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Inside KOKO music venue
Photograph: Sam Neil

Koko: the hidden history of Camden’s cathedral of indie sleaze

From backstage brawls to secret gigs, London’s most iconic music venue has had its fair share of messy memories

Written by
Chiara Wilkinson
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February 2015: the night of Prince’s last-ever London gig. The concert was secret, invite-only, and it was at Camden’s Koko, one of the late superstar’s favourite London venues. It was impossible to get a ticket for – even if, as usual, you waited outside for hours, fingers crossed behind your back. But Koko has always had a bit of magic to it.

‘We were waiting out in the biting cold,’ says Leila Arakji, a jeweller who was 32 at the time. ‘We were about to go home when we heard someone whisper, “Hey, you three.” A guy in a cowboy hat grabbed us and whisked us upstairs, where glasses of champagne were immediately thrust into our hands. It happened in the blink of an eye.’ 

Prince
Photograph: Matt ChungPrince

 After ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Kiss’, and a cover of ‘Only Love Can Hurt Like This’, the lights came up: Arakji realised she’d been partying next to Noel Gallagher and Keith Lemon. ‘Seeing Prince in a venue like Koko was just like watching a jam session.’

Koko has a special place in London’s gig landscape. You might know it as that place you used to get into with a borrowed ID and dodgy concealer lipstick. Maybe you lost your Sony Ericsson in the mosh pit while you were belting out ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ by The Libertines. Maybe you had your first-ever beer at the bar. Maybe you got a bit frisky on the sofas upstairs. Maybe it was here that you decided, one day, you’d marry Alex Turner (how’s that going?). Koko has been London’s home of indie – but also its home of punk, new romantic, acid house, rave and pop.

Grace Jones
Photograph: David CorioGrace Jones

On Friday April 29 – after three years, one fire, a global pandemic and a £70 million investment – Koko is due to reopen for the first time since 2019. It will look a little different to how it used to: there will be a members’ club and a rooftop restaurant, for instance. But this is just the next chapter in the history of this remarkable place. What stories does Koko keep hostage in its walls – and what does its future hold? 

Dressing up

Before Koko, it was ‘Camden’. Before that, it was all sorts. 

The venue opened in 1900 as a theatre, before becoming the Camden Hippodrome, a cinema, and then a BBC radio facility (where ‘The Goon Show’ was recorded). It was reborn in 1977 as The Music Machine, before reopening again after five years as the Camden Palace – always referred to only as ‘Camden’, as if it embodied the identity of the entire area.

Two people dressed up for Camden Palace
Photograph: Eddie Richards

In the ’80s, punters would flock to ‘Camden’ to catch Spandau Ballet, Boy George and Adam And The Ants. It was as much about how you dressed as it was about the music – and the more theatrical, the better. 

‘It wasn’t off-the-shelf stuff,’ says ‘Evil’ Eddie Richards, who was Camden Palace’s first resident DJ when it opened at the height of the New Romantic era in 1982. ‘There were a lot of dressy types because a really big costume-rental store went out of business nearby. People went to buy the pirate costumes and they’d be quite inventive.’ 

If you looked the part, you’d get in – but first, you had to get past Steve Strange (lead singer of ’80s band Visage), who was the notoriously fussy doorman at the time. ‘It was packed full of so many celebrities that no one took any notice,’ Richards says. ‘People like Pete Townshend or Jerry Dammers would just be hanging out and they were largely ignored.’ 

Dressing down

The New Romantics blazed brightly and burned out. As indie and rave cultures emerged, they brought a very different vibe to Camden. ‘It wasn’t about how you looked,’ says Chris Paul, who ran an acid house night called Orange there from around 1987 until 1994. ‘It was really all about the music. It was all smiley T-shirts, baggy stuff and bandanas.’ Still, though, Camden continued to be a hotspot for celebrities. ‘Madonna performed [her first promotional concert] there,’ says Paul. ‘I think they paid her 20 quid. And I remember seeing Prince there, doing an unplugged set after a gig.’

Ravers in KOKO music venue
Photograph: Peach

From 1996, Graham Gold was a resident DJ at a Camden club night, Peach, bringing trance DJs like Armin van Buuren, Ferry Corsten and Tiësto to the UK for the first time. ‘There was lots of face painting and glow sticks,’ he says. ‘And everyone was just off their tits.’ One night, two clubbers got married on stage. ‘The vicar [leading the ceremony] didn’t even blink an eye as 1,600 people in front of him were chewing their faces off.’

