Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Last week he provided three hints to his music riddle. Today he provides the answer! His introduction can be read here. Let us know if you guessed correctly in the comments.
If you were a young musician or an promoter looking for the next star at the dawn of British rock ‘n’ roll in the mid to late 1950s, you had a singular destination: The 2i’s. The renowned birthplace of British rock ‘n’ roll hosted many an ambitious British teen with a guitar or drum kit who sought to secure a place on the tiny stage. Big Jim Sullivan, who would play with Marty Wilde and the Wildcats before moving on to become one of London’s busiest session guitarists during the sixties, described the 2i’s as “the center”: “The hardened rockers used to go down the 2i’s, ‘cause you could have a play.” Carlo Little, drummer for Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, described the 2i’s as “a coffee bar upstairs with a basement what held about fifty people…, and that was really pushin’ it. A very small place underneath with a tiny little stage…, very small, you know, maybe 25-foot by 12-foot. You got about fifty people in there and it was hot… It was just concrete walls!”
The 2i’s mythology claims that Cliff Richard got his start here and that his guitarists for the Shadows—Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch—washed dishes at the establishment. In my book, Joe Moretti—the guitarist who would play the classic lead guitar part on Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over” and so many other hits—tells of getting married in Scotland and bringing his bride to London, only to leave her at the hotel while he went to the 2i’s to snag a gig. (He succeeded, leaving his bride in London while he headed to Italy with Colin Hicks.)
Although the coffee bar’s importance waned in the sixties, its reputation kept it on calendars. Thus, it was in the 2i’s that the Beatles’ first manager, Allan Williams somewhat miraculously stumbled upon Hamburg promoter Bruno Koschmider during the summer of 1960, setting in motion an entirely different story.
Now for an explanation of the riddle.
“Henry so hoed what’s underfoot,
He doubled the site of what took root.”
You found the 2i’s in London’s “Soho” district, so named for the foxhunts that once ran over the farmland confiscated by Henry VIII. The “roots” of British rock happened not just “underfoot,” but under the pavement in a basement that extended out towards the street. The name of the establishment played on the words “two eyes,” thus the “doubled the site/sight” passage.
“A Nelson, by half, surveyed the grounds,
To steel young Herbert’s bravest sounds.”
Everyone knew the 2i’s as a coffee bar (with coffee grounds) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Its owner, former wrestler Paul Lincoln had gone by the name “Dr. Death” during his professional days (thanks to Roger Dopson for that tidbit). Lincoln hired other ex-wrestlers (such as manager Tom Littlewood) to serve as his bouncers, although some less imposing figures also served in this capacity. Consequently, many knew how to execute a “half-Nelson” hold on unfortunate louts. Among those who went on to stardom after early performances at the 2i’s, Cliff Richard appeared as “Bongo Herbert” in the film Expresso Bongo, which author Wolf Mankowitz loosely based around the story of the “discovery” of Tommy Steele. Also, not a few musicians and promoters found ideas and performers to “steal” in the 2i’s.
“The way was old, but not the fare.
The both of me saw who’s not there.”
Located at near the end of Old Compton Street, the coffee bar featured the latest in rock during the late fifties. The 2i’s (“both of me” serves as your second clue as to the name of the establishment) offered much too small a space for the crowds that grew during the sixties, so the Who never played there.
Hope you enjoyed the riddle.