hairstyles could be seen at all of the most popular clubs; these were the New Romantics. Looking up to Brixton-born David Bowie’s eccentric sense of dress, New Romantic musicians began to frequent Blitz, a nightclub in Covent Garden founded by Visage frontman Steve Strange.

These ‘Blitz Kids’ included members of bands who would go on to achieve huge success, such as Culture Club and Spandau Ballet. From its roots in Blitz, New Romantic music grew to become one of the most prominent genres in the world with Hammersmith’s Gary Numan and Marylebone’s Adam Ant becoming international superstars. The New Romantic scene grew throughout the 80s and has had a distinct effect on almost all pop music since then.

It’s probably for the best that new romantic fashion ended up as an 80s time capsule. However, it only took until the late 90s and early 2000s before droves of uniquely dressed music fans were on London’s bustling streets.

A new generation

With the rapid growth of the alt-rock indie scene in the early 2000s, it wasn’t long until the likes of Pete Doherty were wandering the streets of Camden in red Victorian soldier uniforms. The indie rock scene grew and grew in North London, helping to produce acts like Amy Winehouse, Razorlight and Bloc Party.

While indie was booming in Camden, the 2000s saw another scene entirely begin to emerge from elsewhere in London: grime. Rappers from south and east London took over the airwaves on pirate radio stations throughout the early 2000s. The likes of Wiley, Kano and Dizzee Rascal made grime mainstream and pushed the UK hip hop scene to the forefront of British music. Now the likes of Stormzy are winning ‘Album of the Year’ at the Brits and Big Narstie has his own tv show.

With grime and hip hop scenes at the forefront of the music world in the UK and abroad, it feels like rap isn’t going anywhere anytime soon… but it probably felt that way for the skiffle bands of the 1950s. The London music scene is constantly evolving and changing; here at Kore, we can’t wait to see what’s next.

Feel like being part of the next big thing? Whether you’re in a band or are a solo artist, you could benefit from the modern and vintage recording equipment at Kore Studios. Overseen by veteran producer George Apsion, we provide an unmatched recording studio service. Get in touch today and kickstart London’s next big scene.