A great big, flashy stadium show spectacle can be a glorious thing. Are we happy that we live in a world in which Taylor Swift can merrily schlep a 63-foot inflatable cobra into the belly of Wembley as a visual illustration of, essentially, a personal grudge? Yes, yes of course we are. However, whilst a little bit of pomp and ridiculousness can be a delightful tonic every once in a while, the real heart of London’s music scene lies in venues a lot smaller, with their ears much closer to the ground. And luckily for us, there are loads of them: get familiar with their sticky floors and who knows, one of the acts gracing the stage might be the 63-foot snake charmers of tomorrow.
What: Now-legendary boozer and hub of South London’s alternative types.
Who’s played there? From Shame to black midi, Goat Girl to Sorry, basically every London band with a vaguely art school vibe and a love of The Fall started here.
What’s the vibe? Don’t expect to be able to see the stage; do expect to see half of Goldsmiths smoking in the garden.
Graffiti-covered toilets out of 10: 9 for creating the most prolific scene in recent London history.
What: Former working men’s club turned sparkly gold musical mecca.
Who’s played there? Likely because of its superior jazzy decor, Moth Club tends to attract a host of Proper Celebs popping in for a secret show: Lady Gaga, Christine and the Queens, and Dave Grohl have all swung by for a sing-song.
What’s the vibe? A strong mix of eclectic regular programming and random surprises (see above), with a woody bar area that still stays true to the venue’s origins.
Graffiti-covered toilets out of 10: Best small venue in London. 10 out of 10.
What: Pub downstairs; venue upstairs; open until at least 2am everyday. Simple but dangerous.
Who’s played there? The Lexington tends to be the go-to venue for bands on the cusp of breaking through to wider recognition. Wolf Alice, Black Honey and Dream Wife all played pivotal shows there, while more recently, bands-du-jour Wet Leg and Yard Act have both hit home runs.
What’s the vibe? Home to stalwart London club night White Heat, expect indie heads of increasing inebriation levels as the week goes on.
Graffiti-covered toilets out of 10: 9 when we’re there, swiftly descending in the hungover post-3am morning.
What: East London backroom pub space, run by the folk behind Wide Awake festival and more.
Who’s played there? Everyone from Mark Ronson to The Horrors have graced the Shacklewell’s stage, but their bread and butter are fuzzy guitar bands and buzzy newcomers (coupled with semi-regular, semi-novelty club nights like their all-ABBA extravaganza).
What’s the vibe? Cool kids keeping the East London dream alive.
Graffiti-covered toilets out of 10: A respectable 7.
What: We’re not sure if a venue owned by a member of Mumford & Sons really counts as gritty grassroots but fuck it – it’s a good venue!
Where: London Bridge
Who’s played there? Holly Humberstone and Baby Queen have both recently repped for the buzzy pop gals, while Communion Records (also a Mumford venture) have a strong presence.
What’s the vibe? Intimate (320 cap) and buzzy, with an attached street food market and weekend club nights.
Graffiti-covered toilets out of 10: 6.5, although likely soon to be usurped by Kings Cross sister venue Lafayette.
What: Iconic queer club-slash-music venue.
Where: Under the arches at Charing Cross.
Who’s played there? Home to G-A-Y, Heaven has seen every pop icon worth their salt pass through its doors, from Miley to Kylie. Gigs, meanwhile, span from the likes of Bree Runway to Disclosure: both of whom are scheduled in the coming weeks.
What’s the vibe? An industrial, no nonsense space that plays host to FAR more exciting spectacles than that sounds.
Graffiti-covered toilets out of 10: The location can be slightly hellish on a weekend, but an 8 regardless.
What: The OG central London punk venue.
Where: Oxford Street
Who’s played there? Famous for hosting Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Buzzcocks and more during the first international 1976 punk festival, since then The 100 Club has been a go-to for people wanting a venue with some real history in its walls.
What’s the vibe? Honestly? Very annoying to watch bands in due to a couple of insanely-positioned pillars that block almost all views. But like your un-woke old uncle at a Christmas gathering, you just can’t stay mad at it.
Graffiti-covered toilets out of 10: 7. The 100 Club invented graffiti-covered toilets.
What: Another tunnel arch venue, this time in the heart of Shoreditch.
Where: See above.
Who’s played there? For a while it felt like Village Underground made more sense as a dance and electronic venue (Bicep, Bonobo, Jon Hopkins and more have played) but now, the calendar is more eclectic.
What’s the vibe? Even though their current bill includes pop types like Lily Moore and Matt Maltese, the space still retains an aura of old school Shoreditch aloofness.
Graffiti-covered toilets out of 10: 6. Good line ups and location; so-so vibes.
What: A relative newcomer on the scene, with a standing venue and seated theatre space.
Who’s played there? The Streets chose the venue for their chaotic livestream lockdown show; IDLES stopped off there for an intimate jaunt last year, while Emma Jean-Thackray and a BRITs Week Bastille show are coming soon.
What’s the vibe? A more dignified addition to the area – think £6.50 craft ales rather than regrettable Jagerbombs.
Graffiti-covered toilets out of 10: 7 far cleaner toilets, thank you very much.
What: Old school, rite-of-passage London venue.
Where: Kings Cross
Who’s played there? Everyone from Iggy & the Stooges way way back in the day, through to Gorillaz, The Killers, The Libertines and literally thousands more.
What’s the vibe? Despite the fact that the Scala’s design feels like standing in a narrow tube, it still feels like An Event every time you’re there.
Graffiti-covered toilets out of 10: 6.5 for the history.
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