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Colin Randall writes:
We’ve had a fair bit of nostalgia here about the Soho folk haunt Les Cousins so I posted my own thoughts at my new Substack pages, which I call Salut! Life. Some people who read me there take out paid subscriptions and I am flattered and grateful that they do.
But it’s not obligatory. You can also subscribe easily for free. Salut! Life, as the title suggest, is about a lot more than music. I also write on France, politics, society, football and goodness knows what else besides. Try it at this Substack link. Just this once, I’ll reproduce the Substack piece here ….
First of all was the question of what we should call it. Les Cousins, the celebrated folk dive in London’s West End, was unsurprisingly named after the 1959 Claude Chabrol film.
But how to say it? The French way or as if Les were some English bloke? Or just Cousins, again English pronunciation? In the end, most probably settled for the third option though I invariably used the second in those far-off days or rather nights when I’d plant myself there after hitchhiking down from County Durham.
My copy of the three-CD set honouring the artists who played at this wonderful Soho institution between 1965 and 1972 has just arrived.
My new acquisition with appropriate backdrop
In the old days, when I wrote about folk for The Daily Telegraph as a sideline to reporting and news editing, I’d have been sent a review package weeks ago. Salut! Live, my music site, gets patchily respectable hits but is probably seen by record companies as just a blog, certainly not a national newspaper. So mine came courtesy of a daughter’s Amazon gift voucher.
These are tracks taken from the albums of many of the talented singers and musicians who graced the Cousins stage, not live recordings from those visits. No matter, they capture the essence of extraordinary times and an extraordinary venue.
And what a lineup. My friend Ian Evans, in his evocative piece recalling his many visits to Cousins, mentioned no less than Paul Simon. Here, early into the first of these CDs, we re-encounter that towering figure of grown-up American music, with I Am A Rock.
In the inlay notes, we find diaries recording the bookings of Sandy Denny and Van Morrison, each for the princely fee of £3. Three quid obviously went a lot further then than it would today; it would hardly support a flamboyant rock and roll lifestyle.
Image: KM’s Live Music Shots
Cousins was in the basement of 49 Greek Street, above which Lukas and Margaret Matheou ran their restaurant, first as the French-flavoured Soho Grill, then the Dionysus à la Grecque. Their son, Andy, was trusted with the folk club; it had no licence to serve alcohol but could stay open all night.
If you were part of the in-crowd, the dry status didn’t matter as booze would be found for you elsewhere on the premises. There were pubs nearby in any case. Andy’s salt-of-the-earth parents reportedly dished out delicious food to any hungry folk soul they took a liking to.
Sadly I was nowhere near to being in-crowd, just a lad down from Oop North without sufficient musical ability to pass himself off as a performer.
Never mind: I saw some memorable gigs and benefited fully from what Ian Anderson (the bluesman and former fRoots editor, not the Jethro Tull one), in the inlay notes, describes as “not only a musical honeypot but the cheapest hotel in London”. More than once, I fell sleep standing up.
Who did I see? John Martyn, impossibly gifted but given to surliness and drunken profanity, sparring with someone in the audience. Ralph McTell wondering aloud whether to be pleased or aghast at the election of a Tory government (I very much doubt he retained such an even-handed outlook). The Watersons delivering pulsating harmonies even as we wondered if their threat to retire was genuine (it wasn’t, at least not then). Alexis Korner’s incomparable blues band. Long John Baldry before he went pop. And others.
Jimi Hendrix apparently played a jam session with Korner there. David Bowie was once turned away because the place was full.
The magnificent Noel Murphy, singer and exceptional comic, compered. Paul Simon and Jackson C Frank definitely turned up; lost soul that he was, Frank looked on the Matheous as alternative parents.
And who do we meet among those who played Cousins and whose work on contemporary or subsequent albums appears on these three CDs? Some of it is touched on in this piece at Salut! Live.
Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Sandy and Van the Man of course, the Young Tradition, Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs, Wizz Jones, Keith Christmas, Roy Harper, Donovan, Strawbs, Tim Hardin, Michael Chapman, Martin Carthy, Nick Drake, Al Stewart … I’m sorry it the list is impossibly long.
The music? Naturally it sounds dated at times. It’s half a century old, for heaven’s sake, and so are the studio techniques. But so much survives the passage of time - five decades and more - with honours.
I liked this reminder of early Paul Simon, unfairly scoffed at by many folkies in those days - me included, I fear - as being irredeemably pop.
And I love this relic of the memorable pre-Steeleye duo that was Tim Hart and Maddy Prior.
Far too many of the performers featured here are no longer with us. Tim Hart for one, but also Michael Chapman, Sandy Denny, Jackson C Frank, Hamish Imlach, Jo Ann Kelly, Alex Campbell, Jansch and Renbourn … yes, another list that goes on much too long.
Yet their music continues to enthuse and inspire.
In their memory and those living, this modestly packaged Les Cousins triple CD set is a valuable and necessary reminder of a great time to be folk fans and of a great place to hear our music close-up from people we revered.
Andrew Curry: ‘A night that ends on Greek Street to the rising of the sun ‘