In late 1966, I arrived in London with little more than a guitar and a change of clothes. The summer of love was just around the corner and, to paraphrase Dylan, there was music in the cafés at night and cultural revolution in the air.
Almost immediately I landed a job at W. Paxton, an old established music publisher on Old Compton Street deep in the heart of Soho.
To say the area was buzzing would be an understatement. Cafés, exotic delicatessens, strip clubs, folk cellars, guitar shops and boutiques were everywhere in the surrounding streets. Across the street was the 2i’s Coffee Bar, supposedly the first rock club in Europe and the place where British rockers Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Marty Wilde, and Tommy Steele got their start. A few doors along at 63 Old Compton Street was the one-time premises of the Beatles’ tailor Dougie Millings where the Fab Four had their famous collarless suits made in 1963. The legendary Flamingo and Marquee clubs were just a stone’s throw away in nearby Wardour Street and a few yards in the other direction was Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in nearby Frith Street.
Established in 1870, Paxton’s Dean Street head office was strictly old school, publishing mainly classical and brass band music of strictly limited interest in the swinging 60s. They even had their own Paxton record label which, even then, was all-but-moribund. Thankfully, the Old Compton Street branch was more hip, supplying music stores across Britain and Europe with the latest pop sheet music and songbooks sourced from the various London-based publishing houses, of which there were dozens at that time.
Sheet music had been king in the first half of the 20th Century but by the 60s it was fast losing ground to record sales and the traditional publishers were becoming an anachronism. In the 70s and 80s closures, amalgamations and takeovers became commonplace and the music publishing industry shrank to a shadow of its former self.
With a small retail counter at street level and a maze of corridors leading to Dickensian wood-panelled offices and subterranean storage rooms behind, Paxton’s was an odd place indeed, employing a motley assortment of misfits, oddballs and eccentrics. Some senior staff members had worked there for decades and nearly all had strange personality traits. A few of the more venerable bosses were even rumoured to have been at the company for 50 years, taking them back to the First World War!
It transpired that my job at Paxton’s had recently been vacated by a talented guitar player named Caleb Quaye, who had gone to work as an engineer at nearby Dick James’ studio where he would hook up with Elton John, then known as Reg Dwight. Reg and Caleb had met at Paxton’s and would often sit in the downstairs tea room planning their musical future. At the time Reg worked for another publisher, Mills Music in Denmark Street, just a two-minute walk from Old Compton Street.
Another Paxton’s worker was the co-writer of several published songs, including the 1952 Max Bygraves novelty hit “You’re a Pink Toothbrush” (for decades a staple of the BBC radio request show Children’s Favourites) for which he received a few pounds in royalties a couple of times a year. Despite this modest level of fame, he wore a brown warehouse coat and worked in the gloomy basement beneath a bare light bulb filling orders of vocal scores for stage and film musicals. The bulky, multi-sheet scores were individually wrapped in brown paper tied up with hemp string. Some hadn’t been disturbed for years and were covered in a healthy layer of dust which he would remove with his sleeve before carefully undoing the knot and opening them.
Another highly entertaining, if somewhat unhinged, character was a messenger boy known simply as “Nigel” (his last name escapes me). Nigel was totally obsessed with The Who and despite looking like an overweight bank clerk in a tweed jacket complete with leather elbow patches, he would regularly perform an impromptu version of “My Generation” for us in the tearoom.
Using a piece of wood as a makeshift guitar and placing heavy emphasis on Roger Daltrey’s stuttering delivery (particularly the line, “Why don’t you all f-f-f-f-fade away,” which he seemed to find particularly risqué) Nigel would roll around on the floor and then smash his “guitar” Townshend style. And of course, unfeeling bastards that we were, we would egg him relentlessly until inevitably one of the managers heard the racket and came in to curtail Nigel’s performance.
When agitated (which seemed to be most of the time) Nigel would suck his thumb and regress to infanthood. He lived at home with his mother in Richmond and there were stories that Pete Townshend knew all about him, inviting Nigel to Who concerts and even to his house on occasion. I suppose these days he would be taken care of properly, but back then Nigel was thrown into the workforce at the deep end and left to sink or swim.
