In the recent Elvis Costello autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (pub. Viking) there’s a fascinating chapter dedicated to the young Declan’s first faltering steps as a live performer. In touching detail, Elvis describes the clubs and pubs who allowed virtually anyone to get up and perform for free. We’d call them Open Mic Nights these days I suppose, but back then they weren’t really a feature so much as a way to fill the gaps between the main (i.e. paid) performers. Sometimes the floor singers were pretty good, often they were terrible, but mostly they were simply dull. Folk clubs were the natural habitat of the floor singer of course and one of the best places to find them in the 60s and 70s was arguably the most famous London folk club of them all, Les Cousins.
Located beneath a restaurant at 49 Greek Street in the heart of Soho, Les Cousins was tiny and claustrophobic holding, at a guess, maybe 100 people when full. By today’s standards, it was a health and safety nightmare, reached by a dark, narrow staircase leading down from the street with no discernible fire exits. In the overhead stairwell were large framed blow-ups of two significant LP sleeves of the time: the famous Bert Jansch and John Renbourn album Bert and John and the self-titled debut LP by the a cappella folk trio The Young Tradition. Both records were released in 1966 by the Transatlantic label so perhaps there was a promotional deal going on there. At the bottom of the staircase, an old man in a trilby and overcoat sat on a stool collecting the entrance fee of a few shillings.
There are various theories as to the origin of the name, the most obvious being Claude Chabrol’s eponymous 1959 film. But I seldom heard anyone use the French pronunciation when speaking of the club, with most people preferring the decidedly British “Lez Cuzzins” (or “The Cousins”) to the more exotic “Lay Coo-zan”.
Although there had been a club presenting jazz and skiffle at 49 Greek Street as early as 1957, the story goes that Les Cousins opened as a folk club on Friday, April 16, 1965, the same day that the self-titled debut Bert Jansch LP was released. If true this is a wonderful piece of synchronicity given that for many years Bert was one of the key performers at the club.
To say that Les Cousins was an important folk music venue would be a wild understatement. Just about every UK folkie of prominence in the 60s and 70s cut their teeth here and, for a while, it was the hub of British folk music. Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Roy Harper, John Martyn, Martin Carthy, Donovan, Wiz Jones, Sandy Denny, the Incredible String Band, the Young Tradition and Al Stewart all played the club, while visiting American artists such as Stefan Grossman and Jackson C. Frank also dropped in. Paul Simon played at Les Cousins during his pre-fame London sabbatical and it’s even rumoured that Bob Dylan dropped in a couple of times, as an observer if not a performer.
I was a regular at Les Cousins for a couple of years from mid-1967 through to 1969, mostly attending the famous weekend all-nighters. These were uncomfortable affairs, sitting for hours on the floor without food or drink (Les Cousins didn’t have a drinks license and most of us couldn’t afford much more than a Coke and a stale sandwich, anyway) before stumbling out blearily into the grey dawn as the London Tube began to run again on Sunday morning. Bert Jansch later wrote about this in the song “Daybreak” from his 1977 album A Rare Conundrum.
It wasn’t all soon-to-be famous folkies and influential guitar players, though. There were other hopefuls who played Les Cousins. These were the floor singers.
Between the big-name acts, or while we were waiting for someone to drag Bert Jansch or John Martyn out of a nearby pub to play their set, the stage was turned over to absolutely anyone who wanted to perform. These amateur floor singers were of varying quality and ability, ranging from excellent, via passable to unbelievably toe-curlingly bad. Blind, misguided confidence is a wonderful thing to behold especially when unfettered by any hint of talent and just like the deluded souls on the early rounds of a Simon Cowell TV show, it’s the really bad ones that are often the most memorable.
One regular Les Cousins floor singer from circa 1968 resembled a youthful Henry Kissinger. Short of stature with thick, horn-rimmed specs and severe wavy hair worn “Brillo Pad” style in the manner of Bernard Levin, he would accompany himself not with a guitar but a mandolin and a harmonica harness around his neck.
This chap was fond of using an expression I’ve heard nowhere else, either before or since. He referred to his mouth organ as the “blues bellows”. “I’ll need the old blues bellows for this next number” he would say, while rummaging in his duffle bag. He penned his own songs, too. “Here’s one I wrote after my girlfriend left me” he’d impart ominously, before treating us to a mawkish ballad about tearful separations and departing jet planes.
