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An oral history of iconic Shoreditch pub the Old Blue Last
Photograph: Ben Rowe / Chris Bethell

An Oral History of the Old Blue Last

Indie sleaze, rockstars and beer-soaked chaos: take a trip back to the legendary Vice-owned pub's 00s heyday

James Balmont
Written by
James Balmont

There was a point in time, in the early ‘00s, when the Old Blue Last was quite literally the centre of London for kids like me.

The rowdy Shoreditch boozer — on the crossroads connecting Great Eastern Street with Curtain Road — was then a bastion of unhindered fun, lying almost exactly at the midpoint between the vintage clothes stores of Brick Lane and the club nights at 333 Mother Bar and The Macbeth. Its gravitational pull was so strong, in fact, that I would literally work out the location of other London landmarks by measuring their distance from its beer-soaked foyer. And no matter how far I crawled, I would repeatedly find myself back there over the next 20 years – lost in the vortex of never-ending parties.

Historically populated by dodgy geezers and ladies of the night, the ’00s had seen it assimilated by skinny-jeaned, Lego-haircut hipsters before the ‘indie sleaze’ generation was pushed up into Dalston and Stoke Newington. The constant stream of live music from upstairs — often accessed by sneaking in via the external stairwell fire escape — meanwhile, would ensure that the reputation cemented by legendary shows from the Arctic Monkeys and Amy Winehouse remained intact in the face of gentrification in the surrounding area. And in the years to come, everyone from Mercury Prize winners Wolf Alice to superstar Kylie Minogue would add their pages to its history.

With a succession of hedonistic heydays still stained into its walls, the Old Blue Last remains an infallible stronghold of London’s grassroots music scene even today. Hundreds of years after the building first opened its doors, Time Out caught up with key patrons of its 21st-century golden ages to find out why there’s still no pub quite like it. 

Inside the Old Blue Last
Photograph: Chris Bethell

The last golden age of Shoreditch: 2004-2009

At the height of east London’s hipster era, the now essentially defunct Vice magazine was gaining momentum as a beacon of alternative culture in the UK. In 2004, they decided to purchase a grand, grunge-y pub (‘a horrible shithole’, as they put it) in the heart of still-a-bit-rough Shoreditch. The move marked a new dawn for the former illegal strip club, as the Old Blue Last became the trendy neighbourhood’s hedonistic clubhouse.

Ross Allmark (Head of Events & Venues, 2009-2015): The original pub was built in 1700, about three metres from where Shakespeare’s original theatre was — and The Last would have been built about 100 years after that, because a ‘last’ is a cobbler and Curtain Road was the shoemaker’s district. The ‘Old Blue’ got attached at some point between then and 1876, when the pub was rebuilt and Great Eastern Street was put in — and during that whole period it was a red-light district. The massive, ancient mirror [behind the bar] is from the original 1876 building.

Martin Wade Thomas (Owner, 2004-present): We bought the pub in 2004. I walked in with Vice and paid cash for the mirror behind the bar and did the whole weird deal from the start. They had no idea what to do. It was our local pub, we just thought it was funny.

Cal McRae (Junior Booker; Head of Events & Venues, 2013-2018): On my first day, Ed Lilo [head of events and venues, 2013-2016] took me over and introduced me to two guys, Adam and Pet, who were sitting on the end of the bar already on their second or third pint. I was like ‘Right, what’s their deal? Are they employed by the Old Blue Last? I mean… they’re just drinking pints at 10am on a Monday?’

Rebecca Zephyr Thomas (photographer): There were lots of lock-ins. It was somewhere you could go on a Tuesday and it would be popping off. One time, a lively character threw a chunky porcelain ashtray at my ex-boyfriend’s head, and started swinging her handbag like a ball and chain. I thought it would be a good idea to stick my left leg out as she ran towards him, and afterwards, I couldn’t stand for two days. I had permanent bone ache for the next ten years.

Martin: I helped run it with a manager we had for a while until she got run over by a truck across the road from the pub. She was fine in the end — but she was in the hospital for maybe nine months, and that’s when I started running it. We ran it like a holiday camp for the first two or three years.

