London still rocks: the city’s best alternative bars and gig venues


London still rocks: the city’s best alternative bars and gig venues

Warning: these spots aren't for the faint of heart...

Kate Weir

BY Kate Weir20 June 2017

You might have heard that rock bars in London are dying out. The beloved gig havens on the infamous ‘toilet circuit’ are under threat from shiny new builds and the onward march of gentrification. But, from the rubble of defunct scene stalwarts the Astoria, the (original) Intrepid Fox and Sin nightclub (RIP) a pair of horns is thrown: the Garage in Islington has finally reopened its doors.

Add to that Crypt of the Wizard, a new metal-centric vinyl store in Hackney and a reincarnated and burnished Borderline club in Soho, and bands in vans are back in business again. The sticky floors and salubrious bathrooms have been freshened up, but rock bars both svelte and scummy are reappearing; so, still high on Record Store Day adrenaline, we’re painting our nails black, pulling on our DMs and looking for a tune we can bang our heads to. Here are six rock bars in London with some serious street cred.

The Garage in Highbury

Long-time patrons of The Garage will know that the crisp packets floating past the club’s queue of rabble-rousers are glossier than what’s inside. But wait: the floors have been mopped, a flock of disco balls hang from upstairs bar Thousand Island’s ceiling and a kitschy retro-Americana-style cocktail bar called the General Store has sprung up next door. Order us a round of sherbert-infused Electric Lemonades and consider us gobsmacked.

Who’s playing? Oh, there are gigs too… The calendar’s inclusion of whiny nu-metallers Puddle of Mudd gives us pause, but a mix of elder statesmen (1980s rockers Spear of Destiny and Theatre of Hate) and some left-field choices (Turkish post-punk band She Past Away and Romani folk-influenced Tankus the Henge) show that the booker’s not playing it safe.

How many horns out of five?

The Best London Rock Bars



The Borderline in Soho

Gigging at this intimate venue is practically a rite-of-passage for Londoners with ears. A scene favourite since the Eighties, when Debbie Harry and The La’s took to the stage, and an altar for Britpop devotees in the Nineties, The Borderline had a makeover before its relaunch in March this year. It also has a brand-spanking new cocktail lounge, some new shiny bits and a lick of teal and burgundy paint.

Who’s playing? A grab-bag of genres: alt-country, alt-indie, a bit of blues… The speakers start to shudder when bands such as To Kill a King and Goldray play their opening chords, but hardcore fans of laryngitis-inducing rock will find this more of a whimper.

How many horns out of five?



Crobar in Soho

If you’re thinking, ‘Cocktails? I want mayhem, not Sex and the City with a slightly heavier soundtrack’, then hit Crobar for a fine scuzzy night. Bourbon, skulls, bulky tatted-and-bearded dudes: this refreshingly cocky, punk-spit-and-sawdust Soho institution has all the ingredients for a debauched evening. There’s little standing space amid the retro memorabilia, but more heavy metal on the jukebox than the periodic table.

Who’s playing? Cuff the jukebox in mate-y Fonzie style (not too hard, it is vintage…) and jab in the selection for Master of Puppets yet again. There are frequent gigs by homegrown rock acts: the Pearl Harts, the Grudge and Possessor have all made the walls shake here.

How many horns out of five?



Our Black Heart in Camden Town

Walk straight past the World’s End. Yep, straight past the door and down unprepossessing side street Greenland Place – here lies Our Black Heart, a far cooler, dimly neon-lit dive bar plastered with vintage gig posters, with a stage upstairs. Cool kids gather here for games of pool and pints of small-batch and strong independent brews (by the likes of To Øl, Beerbliotek and Beavertown) pulled by ingenues of no fixed hair colour.

Who’s playing? Occult-y sounding groovers and metallers dubbed Witch Tripper, Cauldron and the Hell. The venue also hosts wry comedy nights and reasonably priced day-long festivals.

How many horns out of five?



Boogaloo in Highgate

If you love a good Shane MacGowan yarn – and who doesn’t? – Archway’s Boogaloo pub is fertile territory; well, the Pogues’ lead shambler did once live upstairs. Everyone from the bouncers to the bar staff seem to have palled about with MacGowan or fellow malcontent Pete Doherty at one point or another. MacGowan may have moved, but this legendary boozer is as cosy as they come, with happy-to-chat staff, a petite beer garden, functional jukebox and an old ‘Joanna’ to tinkle after a few drams.

Who’s playing? Live music is infrequent but worth waiting for: the last gig was Mother’s Little Helper, a supergroup mishmash of members from the Pretenders and, um, the Pogues… DJ nights span everything from Motown to Nineties throwbacks and comedy nights, swing-dancing lessons and quizzes mix things up a bit.

How many horns out of five?



The Big Red in Holloway

Ostensibly an American trucker-style bar, The Big Red feels as authentically American as crumpets and having ‘a right old knees up’, no matter how many Budweiser and Miller logos are splashed on its walls. However, it offers metalheads and ‘norms’ alike a rollicking good time with a bevy of pool tables, twin jukeboxes, foosball tables and vintage arcade games. After dark, black lights create a nostalgic Tron-like glow throughout.

Who’s playing? Squint-hard tribute acts such as Ozzy Ozzspawn and Guns 2 Roses, as well as up-and-comers playing rock and all its spin-offs: glam, blues, classic, alt, grunge, stoner, psych, hard… This is a safe space where music lovers of all ilk can mingle.

How many horns out of five?



Featured image is Our Black Heart