Last Night in Soho (Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich) 1968
For last night in Soho I let my life go
I emerged from Leicester Square Tube into the sunlight and headed towards Soho. It is not an extensive district, a square mile or so lying roughly between the boundaries of Oxford Street, Regent Street, Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue, but it has played a significant part in British pop music since the early 1950’s. In fact it is like a geological slice cut through to show the different ages. There was skiffle, with the London Skiffle Centre opening in Wardour Street in 1955 and Chas McDevitt starting his own coffee bar Freight Train on the corner of Berwick Street and Noel Street in 1958, following the success of his recording of the same name. There was early British rock and roll, with the 2 I’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street, the launch pad for artists from Tommy Steele to Cliff Richard to Jet Harris, and El Condor on Wardour Street, where Marty Wilde played. There was jazz, with Ronnie Scott’s Club opening in 1959 in Gerrard Street, moving later to Frith Street. There was British pop and rock with the Marquee on Wardour Street and Denmark Street, Tin Pan Alley itself. There was rhythm and blues and ska with the Flamingo Club in Wardour Street, where Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames and Shotgun Express with Rod Stewart played. In 1965 there was folk and blues with Les Cousins on Greek Street, where Roy Harper and Donovan and Nick Drake all appeared. Later in the 70’s there was punk at the 100 Club, where the Clash and Stranglers played.
Given this heritage it is not surprising to find a raft of songs about Soho across the years. Al Stewart, who was living in Lisle Street in Soho when he recorded his first album Bedsitter Images in 1967, brought out a song called Soho (Needless to Say) recalling his time then as part of his 1973 album Past, Present and Future, which also included songs about Nostradamus and Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Nothing if not eclectic. In 3 minutes or so, he throws in pornographic bookshops, strip clubs, pinball arcades, winos, prostitutes, roaming football supporters and jazz musicians on the breadline It echoes Paul Simon’s picture of Soho from his 1965 Blessed track, which listed “meth drinkers, pot sellers, illusion dwellers.. penny rookers, cheap hookers, groovy lookers“ as presumably the people most likely to be seen when wandering round the area. Al Stewart, however, tops it by coming out with a line which has a non-sequitor so great it leaves the listener baffled by what it is supposed to mean: “The sun goes down on a neon eon, though you'd have a job explaining it to Richard Coeur de Lion”.
The Kinks 1970 hit, Lola, had a similar take on Soho with the story of a transvestite encounter in the kind of club where champagne tastes like coca-cola. The Pogues turned a wet evening in Soho into a love song in their 1991 Rainy Night in Soho track. Two years later Kirsty MacColl brought out another love song set there , the evocative and poignant Soho Square. Following her death in 2000 when a speeding powerboat illegally strayed into a diving area off a Mexican beach, a memorial bench to her was placed in the square, with a plaque reading "One day I'll be waiting there / No empty bench in Soho Square" The Cuban ambassador to London, amongst others, attended the ‘opening’ of the bench in 2001. Now you can come and sit and watch the pigeons shiver in the trees and remember what a talented and under-rated singer-songwriter she was, once described by Billy Bragg as “the missing link between Sandie Shaw and Lily Allen”. Soho Square has become one of those places I look at differently because of a song. Previously it seemed a rather tatty little piece of ground ,full of pigeons and just a place to pass through on the way from Oxford Street to Greek Street or Frith Street. With Kirsty MacColl’s words in my head I look for an empty bench and see if the pigeons are flying.
There is another song that often comes into my head at those times I pass through Soho, Last Night in Soho from 1968 by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich (DDDBMT). It came out just around the time I left home and headed for London, with Soho just a name that caused sniggers and winks at school. Actually, my main experience of it initially was making my way to the record shop Musicland on Berwick Street, where, as the 60’s turned into the 70’s, the shop became a beacon of underground and pyschedelia music, where you could listen to records in a booth with the smell of incense and patchouli in the air and pay extra (59/6 as opposed to 32/6) to get an early version of the latest American import by Tim Buckley or Ultimate Spinach. Elton John and Bernie Taupin apparently used to frequent the place around the same time so maybe I passed by them one Saturday afternoon. It was only much later I discovered that the site had been occupied a decade before by a coffee bar, Freight Train, set up by skiffler Chas McDevitt after his hit of the same name.
