From The Old Queen’s Head to the Scala, many a big name in the music industry today set out on the route to stardom on a North London stage. BBC Radio 6 presenter Chris Hawkins helps us look at the five of very best
The North London music scene is incredibly strong. There’s a real number of big bands that originated in Islington, or who have played here.’ Chris Hawkins, Presenter on BBC Radio 6 and an expert in Angel life (after all, he spent many years living here before the BBC relocated staff to Manchester), is waxing lyrical about what our patch has to offer when it comes to musical heritage. From Madness to Dido, and the grungy Camden scene to trendy Hoxton, music is in North London’s blood.
‘I speak to so many bands who have memories of great gigs in the area,’ Chris continues, focusing on Islington. ‘There’s a scene that’s not exactly unique, but is special to so many bands who know each other, work together and crossover in some way.’ To commemorate the fact, we look at five local venues currently mixing it with the very best in the UK – with a little help from those in the know…
1 The Old Queen’s Head
As good a place to start as any, particularly as Chris himself has hosted a monthly event, Wagon, upstairs at the pub. ‘Decoratively, it’s really special,’ he says on the venue. ‘You feel like you are a part of it and it looks magnificent’. The Old Queen’s Head’s weekly line-up is magnificent too, encompassing live music, folk, indie, pop and the dancier vibe courtesy of DJs at the weekend.
‘The Old Queen’s Head doesn’t just have one musical direction,’ clarifies Ryan Phillips, Bookings & Promotions Manager at the venue. ‘We pride ourselves on keeping music standards very high.’ They have become known for showcasing up and coming talent, something that Chris’s Wagon is an extremely good example of.
With the homely feel to the pub downstairs, especially its ornate fireplace, it’s a treat to head up the stairs and become a part of a much more intimate party. Is there one event that Ryan will always remember? ‘Seeing Lianne La Havas here last summer was a real stand-out highlight,’ he says, ‘she has since gone onto great things. The legendary Bugged Out! parties on New Year’s Day are always amazing as well.’
44 Essex Road, N1 8LN; 020 7354 9993; theoldqueenshead.com
2 Union Chapel
On one side of Upper Street you have newsagents and kebab shops; on the other you have Tom Jones performing in a church at 10pm on a Wednesday. ‘That’s just another brilliant thing about Islington,’ says Chris warmly.
Union Chapel has become such an integral part of the music scene that it’s easy to forget that it’s also a Congregational Church with a worshipping community. It was in 1991 that the Union Chapel Project was formed as a charity devoted to restoring and running the building and making its facilities available to a diverse group of people – after which it became an award-winning music venue.
Of all of Islington’s music venues, this is undoubtedly the most beautiful. The main Chapel is a Grade I-listed building, with the rear of the building being Grade II-listed. Union Chapel is a magnificent example of Victorian gothic architecture and displays many features that were at the cutting-edge of technological advances in their day, such as the ‘Father Willis’ organ, still in its original condition.
Compton Avenue, N1 2XD; 020 7226 1686; unionchapel.org.uk
If you want history – and not just of the musical variety – then Scala is your place. ‘Scala has such a wonderful past as a cinema from 1915 to the 1980s,’ Jane Cotter, Events Co-ordinator at the venue, takes up the story. ‘Architecturally, it’s a beautiful old building and we still retain many of the original features.’
Musically, the cast list stretches long and far. ‘I have seen Doves, Elbow, Moby, and Coldplay there,’ Chris says. ‘A whole number of brilliant acts who are already big, or have gone on to big things.’
That’s a fact backed up by Jane’s belief that Scala is a renowned music venue in the industry today. ‘Look at the month of November for instance,’ she says. ‘We are currently open for 24 days out of the 30. We have a lot of up-and-coming artists playing at Scala that, shortly after they play here, move on to huge venues: the likes of Rhianna, Jessie J, Rizzle Kicks, Ed Sheeran and Rita Ora to name but a few. We also have larger, already established acts that have wanted to do a low key or secret gig, such as The Killers, Tiesto, Scissor Sisters, and Taylor Hawkins from the Foo Fighters with Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen.’ Scala’s story would make a fascinating movie.
275 Pentonville Road, N1 9NL; 020 7833 2022; scala-london.co.uk
4 The Garage
Right up at the top of Upper Street, just off the Highbury & Islington roundabout, stands something of an institution. The Garage is seen as the first step on the national tour circuit and has always had a down-to-earth vibe to it. ‘The first gig I went to when I moved to London in 1998 was at The Garage,’ reminisces Chris. ‘I remember walking in – and I had just come to Islington from Nottingham as a student – and just thought the place was filthy! Then I saw Jonathan Ross, Phill Jupitus and Mark Lamarr at the bar, and this being my first London gig, I thought it must be like this wherever you go in the capital.’
It’s not, but the unique appeal of The Garage was tested in 2009 when it was refurbished. ‘The venue had been closed due to dilapidation for a few years and being remodelled into a 21st century facility has brought untold good to the London tour circuit,’ says Justine Fancy of the Mama Group, who run the venue. ‘Better public facilities, bang up-to-date production technology in terms of PA and lighting, improved noise attenuation for our neighbours, new air handling, as well as improved access, and a major facelift across all rooms has made the venue more attractive and a better environment for customers and clients alike.’
In the past the likes of The Charlatans, Cypress Hill, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Killers and Arctic Monkeys have played there, and today The Garage remains a big stepping stone for acts to go on to bigger things. ‘In my time involved with the venue I have seen what are now festival or arena level artists,’ says Justine, ‘playing to a handful of people before anyone had heard of them. Part of the service we offer is to aid in helping acts grow and providing them with an industry level professional platform from which to perform.’
20-22 Highbury Crescent, N5 1RD; 020 7619 6727; venues.meanfiddler.com/the-garage
5 Kings Place
The odd one out in our selection? Arguably yes, but Kings Place run such a stunningly diverse and eclectic music programme – not to mention is a key venue during the London Jazz Festival – that the newest location of the five had to make the cut. ‘We aim to present a broad range of music, spoken word and literature of a universally high standard in a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere,’ says Peter Millican, CEO of Kings Place Music Foundation. ‘We are building a very loyal audience, particularly from Islington, who come often and are great supporters of what we are doing.’
It’s five years since the impressive building opened and judging by the ever-increasing events and festivals held there, things are progressing nicely. ‘The biggest achievement is to still be here and growing healthily despite starting in tough economic times in an area that was at a very early stage in its regeneration,’ Peter reflects. ‘Artistically we have had some wonderful concerts and built strong relationships with many musicians over a broad range of genres. Probably our fastest sell outs were Tim Minchin and Martha Argerich, which perhaps illustrates the diverse range that we cover.’
‘It’s really come on to the scene,’ Chris says on the rise of Kings Place in the music industry. ‘It’s a bit more classical, jazzy and folky. It’s an increasingly prominent venue you see in listings now, which is remarkable considering it opened during tough times. Maybe you will go out for dinner in Angel and then not necessarily want to go home, but you want a venue that’s a little more chilled out, then this is a nice end to the evening – but it’s equally a venue that can be the evening’s focal point.’
90 York Way, N1 9AG; 020 7520 1490; kingsplace.co.uk