London for Music Lovers
There’s a reason the British capital has inspired so many songs over the years. From heart-wrenching ballads by Adele and Duffy to the enduring anthems of The Clash and The Kinks; from easy-listening melodies by Ed Sheeran and Florence + The Machine to Stormzy’s modern masterpieces of grime, London has always been a worthy muse thanks to its people, places, and stories. It holds some of the industry’s most impressive live venues, museum collections, vinyl stores, and boasts a musical history rivaled only by monumental US cities such as New Orleans and Nashville. The team here at Unseen Tours loves music as much as the next Londoner, so we’ve put together this pocket-sized guide to the city that gave the world Abbey Road, Amy Winehouse, and Aladdin Sane. To paraphrase Lily Allen’s ‘LDN’ lyrics: why, oh, why would you want to be anywhere else?
Where to walk in the footsteps of music royalty
Music aficionados may have heard of the UK’s answer to ‘Tin Pan Alley’ but, if you haven’t, the nickname refers to Denmark Street in London’s West End. Mid-century music moguls based themselves here; The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Elton John, and many others all recorded here; Bob Marley purchased a guitar here; and, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix were regulars at the now-closed café, La Gioconda. While its star-studded shine has long since faded, visitors to the street can still enjoy a browse around its numerous musical instrument shops, such as Wunjo Guitars and Rose Morris . Nic, our wonderful guide for Soho and St. Giles, covers more about Tin Pan Alley on her tour.
She also passes through Soho Square , where singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl is memorialized on a bench, having released a song called ‘Soho Square’ in the 90s. A very short stroll from here in one direction is the legendary British jazz club, Ronnie Scott's , whose neon sign has lit up Frith Street since 1965. In the opposite direction, at number 100 on Oxford Street, you’ll find the underground 100 Club . Having opened during WWII, the club’s infectious music would lure people safely off the streets as bombs dropped overhead. Across its eight-decade lifespan, the venue has hosted some of music’s biggest names, including B.B King, The Who, Sex Pistols, Oasis, and Kings of Leon.
Another influential musician with a London connection is Amy Winehouse, who would often indulge in a game of pool over a cold pint at The Good Mixer pub in Camden. She played her last public performance at theRoundhouse , one of the city’s best-loved contemporary concert venues, and is commemorated by a statue in Camden Stables .
Finally, no self-respecting music lover’s trip to London would be complete without pilgrimages to the neighborhoods of Brixton in the south and St. John’s Wood in the northwest. The former is birthplace of the iconic David Bowie, where a mural of his lightning bolt-streaked face from the cover of ‘Aladdin Sane’ emblazons a wall on Brixton Road. The latter is where you’ll find Abbey Road , home to the most famous zebra crossing and recording studios on the planet. The Beatles shot the cover art and laid down the tracks here for their eleventh album, named after this very thoroughfare.
Where to listen and learn
Live music is super easy to stumble across in London, courtesy of its substantial busking and street performance culture. From the seasoned professionals who pitch up at Trafalgar Square to the man who sometimes hums into a traffic cone outside Charing Cross, an eclectic soundtrack follows you everywhere around the city. Even the concourses of busy railway stations such as St. Pancras International and Euston have their own pianos for people to play and enjoy for free.
It would be simply impossible to name a list of the “best” live music venues in London because there are just so many with such immense variety between them that one person’s favorite will be completely different from another’s. In addition to those we’ve previously mentioned, spots like the Union Chapel and Alexandra Palace have universal appeal, with diverse programming that provides something for everyone.
Bars-turned-restaurants-turned-clubs like The Blues Kitchen and The Piano Works (West-End) champion independent musicians whilst serving up fab food and drink for their audiences, The Spice Of Life is yet another formative jewel in Soho’s harmonious crown, andWilton's Music Hall – the world’s last-surviving Victorian music hall – is a real step back in time.
Whatever your jam – classical, acoustic, pop, rock, rap, rave, soul, or blues – there will be the perfect place to find it in London. Cadogan Hall is magical for musical theatre, The Old Blue Last for alternative bands and DJs, and O2 Academy Brixton for pop, rock, and indie artists. If opera and orchestras are more your taste, visit LSO St Lukes , the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden – our local expert Viv can lead the way – or the Barbican Centre . Lunchtime concerts at St James's Piccadilly and St Martin-in-the-Fields are a lovely way to begin your afternoon, and be sure to mark free summer festivals such as West End Live, Lambeth Country Show, and Walthamstow Garden Party in your calendars.
For anyone wishing to learn more in London about the colorful history of music, there are several museums to consider visiting during your stay, including The Musical Museum in Brentford which comprises three galleries chronicling the legacy of music production, a concert hall, shop, and café. Both the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music also have their own collections on display and produce regular recitals and other performances for the public. The Horniman Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum each hold many artifacts involved in the craft and practice of music-making around the globe, whilst Handel & Hendrix in London is dedicated to the classical composer and the rockstar who occupied adjacent houses on Mayfair’s Brook Street, albeit two centuries apart.
Where to shop and sing
We’re back in Nic’s beloved Soho again! This time on Berwick Street, which featured on the album cover for ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’ by Oasis in the 90s. But the street first rose to musical notoriety a decade previous, becoming known as the ‘Golden Mile of Vinyl’. If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind souvenir of your trip to London or a unique gift for a music-loving pal back home, then check out independent record shops likeReckless Records and Sister Ray . They remain local favorites to this day; selling LPs, EPs, CDs, and everything in-between. There’s also Phonica Records on Poland Street and Sounds of the Universe on Broadwick Street, both still in Soho, or Rough Trade East on Brick Lane. If you’re joining our Brick Lane tour with Pete, he’ll be able to point you in the right direction of this store, which has its record label and a stage for live performances.
If all this talk of music has got you in the mood for a jolly good sing-song, then why not head to a karaoke bar such Lucky Voice with your travel companions? They have private rooms, which should help keep any potential stage-fright at bay, and a catalog of over 10,000 songs to choose from. There’s also hip-hop karaoke at the Queen of Hoxton every Thursday, K-pop-themed brunches in secret locations, and open mic nights in pubs and clubs all over the city where you can flex those vocal cords to your heart’s content. Traveling slow and settling in London for a while? You could also think about signing up for a community choir, or getting a free membership for the LMTO Sitz. The LMTO, or London Musical Theatre Orchestra, performs a ‘Sitz’ every month at the Bishopsgate Institute : a private rehearsal of an entire musical score, performed by its members. You can either register as a vocalist or as a musician, but you’ll need to have access to your own instrument.
We hope you enjoyed this little music lover’s guide to London. To book onto one of our Unseen Tours around Soho, Covent Garden, Brick Lane, or London Bridge, please visit our website for all the information you need to make it happen. Safe travels, and we hope to see you around the city very soon!