Mark Bowen (IDLES): There was always some batshit night there. My first experience of the Old Blue Last was DJing with [US rapper] Spank Rock at my mate’s night called ‘Monkey Knife Fight’! It was the most 2008 thing that could ever happen, at the height of ‘Nathan Barley’ Shoreditch.

Rebecca: The idea of the ‘Shoreditch Twat’ was already out in the culture — and everyone looked like they worked in the music industry. It felt like what I imagined downtown New York would have been like in the early ’80s. Like CBGBs — it was the London version of that.

Old Blue Last
Photograph: Ben RoweThe History of Apple Pie performing

The foundations of a music mecca

This decade of debauchery was where the pub built its reputation as a place where things happened — as brush-ins with indie heroes and all kinds of impromptu shows soon became plastered all over the music press. It was still just a local boozer, but magic was already taking place that would forever become a part of its legend.

Rebecca: I was obsessed with Jarvis Cocker. I saw him in the Old Blue Last one night and went up to him and told him about how I had lost my virginity to someone who looked like him – while listening to Pulp. I expected him to think this story was really cool but he was horrified. And then I had to move on because he was not impressed at all.

Martin: We weren’t originally able to do live music on the first floor, so we ended up doing José González acoustic as the first gig — which was very random because I didn’t really know who it was. Maybe 400 Swedish girls turned up to watch it. Second gig was Chromeo.

Lauren Cochrane (journalist): A few days before, it was on the grapevine — ‘the Arctic Monkeys are going to play the Old Blue Last’. They were the hottest band in the country, and the first album was very much the sound of that summer. You didn’t think that that would happen upstairs at a pub in Shoreditch.

I must have been a metre and a half away from Alex Turner. People went mad when they played ‘I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ – they were jumping up and down so much. I’d put it in my top five gigs. I still have the drumstick, which now has the domestic task of holding up the duvet if my cat wants to go under.

Katie Willoughby (Marketing Manager, 2021-2022): The Arctic Monkeys thing was a big one — as was the fact that Amy Winehouse played there, and was pouring drinks behind the bar and stuff….

Martin: Blake Civil — Amy Winehouse’s husband — worked there. Eurgh. Fired him.

Lias Saoudi (Fat White Family): The place was important for young bands — they’d give any arsehole a job and you’d have to endeavour pretty hard to get yourself sacked. I remember the eighth time I called in sick, about 17 years ago, I was finally dismissed. I rolled up the next day to collect my final clump of wages [and] to have a few last free pints of Staropramen.

Joel Amey (Wolf Alice): It was one of those places that I just associated with things happening. You’d look in the NME, and be like… how come all these bands are playing in this small pub? And then The Horrors did that iconic show where the chandelier came down…

Faris Badwan (The Horrors): I remember the gig quite well. Every show we played around that time was just a concentrated blast of noise and black paint that rarely lasted longer than 20 minutes. People would leave looking like desert island castaways, clothes torn to shreds. But the Old Blue Last one was particularly memorable because it was like the venue staff had abandoned any pretence of adhering to fire safety regulations, and just let everyone in.

Cal: Security was lax. You could fit 250 people into a 150-capacity room and nobody would really give a shit because it was always good.

Faris (The Horrors): There were people standing on the bar, on the stage… I’d never seen it so full. We started playing ‘Count In Fives’ and the crowd started pogo-ing. After the show, the people downstairs said that they could see the ceiling wobbling up and down, and [Vice editor] Andy Capper started a rumour that a piece of the roof had fallen off and killed the cat, which isn’t true. But they did have to shut the venue for a couple of months after that so that the ceiling could be rebuilt.

The Old Blue Last
Photograph: Chris Bethell

The music venue heyday: 2009-2017

By the turn of the decade, the boozer was attempting to legitimise itself as a proper music venue. With that, the events team was reshuffled to bring in passionate new blood — and in turn, they were able to sow the foundations for a new golden age. In the decade that followed, Old Blue cemented itself as a proving ground for new bands looking to move up the ranks — and as the buzz began to spread, it became one of the most important live venues in the capital, catering to all kinds of music fans.

Russ Tannen (events manager, 2009-2013): In 2009, I was a presenter on a late Friday night TV show on Channel 4 where I would interview bands. That was wrapping up, and in my mind, the Old Blue Last was completely legendary. I remember having three interviews scheduled with Martin that were all cancelled at the last moment, and then eventually we did meet and it was a five-minute interview. He said ‘Are you the guy from the TV?’, and I said ‘Yeah’, and he goes ‘Oh. Well, you obviously really want to work here so you’ve got the job’.