In 1967 Soho exuded an air of seedy, down-at-heel decadence with garishly-lit strip clubs to be seen on almost every street and alleyway. The number of Soho sex-shops and walk-up brothels increased from just a handful in the early sixties to close on a hundred by the early seventies. The Street Offences Act of 1959 had supposedly driven prostitution underground, but it was still visible well into the 60s with working girls appearing in shop doorways as soon as dusk fell. One or two plied their trade from the side exits of the Prince Edward Theatre right next door to Paxton’s and after a while, I got to know the regulars by name. They would tease me mercilessly about my hair and youthful appearance as I scurried past on my messenger boy duties.
Each strip club had a barker standing outside on the pavement whose job it was to cajole the drunks and unsuspecting saps inside where they would be fleeced for bogus membership fees and charged extortionate amounts for drinks. The girls who worked the strip joints had a well-developed rotation system in place and you’d see them rushing from club to club, make-up in place, peroxide hair in rollers under a head scarf and usually wearing a PVC leopard skin print or cheap fur coat of some description to perform their act yet again a few yards down the road. This is surely what inspired Paul McCartney to come up with the line “She said she’d always been a dancer, she worked in 15 clubs a day” when he penned “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” from the Abbey Road album.
Along with the tourists, office workers and local characters, Soho was also home to a number of street entertainers and eccentrics. Don Partridge, the self-styled King of The Buskers, was a one-man band who scored a 1968 UK top ten hit with his song Rosie. Don was an imposing figure who could regularly be seen performing around Soho with his guitar, plus a harmonica and kazoo in a Dylan-style neck harness and a bass drum strapped to his back, not to mention his trademark snakeskin jacket. He was frequently moved on by the police and sometimes even arrested and charged with obstruction, but he’d always be back the next day to perform his Jesse Fuller repertoire.
One of the most distinctive Soho characters of all was Billy Davis, an aging alcoholic semi-vagrant who had a distinctive line in street performance. He wore thick horn rim glasses and would stick a carnation behind each ear, along with another in the buttonhole of his threadbare army surplus overcoat. The flowers were sourced from nearby Covent Garden flower market each morning. Billy’s arrival was always heralded with an abundance of shouting and swearing, so we’d invariably hear him coming long before he came into sight. His party piece involved standing in the middle of the road whereupon, with casual indifference to the traffic chaos he was creating, he would carefully balance a wine bottle on his head and sing ancient music hall songs at the top of his lungs, accompanied by the impatient tooting of car horns and the cursing of taxi drivers. This performance was repeated almost daily around Soho and the spectacle would often gather quite a crowd, so it’s not surprising Billy eventually crossed paths with none other than the Beatles. (See a photo of the Beatles with Billy Davis.)
Working in Soho we’d see famous actors and musicians on the street daily and while it began as a thrill for a lad from the provinces, after a while it became commonplace and a matter of routine. “Just seen Sean Connery in the sandwich shop on Wardour Street” someone would say, prompting a co-worker to counter with a bored “Really? the Small Faces were in the café on Denmark Street this morning” or something similar.
But I don’t care how blasé or world-weary you are, seeing The Beatles in the flesh is something else entirely. A few yards along from Paxton’s at number 76 Old Compton Street, on the second floor above a shop, was Norman’s Film Productions. It was here that the Beatles came almost every weekday for eleven weeks in late 1967 to edit their Magical Mystery Tour movie.
Word started going around that Paul McCartney had been spotted going into Norman’s and sure enough a few days later I saw an Aston Martin DB6 coming down Dean Street with Paul at the wheel. I spotted him a couple more times in the coming weeks, usually alone, but once with Ringo and another time with George.
Then one day coming back from lunch I was about to cross Old Compton Street when I saw all four Beatles walking together. My memory tells me they were walking in single file, like on the Abbey Road sleeve, but that’s probably not true.
