Words by Joe Zadeh
It isn’t just the sneezing buses and beeping taxis that make Oxford Street a loud place; it isn’t the just the chattering salesmen on microphone headsets, the moaning crowds outside an over capacity tube station, or the electro-house blasting from speaker-laden rickshaws. It’s the deafening sounds of the garish shop fronts screaming subliminal invitations, the crystalline and characterless towers that weren’t there last week booming down on you, the boring and endless drone of accelerated consumerism in action. Nothing stays the same, but everything is becoming the same, in corporate contemporary Soho: London’s overwhelming open air shopping centre.
But nestled amidst this dearth of Europe’s most expensive real estate, somehow, like birds nests on a barren cliff face, a few miracles cling on for dear life. Tucked between Ann Summers and Boots Pharmacy stands the entrance to The 100 Club, and it has done now for 75 years. To descend down the steps of this venue is to tumble back through time, each tread lowering you further into a near forgotten cultural capital that was Soho before the gentrification boom. Barely changed since its days as an iconic jazz club, this subterranean church of music has seen every vivid shade of British artistic expression since the end of World War 2. Everyone from Art Pepper, Coleridge Goode, and Louis Armstrong to The Rolling Stones, Siouxsie and The Banshees, and The Sex Pistols, to Nas, Kano and Plan B have, at some point, walked through these doors.
Surviving in spite of soaring business rates, threatened bankruptcy and almost zero local government support, club owner Jeff Horton has been welcoming musicians and punters through his doors for 32 years, and before that it was his father and before that it was his father’s father. Now, as his club begins a brand new partnership with Fred Perry, we decided to catch up with Jeff to talk about his experiences as a music venue owner, his thoughts on British culture, and why Independent Venue Week is important to him.
Hi Jeff! This building is almost like a family heirloom now for you. What are your memories of it as a child?
Well, I’ve always had a love of music for as long as I can remember, and that comes from when my dad was putting shows on here. A lot of DJs just used to leave their records here, and he would bring them home in a wooden beer crate. Many were white labels, so me and my brother had records nobody would have for another 2-5 weeks. My dad’s best mate, who built the stage here, also built me my first ever record player when I was about 4. My mum reckons I would know every one of those records purely by the spacing of the letters on the song title. I remember one time me and my brother were playing music on it, and we came across “Sonic Attack” by Hawkwind. It was all these sirens going off and megaphone warnings of impending doom, and we just thought it was a load of crap and tossed it over our heads. I looked in Record Collector about 10 years ago and saw that it was valued at something like £2,000.
Amazing. So how did you get end up working here?
Well, my dad asked me to come and work for him. I was a little reticent about it, because the relationship between you and your dad changes to boss and worker. And when you’ve got someone younger coming in and trying to change things around there is a great deal of resistance.
What kind of resistance?
Well, I’ll never forget Chris York from SJM calling me in 1993 and asking if there was a date in March for this band “Oasis” who he thought could be really big. “I’m pretty sure it will sell out,” he told me. So, I asked dad for the date and he said, “Sorry son, I’ve got Monty Sunshine’s Good Time Jazz Band playing that night.” So, when dad went for lunch I rang Monty and asked if we could move him and he was fine with it. I never even told my dad. I just rang Chris back and gave him the date. The rest is history.
What kind of club was it back then?
When I first started working here we were putting on jazz four nights per week. Then there would be a lot of R&B, northern soul, blues. But even back then my dad had the vision to see that we could branch out with our music policy. He ended up with residencies with The Who when they were The High Numbers, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and many more. We’ve carried on like that ever since. I remember talking to Jools Holland four or five years ago and he said one of the things he loved about this club was that he could come here on a Wednesday and see trad jazz and then come on a Friday and see The Sex Pistols. I’ve never known any different, so it felt easy to just continue like that to this day.
The way Soho is now, walking down those steps into this place now feels like walking back through time.
It’s funny how things change so quickly. And I get a feeling now that people want to embrace stuff like this more than ever. Not just The 100 Club, but any place that’s been around more than 10 or 20 years. People are starting to appreciate these places as little goldmines in a corporate and bland world. Walking up and down any high street now, it’s bland and sterile. I know times are different now, but looking around this world through the eyes of my kids, I’ve never known so many signs that say no and so many people telling you no. You need to let people get rid of their energy in a positive way, and that is what we are about down here, and that is what music does.
I think the more people get disillusioned with this accelerated culture, the more people cling on to things that seem authentic.
Exactly. And a live music experience isn’t barriers and lines of security. It’s about fans being so close to the musician they could touch em. That’s one of the things I say to all promoters when they come here: you’re not putting a barrier up. One of the only people I ever did it for was Paul McCartney and that’s because his manager was worried about it being so close to the anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination. I remember he said, “Paul playing your club is a very good thing, but Paul dying in your club is a very bad thing.”
