It doesn’t matter what genre you’re into, the London music scene will have something right up your street. On any night of the week talented up-and-coming acts learn their trade in hidden bars and clubs in front of a handful of locals while, around the corner, the big names of rock, pop, hip-hop and R&B will be playing to sell-out crowds.
Every band and artist needs somewhere to play, and London boasts some of the most iconic, atmospheric and downright rock and roll music venues in the world. Here are eight we recommend you try out.
Many people know Camden’s Koko as the place where Madonna made her UK debut, but its history, as colourful as its lilac neon facade at night, stretches right back to the late 1800s. The grade II listed building opened in 1890 as the Camden Hippodrome, a vaudeville theatre which played host to Charlie Chaplin among others. By 1913, it had transformed into a cinema, although it still put on live acts, eventually reinventing itself as a theatre. During the 70s it had changed focus again, embracing the punk movement as the Music Machine with the Pistols among its acts. In the 80s, Johnny Rotten et al moved aside for the likes of the Eurythmics, Madness and Madonna and the venue was rebranded again – as the Camden Palace. Then it became an indy rock club for a while before closing in 2004 and re-opening a year later as Koko. Despite its outer changes, the beautiful interior has remained relatively untouched with its decadent deep red colour scheme, huge stage, high ceilings, lead crystal chandeliers and signature glitter ball.
With its wraparound balconies and fine stonework, the gothic-style Victorian Grade II listed Union Chapel has to be one of the most atmospheric venues in London – if not the UK. Acoustic sets are particularly effective in this all-seater venue which also doubles up as a working chapel and homeless centre. Situated near the Highbury and Islington tube stations, the Union was well known for its Little Noise Sessions featuring artists such as Amy Winehouse, Coldplay and Florence and the Machines, although the sessions are temporarily on hold. Bjork has also played there, and the Icelandic singer would definitely not been out of place in such an eerie setting. All profit from concerts go towards the upkeep of the chapel and numerous charity gigs are also held here.
Affectionately known as ‘The Lex‘, this corner pub, which divides trendy Islington from down-at-heel Kings Cross, is modelled on a traditional US lounge bar, although there is more than a hint of old fashioned British pub about it too. Downstairs, punters can enjoy sampling from dozens of bourbons, whiskeys or American beers while enjoying some blues or folk. Upstairs, things get a little bit wilder, with rock and metal bands taking over. If you want to imagine the decor, think chandeliers, velvet chairs, wooden boards, animal skulls, leopard print and eagles and you will be somewhere close. The Lex also puts on a weekly pub quiz and puts on various club nights. If you’ve had a rough Saturday night, the Hangover Lounge is free on a Sunday afternoon.
Cafe Oto has only been around since 2008 (although the original building was built in 1868), but it is already gaining a reputation as one of London’s best venues for unearthing fresh talent and unusual musical experiences. Tucked away behind Kingsland High Street in trendy Dalston, Cafe Oto puts on a busy and varied line-up which includes a mixture of avant-garde bands, experimental music, free improv acts and exciting sounds from around the globe.There is no stage, and the decor is plain white, designed to create a minimalist aesthetic for artists to create their own ambience. With live music provided most days, the Cafe Oto is definitely worth a peek if you are around the North East London area. Just make a note that the cafe closes for a soundcheck at 5.30 on music nights.
Take a dilapidated former railway engine shed, spend £27 million adding a three-storey glass extension and you end up with the Roundhouse, one of the many great music venues to be found in Camden. The venue was the heart and soul of London’s music scene in the 60s and 70s but fell into disrepair shortly after before its pricey renovation in 2006 after a two year closure. Perhaps the most famous gig in the Roundhouse’s history was the Doors one and only UK gig, but the venue has hosted countless big names, from Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and David Bowie to Foo Fighters and Paul Weller. The Roundhouse also provides a valuable community service by opening up the music industry to young artists via the Paul Hamlyn Roundhouse studios. These offer rehearsal space, recording studios and production suites to 11-25 year olds.
The Empire may be the first venue that comes to mind when gig lovers think about Shepherd’s Bush in West London, but it is nearby Bush Hall that draws the plaudits. This intimate 350 capacity indie venue leans towards acoustic sets, folk music, up-and-coming artists and niche acts but also puts on its fair share of big names, with bands such as The Killers, Sugababes and REM having taken to the stage. Bush Hall is also used by popular artists for secret gigs. Despite being repurposed several times (spending periods of time as a bingo hall, dance hall, snooker hall and even a soup kitchen), the building has retained its internal Edwardian features and character with decorative plasterwork, high ceilings and lead crystal chandeliers.
The Underworld is exactly as it sounds, a gloomy subterranean realm dedicated to the denizens of the night in the shape of heavy metal, emo, screamo, punk, ska and hard rock acts and their loyal followers. Lying beneath Camden’s World’s End pub, the Underworld has a capacity of 500. Famous bands that have thrashed their instruments in the dark include Soundgarden, Hole, Mercury Rev, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Pulp and Foo Fighters, who have been known to arrange the odd secret session here. The Underworld puts on club nights on Fridays (Friday Night Detention) and Saturdays (Camden Rocks Club).
Dingwalls is yet another top Camden music venue and is located right on the Lock. Its high ceiling and two-tier Victorian balconies makes for great views and stunning acoustics despite its modest capacity of 200 or so. Dingwalls has rocked to the sound of the Sex Pistols, Blondie and the Ramones in the past but is also interested in up-and-coming artists.