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Paul Simon performing at Les Cousins in the mid-60s. Photo credit: Diana Matheou/ Les Cousins Archive

Les Cousins – The Soundtrack of Soho’s Legendary Folk & Blues Club, Box set (Cherry Red) – a review

Gavin McNamara explores the 3-CD box set of Les Cousins, the legendary folk & blues club, reliving the spirit of the era with tracks from iconic artists like Nick Drake, Paul Simon and Bert Jansch.

Release Date
19 January 2024
Les Cousins - The Soundtrack of Soho's Legendary Folk & Blues Club
The iconic Les Cousins club on Soho's Greek Street was a pivotal venue for 60s folk legends like John Martyn, Bert Jansch, Nick Drake, Paul Simon, and Sandy Denny. This three-CD set, meticulously curated by Ian A. Anderson, serves as a historical anthology of London's 1960s folk revival. It features intimate tracks from influential artists, capturing the spirit of the era and highlighting the club's significant role in shaping the history of folk music.

Frith, Dean, Greek, Wardour. Words that, for certain people, cause a tingle, a little sliver of magic. They are the names of Soho streets, the home of The Colony Room, The French House, The Marquee. They are the scenes of legendary nights with legendary people in legendary places. They are the streets of coffee houses, of mini skirts, of London’s glamorous 1960s underbelly.

At 49 Greek Street, beneath a restaurant, slouched Les Cousins, the revered folk & blues club, the beating heart of London’s folk revival. It might have only been in existence for seven years but it acted as a breeding ground for some of the great singer-songwriters of their, or any other, generation. John Martyn, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, Sandy Denny, Bridget St John, Anne Briggs, Paul Simon, Nick Drake, basically anyone that makes up a decent record collection could be found paying dues in the all-night sessions in Soho.

This three-CD box set is a remarkable historical document, lovingly curated by Ian A. Anderson (of fRoots fame but, also, a Les Cousins regular and musician in his own right). As each track begins, you lean a little closer to your stereo, smile a little more broadly, picture yourself descending those Soho steps. It was, by all accounts, a small space, little bigger than a single-decker bus, but, oh my, what it must have been like to hear Jansch singing ‘Running, Running From Home’ that close, that personal? With his quintessential folk revival voice and that glorious fingerpicking, he simply oozes authenticity. As the opening track it perfectly sets us up for what’s to come. 

This is the sound of a club that you never want to leave

So much of Les Cousins, The Soundtrack of Soho’s Legendary Folk & Blues Club will be incredibly familiar to most. Anyone with a passing interest in 60s folkie singer-songwriters won’t be surprised about John Martyn’s lovely ‘Fairy Tale Lullaby’ or Cat Steven’s wonderfully evocative ‘The Tramp’, for example. Both have an honest simplicity, the seeds of what both of these artists will become peeking out from the central London soil. Hamish Imlach’s version of ‘Black Is the Colour’ [Roud 3103] rolls along, beautifully, as supple and fluid as anything across the 70-odd tracks here. It’s so warm, so comforting. In fact, the whole box set is deliciously welcoming; this is the sound of home, the sound of a club that you never want to leave.

There are, of course, some big hitters amongst the three CDs. Paul Simon’s ‘I Am A Rock’ is startling in its brilliance – a reminder that it wasn’t just English Folkies that found their way to 49 Greek Street, Americans made it there too. Simon starts with the merest hesitation before steadily unfolding one of the great mid-60s songs. This version is the one from The Paul Simon Songbook and it’s as perfect as you remember. Much is made, in the (fantastic) sleeve notes, of the fact that Nick Drake was, merely, another young man with an acoustic guitar, playing the late, late slots at Les Cousins. Anderson describes him as a “really nervous, undistinguished singer-songwriter who sent the audience to sleep”. The inclusion of ‘Northern Sky’ makes that incredibly difficult to believe as it is, surely, one of the greatest folkish songs ever committed to tape. It seems almost unfair to put it next to some of the more generic bloke-and-an-acoustic-guitar fare. It glistens.

For much of this compilation you could be forgiven for thinking that Les Cousins was a boys club. Certainly, many of the tracks are male-led; many conjure the familiar folk scene of intense men wrestling art from their six strings. It is, however, the female voices that, time and again, bring you up short here. Shirley Collins on ‘Nottamun Town’ [Roud 1044] is incredible. How those beardy jaws must have dropped as she neatly skips over Davey Graham’s guitar lines. Sandy Denny’s voice is showstopping on ‘You Never Wanted Me’, but it is Beverly’s ‘Get To The One I Want To’ that will have you reaching for the rewind button. Recorded before she became John Martyn’s wife, but not released until 2018, it is full of swagger and brass. It’s the sort of song that makes you angry – angry that women so often take a backseat to the men in their lives. ‘Get To The One I Want To’ is almost worth the price of this box set alone. A brilliant song, wonderfully sung, it has an effortless joy that some of the men sadly lack.

Beverly’s not the only one, though. Dorris Henderson and Jo Anne Kelly possess incredible voices, powerful and individual. Anne Briggs is just as haunting as ever on ‘Living By The Water’. Shelagh McDonald, Julie Felix and Bridget St John capture 60s London beautifully while Sally Oldfield (with her brother Mike) offers hippy boy/girl loveliness with The Sallyangie’s ‘Love in Ice Crystals’. The women’s voices outshine the men – I can’t help but wonder if they did in that basement club, too.

One of the absolute joys of allowing this celebratory release to roam over so many tracks is that it offers some incredible juxtapositions. The Watersons’ ‘The Holmfirth Anthem’ [Roud 1046] is everything that you expect from the pre-eminent folk family; trad folk with glorious acapella harmonies. It sits next to Donovan’s ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ where cello, jazzy guitar and brushed drums hymn a “bohemian manifestation of change”. Traditional sharing space with the groovy and new, sitting side by side, hand in hand. The Third Ear Band’s ‘Stone Circle’ is a lysergic slice of wyrd-folk, whereas A.L Lloyd’s ‘Jack Orion’ [Roud 145] is a saucy tale sung from Bagpuss’ Mouse Organ – they couldn’t be more different, yet happily bump elbows in this crowded space. Likewise, if there was ever a meeting between Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick and Kevin Ayres, that must have been quite some night. Carthy and Swarb offer the superb ‘Byker Hill’ [Roud 3488] while Ayres’ ‘Eleanor’s Cake (Which Ate Her)’ is full of flute-y whimsy. 

As with all the best compilations – and this is up there with the very best – Les Cousins – The Soundtrack of Soho’s Legendary Folk & Blues Club throws up a couple of unexpected treasures. Dando Shaft were a short-lived psych/prog folk band from Coventry and ‘Waves Upon The Ether’ is terrific. Full of mandolin and handclaps, it is up-tempo and tailor-made for floating, arms out-stretched, around a dancefloor. The Piccadilly Line’s ‘At The Third Stroke’ is an equally psych-soaked morsel that practically screams “eat me”. Sampling an old-fashioned telephone, packing in the circus imagery and topping the whole thing off with woozy brass it is a multi-coloured blast of fresh air.

Les Cousins may only have lasted for seven years but it, along with Bristol’s Troubadour and countless others, was the crucible in which so many of our favourite artists were allowed to flourish. This compilation is a fitting celebration of everything that it stood for. It is never anything but captivating, often downright extraordinary. An album that you’d happily play again and again, one that beckons you down dark Soho streets and dances with you until the sun comes up. 

Les Cousins – The Soundtrack of Soho’s Legendary Folk & Blues Club is out now on Cherry Red Records. It can be ordered via this link.