Later I had a job at a shop near Grosvenor Square where deliveries sometimes took me through the streets of daytime Soho, past the illicit bookshops, porno cinemas, signs for Large Chest for Sale and the flashing lights of the strip clubs, where performers would on occasion anxiously ask the time as they rushed from one performance to another. Malcolm McDowell was playing a schoolboy rebel in If at that time but in later years in films like Our Friends In The North and Gangster No1 he made his own the kind of gangland figure of 1960’s Soho behind the clubs and bookstores. There is a very atmospheric black and white film from 1963, The Small World of Sammy Lee, starring Anthony Newley as a strip club compere needing to find £300 by the end of the day to pay off a debt and fend off a beating and roaming around the area of Greek Street, Dean Street and Wardour Street in his efforts. The x-rated film posters of the time declared “Soho-Stripped Bare” and the film captured perfectly the seedy side of 60’s Soho.
It is this Soho that DDDBMT sing of in Last Night in Soho, the story of a reformed gang member trying to go straight but throwing his new life and love away for one last job. DDDBMT occupied the same kind of musical niche in the 60’s that Slade did in the 70’s, though they were much more firmly part of pop. Both groups had a showman lead singer, a sound and image that appealed to both boys and girls and across ages, a string of catchy songs that couldn’t help but make you smile, and enough live presence and musical ability to make it clear they were no manufactured outfit. Tich’s prowess with the fuzz-box guitar and balalaika was commented on at the time by Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and drummer Mick had a highly impressive way of twirling his drumsticks as he played. The groups were also as distinctly English as Carry On films and never really cracked the USA market, though Quentin Tarantino regarded them as one of his favourite 60’s groups and used Hold Tight on the soundtrack of his 2007 film Death Proof. DDDBMT were, however, hugely popular in Germany and remained so for the rest of their career.
What DDDBMT lacked, though, were songwriters in their ranks and all of their 13 hits were written by Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, who first had success with the Honeycombs and Have I The Right. The songs for DDDBMT were of two types. The first were catchy sing-alongs, almost football chants, driven by stomping drums and droning fuzz guitar: You Make It Move, Hold Tight, Hideaway, Okay, Touch Me, Bend It ,the last beloved by schoolboys who could go round singing ‘Bend it, bend it, just a little bit’ while waggling their finger like Dave Dee on Top of the Pops. The song was rewritten as a ‘clean’ version for the USA release to make The Bend sound like a new dance, when Little Eva, of The Locomotion and Turkey Trot fame, recorded it.
The second were a string of little kitsch dramas set to music. There was Zabadak, with its African drums and made-up language; The Legend of Xanadu, the tune basically rewritten a year later as The Wreck of the Antoinette; Don Juan. They were all enjoyable pantomime and Last Night in Soho fell into this group, a story set in the seedy side of Swinging London with a suitably dramatic musical backing. Dave Dee later reckoned it to be their best song but it turned out to be their last Top Ten hit. A year or so later Dave Dee left for a solo career that never took off. The rest continued as a quartet rebadged as DBMT for a while, getting rather ‘heavy’ whilst growing hair and beards and recording a couple of protest songs with Tonight Today and Mr President , a track that also featured early use of the moog synthesiser. They were no more successful than Dave Dee and threw in the towel after a while, though returning on the nostalgia circuit some years later with a new ‘Mick’, whose real name was John. Howard and Blaikley had a shorter run of success with the Herd, the launch-pad for Peter Frampton, giving them their first hit From The Underworld, a song based on the mythical story of Orpheus and Eurydice. They then rather spoiled things by going serious with a concept album by Flaming Youth about the evacuation of a dying Earth, featuring a young Phil Collins. Nobody remembers it now, not like Bend It or Have I the Right.
