John Vane’s London Stories: UFO at the Blarney Club

John Vane’s London Stories: UFO at the Blarney Club

There is no Number 31 Tottenham Court Road these days: an Odeon, with built in Costa, is at Number 30 and next door YouMeSushi is Number 37. But there used to be a 31, and in 1966 it was the address of the Blarney Club, an Irish dance hall with a revolving mirror ball and a lovely polished floor.

We know about the polished floor because Barry Miles enthused about it when interviewed by Jonathon Green for his enthralling oral history of English underground culture, Days In The Life. We also know that the Blarney Club was in the basement of Number 31 which, according to this guide, was actually on the site of today’s Number 28 Tottenham Court Road – location of  DF Tacos on the far left of the photo – and beneath a cinema called the Berkeley (no relation to today’s Odeon).

The reason you should care about all this is that on either side of Christmas 1966 the Blarney Club was occupied, not by Irish ballroom dancers, but a bunch of a spaced out hippies doing far-out things and bringing psychedelia to London.

It was the venture of John Hopkins – generally known as “Hoppy” – and Joe Boyd, two of the London scene’s alternative entrepreneurs. Around about October 1966 Hopkins had started putting on weekly events at the hall of All Saint Church in Clydesdale Road W11, which Julian Mash’s walking guide to Notting Hill says stood where the vicarage now is.

He was motivated partly by a need to finance the International Times newspaper (IT), which Miles was also central to, and soon had a success on his hands. Some Californians put on a light show, a whole new thing to Hopkins. “It all got very popular,” he told Green. Boyd suggested they team up and move the operation to the West End. At the Blarney Club they dealt with a Mr Gannon. “He was very amiable and he agreed to rent it to us for £15 every Friday night,” Boyd recalled.

Hopkins and Boyd decided to put on one event on 23 December and another on the 30th. They couldn’t decide whether to call them Night Tripper or UFO, so they compromised. “We made up these hand bills saying ‘UFO – Night Tripper’ and handed them out on Portobello Road,” Boyd told Green. People came. “It was amazing. It went off like a forest fire,” Hopkins recalled.

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The first resident band was Pink Floyd, which would go on to rather bigger things. And there was all sorts of other stuff: theatre groups, avant-garde jazz, films by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa screened at 4am. “It was great,” Boyd told Green. “It was packed from the first night…I thought there was an audience there. You could tell, you didn’t have to be a genius to look around the streets and see there were a lot of people dressed in funny ways.”

UFO, as it eventually became, continued and thrived. This was the time of Swinging London and England winning the World Cup, but also a time when London’s population was amid its long post-war decline and hadn’t long emerged from the ration book era. Even in the capital, “swinging”, as the word was defined back then, was a minority pursuit.

It was also moving into a new phase. One UFO regular was a man called Manfred, who sold LSD – lots of it. Another patron recalls a bunch of Mods turning up, “pilled up”, acting a bit hostile, “almost lashing out at the hippies round them”. But then some of the hippie girls “descended on them, semi-naked, clad in gauzy stuff with flowers and all the rest of it, and caressed them. These guys did not know what had hit them”. Later, they were seen talking to Manfred and clutching flowers.

Everyone who was anyone turned up at UFO, including Paul McCartney. “It was all like a trippy adventure playground really. Chaplin films going here, Marx Brothers here, Floyd up there, conjuror over here, or something,” he told Green. Chart-topping Procol Harem played there. So did Soft Machine, Arthur Brown and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. People slept on the floor. It ran on Fridays from 10pm until 8am, by which time the Tube was open. There was no event on St Patrick’s Day.

UFO didn’t last for very long. Unfriendly newspaper coverage led to it moving from the Blarney in July 1967. It found a new home at the Roundhouse, but folded in the autumn of that year. The Tottenham Court Road block it began in was demolished in the mid-1970s. But by then history had been made.

John Vane writes word sketches of London and bits about its past. Sometimes he makes things up. Follow John on Twitter.

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