Speakeasy, where The Who could drink easy, pull easy

From 1966 for the next decade the coolest club in London was the famous Speakeasy located in the modest basement of 48 Margaret Street. As the watering hole of choice for the glitterati of the rock and pop music scene, it was frequented by virtually every musician of note, both British and American, from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, many of whom played there.

People sitting in a group.

John Entwistle, Bill Wyman, Pauline Cutler, and Ringo Starr at The Speakeasy in Margaret Street. Photo courtesy of Pauline Cutler.

It was immortalised on disc by both The Who, in their song Speakeasy, which includes the wonderful lyric: “Speakeasy, drink easy, pull easy”, from the album The Who Sell Out (1967), and Elvis Costello, who mentioned the club in his song London’s Brilliant Parade from the album Brutal Youth (1994).

I met Pauline Cutler who worked at the Speakeasy (or the Speak, as everyone referred to it) from the very early days, and later owned the club in the ‘80s, in its new incarnation as Bootleggers. Originally from Birmingham, Pauline was helping run a club there, the Midnight City Club under New Street Station, at the tender age of 15, while also go-go dancing in a cage at the famous Elbow Room club. At 16 she moved to London to study at the Royal Ballet School. Living in a damp flat in Maida Vale with three other girls, and needing to make ends meet she discovered the Speak, as she explains: “I was the hostess in reception, and always getting chatted up. Working in a club was great, lots of big tips. It was a music business club, favoured by record industry executives, and groups had their promotions there. The bands would come on late and it was the first club to have a 3am licence. The first group I remember there were The Who, then called the High Numbers. Their first contract was drafted on a tablecloth at the club.”

The Speakeasy was owned by David Shamoon, an Iraqi-born entrepreneur, who went on to open Revolution and Blaises, and the Shamoon family still own half of Margaret Street. In 1968, Shamoon very shrewdly hired Laurie O’Leary to help run the place, both because he was a childhood friend of the Kray twins and their brother Charlie (about whom he wrote the book Ronnie Kray, who he cautiously described as “a marvellous friend, but a very dangerous enemy”); and because he was very well known in the music business, having booked the acts for the Krays’ Knightsbridge Club, Esmeralda’s Barn (featured in the recent film about the Krays, Legend, and popular with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra) and later Sybylla’s, co-owned by George Harrison. He had worked with many big names including: Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Mick Fleetwood, Marvin Gaye and Steve Marriott, putting together the original Small Faces line up. Pauline, the beautiful young dancer, and Laurie, the fixer, became an item and oversaw the club — “Laurie was never a gangster, but an observer” explains Pauline, “He was hired because he was connected, and good at what he did.”

The roll call of bands that played there was impressive, to say the least, including: The Beatles, Bob Marley, Cockney Rebel, Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Deep Purple, Ginger Baker, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, King Crimson, Mothers of Invention, Pink Floyd and Yes. Eric Clapton was a regular — his band Derek and the Dominos was launched there. At a time when a popular graffiti slogan was “Clapton is God” Eric Clapton’s simple and effective chat up line was “My name’s Eric Clapton, what’s yours?” Rod Stewart would sing for pints at the bar and Keith Richard would play with whoever was around. Everyone from Marc Bolan to Bob Dylan was there, not to mention all the bands that are now long forgotten — Glass Menagerie, Velvet Opera and Renaissance — and the ones that never made it — Audience, Sampson, Spirit of John Morgan — all six of these groups playing a night each during just one hot June week.

The psychedelically embellished Speakeasy was always full of rock’n’roll royalty, either performing, watching other bands, socialising or often just getting involved in informal jam sessions. There were a lot of recreational drugs and crazy antics. Keith Moon was a fixture, and when he wasn’t trying to join the band on stage, letting off stink bombs or getting involved in food fights (mushy peas being the ammunition of choice) he would be getting up to mischief with his best pal actor Oliver Reed, also a regular, dropping their trousers, dancing on the bar and chucking chairs around. Pauline remembers catching Keith in flagrante delicto on the fire escape with one of the Swedish waitresses! “Nobody seemed to sleep, and we would often all go on to the Troubadour in Earls Court, which was open all night.” The front door was often cluttered with photographers and Pauline would smuggle her famous clientele out via the fire escape which came out a couple of doors up the road; or by cannily calling other clubs and telling them such and such rock star was on their way over, which the paparazzi would get wind of, and decamp.

David Bowie used to hang out there a lot from the late ‘60s, and performed there as Ziggy Stardust. Pauline recalls a memorable night: “After the hooha had died down when Bowie famously killed off Ziggy, onstage at Hammersmith Odeon, we all went for dinner with David and several others in the famous Grill Room at the Café Royale. We all sat rather dumbfounded at what had happened, and Bowie took off all clothes and announced ‘Ziggy’s dead, he’s gone!’ as he stood next to the piano, totally starkers. Oscar Wilde (famous patron of this venue) would have approved — I think that that is why he did it.”

By the mid ‘70s it was starting to fizzle out and more fashion and film people were coming in and Pauline was pursuing her career as a dancer with Dougie Squires Young Generation, supporting the likes of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck on prime time TV. The Sex Pistols were the last band to play there in 1976 with queues of spiky haired punks, a fitting end to an era, as many claim that Punk was the death knell for what was then called progressive rock.

Fast forward to the ‘80s and Pauline was back in business at 48 Margaret Street as co-owner of the all new Bootleggers, after the venue had failed under different management. Tearing out the tacky screening that hid the original Speakeasy décor, Pauline discovered the original Speakeasy pinball table, which she promptly sold to the Hard Rock Café, where it still resides, and installed mirrors originally designed for the Biba shop. Encouraged by her old oppo Laurie O’Leary, Pauline took the club back to its music business roots, but for a different generation and this time as customers rather than performers . The bar was the longest in London with an illuminated version of the Manhattan skyline behind it, complete with figures jumping from skyscrapers, and the waitresses wore saucy satin costumes with pill box hats, that had first featured in Martini adverts.

The new club was opened by actor Richard Harris, a close friend of Laurie’s. Barbara Windsor, Tony Curtis and Charlie Kray were also there. Boy George and Marilyn tried to gatecrash the opening, and regulars included many of the old faces and a new generation of musicians, including Phil Lynott, Lemmy (who Pauline often had to take home, when he was a bit far gone) and Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Mel, of Mel & Kim fame, worked behind the bar and Simon Cowell, then a record plugger, was a regular.

Pauline remembers being in a party that included Richard Burton in Richard Harris’s suite at the Savoy. Talking about French films, she said her favourite was La Cage aux Folles. Harris immediately went into the bedroom and emerges wearing only boxer shorts and vest, mincing around, and saying “I want to be the camp one”, while Richard Burton argued, “No, I want to be the camp one”. Harris protested “No, you’ve already played a gay man in the film Staircase!” and they continued to recite and improvise whole scenes from the film, much to the entertainment of the assembled company.

Sadly, Mark her business partner in Bootleggers died in 1987, and Pauline lost heart and sold her share, the end of another era. An amazing and historic Fitzrovia venue that over twenty years witnessed the greats of one of the most influential periods in twentieth century popular music, from Beat to New Romantics.

I think a blue plaque is long overdue.

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