Ironically, it was the “old blues bellows” that proved to be his undoing this particular night. Mid-way through an interminable self-penned tale of woe with countless verses, he launched into the harmonica solo, only to find he’d put the harp in the harness upside down, with the bass notes where the high notes should be and vice versa. Understandably, the ensuing cacophony completely put him off his stride and instead of bluffing his way through, he stopped the song mid-solo and attempted to flip the instrument over. In doing so he fumbled and dropped it. Almost in slow motion the harmonica cart-wheeled from his grasp, bounced off the edge of the tiny stage and into the front row of the audience.
Clearly unfamiliar with the adage “the show must go on” “Henry” curtailed the performance at that point and shuffled back into the shadows, a broken man.
Another unforgettable floor singer was the girl we nicknamed “Francoise” because of her similarly to the French folk chanteuse Francoise Hardy. Tall and willowy, “Francoise” was strikingly attractive with her tight leather pants (outrageous for the time) and waist-length hair. But although she looked stunning, she, unfortunately, lacked musical ability of any kind. I only saw her perform once, but it was a memorable occasion. Opening her homemade cover (little more than a piece of chenille fabric sewn into the shape of a guitar bag) she removed the cheapest instrument imaginable. It was one of those terrible no-name plywood guitars which looked like it was made from old orange boxes and sold for maybe £20 in the 60s: steel strings, slot-head tuners, unplayable action an inch off the fretboard etc. To complete the ensemble her guitar strap was just a length of satin twine of the type used to tie curtains back.
It didn’t augur well and our worst fears were realised when her opening chord was hopelessly out of tune. “Francoise” stopped playing and without a hint of self-awareness said “Oh, that’s strange. It was in tune when I left home this morning”. She continued to struggle with it for a while, turning the tuners wildly this way and that until an audience member could stand it no longer and jumped up on stage to tune the guitar for her as best he could.
What happened next was even more surreal. Instead of the expected popular folk tune or campfire ballad, she stunned everyone by launching into a rocking version of “Hard Headed Woman” from the 1958 Elvis movie King Creole. Of course it was desperately out of tune both vocally and instrumentally, but even so. it lacked nothing in terms of presentation. “Francoise” gave the song everything, including some energetic Elvis-style shape-throwing and hip-swivelling. I can’t remember how it ended, or even if she sang any more songs, but I do recall the stunned silence followed by a smattering of polite applause as she left the stage.
It was the headliners we had come to see however and no one was more influential in the folk world than Davey Graham. Unfortunately, Davey’s genius was also tempered by his legendary substance abuse which gave his live performances an air of danger and unpredictability. This eventually all but killed his career and in the 70s it was possible to encounter Britain’s greatest folk blues guitarist busking for small change at Camden Market or hanging out in a squalid Ladbroke Grove squat for example.
But in the late 60s, Davey was still a star and regularly headlined Les Cousins’ all-nighters. I turned up to see him perform one Saturday around 1968 with the usual high expectations. He was due on stage around 10 or 11 pm but midnight came and went with no sign of him. Eventually, some hours after the scheduled appearance time, we heard a commotion at the entrance to the tiny club and the most extraordinary sight greeted the assembled folkies.
The staircase leading down from the street led to a doorway to the left of the stage and the performers had to weave their way through the audience (who were seated cross-legged on the floor, for the most part) to perform. Suddenly, Davey Graham appeared amongst us and very slowly began to pick his way toward the low stage. Always short-haired and smartly dressed, we were surprised to see his trademark crew-cut was, this night, covered by a brightly coloured bandanna. As he came closer the reason for his slow progress became apparent. Davey had a guitar case in one hand and was also leading a small dog – a Jack Russell terrier to be exact – with the other. Once safely on the stage, he tied the dog’s leash to his stool and sat down. Ominously, the guitar case remained firmly shut at this juncture. He then began to address the audience. There followed almost an hour of the most interminable stream-of-consciousness, psycho babble imaginable, none of it accompanied by a single note of music.
After 30 minutes or so of this blissed-out dissertation, even the dog had nodded off. Being respectful folkies though, the audience were far too polite to give Davey the slow-hand clap or walk out on him. There may have been a smattering of embarrassed throat-clearing or nervous tittering during some of the more incomprehensible moments (i.e. most of it), but we remained seated and silent to the bitter end. Mercifully, he eventually took out his famous Gibson J50 and commenced to play some of the most incandescent jazz/blues/folk guitar. It was simply amazing stuff and in retrospect worth every second of the endless stoned rap preamble. At the end, Davey put away his guitar, untied the Jack Russell and together they slowly wound their way through the crowd and out into the grey Soho dawn.