Reinvention

But by the early 2000s, Camden Palace was feeling its age. ‘The toilets were horrible,’ says Danny Gould, who ran cult electronic music club night Clockwork Orange. ‘They flooded. There was chewing gum on the carpet. But it was just special – one of the only places still going from the old days.’

The building was saved by current owner Oliver Bengough (from Mint Entertainment), who reopened it as Koko in 2004. Rave scene long gone, Koko welcomed a new era of clubbers. ‘There was a ritual of putting our dressier dresses on,’ says Rachael Newton, a regular at Koko’s Guilty Pleasures night. ‘One night, I bought a pair of Jimmy Choos – turquoise and gold. I’ve never worn them since.’ 

Kanye West Performs At KOKO In London
Photograph: Andrew BengeKanye West

Koko was always notorious for under-the-radar gigs. In March 2015, Kanye West tweeted that he’d be playing an intimate show, spurring a frantic scramble for the £50 tickets. ‘We didn’t get in until midnight or something – everyone was really drunk,’ says Yasmin Harvey, whose friend had managed to cop some tickets. ‘Somehow we got really close to the front, but we didn’t know anything about what Kanye was doing,’ she says. ‘Then he brought on Skepta, JME, Wu-Tang Clan, Novelist and – really randomly – Big Sean. It was absolutely insane.’ 

The indie era 

But perhaps the most iconic time of all was Koko’s indie incarnation (now back, by the way). ‘There were a lot of skinny jeans,’ says Jeff Automatic, a resident DJ at Club NME from 2005 until 2010. ‘And a lot of people in Ramones T-shirts, whether they’d heard The Ramones or not. Indie became exciting for people who would have never considered it, because there was a fashion element.’

That element was sweepy side fringes, American Apparel disco pants and stark flash photography. From around 2006, Gregory Nolan was Koko’s official photographer –  capturing its crowd on camera. He saw all sorts of indie sleaze happening backstage.

Amy Winehouse Performs At Koko
Photograph: Simone JoynerAmy Winehouse

‘One Friday, Pete Doherty was in trouble,’ Nolan says. ‘He’d been in court and the paparazzi were looking for him, so one of the promoters told him to hide at Koko. When I went upstairs, there was an absolute zoo of hipsters, smashing the place up. Pete was on the floor, there was birthday cake everywhere, and everyone was soaked in champagne. Tom [Atkin], the lead singer of The Paddingtons, had his finger right in Pete’s mouth. I just kept blasting photos.’

Another time, he saw Albert Hammond Jr from The Strokes playing cards with Carl Barât. ‘Carl was so tired, he was holding his eyelids open with matchsticks,’ Nolan says.

But perhaps nothing sums up ‘Indie Koko’ better than Club NME. ‘DJs would start the night and then you’d have the first band at about 11pm, the next band at midnight, then the club would go on until 4am,’ says Automatic. Entry was as cheap as £2 with a student card – not bad, considering you’d get to see at least two bands. ‘It had a sort of electronic-versus-guitars vibe,’ he says. ‘So we’d be playing CSS, Soulwax and MGMT, as well as We Are Scientists.’

Your cultural currency was measured by how many grubby festival bands you wore on your wrist. ‘For at least a year or two, Camden was the centre of the indie scene,’ says Nolan. ‘At the time, you didn’t realise how special it was.’

Emma was a Club NME regular from the age of 16. ‘The heady club NME glory days from 2006 to 2009 defined most Friday nights for me and likeminded pals,’ she says. ‘We would rock up, over-confident, having made all sorts of excuses to our parents, giddy after a Strongbow on the 134 bus with our fake IDs, with the promise of the night ahead.’

In a blur of Red Stripe, eyeliner and panic, one night their IDs were confiscated. ‘We moped around the corner to see a door that was slightly ajar,’ Emma says. ‘We all piled in, and continued to sneak in that way. There was something special about the feeling there: the sense of hope.’

‘We would rock up, having made all sorts of excuses to our parents, giddy after a Strongbow on the 134 bus with our fake IDs, with the promise of the night ahead’

Koko was instrumental in helping many young people experience nightlife for the first time – like Marc Shalet, who grew out his bum-fluff moustache to get into a 2006 Gogol Bordello gig. ‘I was really nervous,’ he says. ‘There were all these old-school punks there; I was moshing with people that could have been my dad.’ 

By 2010, indie was fizzling out as superstar DJs gathered speed in the charts. ‘I watched as Britpop and indie began to decline at the end of the ’90s,’ says Automatic. ‘The same thing happened when Club NME was heading in a more commercial, dancey direction and there weren’t any new indie tracks that could fill a room. That became a really big problem for clubs.’ 

