This is the first in an occasional series of posts originating from ‘The Musicians’ Union: A Social History’ – an AHRC and ESRC funded research project based in the School of Culture and Creative Arts at the University of Glasgow. You can find about more about the project, and the history of the Musicians’ Union here.
The image on the front cover of this issue The Musician magazine from October 1951, titled “Street Scene” is one of Archer Street in London, a narrow back street in Soho which had become known as a meeting point for the West End musicians during the days of mass unemployment during the 1930s.
The reasons that Archer Street became the hub for musicians (rather than, for example, nearby Denmark Street which was the home of music shops and music publishers) was down to its proximity to work places (nearby theatres and clubs) and places to drink and socialise. Gordon Thompson, the author of Please, Please Me describes the reasons for musicians congregating on Archer Street as being beyond simply “paychecks and contracts,” and as much to do with sharing “stories about gigs, owners, patrons, and, of course, other musicians”.
While the abundance of tea rooms, pubs and members’ clubs in the area undoubtedly contributed to its popularity with musicians, its popularity as a gathering point with musicians stemmed from the 1920s, when the number of musicians working in nearby theatres (The Apollo and The Lyric both had the stage doors which opened into Archer Street) made it an obvious congregation point.
While the London Orchestral Association had been absorbed into the Musicians’ Union in the 1921 merger, it had retained both its premises and identity as well as retaining a considerable influence on the London Branch of the Union. Boris Tschaikov paints a picture of the facilities offered by the LOA in his account of life as an orchestral musician, The Music Goes Round and Around:
“Its (LOA) headquarters was in Archer Street in the west-end of London and was generally referred to as ‘the Club’, because this is where musicians would go between a matinee and an evening performance in the many theatres nearby, or to find a deputy, or just to meet friends and colleagues. In the main meeting room there was a bar where tea, coffee and snacks could be bought. It also had a licence to sell alcohol which attracted a good deal more custom in the first decades of the 20th century when many musicians, particularly woodwind, brass and percussion players, were quite heavy drinkers. Downstairs there were washing facilities and changing rooms. On the walls there were racks where members requiring a deputy could leave a request, perhaps, ‘Joe Bloggs needs 2nd clarinet for evening performance, Tuesday 23rd, 7.30 Her Majesties (Bb and A)’.
However, it was perhaps the exclusive nature of the LOA and their initial reluctance to admit members of the jazz/ dance bands that were becoming popular in the 1920s that meant these musicians were forced to meet outside or nearby. It was primarily for these musicians that Archer Street became what Bill Kirkpatrick, writing in the Musician (June 1993) describes as “a sort of dance band musicians’ Labour Exchange.”
Kirkpatrick goes on to describe how the “Charleston craze” of the 1920s resulted in:
“all the smart hotels, restaurants and clubs bringing in new style jazz / dance bands. Where there was a firm business investment, regular bands were employed on a full time basis but there was also a great deal of part-time promotion which used players on a casual basis. The old music hall players were not, on the whole, well suited to the new style of music and in London, the new school learned by word of mouth that there was a place where musicians gathered in the West End.”
Some details were also given as to the type of gigs available and process involved. Kirkpatrick notes that the “class of the gigs varied widely” with the top end comprising “high society coming out seasons, annual Hunt balls, end of year Oxford functions and the like,” which were largely monopolised by the “big household name band leaders,” who had their own fixers who organised replacements if they could not do the shows themselves.”
By the 1940s, Tschaikov describes a similar situation, observing that Archer Street was “where anyone would go if they wanted to book musicians for a ‘gig’, or to play on the big liners, which all employed musicians to play at meal times and for dancing, or for the summer seasons in the Holiday Camps,” and while Kirkpatrick reveals that while the actual gig booking were often made by phone, the payments were made on Monday afternoons in Archer Street:
“The offices for that process were the doorways of the few shops in the street or one of the scores of cafes in the are. Further down the scale, lots of gigs were booked in the street, with cash paid at the finish of the job.”
In between, it was perhaps in the period of mass unemployment of musicians during the 1930s that Archer Street was most important, providing a sense of solidarity among the hundreds of players who found themselves out of work with the loss of work in the cinemas with the advent of talkies. George Green, a member of the London branch who later died as part of the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, painted a grim picture in a letter to the Daily Worker in December 1935:
“Archer Street lies within a stone’s throw of Piccadilly, at the back of the Lyric Theatre. Here, every day, gather four or five hundred musicians, many employed today but anxious for tomorrow. This is not the Rhondda. Poverty does not show its access so openly. Sometimes a passerby seeing a thronged pavement, will ask if this is a branch of the Stock Exchange. Stranger! This is no Stock Exchange but a slave market, and here the slave who finds no master starves.”
This camaraderie was also remarked upon by Kirkpatrick, who claimed that “the capricious nature of the business required that you have as many friends as possible,” observing that the atmosphere in the street was serious, “but also friendly and good natured.” He also notes that the police “knew what it was all about and there was never any trouble with them,” though this is at odds with some other accounts.
Indeed, in 1933, the issue of the police was raised in the House of Commons, when an MP asked the Home Secretary, Sir John Gilmour “if he is aware that unemployed musicians who habitually assemble in Archer Street, Piccadilly, W., in the hope of securing employment, have been compelled to keep on the move by the police; and, if so, will he inquire why these men should be denied the right to assemble in a peaceful manner for desirable purposes?”
While assurances were given in Gilmour’s response that “unfortunate” position of the musicians was recognised by the police and that “latitude” was afforded them, he pointed out that the number of complaints from local residents and the danger to public safety meant that, on occasion, they had to act. Clearly, despite these claims, the gathering of musicians and the agitation of local traders and residents was still evident some 28 years later, as Thompson recounts similar complaints and outcomes in May 1961. He recounts:
“London’s constabulary attempted to terminate a British musical tradition. For as long as most of them could remember, musicians had gathered Monday afternoons on the short stretch of pavement between Rupert Street and Great Windmill Street in Soho to collect their pay from previous engagements and to pick up work for the coming week. A local merchant had probably complained about the disparate crowd blocking the street, so the police made an ultimately futile show of disbursing the peace and harmony.”
On 27th May 1961, Melody Maker reported that the Police had stopped allowing musicians to gather on Archer Street on Mondays between 2pm and 5pm. It may be that this marked the beginning of the end of Archer Street as a meeting place for musicians. By the end of the decade, the Orchestral Association had closed its doors and the number of musicians employed in theatre orchestras declined as yet another sea-change in music employment and the music business took place in the sixties. And, though Archer Street survived as a musical hub through the musical changes of the twenties and thirties and the societal ones of World War II and its aftermath, the sixties were a change too far: musical and social changes combined to change the face of not just Archer Street, but Soho more generally.
While the contemporary picture looks similar, there is one thing conspicuous by their absence: musicians.
Sources/ Further Reading
Thompson, G. 2008. Please Please Me: Sixties’ British Pop, Inside Out. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Tschaikov, B. 2009. The Music Goes Round and Around. Peterborough: FastPrint
The Musician, assorted issues
Dr. John Williamson
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