They were dressed in their colourful psychedelic finery with neck scarves and beads and George had on a bright yellow Afghan coat. They seemed in high spirits, chatting and wisecracking among themselves and as they passed an eatery named The Yodelling Sausage on the corner of Greek Street and Old Compton Street, Lennon became quite animated and began repeating the name over and over in that unmistakable nasal accent of his.
As for me, I became frozen to the spot. Speechless and gobsmacked, nonplussed and amazed, my flabber was well and truly gasted, you might say. Then they were gone and it was back to the workaday drudgery, eccentrics and misfits at Paxton’s.
In late 1967 Norrie Drummond from the New Musical Express interviewed Paul McCartney at Norman’s Film Productions during the editing of MMT. The Beatles had encountered Billy by this point and had even invited him up to the editing suite for a singalong. The following quote appeared in a November 1967 issue of the NME: “As we walked back through Soho, Paul suddenly spotted Billy, an old friend of the boys. Billy is about sixty and wanders around Soho with a bottle on his head and a carnation behind each ear. “We’d have loved him for the film,” whispered Paul as he, John, Ringo and Billy broke into a chorus of Singing The Blues. “Long Live the Beatles,” shouted Billy as they continued down the street, “and the Stones.””
As a footnote to this tale, a few weeks later we were sitting in the basement tea room at Paxton’s when someone came in brandishing the newly-released double 7” EP of Magical Mystery Tour. We pored over it eagerly, as people did with every new Beatles record back then. Most of the younger members vowed to buy a copy when funds allowed, but one young square piped up with “I’d like to buy a copy for my niece of course, but I don’t think it’s appropriate because of the lyrics”. It turned out he was referring to the line in “I Am The Walrus”: “boy you been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down”. Now, even in 1967, that was a weird thing to say.
In 1971 Paxton’s was acquired by the giant American publisher Charles Hansen Music Corp. and the company relocated to Moorgate in London’s financial district. Compared to Soho it was a dull place to work indeed, totally lacking the colour and character of the West End.
Nevertheless, I had moved up the company food chain by early 1972 and one of the first tasks I was given at Moorgate was the overseeing of a songbook by Harry Nilsson, then based in London. Nilsson was currently riding high with his big hit album Nilsson Schmilsson and the attendant single “Without You” and it was decided to rush a songbook onto the market.
Together with the main designer, I was dispatched to Harry’s fourth-floor apartment at 12 Curzon Place, Mayfair, close to both the US Embassy and the Playboy Club, to show him some proof sheets of photos for the songbook. Although it was past noon when we arrived Harry answered the door looking like a man with the world’s worst hangover and I was gratified to note that he was wearing the very same dressing gown as on the cover of Nilsson Schmilsson.
While the designer and Harry picked over the proof sheets, we drank tea made by his stunning girlfriend and I amused myself by browsing his small but perfectly-formed record collection. Unsurprisingly, the albums were predominantly singer/songwriter themed, with a selection of Beatles LPs, the first two Paul McCartney solo albums, and the newly-released Paul Simon self-titled debut LP all present and correct. As we left, Harry came to the door to see us off, still in that dressing gown and already on what may have been his second double Brandy Alexander of the day.
In the coming years, Harry returned to the US and loaned the Curzon Place flat to a succession of friends. It was here that Mama Cass succumbed to a fatal heart attack in July 1974; four years later Keith Moon died of a drug overdose in the same bed.
By the end of 1973, the US owners decided to close Paxton’s down and the stock, comprising untold thousands of rare and historic music song sheets, dating from the sixties back to Edwardian times, was shipped to America.
Poor, sad Nigel was sacked on a trumped-up misconduct charge, presumably to avoid giving him a sizable redundancy payoff, while the rest of us were quietly laid off.
Epilogue. The Paxton’s former premises at 30 Old Compton Street was the location of a Chinese Bank for several years. In the 90s the area became the centre of London’s LGBT community and today the building houses the world-famous G-A-Y Nightclub.