Our capital has one of the most vibrant, diverse and thriving live music scenes in the UK. It was no small task to decide on the best, but here are our picks.
The Old Blue Last
38 Great Eastern Street, Hackney, London, EC2A 3ES
The Old Blue Last is a 300-year-old former pub turned brothel turned 150-capacity music venue (and pub again). Rumour has it Shakespeare used to knock about here in his day too. It’s headed up by VICE magazine, which is fitting given both the venue and publication’s infamy, and situated next-door to their offices in Shoreditch.
Since VICE acquired the venue it’s booked every artist you’ve buzzed about in the last 15 years. Counter-cultural icons like Death Grips, Anti-Flag and Slaves have played here, the latter of whom must have performed over 20 times – one particularly unforgettable occasion being their release party for the album Acts of Fear and Love.
The venue has even seen Kylie Minogue pass through (because of course it has) – and secured its legacy in the form of a gold can of eponymous proprietary lager.
In an act tantamount to a kind of bizarre public service, tickets to shows are regularly free. Make sure you turn up early though, because it’s clear what The Old Blue Last loses in ticket revenue it gains in a guaranteed full house.
The Old Blue Last is unapologetically a VICE creation and unapologetically a Shoreditch pub, but if you’re open to the experience and able to tap into the spirit of the place, you could very well have the night of your life here.
The Dublin Castle
94 Parkway, Camden Town, London, NW1 7AN
The Dublin Castle was initially one of four Camden pubs named after castles scattered throughout the UK. Each pub emerged so that Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh canal labourers could be kept apart – a strategy deployed by their employers to prevent them getting into fights with each other.
With its history dating back to 1856 when it hosted traditional Irish music, the Dublin Castle is perhaps one of the earliest prototypes of the classic pub-venue now found all over the British Isles.
From the 1970s onwards, this 200-capacity venue came to cultural prominence for its contributions to British pop and rock. Madness formed (and played their first gig) at the Dublin Castle – a feat lead-singer Suggs claims was only possible by posing as a jazz band. Regardless, the floor filled week after week and the owner gave them a residency, propelling their career forward. Madness even filmed their video for ‘My Girl’ at the venue and returned in 2017 to celebrate the approval of their request to award the Dublin Castle a Musical Heritage Award.
Other ground-breaking acts for whom the Dublin Castle was a proving ground include Blur, The Libertines, and crucially, Amy Winehouse – who was a bartender here prior to her generation-defining rise to fame.
Though steeped in musical legacy, the Dublin Castle’s modern significance is unceasing even today. It’s still known as a place to discover bands before they hit it big, or headliners for secret warm-up gigs before they set off on tour. There are multiple live performances every night, late-night DJs on weekends, and a weekly jam night – so if you’re based in the capital and haven’t been yet, definitely check it out.
93 Feet East
150 Brick Lane, Shoreditch, London, E1 6QL
93 Feet East first opened in 1999 and proved instrumental in the development of the Brick Lane and East London club scene, with legendary nights like Circuit, FUSE and Secretsundaze locking down the session weekend after weekend.
The venue closed for a while but reopened its doors in early 2018 following a refurbishment, ready to revitalise London rave culture for the next generation with a state-of-the-art D&B sound-system thrown in.
93 Feet East now hosts renowned resident club nights like Paradise Alley and Belong. More than just turning up and spinning their tunes every week, the people behind these events entirely reimagine the décor and layout of the venue, imprinting their identity on it and curating all aspects of the experience.
The versatility of 93 Feet East has seen it draw brand takeovers by Dazed & Confused, PlayStation and Twitter. It features a cobbled and string-light-lit courtyard and its utilitarian indoor space is characterised by Béton brut walls and pillars, a neon light installation, exposed ducting overhead and parquet flooring, giving it the feel of something between a mill, an assembly hall, and a gallery.
Radiohead, Groove Armada, Frank Turner and some of the most celebrated house DJs in the world have all performed here – and continue to. Live events tend to start in the afternoon and run into the early hours, so remember to bring your stamina when dropping by.
54 Holywell Lane, Hackney, London, EC2A 3PQ
Village Underground is a result of the vision and DIY spirit of founder Auro Foxcroft and his team. It took 12 months of perseverance to turn the former dilapidated car garage into the 1000-capacity venue and multidisciplinary art space is it today. There was also that particularly long day it took to move four disused train carriages onto the venue’s roof.
These former Jubilee-line carriages are now community workspaces and home to sixteen professional creative residents ranging from photographers, writers, directors, animators, to designers and life-coaches.
As with everything at Village Underground, even its most iconic moments were self-made. There was the secret live show with Pixies and the time the roof panels were removed during a Four Tet performance and bathed the rave room in sunlight. Then there’s the time Drake gate-crashed a Skepta show. The venue has such palpable eccentricity that these types of encounters feel inevitable.