What key life lessons have you learned from being a venue owner for this long?
Your staff are your most important asset. No question. You need good bookers, good bar staff, and good security is really important and gets flagged a lot if you don’t have it. Our security, Big John, has had nearly six songs made about him because they all love him. Also: don’t change something unless it’s broken. There is this constant desire among all industries to reinvent and change. With us, it’s dead simple: we are a live music venue. I won’t suddenly put pole dancers on.
Do you have any regrets?
Not really. I wish things weren’t as hard. I wish people in authority could see the bigger picture. There are a lot of people in government who couldn’t give a shit if the 100 club shuts. But it’s so small minded. London is one of the most visited tourist areas anywhere. That is worth a fortune. Those tourists are coming here to come to places like this, places of cultural heritage. They aren’t all coming for Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. They are coming for our arts and music heritage. And if it all continues to fall off a cliff, then suddenly London has a serious economic issue. I mean, what is the point in opening the Night Tube if there is nowhere for people to go?
It feels like the disappearance of venues like this is affecting the music industry in so many ways, like a key part of the food chain is being removed.
The live music industry contributes £4billion to the treasury every year, but the other stat that is really worrying is the average headline band at the average British festival last year was 57 years old. That is a serious problem. There aren’t enough live music venues where young artists can come and learn their trade anymore, so they can end up high up the bill on the Pyramid Stage in 2022. So you’re seeing the same bands headlining festival after festival. It’s a matter of time before people decide they don’t want to see whoever it is at the Isle of Wight for the sixth time, then people will stop going, and then the music industry has a big problem.
Do you ever feel like deep down, the local government would rather The 100 Club did shut and pave the way for something else? Another block of offices maybe.
I have thought that until recently, the policy in Westminster has been to drive as many of us into the ground as possible. I think things are slightly different now, because suddenly national government have got onto the case because of a review I helped write with the Music Venue Trust and Music Week and Village Underground. It went to the House of Commons and House of Lords and actually got really well reviewed. They understood that there was issues with planning and that some of the noise complaints were ridiculous. But as ever, and especially with Brexit now, it’s taking forever for anything to go through.
From artists being evicted in Hackney Wick to music venues being closed in central London it feels like culture in this city has been under attack for years now.
And it’s not like this everywhere. From Berlin to Vienna, there are now hubs where the local governments are actively encouraging people to open venues and start festivals over there, and they consider them as assets of community and not a bloody nuisance like we are considered. There is still a really conservative attitude towards live music venues, by people in authority, who look at me and see: late nights, girls and boys together, alcohol, loud music, 3am licence – and just assume we are doing the devil’s work.
Have there ever been discussions to turn this place into some sort of heritage site?
Yeah, in 2010 when we nearly went bust, English Heritage said they wanted to plaque us. They wrote an amazing report and totally understood the historical context of the club. But the culture secretary at the time who said something along the lines of the club being just like any basement in London. Muddy Waters hasn’t played any basement in London, neither have The Sex Pistols. But that was the type of attitude we were up against. We’re not the opera, we’re not ballet, but popular culture is just as important as the classics.
You certainly have plenty support from the arts community, as shown when Paul McCartney and others came out in support during your battle with closure in 2010.
Yeah, I was here for the McCartney show. It was an incredibly emotional gig. He’d flown over from South America to do it. It’s funny, his piano tech came in the day before and said to me: “Paul’s gonna play your piano tomorrow.” I said that was amazing. He said, “It may be amazing to you, but I can tell you that’s the worst fucking piano he’s played for 40 years. Go out and get me a hoover.” So I had to run to John Lewis and get a hoover, and when I got back the piano was in five different parts. He’d polished it all up, changed strings, changed felts on the hammers, then he hoovered it, and the bloody thing has hardly gone out of tune ever since. Best £50 I ever spent.
That’s mad. You hosted some Independent Venue Week gigs earlier this year. What made you want to get involved?
Everyone wants to get behind IVW and give it publicity. I love being involved. I’d do it far more often if they ever decided to lengthen it out. That and the Music Venues Trust are two of the most important organisations around at the moment. We need them more than ever. We’re lucky that we have a heritage and history which enables us to do amazing things with big partners. Not every venue has that.
Speaking of big partners, tell me about your new Fred Perry partnership?
So, our Converse contract came to an end in December. They gave us six years which was incredible. Now, we are starting something with Fred Perry, with a partnership that I think has huge potential when you consider the music heritage of both companies – it’s a really good fit. We can’t wait to get started.