12 Legendary Gigs At London's Marquee

By Londonist Last edited 13 months ago
12 Legendary Gigs At London's Marquee
Black and white image of the Who playing on a stage
The Who play the Marquee

A new book explores the legendary Marquee club, where many A-listers first gigged.

What’s the link between the corner of Oxford Street and Poland Street; the Soho Lofts apartments on Wardour Street; and the Montagu Pyke Wetherspoon’s pub on Charing Cross Road? Answer: they all occupy sites that were formerly the address of the Marquee, arguably the most influential small music venue there’s ever been – in London, or anywhere else.

The Marquee opened in 1958, as a jazz club in the basement of the Academy Cinema (165 Oxford Street). Jazzers, both trad and modern, played in a circus-themed ballroom designed by noted portrait photographer and theatrical set designer Angus McBean. This is where the Rolling Stones played their first-ever gig in 1962.

Two years later, the club moved down into Soho and 90 Wardour Street. This black-walled, bomb shelter-like space would become home to the first stirrings of blues rock, psychedelia, prog, pub rock, punk, new wave and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. The roll call of artists who took their first tentative steps to fame on the cramped stage of the Marquee is a Who’s Who of British music, from Eric Clapton, Cream, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Pink Floyd to the Sex Pistols, the Jam, U2 and the Cure.

A gig listing for the Marquee
A first appearance by the Police (if you can spot them) from 1977

A gig at the Marquee announced that a band had left the orbit of the suburban pub circuit and was on its way up. It was the gateway to the big time – even if the place often got so hot and airless that performers would pass out on stage.

In the late 1980s, the club moved again, to 105-107 Charing Cross Road, where it hosted early gigs by Inspiral Carpets, James, Spiritualized, PJ Harvey, the Cranberries and Oasis. The Marquee closed in 1995, never to be revived. It survives these days as a fondly remembered entry on many bands’ CVs, and as an ace logo that still brings wistful smiles to the faces of gig-goers of a certain age.

Here then, are 12 landmark Marquee gigs, which you can read more about in new book Marquee: The Story of the World’s Greatest Music Venue by Robert Sellers and Nick Pendleton.

1. Rolling Stones (12 July 1962)

A doorway into the Marquee
The Oxford Street door behind which The Rolling Stones played their first gig

The band’s first ever gig. No Charlie Watts or Bill Wyman at this stage; the line-up was founder Brian Jones, with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Ian Stewart on keyboards, Dick Taylor on bass and nobody can remember who, if anybody, was on drums.

2. The Who (24 November 1964)

The West London Modfathers kicked off the first night of a 23-week Tuesday night residency, billed as “Maximum R&B”. The volume, aggression and attitude of the shows set the template for future generations of angry young bands with guitars.

3. Pink Floyd (13 March 1966)

Beginning on this date, ‘The Pink Floyd Sound’ became the house band for the Spontaneous Underground, a series of anything-goes Sunday afternoon happenings at the Marquee, featuring music, poetry, anti-conjuring acts, free haircuts and near-naked audience members rolling in mounds of jelly.

4. Jimi Hendrix (24 January 1967)

It wasn’t Hendrix’s first UK gig but it was the most high profile he’d played so far, and so everyone turned up. Hendrix was a bag of nerves before going on and rightly so – waiting for him in the audience were the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Eric Clapton and just about every musician on the London scene. He blew their minds.

5. Led Zeppelin (18 October 1968)

Their first gig was in Newcastle; this was the second but arguably more important because it was the first time the music press got to see Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham introduce the future of rock music. It was love at first listen – although the journalist writing for Melody Maker suggested they might turn the volume down a bit.

6. David Bowie (18–20 October 1973)

Bowie first played the Marquee back in 1964 when he was plain Davy Jones. By 1973, he’d been the Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. On his last appearance at the Marquee, he took over the club for three days to film a TV special in which he bid farewell to Ziggy, previewed songs from Diamond Dogs and scandalised NBC, the American channel producing the show, with his fishnet body stocking and visible pubic hair.

7. The Sex Pistols (12 February 1976)

Four men - the Sex Pistols - hanging about outside the club
The Sex Pistols

It was their first gig outside art colleges and the Sex Pistols were supporting Eddie and the Hot Rods. The Marquee crowd was not impressed. They shouted abuse. The band shouted back. "You can’t play," someone heckled. "So what?" replied Sid Vicious. Before they finally quit the stage, the Pistols trashed the Hot Rods’ gear. They were banned from playing the club again.

8. Motörhead (1 April 1977)

This was supposed to be Motörhead’s farewell gig. They’d been struggling to make a living as a band for two years and this was a swan-song for fans. As a result of the blinding set they played that night, the manager of a small record label offered them money to record a single. They used it to lay down most of an album, which included debut single Motörhead. It went Top 75 and persuaded the band to keep on rockin’.

9. The Cure and Joy Division (4 March 1979)

In the late 70s and early 80s, the club was a bastion of the New Wave, hosting gigs by the Jam, Ultravox, Squeeze, the Boomtown Rats, the Undertones, the Pretenders, Simple Minds, U2 and the Cure. Both U2 and the Cure had weekly residences: the Cure got to pick their own support acts and on this particular Sunday they invited Joy Division to open for them, after Robert Smith had heard the Manchester band on the John Peel show and been impressed.

10. The Aces aka the Police (12 December 1981)

After they became famous, several bands returned to play the Marquee under aliases that only diehard fans would recognise. Acts that played these so-called secret gigs included the Jam, Genesis, Iron Maiden and Metallica. When the Police, who by this time had scored eight Top 10 hits, tried it, in December 1981, it was a little too secret. No one showed up. Marquee staff hit Wardour Street to try and round up passers-by, but they got virtually no takers.

11. Wham! (28 October 1985)

There was another secretive gig in October 1985 when Wham! took over the club to film the video for single ‘I’m Your Man’. It begins with George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley outside the club on Wardour Street desperately trying to sell tickets for the show to passers-by. Actually, the club was full, although not with fans – it was packed with actors and models hired from agencies playing the part of the audience.

12. Guns N’ Roses (19 June 1987)

The Marquee’s fame drew bands from all over the world. The likes of AC/DC, Metallica, Twisted Sister and REM all played some of their first UK gigs at the club, as did Guns N’ Roses whose first performances outside America were three gigs over nine days at the Marquee. The buzz generated from those shows launched the band on their trajectory to global fame and debauchery.

Marquee: The Story of the World’s Greatest Music Venue by Robert Sellers and Nick Pendleton is published by Paradise Road.

Red cover of Marquee, a

All images courtesy of Paradise Road. Article by Andrew Humphries.

Last Updated 08 March 2023