Other artists who’ve performed or are due to perform here include TNGHT, Tierra Whack, Hot Chip, Charlie XCX, Diplo and The Glitch Mob. As for genre, Village Underground primarily host grime nights, cutting-edge hip hop and electronic acts, cult favourites from the not too distant past and the odd proggy guitar band.
If you want to experience true creative independence, Village Underground will immerse you in it. To see how it all came together, check out this mini documentary:
71 Shacklewell Lane, Hackney Downs, London, E8 2EB
As with most places of cultural significance, the Shacklewell Arms’ reputation isn’t derived from its bricks and mortar, but what goes on inside it. Airs and graces are left at the door and what remains is an untouched, gritty place for music.
You can’t brand authenticity and the Shacklewell Arms holds fast against the encroaching trendiness of nearby Shoreditch. Indie bands caught onto this when the same wave came for Camden and now, they find sanctuary in the Shacklewell.
The events calendar is largely made up of international and national garage rock, shoegaze and post-punk. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, The Horrors and Girl Band are among the acts to fill its 200-capacity back room. Front of house, Shacklewell operates pretty much like a regular pub, with the addition of the Rockdollar-operated kitchen offering stacked hotdogs and burgers.
The Shacklewell has fast grown into a small music venue known as the place to be to catch gigs from innovators in their early days. The gaps between performances from larger touring artists are punctuated by exciting underground bands, and entrance to these is often free. If you like your gigs rowdy and your beer sloshing, the Shacklewell Arms is where you want to be.
96-98 Pentonville Road, Islington, London, N1 9JB
The Lexington proudly stands on the corner of Penton Street and Pentonville Road in Islington. As a small music venue it offers something more refined than just four walls, a roof and a PA system. The wood panelling, baroque drawing-room furniture, ambient wall lamps and pleated curtains feel like a warm hug on the way in.
It might be the only small music venue in London with an events calendar as appetising as its food and drinks menu. The downstairs lounge offers award-winning, gourmet pub grub alongside craft beers and a carefully curated selection of bourbon whiskies – and as you move upstairs for the live shows and club nights, the staircase walls are plastered with overlapping gig posters, letting you know you’re heading in the right direction.
The venue is open from midday until at least 2am every day of the week (stretching to 4am on weekends). It usually features a DJ playing anything from krautrock to sixties psych, modern indie or hip hop, or bands in the flesh.
Over the past 12 months, British Sea Power, The Heavy, Black Pumas, Damo Suzuki (of Can), Fat White Family and Fontaines D.C. have performed here, with more innovators lined up for 2020.
The Lexington is a jewel in the crown of North London, so don’t pass it by.
The 100 Club
Century House, 100 Oxford St, Fitzrovia, London, W1D 1LL
We don’t think the city of London would forgive us if we didn’t include the 100 Club. Active since 1942, the 350-capacity Oxford Street venue has been at the centre of every major cultural and musical movement in the UK, including jazz, blues, punk, indie and beyond.
It began with British and American artists performing under air raids in the ‘40s. Many of the American artists were jazz musicians back home but found themselves stationed in the UK during World War II. This laid the groundwork for the 100 Club’s international renown and even attracted the ear of Billie Holliday, who came to see Scotland’s own Alex Welsh Band perform here.
Over the next couple of decades, the club saw performances from Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, BB King and Bo Diddly, as well as homegrown blues exports like Rod Stewart and The Animals. Later, the 100 Club secured its position in the history of punk, as it hosted a line-up of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Subway Sect and the Vibrators on a single night – all of whom were unsigned at the time.
Lesser venues could build their entire mythology around any one of these claims, but the 100 Club is a monolith, having borne witness to them all – and then some. A book was even released telling the stories of its patrons and performers, as testament to its inexhaustible history.
Far from coasting on former glories though, hard-won though they are, the 100 Club continues to be an indispensable figure in London’s ultra-competitive nightlife landscape.
Nowadays, the club’s bookings run the gamut of seasoned and critically acclaimed artists like Slaves, JPEGMAFIA, Sleaford Mods and Paul Weller. It’s also the venue of choice for high-profile secret gigs, perhaps the most memorable of which was the time Queens of the Stone Age performed the songs from Era Vulgaris at the peak of their popularity.
Rare appearances, as it turns out, aren’t all that rare at the 100 Club either. Odd Future and Tyler The Creator hosted a pop-up shop in 2014 just a couple of months before Theresa May banned him from returning to the UK – a ban that was only lifted in October 2019.
The 100 Club revels in its history, but it continues to make it to this day.
For a full map of the small music venues in London – including those that’ve sadly closed over the years – take a look at our Small Venues Index.