Record shops once ruled the roost in Soho. The area’s ‘vinyl triangle’ – where I worked as a vinyl-slinger – was ultimately unsustainable but great for a while. Indie, jungle, hip hop, house, trance, electronica and jazz lovers were all catered for. And with profusion came intense competition. Guerrilla missions into opposing shops to check out prices, cheekily early launches of big releases and all manner of other machinations were commonplace.
The area was also, of course, identified with particular albums. Heartbroken Oasis fans constructed a shrine outside Selectadisc on the day Bonehead announced his departure from the band and it remains common to see tourists enraging cabbies and couriers by recreating the ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’ cover in the middle of Berwick Street.
The Endurance, Soho © Ewan Munro
Pubs mostly catered for oddballs. Soho was never short of boozy, eccentric watering-holes – probably because it was never short of boozy eccentrics. Before it went gastro and replaced gravy with ‘jus’, The King of Corsica (later The Endurance) on Berwick Street was the epicentre of Soho’s inebriated weirdness. This picaresque establishment drew its character from a combustible mix of lairy market traders, music biz hipsters and resting thesps. Regulars included a man in a wheelchair who chain-smoked despite having a voice-box and, on one occasion, a drip. John Waters – who knows a bolthole for freaks and derelicts when he sees one – once paid a memorable Saturday night visit.
An edge of real danger existed. Back in 1995, if – like the cover stars of ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’ – you fancied some after-hours fun around Berwick Street, you went to the darkside. Up stairs or down in basements, past the handwritten notices advertising exotic sexual services, you could still find candlelit bars run by gangsters serving bottled lager until the wee small hours and, for just £20, you could become the proud owner of an eighth of an ounce of oregano.
Madame Jojo’s © Jonathan Perugia/Time Out
The area was rich in diversity. Located just off Berwick Street was the recently lost Madame Jojo’s, which would mutate from grimy indie dive into sparkling trannie night within half an hour. Such variety was typical. It was all but impossible to stick to your own kind in old Soho. But black or white, gay, straight or undecided, you didn’t really want to stick to your own kind – everyone shared some notion of outsiderdom and was united by the pursuit of booze or sex or music or enlightenment.
As referenced in another of 1995’s key albums, Pulp’s ‘Different Class’, many would gather in the early hours at Bar Italia. It’s still there, but sadly no longer serving as a decompression chamber for saucer-eyed revellers who’ve finished dancing but are still too wired to go home.
So High Soho © Garry Knight
Shops sold everything to do with drugs, apart from drugs. If you wanted some hemp slipmats to go with your psychedelic trance 12" singles, Berwick Street was your place. So High Soho was central to this smorgasbord of hilarious drug paraphernalia but during ‘The Mushroom Summer’ of 2004 – when ’shrooms were briefly legal as long as they were ‘fresh’ and not ‘prepared’ – everyone got involved and Berwick Street suddenly turned into Haight Ashbury circa 1967. The loophole soon closed but, like so much else about this once-unique neighbourhood, it was great while it lasted.