I did my first week at the bar on my laptop. The first drink I was offered was at about 11:30 on my first day — a Monday. On the Friday, Andy Capper, the Vice editor, came over and was like ‘Have you reached out to Slayer yet?’, and I was like ‘What do you mean? No…’. He goes: ‘Russ, if you want to do well in this job, start at Slayer and work your way down.’ We did try and book Slayer, and they were up for it in theory, but they wanted too much in the end.

Ross: They were refurbishing the venue in 2009. Before that, the upstairs had chandeliers hanging, it had a stripper pole — it looked like a Russian gangster lounge room up there. I guess me and Russ, our brief was to come in and make it more of a music venue.

Russ: The vibe was very much that every show’s going to be free — but let’s definitely dig deep and do those big, special moments. There was a huge focus on curation, and we had something on seven nights a week most weeks. Post-2008 was kind of a bleak time, financially, which was a great time to be doing something small and scrappy.

Lisa Wright (Promoter; DIY Magazine, 2013-present): It was super scrappy. The roof was always leaking. There was a show we did where the roof was leaking on the stage so everyone had to play on the ground [dancefloor]. And the buttons on the DJ decks were always taped up, so you couldn’t move the volume at any point because if you did it would just trip out.

Cal: If there was a show going on with a band of note — which there was, three or four times a week — every A&R from the music industry was going to be there, going for it alongside actual kids that were going mad for it as well. It was completely worthy on both sides of the spectrum.

Ellie Rowsell (Wolf Alice): It was where new, buzzy bands played all the time. [At the time,] I was just playing at open mics in Camden — it was my dream to be booked to play a gig at the Old Blue Last.

Bowen (IDLES): You could catch artists on the cusp, before they blew up – when artists are at that moment of peak creativity, and dare I say cool. There's something about being cramped into that little box of a stage that fills you with energy and forces you to burst out into the audience. It was always rowdy, always crowded, always chaos.

Lias (Fat White Family): Nobody wanted to come to our gigs. And we were never able to get on with one another enough hours in a row for the whole thing not to feel like a kind of self-flagellation. But if I remember correctly, we were performing with [Country Teasers’] Ben Wallers that night [in 2013], and this, for us, was the ultimate validation. If it wasn't for that we'd have thrown in the towel and done something else with our lives – something more profitable and spiritually enriching.

Cal: It was the most exciting venue in the world at that time because it was the peak of this new generation of indie. DIY had these shows every January called the ‘Hello’ shows and they had Wolf Alice play on ‘Hello 2013’ — those shows were like the SXSW of the UK.

Joel (Wolf Alice): I remember being like ‘I can’t believe we’ve got a gig at the Old Blue Last’. It was like we were playing Wembley Arena. I still talk about that like it’s the biggest thing we ever did.

Jazz Atkin (Marketing Manager, 2010-2011): Just because you were on the list didn’t necessarily mean you would be able to see [the show]. People would be packed down the staircase, still trying to watch from the bottom of the stairs.

Ed Lilo (Head of Events & Venues, 2013-2016): It was way broader than just indie bands. Genre-wise, it was eclectic. [Promoters] Streets of Beige were playing tape techno and weird house. And Ross used to put on much heavier music like rock and metal. Cal’s first show was putting on [Grammy-winning soul musician] Leon Bridges for his first London show. That was a good one.

Abi Dainton (Photographer): I listened to Charli XCX’s demos on Myspace, and I was looking out for her shows around the time of her first album. It was fully sold out. For her last song she did ‘I Love It’ — which I had actually never heard before. But everyone else in the venue absolutely had. It just went a bit crazy. Everybody was jumping and I was slightly concerned that the floor was going to go through.

Russ: I was obsessed with Lil B — he was almost the precursor to all the popular hip hop now. We got him to the Old Blue for his first UK show. I think it was only one of two that he’s ever done. There was also a lot of progressive electronic music there, as well — we had Disclosure’s first show there.

