Music News & Reviews

A tour through the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll

It would take all of half a sentence to realize that the best word for Barry, the only word for Barry, is raconteur. He is a raconteur in letter and spirit, the Platonic Universal ideal beneath a London sky uncharacteristically bright and vernal for April.

Barry’s most important accoutrement is his voice, as an official Blue Badge tourist guide. It raises him to the level of Blue Badge raconteur; it carries the spirits of Homer and Virgil, echoes of Samuel Pepys, Henry Mayhew and even Shakespeare. It has every little nuance of the Queen’s English which American ears may find so alien.

Barry is applying all of this, the theatrics, the wisdom, the oratory flair, to rock ’n’ roll, and why not? Wasn’t it half a century ago this very year that some mop headed boys came to our shores and, in the most brazen display of Anglo-American aggression since 1812, set the very hearts and souls and eyes and, of course, ears of our dewey youths ablaze?

And now, 50 years after the Beatles came to America, Barry is showing Americans Abbey Road Studios in an edenic part of London known as St. John’s Wood, standing a few yards from a crosswalk – The Crosswalk, for Beatles fans – separating us from the rather mundane looking white building in which the Beatles recorded their debut album, “Please Please Me.”

After his rather large tour group had made its away across Abbey road and signed their names along its fence and wall, Barry and company annexed the top floor of a famed cherry red London double-decker for the trip to Soho, gestation place of British rock ’n’ roll. This tour is one of rockers sundry and all, not just the Beatles, but the Fab Four’s shadow cloaks the ride; from atop the bus Barry points out the former location of the Beatles’ storefront.

“After their appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’” Barry says to the top floor, “Beatles wigs were ordered all over the country, even at Eton and Harrow and Buckingham Palace.” Even among their peers, and for one with a discerning taste and near encyclopedic knowledge of British rockers as Barry, John, Paul, George and Ringo occupy a special place, a corner of their own in the Pantheon. “Sure, the Stones rocked harder and Dylan was smarter,” Barry says, “but there is no archive quite like Lennon-McCartney.”

Disembarking at Oxford Circus, Barry leads the group into the heart of Soho, land of sex and music, which has held artists from Mozart to Mick Jagger in her formative caress. Soho is still thick with rock ’n’ roll history, soaked and coated in, not blood and soot and power, but alcohol and heroin and passion; draped not with royal standards but ragged vocal chords and shredded steel guitar strings and littered with the ghosts of discarded panties and notions and inhibitions and worries.

Off Oxford street sits the London Palladium, behind the neoclassical facade of which, on the famed revolving stage, played the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, among others. A short walk away is the Reckless Records storefront from the cover of Oasis’ “Morning Glory.”

A stone’s throw from that is the Duck Lane site of the Rolling Stones’ genesis and original rehearsal space, The Brick Layer’s Arms pub. In a claustrophobically charming little alleyway known as St. Anne’s Court sits the erstwhile Trident Studios, where, aside from the obligatory blessing of the Beatles, an illustrious litany of apollonic demigods, including David Bowie, Elton John, Lou Reed, Genesis and T-Rex, have laid down tracks. On Old Compton Street the Clash were formed; at the former site of the 2i’s Coffee Bar sits a Green Plaque, officially declaring it the “birthplace of British rock ’n roll and the popular music industry.”

On Frith Street sits the most solemn monument to London’s most popular history: Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, which in 1969 saw the performance debut of the first self-professed rock opera, The Who’s “Tommy,” and the last performance of rock’s most operatic virtuoso, Jimi Hendrix.

Across the street, at an Italian coffee shop, Barry sat, sipping a hot beverage, preparing to tell of history in London’s streets, as others have made it. From English lips to the world’s ears.