Historic Venues: The Marquee Club

Marquee Club
Getty Images.

By Glenn McDonald

Rock and roll in the1950s was an exclusively American phenomenon that grew from elements of blues, jazz, country and gospel music. But what we now refer to as rock music took a critical detour in the 1960s. British R&B bands like the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones took African-American blues, scrambled it through electric guitar innovations and their own cultural frequencies, and then broadcast it back to the United States in the form of a new kind of electric rock.

This musical exchange between the U.S. and the U.K. resulted in a new vector for rock music and precipitated the cultural epoch we know as The Sixties. At the time, rock could have gone in any of a hundred directions. London’s fabled Marquee Club was the essential U.K. nexus of this exchange, and as such is regularly counted among the most important venues in the history of rock.

Actually, the Marquee has many claims to fame. Shortly after its opening in 1958 as a jazz club, the Marquee hosted a special appearance by American bluesman Muddy Waters. Legend holds this was the first time that an electric guitar was performed in a London nightclub. Shortly thereafter, Marquee Club owner Harold Pendleton started a little annual rock and jazz fest that would later grow into the legendary Reading Festival. Then there was the night that a gaggle of Marquee regulars played their first show – a blistering set of Chicago blues – under the name “The Rollin’ Stones.”

Watch the Who perform at the Marquee Club in 1967.

Rock and Blues

The Marquee Club left its original location at 165 Oxford Street in 1964, and had it never surfaced again, the venue would still be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But in fact, the Marquee did survive and thrive over the next several decades.

On March 13, 1964, the Marquee opened its doors at its most famous location, at 90 Wardour Street in heart of London’s Soho district. The performance space had an official capacity of around 600-800 people, depending on configuration, but the crowds regularly topped 1,000. It was a famously hot and stuffy venue, with little attention paid to ventilation. The stage was built to emulate the design of the old Oxford Street space, with a red-and-white striped circus motif.

The new space featured a recording studio on the upper floors, plus carefully engineered soundproofing to contain the increasingly loud bands passing through. To wit: The Who began a long residence at the Marquee toward the end of 1964 and heralded in succession of rock, blues and soul acts that would orbit the club for the next several years. The list of names is kind of stunning: The Moody Blues. David Bowie. The Yardbirds. The Spencer Davis Group. Rod Stewart. Pink Floyd. Soft Machine. Jimi Hendrix. During this era, the Marquee also hosted the official debut performances of Cream and Led Zeppelin.

As the 1970s dawned, the Marquee became associated with a new generation of British artists. Progressive rock titans such as King Crimson, Yes, Jethro Tull, Procul Harum and Genesis all played the Marquee – several in extended residencies – before moving on to the larger theaters and arenas in Britain, the United States and the rest of the world. Within the music industry, the Marquee Club had become the place to launch a promising new rock band. It was also the place that veterans retreated for secret gigs or promotional projects – Bowie and the Stones both recorded film and TV specials at the Marquee.

Punk and Metal

In the late 1970s, the Marquee shifted gears again. As the punk scene coalesced, the club actively promoted performances by acts that would themselves re-map the territories of rock music: The Clash, Generation X, the Jam, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Sex Pistols, who were subsequently banned.

The early 1980s brought the inevitable dissolution of the initial British punk scene into increasingly fragmented and ambiguous categories like New Wave, post-punk and art rock. At the same time, U.K. hard rock bands – specifically those in the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal – were on the rise. For a brief period, the Marquee Club brought them all under the same roof.

On the Marquee’s marquee, you might see listed the Police or Iron Maiden; the Cure or Judas Priest; Joy Division or Def Leppard; the Pretenders or Motorhead. It’s a testament to the venue’s enduring cool and clout that the Marquee could still host Britain’s most vital musical movements of the day.

A Fitting End?

In 1987, a safety inspection committee determined that the building at 90 Wardour Street was threatening to crumble out toward the street due to the constant vibration of very loud music over many, many years. It was a rather fitting end for the famed location.

The Marquee has continued on as a venue, in fits and starts, over the last 20 years. A move to Charing Cross Road from 1988 to 1996 was followed by a brief resurrection in 2002, and a return to London’s Soho district from 2004-2006. Yet another incarnation popped up in 2007, and rumors of a return are in constant circulation. The Marquee Club is more of a brand name and historical signifier now than anything else. But its place in the history of rock is assured.

In 2002, the London Evening Standard compiled a list of quotes from musicians who had performed at the Marquee Club over the years. The names themselves tell a story: Charlie Watts. Marianne Faithfull. David Bowie. Phil Collins. Stewart Copeland. Bob Geldof. But the last word must go to Britain’s distinguished gentleman and great poet of rock and roll – Motorhead’s Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister.

“The reason I liked the Marquee the most was because it was scruffy and it had no air-conditioning whatsoever,” Fraser said. “It was a hellhole and your feet stuck to the carpet and that’s exactly what a rock and roll club should be like.”



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