Cal: ‘The Den’ was one of the most undervalued nights. And they were still happening in an era when Skepta was doing 3,000-cap rooms. One night we had the whole of Boy Better Know playing at the Old Blue Last — and it wasn’t like it was packed, it was just them and all of their friends…

Frisco (Boy Better Know): ‘The Den’ played a pivotal role in the resurgence of the grime movement. Artists were getting number ones and top 10s, performing at the biggest festivals, and then coming to the Old Blue Last — a reputable venue that had a real electric and intimate feel. Our launch night for the Boy Better Know set was a proud moment. Other notable performances [included] Ghetts, Giggs, Lady Leshurr…

A throng of famous faces

Artists as diverse as Lizzo, Future Islands and 2024 Eurovision Song Contest entrant Years & Years all graced the stage in their early careers — but what was even more exciting was when the big guns started showing up, too.

Ross: There is no crowd that has scared me more than Kylie Minogue’s fans. It was everyone’s special night that night [when she performed, in 2014], and if you got in their way they were going to scratch your eyes out.

Ed: We hosted ‘Kylie Karaoke’ up in the ‘flat’ afterwards and I went up there later in the night to see Kylie herself singing ‘Locomotion’ with some regulars.

Sam Tucker (Artist Manager/Promoter):
I was promoting a band called LONA, which is John Clancy’s project, and the gig’s about to start so I nip down to the loo in the basement. When I come back, Peter Crouch is at the bar, necking pints; knows every word to every song and is giving it the beans with the dance moves.

Russ: The Drums played, and it was this weird, half-empty night — except Morrissey was there, just stood in the crowd with a security guard. I went up to him to introduce myself and the security guard just stands in front of me and goes: ‘you can’t speak to him’.

Another time, we had The La’s play, and that day both Noel and Liam Gallagher were both trying to get on the guestlist — but they were both furious to find out if the other one was on the list.

Ross: Liam’s people eventually call to say ‘Liam’s gonna come’, and then we get another call from Noel saying he’s not coming anymore because his brother’s coming.

Russ: In the end, Liam shows up and he’s got this big crew with him, and we realised we didn’t really have a space for them to go. So I just had to open the bathroom door and put them all in there.

Ross: It was just Liam Gallagher, sitting on the toilet, smoking a fag with his other brother in that horrible toilet that had ‘RIP Kurt’ behind it. It looked like an absolute skag den.

The crowd at The Old Blue Last
Photograph: Chris Bethell

A Perennial Party Location

Even as an established music space, the Old Blue Last still maintained its long-established identity as a place where people just came to have fun. And over the years, much was had across its multiple floors — especially if you knew the code to the door to the upper floor office and ‘flat’.

Ed: I always think one of the things that’s important about nightlife is being able to lose your friends and then find them again. If you have a ground floor that’s full of people just drinking, and then a basement, a live room with bands and DJs playing, and then ‘the flat’ on the second floor… it gives you a range of spaces to do lots of different stuff, lose your friends and find new ones.

Joel (Wolf Alice): You could go for a chill one downstairs and then instantly be involved in a mad one upstairs. And then there’s three floors above you, and then suddenly you’re on the roof!

Ellie (Wolf Alice): Going upstairs was like a rite of passage.

Joel (Wolf Alice): It was like all your hard work on the bottom two floors had paid off and you’d gone to the executive suite, which was smaller and stinkier than the rest of the building.

Russ: The 30th of December was a great night to throw a party because other venues were still gearing up for NYE. There was this one great time when we threw a party, and in typical form a group ended up in the office upstairs and we continued partying up there…

The next day I get back, and at midday, there’s a knock at the door, and it’s this guy from Holland who had ended up in the office with us. He rolls up his sleeve and he’s got ‘Old Blue Last, that’s the way we roll’ tattooed, massive, on his bicep. He left and none of us ever saw him again.

Cal: Vice used to do client meetings there whenever they wanted to show off and show them how fun they could be. There was a specific client where they got a piñata and filled it with loads of [redacted]…

Ross: It was like going into a lawless zone. No-one was thinking about noise restrictions, the capacity, how long we’d been open for. One time I left on a Thursday night, and a bunch of people I’d left in the pub were still there when I got back on Monday morning. They’d barricaded themselves in that red room to avoid the light and anyone coming in and then just stayed there for four nights. Other times, we would finish a shift at 5am, go back to the bar all night, and then sit back down at our desks and do a morning’s work…

Jazz: You’d definitely come back into your office the morning after and have to clear the debris from a debaucherous party off your desk.

