Flogging Molly has a song about it, Ian Dury named one of his early bands after it and it was once known as ‘London’s music mile’. Join me on a musical walk down the Kilburn High Road.
During the first lockdown, I explored some of my local areas and discovered some historical gems that are so regularly overlooked. Below is a guide to Kilburn's musical history.
A Brief History of Kilburn:
Located in North-West London the Kilburn High Road borders both the London Borough of Camden and Brent. The High Road is a busy thoroughfare along Edgware Road, taking a traveller directly into the centre of London.
The origins of the road are ancient. The High Road was once part of Watling Street, a road that took people from Canterbury to St Albans, a route later paved by the Romans.
The name "Kilburn" was first recorded in 1134 as ‘Cuneburna’, referring to the priory of nuns that was built on the site that same year. The priory was later destroyed by Henry VIII and all that remains today is Abbey Road, which was once the old track leading to the priory. Through the following centuries, a number of inns were built for weary journeymen and pilgrims who were travelling to and from London.
The arrival of the railway in 1852 brought more visitors to Kilburn and it began to develop as a London suburb giving middle-class city workers a quick and convenient commute. By the end of the 18th century, the area became poor and many of the large and grand houses began to be divided and sub-let. It also became an area where many immigrants began to settle, particularly the Irish, who often worked on the railways and roads. This all lead to numerous music halls, theatres, and pubs being constructed to entertain both local and travelling residents.
We will start our walk at Kilburn Station, on the Jubilee Line, and travel south down the High Road to Maida Vale.
The first stop on the walk is Powers Bar, located at 332 Kilburn High Road. It closed in 2013 after 13 years of providing North West London with live music. The venue provided a platform for emerging artists and hosted a traditional Irish session on Sundays. More established acts such as Laura Marling, The Undertones, and Pete Doherty played the venue.
The Luminaire Club:
The next venue is the Luminaire Club at 311 Kilburn High Road. It was originally located above The Kings Head Bar and was even awarded music venue of the year. The venue was famous for their 'silence during performance policy' which made it a favourite venue for fans and musicians alike; helping quieter bands perform uninterrupted. Jarvis Cocker, Babyshambles, and Jamie T all played here. The venue also became renowned for promoting Americana with the likes of Sea Sick Steve playing here before going on to gain wider recognition. Unfortunately, like the other venues along Kilburn High Road, it is now closed. Shutting its doors for the last time in 2010, five years after first opening. The Kings Head is now a Savers and the music venue is apartments.
The Good Ship:
Continue a few steps down the road and you will come to where The Good Ship once was. This was a music venue where the likes of Adele and Kate Nash cut their teeth. Unfortunately, this is a more recent closure and was demolished in 2019. There is now only one music venue along the High Road. Music venues are foundations of the music scene and without them, new musicians will not be able to develop. More needs to be done to stop more venues from closing.
The Kilburn National Club
Next is The Kilburn National Club, a music venue that has more than one story to tell.
First opened in 1914 as the Grange Cinema with a capacity of 2028 it remained open until 1975. It then became Butty’s Club and Dance Hall, catering for the Irish community in Kilburn. It was owned by Michael ‘Butty’ Sugrue who was an Irish strongman, publican, and entrepreneur. Butty was responsible for bringing Muhammad Ali to Ireland for a fight and for organising a local barman to be buried alive in Kilburn. Mick Meaney smashed the world record after being buried alive for 61 days emerging from the ground in April 1968.
It then became the Kilburn National Club and attracted some of the biggest names in music. For example, Johnny Cash, David Bowie, Big Audio Dynamite, Stiff Little Fingers, Fugazi, and Nirvana are just some of the people who played there.
Today the building is home to a church group, having been saved from demolition, and its history remains.
The Gaumont State Theatre:
A couple of steps down from The Kilburn National Club is the Gaumont State Theatre. You can't miss it, dominating the area's skyline, like a miniature version of New York’s Empire State Building. This place has an amazing history. It was first built 1937 in the art deco design (designed by George Coles). It had one of the largest cinema auditoriums in Europe with a capacity of over 4000.
Opening night was documented and broadcasted by BBC Radio on the 20th December 1937 where the audience was treated to performances by George Formby among others. Since then the royalty of rock and roll and jazz have graced the stage. Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Who, Ian Dury, and Black Sabbath are just a few of the people who played there.
However, these glory days were not to last and from the late 1980s until 2007 the Gaumont State became a Mecca Bingo Hall. Today the building still stands although it is now owned by the Ruach City Church.
Kilburn Theatre of Varieties:
Continue down the High Road and turn left onto Belsize Road. It is here where The Kilburn Theatre of Varieties was once located. As a building, it has changed names countless times.
Originally it was a town hall, built in the 1880s and its stage was used for amateur productions.
In 1895 it was converted into a theatre with a fire curtain, stage, and a 514 capacity auditorium. In 1900 it changed its name to the Theatre Royal and began staging variety shows. This was part of a wider phenomenon that was sweeping through the suburbs with music halls staging variety shows to feed popular demand. Brixton, Deptford, Holloway, and Hammersmith all saw new halls being built during this time period. Music Hall had evolved from its working-class origins in the 1850s and developed into a more sanitized and patriotic affair that was now appealing to the middle classes who once scoffed at it.
In August 1909, and the dawn of the age of cinema, the Theatre began showing early films as well as stage shows and became known as the Cinematograph Theatre and then the Kilburn Picture Palace.
However, the popularity of the theatre decreased as the century progressed, until the venue was closed in 1940, before then being left empty for a number of years until it was converted into a function hall later.
Decca Recordings then took over the building and demolished the auditorium, leaving the frontage partly in place, you can see this today. Decca had their recording studio up the road in West Hampstead and had an important role in kick-starting rock and roll in Britain.
The Kilburn Empire:
Walk back onto the Kilburn High Road and walk down until you reach the Maida Vale Marriott Hotel, which now stands in the place where The Kilburn Empire once stood. Originally it was built in 1906 and had a capacity of 1913. There were animal traps including an elephant pit built into the building, for various acts that used animals as entertainment. Throughout its history it has adapted to the times, hosting plays and becoming a cinema up until it closed 1981. Since then it has been a place of worship and paintball centre before being demolished in 1994 and a hotel being built in its place.
Thanks for reading this and I hope you've found it interesting. I run historical walking tours and postcard making workshops focusing on London’s social and music history. The aim is to explore London's hidden urban history in a creative way by taking photos on an instant camera and then making your own postcard as a memory of the day.
If you have enjoyed this post please share it with others and if you go on your own adventure after reading this I would love to see how you get on.
Until the next time stay well and tread out of time.