So, is indie really back now? ‘Everything comes in waves,’ says Automatic. ‘But I don’t know if it could be the same now, because musical trends move so fast. Scenes are built by bands playing with each other, hanging out, and going consistently to a venue. [Now] it happens online, but not necessarily in a physical space anymore.’ 

Up in flames

One of the defining features of Koko was its balconies, which were perfect for spying on your crush from above. Then, there was the VIP bar and the old boxes, plus the row of secluded sofas on the top balcony. ‘You’d sometimes see things there, and think: I should probably give those people a few minutes,’ says Shalet.

By the late 2010s, structural problems were apparent. ‘They had to shut [the building] for four weeks suddenly, in September 2018,’ says Christian Laing, who ran Buttoned Down Disco. ‘When they pulled it apart, they found a lot of asbestos.’

Koko music venue in Camden Town, temporarily clad with a message for the London Fire Brigade which helped save the building from fire in January 2020
Photograph: Louis Berk / Alamy Stock Photo

And so the restoration of Koko began. In 2019, the building was boarded up and the dancefloor grew dusty. Then, in January 2020, a cloud of smoke was seen billowing from Koko’s roof. ‘When I heard about the fire, it was hard,’ says Nolan. ‘Koko is such a massive part of Camden’s history.’

Twenty-two calls to the emergency services were made. It took around 50,000 litres of water, eight fire engines and 60 firefighters to save the building, and it set the restoration back by 18 months. Luckily, Koko’s dome actually stopped the blaze from spreading to the rest of the building. 

The next chapter 

Everyone who’s been involved in Koko’s story has been looking forward to it reopening – but they’re also questioning just how much it’s going to change. ‘There’s something about that venue,’ says Chris Paul. ‘When you walk in, you feel the energy, you feel the history. I really hope they’ve kept its heart.’ Laing, is more sceptical. ‘How much spiritually can it have in common with the old Koko?’ he says. ‘I’m not sure.’ 

With Brixton and Hackney now London’s go-to nightlife spots, it’s difficult to get your head around the fact that, until recently, Camden was the centre of the capital’s music scene. What will Koko’s reopening mean for an area that has changed dramatically since its indie heyday?

Inside Koko's private dining room
Photograph: Lesley LauHouse of Koko’s private dining room

The refurbished Koko is sparklingly fresh-faced – and it will undoubtedly help to re-establish Camden on London’s music map. A 50-foot-tall ‘fly tower’ was discovered during the renovation, housing  the original theatre’s stage machinery, and will now have space for 200 guests as a venue in and of itself. Two additional buildings – in what used to be a piano factory and an 1860s pub, allegedly a favourite of Charles Dickens (which London pubs aren’t?) – have been added, allowing for a shop-slash-DJ area and a pizzeria and tap bar with performance space. Above this are four floors of fun. There’s a piano room, a private dining room, a library, a rooftop restaurant and bar, vinyl listening rooms, a new Koko radio station and recording studio, and a cocktail bar in the dome. All of these areas, though, are only accessible if you pay a membership fee to become part of ‘The House of Koko’. It makes you wonder exactly who this space is for, and what sort of scene it could breed.

Iggy Pop
Photograph: Gus StewartIggy Pop

Still, though it might sound a far cry from the ‘Camden’ of the New Romantics, ravers and flatshare indie poets, Koko 2.0 deserves to be championed. A shocking 35 percent of London’s grassroots music venues were lost between 2007 and 2015. The roster for the reopening is shaping up nicely: with Jorja Smith, Vance Joy, Yola, Pete Doherty and an opening gig with Arcade Fire on April 29. For those wanting a club fix, Koko Electronic will host nights running until 6am on Fridays and Saturdays, with DJs like Todd Terje, Jayda G and Kerri Chandler all lined up. ‘We need music activists, people to protect venues,’ says Nolan. ‘And we need more places like Koko.’ 

Koko has been around for 120 years and holds a special place as one of the UK’s most iconic music venues. Its stage has played host to Charlie Chaplin, The Rolling Stones, The Clash and Madonna (as well as Prince and Kanye). Amy Winehouse was a regular and your Uncle Bill and Auntie Sharon probably had their first smooch upstairs. It’s certainly seen its fair share of moshpits and demonic screaming teens. 

Welcome back, Koko. Let the indie sleaze 2022-style commence.

Koko reopens on Apr 29. 

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