The Old Blue Last's signature brew
Photograph: Chris Bethell

Eccentric side-ventures

So strong was the cult appeal of the Old Blue Last during the Vice years that it was even the subject of a number of wild side ventures. These ranged from fairly logical food-and-drink punts promoted by TV personalities to such bizarre exploits as the 2006 Adidas Old Blue Last sneaker and tracksuit top. Some of these gambits were more successful than others.

Ed: We opened a BBQ restaurant on the third floor in 2015 for less than six months. Didn’t go very well.

Cal: For about eight months, Martin spoke about doing this festival, and we thought nothing of it. Then he turned around one week and went ‘right, we’re doing it next week, you’ve got to book it and we’ll sell tickets for £5’. We booked ‘Old Blue Last Festival’ [in Shoreditch Park, 2016] and it sold out in eight days. Wolf Alice DJ’d, and Swim Deep, Spector and Shame played. Martin never showed up.

Ed: The same year, someone at Vice in America wanted to enter a joint venture with a big brewery without really thinking what that might mean. We found out pretty much at the same time that the beer was launched in America.

Cal: I remember getting an email from the Vice US office being like ‘Hey, we’re getting ready to launch Old Blue Last Beer, can you send us some photos of the venue?’ and I turned around to everyone in the office and went ‘what the fuck is this?’.

Ross: They brewed it in New Jersey, and the problem was that by the time it arrived in the UK, it was, on average, three months old. And let’s just say it had a distinctive flavour.

Cal: It was one of the worst-tasting beers that I think anybody has ever had in their lives. It was terrible. And it was always warm.

Ross: They could only brew it like 1,500 hectolitres at a time — and so we had to find a way of shifting swimming pools of this stuff. So we did around 120 events a year up and down the country.

Ed: There really was a time when if you met someone in east London and you ran out of things to talk about you could bring up Old Blue Last Beer and how revolting it is, and have a 15-minute conversation.

Old Blue Last
Photograph: Ben Rowe / Time OUt

A legacy intact: 2018-present

The refurbishment of the second floor ‘flat’ as a private hire bar in 2018 marks the last real makeover of the pub. Fortunately, the venue’s reputation has remained intact despite this more sophisticated punt: ‘loud, expensive and unpleasant’, reads one TripAdvisor review from 2019.

In the years since, Old Blue alumni Florence and the Machine would acknowledge the venue’s significance from one of the biggest stages in the country, in Hyde Park, before the pub became ‘proudly independent’ again after Vice sold its stake in 2021. Today, a new generation has taken the reins behind the scenes — with BBC Radio 1 presenter Nels Hylton’s ‘Upgrade’ nights; The Great Escape festival’s new artist showcases; and the still-strong DIY ‘Hello’ series ensuring that it remains a shining beacon for live music in a new-look east London.

Katy Lawson (Area Manager, 2011-present): Shoreditch 13 years ago was very different to what you see today, but I would say it's changed for the better. It’s safe and inclusive, and I certainly feel that more women are coming to the Old Blue Last and Shoreditch as a whole because of the work of the council and venues alike. It’s been sad to see venues come and go over the past decade, too – so I’m immensely proud that the Old Blue Last is one of Shoreditch’s last surviving grassroots music venues.

Katie: It’s never been a venue that plays by the rules — it’s always been a bit chaotic. And musicians love playing there knowing the calibre of people who have played there in the past. For anyone interested in music, you want to visit these places almost as a tourist attraction — it’s got such an interesting history behind it, and I think that’s why it’s still so popular with people.

Jazz: It taught me how much passion there is in the music industry, and how important and exciting the live music component of it is. And seeing that enthusiasm really stuck with me — 15 years later, I’m still working in music with a lot of artists who played their first show there.

Ross: Some locations just have a charisma that you can’t replicate. You couldn’t build a new Old Blue Last. It has 300-and-something years of shenanigans baked into its walls — and you can feel it the moment you go in there. And that is genuinely unique. When you have the right band in that upstairs room you can still feel that energy like a lightning rod. And we need those kinds of spaces, because once they’re gone you can’t replace them.

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