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A Night Out At Koko In Camden

Published 28 July 2010

Camden Town has many watering holes and clubs, but few of them can compete in Rock n’ Roll history and gloss with the one lying at the lower edge of Camden High Street, just opposite Mornington Crescent tube station. Koko, formerly known as Camden Palace, is the indisputable landmark of the area. As a matter of fact, not a few residents of Mornington Crescent, disillusioned with abortive attempts to explain where they live, add an explanatory remark that everybody can get easily: ‘I live by Koko’…

The success of the club can be measured by the hordes of people waiting at the entrance as early as 5 pm (!) on a Friday afternoon, when an up-and-coming group is about to perform. It can also be measured by the amount of languages spoken among the bunches of youngsters tirelessly standing for hours in the queue. Not a few of them have come from faraway places such as Italy or France, just to taste Koko’s allure. No Big Ben, no Hyde Park, not even Thames River for them, as the only London route they know well is from King’s Cross Rail Station to Mornington Crescent. It’s always a funny sight to observe the way the bulky bouncer at the entrance looks down on them, more as a schoolteacher than as a bouncer. You’ll be grown-ups one day, he seems to be thinking…

Once you get inside Koko, nothing looks different from a regular Camden club. It’s only when you realize that you are actually in a punk Opera House that things get a bit more quirky. Moving to the bar for a drink, the most disappointing thing is not the price – £5.50 for a glass of wine is not much for a club after all – but the plastic glass that it’s served in, not exactly in character with the ubiquitous chandeliers and the classy balconies of the theatre. If ever there was a place where a rebellion against Health & Safety red tape would be started, Koko is as good a place as any.

It is a Friday night when I go, and three groups are going to have their part in Koko’s history. The three floors of the venue along with the private balconies on the sides, all decorated in an old-fashioned Baroque style, give a Phantom Of The Opera ambience to the club, and the first Phantom – the group – has not even appeared yet.

When it does, a spontaneous fuss takes over, as if England just won the World Cup. It sounds like a postmodern version of Sex and The Pistols, and Koko seems to remember the good old days, as if a drunken Sid Vicious would show up to sing My Way in his unique style to make everyone take a bow. Perhaps not everyone, as some kids on the upper floors rain alcohol down on the ones dancing next to the stage. They don’t seem to care though, as if nothing can interrupt their excitement. Their ’10s I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude does not seem to fit to the club’s unpretentious ’80s aesthetic, epitomized by the huge disco ball towering above the venue.

As the group plays its last song, the speakers play disco, and we officially swing back to the ’80s. A video wall showing images of animals adds the necessary tint of political correctness to a place that does not seem to need it that much. After all, Koko has not been deprived of the necessary Rock’n Roll self-destruction; this was the place where the former singer of ACDC Bon Scott was last seen in public in 1980, before he passed away.

Koko is indeed a point of reference, not only for Mornington Crescent and Camden Town, but also for London’s nightlife. Artists who should never appear in the same sentence, such as The Clash and Hannah Montana, have performed here. A former theater opened as early as in 1900, Koko’s history as a live music venue goes back to 1972, when it was called The Music Machine. In the tumultuous ’70s and ’80s, it was a favourite haunt for punks. Today, flirty adolescents stand next to freaks and immaculately-clad yuppies in the club’s three floors, eyes set on the stage, hands moving abruptly.

The next group takes over, and it’s time for their fans to state their case. The singer, an obscure copy of Pete Doherty, seems to snub his fans, but that’s only for a second. The next one, he lets his suppressed energy explode into a Mick-Jagger-like overstretching. His fan club, an assortment of classy ladies and 17-year olds hipsters sporting Converse and hippie bandanas, goes mad. The group seems to play a makeshift funky country that makes everyone follow the rhythm. For those of us who are over 19, there is always the lounge bar on the third floor, where formal apparel, tea and sympathy seems to be the rule. The music here is classy and people can have a decent drink and chat, or maybe even a glass of champagne if nobody looks from downstairs.

Next to the bar, there is the entrance to Koko’s secret garden. A gift to its fans for the summer, the wide-open, newly opened rooftop terrace has a splendid view to Camden High Street’s kebab shops and off licenses, ideal for laidback mockery of passersby on the sidewalk below. The only hassle is that drinks are not allowed here at night. Nevertheless, the terrace is a huge asset for the club, especially during an early afternoon on a sunny day. It’s also ideal for smooching or romantic tête-à-têtes, as the benches on the terrace crave for this kind of silly socializing.

But we are already in the wee hours of the night, and the crowd storms the dirty streets of Camden Town, heading for a late kebab. Few people remember what happened in the club, and even fewer want to forget. Besides, most of them will be here again next Friday!

Koko Live Music Club
Address: 1a Camden High Street, London NW1 7JE
Nearest Tube station: Mornington Crescent (across the road)
Official website: www.koko.uk.com

  • jeniffer

    Hi there, I thought the retro/vintage fans out there would like to know about a great jive night on the 2nd & 3rd Tuesday of the month in North London.

    Jump Jive and Shout is fun friendly and lively with DJ Salome spinning some of the best in 1940s/50s rhythm & blues, jump jive, doo wop, boogie woogie and more. With great live music. On Tuesday 21st December Big John Carter and Henri Herbert 2 of the UKs best boogie woogie blues piano men are live for a red hot night of deep boogie woogie blues.

    Tuesday 21st December 8pm -12pm
    Entry £5.00 on the door

    Jump Jive and Shout
    The Fiddler’s Elbow
    1 Malden Road
    (Chalk Farm Tube, Kentish Town West, Kentish Town Rail Buses: 24, 46, 393)

    http://www.fiddlerselbow.piczo.com 0207 485 3269 the.jiver@hotmail.co.uk
    NB. Closed for January and return Tuesday 8th Feb