Last Night In Soho and the rest of DDDBMT’s work came at a time when pop and rock were starting their divergent paths.. Rock headed off to albums instead of singles, serious intent, critical analysis, and musical virtuosity taken to extreme at times. I remember attending a University concert around 1971 by Arthur Lee and Love, one of whose classic songs was Alone Again Or, a 3 minute track complete with mariachi band arrangements, strings and Spanish guitar touches. What we got was a new line-up, a 20 minute drum solo by George Suranovich and a 15 minute bass solo from Frank Fayad. I can’t remember who played lead guitar but he probably did a solo too. If I had been to see Genesis a couple of years later , I would have heard a bass pedal solo. By contrast pop, for some years at least, was banished to teeny-poppers and Top of the Pops, not worthy of comment by the new wave of rock critics who thought they were really rock stars, tended to get snooty about what was and what wasn’t valid and produced lists and books on 100 Essential Albums, which usually reflected their own record collection. In 1972 in a discussion about musical tastes I found myself in an imaginary H.M Bateman cartoon entitled The Student Who Admitted He Liked the Kinks More Than the Grateful Dead.
Seen in historical perspective, the strict division being established between pop and rock by the late 1960’s seems bizarre, leading to the under-estimation of some pop, and the over-rating of some rock, bands. It was also hard for bands to pass from one to the other though a few managed it, but not DBMT. The 60’s pop Small Faces successfully metamorphosed into the 70’s rock Faces with some changes of personnel and Status Quo passed from being a psychedelic-lite pop outfit into the 3-chord boogie band beloved of 70’s head-bangers, but most pop groups were more effective staying just that, rarely impressing when they grew long hair and moustaches and strayed towards extended guitar solos, double albums and serious lyrics. Humble Pie, the ‘super-group’ formed round Steve Marriot , never produced anything as memorable as All or Nothing or Itchycoo Park
What is more, the single became overshadowed by the album as far as critical appraisal went for much of the next decade, until punk re-established its validity In 1969 you could completely miss a gem like the singles I’m the One Love Forgot by the Pretenders (a New Jersey r n b group with Pat Tandy singing lead, not the Chrissie Hynde outfit), or The Picture Matches Mine by Laura Lee, (an uncharacteristically gentle song from a Detroit soul singer who pioneered punchy feminist anthems like Wedlock is a Padlock in the early 70’s). Both passed by unrecognised while every ‘serious’ music publication proclaimed that you must spend 1 hour and 18 minutes of your life listening to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica double album, as a University flat mate of the time frequently did. Devotees of this album always say, ”Don’t think of it as music, more a work of art” or “You won’t get it the first time.” Er...no.
The split between pop and rock, however, meant that lines were drawn and it was years before the audiences of either side felt able to cross over again. Even the Beatles couldn’t escape, with Paul McCartney labelled ‘Pop’ and John Lennon ‘Rock’. It was silly really. Take these 2 sets of lyrics from songs 2 years apart. “You’ll hear my words on the winds, across the sands, if you should return to that black barren land” They are from The Legend of Xanadu by DDDBMT and therefore pop fluff for teenage girls that might turn up in the pages of Valentine or Jackie. Then there is “Ah, ah, We come from the land of the ice and snow, From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.” They are from The Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin and are man-size rock lyrics you could drive a truck and eat a Yorkie bar to, maybe even rip someone’s eyeballs out to.
DDDMBT remain classic pop, with tongues firmly in cheek. However, the Soho of their song, with the protection racket gangsters, shuttered bookshops and clubs serving champagne that tastes like coca-cola at extortionate prices to hapless punters seems just around the corner if you go down Frith Street with Last Night in Soho in your head.