Thursday, 21 January 2010
Elvis's 75th at the Jailhouse, Ace Café
The Ace Café was born and not made. In 1938, this archetypical motor café was built on the North Circular at the Stonebridge Park gyratory – where the North Circular meets the Harrow Road and the LMS railway. A pitstop for the new arterial road network that was transforming Britain. It was rebuilt in 1949 after the original building was bomb-damaged. Look at it, it’s a beautiful: utilitarian brick, 20th-century transport trim, ocean-liner decorative, P&O smooth. It’s still full of hope for the future. Its popularity as a 24-hour stop for bikers gained it a certain reputation for leather and 100mph. During the 1950s, it became a hit with leather-clad rockers showing off their wheels. It put on the rising stars of the time, of rock‘n’roll and racing. It closed in 1969, the North Circular was rerouted and the Ace became a tyre fitting shop, before Mark Wilsmore, a former frequenter of the old Ace, put into action a grand plan to restore it to its former glory. The plan worked and in the early 21st century, the café was rebuilt from the inside out, retaining its 1949 shell, and restoring its interior – long since partitioned, concreted, and generally un-aced. The new design even featured ‘the jailhouse’, a space for live bands and their dancing fans.
The Ace Café had been a place where the cult of the teenager had flourished; where hip young things dressed like Marlon Brando (a hero of Elvis’) and listened to the new sounds that were so shocking their parents. It’s since kept that rockin’ alive. Where else should Elvis celebrate his 75th? It was a freezing night, the snow had turned to ice and I gave up the notion of driving. Creeping round from Stonebridge Park station from the North Circular onto the old North Circular meant avoiding black ice. I met Elvisiate Clare, already propping up the long service counter where the black and white checkered staff were jumpin’ like catfish in a bowl. The clientele were fabulous: the same leather-clad rockers who had lived their teenage years belting up and down while the coin dropped in the jukebox, but mixed up with immaculately turned-out, ridiculously cool, tremendously good-looking hepcats, sportin’ fine 50s gear. DJ Bill Guntrip played Elvis’s early records and already the dancefloor was rocking.
At 10.30, a raffle took place. Clare suggested I might want to look at my ticket – something I wasn’t doing given that I didn’t know where I’d put it, and the last time I won anything was circa 1982 when I won a chicken for my dad. Eventually I found it and bizarrely, ticket number 121 (me and Elvis, we’re like that) was indeed the winner. Clare screamed and Jailhouse me went up to the Jailhouse to claim my prize. I rather incredibly have two tickets to see Elvis in Concert in February. I’m taking Clare of course.
The band, The Memphis Flashers, featuring Darrel Higham on guitar, were brilliant. Elvis, without the impersonator. Higham doesn’t try to be Elvis but he has a great voice, great energy, and is an excellent front man. Instead of getting into Elvis via a series of karaoke kindergartens, he looks and sounds like he’s made of rock’n’roll. He was occasionally joined by the very lovely leopard-printed, psychobilly quiffed, rock’n’roll voiced, Imelda May, and once or twice by members of the congregation such as one of the aforementioned (Johnny Cashesque) hepcats who grizzled out a corking Folsom Prison Blues while his companions jived away. Darrel and the Flashers were entirely about rock’n’roll and rockabilly, with proper early Elvis down to a T and the odd interloper – Johnny Burnette’s Train Kept A’ Rollin’ (a personal favourite) and Bruce Springsteen’s I’m On Fire (least said, soonest mended) – thrown in to delight (or confuse). When the crowd called for Jailhouse Rock, Darrel sighed, Are you trying to kill me?, but got on with the job and pulled it off rather well. Jailhouse Rock is hard to pull off you know. It’s why so many ETAs stick to the late Elvis – after his voice was ruined.
Well. What a night. What a place. Super fun, super friendly. I shall definitely be returning when I’m hipper and hepper and altogether more of a cat. I advise you to do the same, especially if you have a classic sporty motor and are sporting a fine quiff (like I was). 17th April for the Eddie Cochran tribute anyone?
Thanks: Elvisiate Clare (huge thanks), Mark Wilsmore & the Ace Cafe, Michael The Lift, James The Hair
Pictures: Pen77, http://www.ace-cafe-london.com/History.aspx, Clare