I have muffled memories of Koko.
Hazy memories, altered by time (the baggy jeans I wore to iconic rock night Feet First are back back back), alcohol (Pernod and Diet Coke please), or in the instance of my inaugural visit, hazy because I experienced the pounding 80s disco at what was then the Camden Palace through the shield of amniotic fluid, ensconced in my mother’s eight-month pregnancy bump. I’ve been in the club for my entire 40 years.
I’ve had dates in the place, cried in the toilets in this place, had a bit of a MeToo encounter with a boy from a band and even my first (and, controversially, 10 minutes later, my second) kiss aged 14 in this place. It was the landmark of all landmarks for a 90s north London indie girl.
So, when I heard that Koko was nearly ready to eschew its scaffolding cocoon and finally take on new life, bringing heart and soul back to an anodyne, sanitised Camden, I jumped at the chance to be one of the first members of the public to be allowed in for a sneak peek.
Olly Bengough wears many hats (including, for the past three years, a hard hat) as Koko’s CEO, founder and creative director. He bought the theatre back in 2004 for restoration and after 15 years of incredible performances as one of London’s go-to music venues, it was time for another revival. ‘The idea of creating something as daring as the original theatre built in 1900 was exciting to me,’ he says of the seven-year, £70 million project. And so his team set to work, peeling back the layers of history, from the Gaumont Pathé cinema era to its life as a BBC broadcasting house, and instilling the spirit of performers who had graced its stage — actress Ellen Terry, Charlie Chaplin, Monty Python and the Goon Squad, and of course The Rolling Stones.
Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp remembers how the Camden Palace of the 80s was the ultimate in glamour after years of edgy New Romantic nights. ‘Everyone knows about my “first” date with Shirlie [of pop act Pepsi and Shirlie] there. George Michael came along and played third wheel, so we spent all night trying to get rid of him! In the VIP section everyone was starting to look smart, still trendy but more suits and frocks.’
Bengough was insistent that this glamour be reinstated. Purchasing the Hope & Anchor pub and a Victorian piano factory behind the theatre, they imagined a House of Koko, wrapping the iconic venue in a web of interconnecting hidden performance and party spaces, cocktail bars and restaurants to add a new dimension to how Koko will be experienced by gig-goers and those joining a unique members-only club.
‘With James Lees [of interior architects Pirajean Lees], we imagined what a backstage experience would have been like, to design something truly classic, timeless and beautiful.’
The result is a stunning reworking of not just the building’s exterior — including the iconic copper dome roof, which was painstakingly restored and upgraded by Archer Humphryes Architects (of The Standard and Chiltern Firehouse fame) — but also the interior. The spaces feature bespoke furniture by Pirajean Lees and play on day-to-night flexibility, and the ability to be truly spontaneous when an amped-up artist comes off stage and wants to keep on playing for a few mates.
Lianne La Havas will headline in May and remembers visiting as a teenager to see a big band for her first ever live gig. ‘The venue is the perfect size,’ she says, ‘intimate but grand, opulent yet rough around the edges. London AF.’ La Havas was known to have had a strong friendship with Prince, widely remembered as one of the stand-out Koko performers in its history.
‘Prince performing “Purple Rain” in the middle of one of his historic and impromptu nights up at Koko is a favourite,’ says Bengough. Bringing back this calibre of headliner has spurred on the transformation — even when progress was marred by a dramatic fire in early 2020, followed shortly after by the pandemic. ‘We can’t wait to welcome everyone back to the theatre and that energy you only feel when you’re at an amazing show connecting with the artist,’ he says. Opening acts will range from stadium-fillers like Arcade Fire, to homegrown majors like Jorja Smith, Pete Doherty and Tems.
Time to make some new hazy memories.
Koko reopens on 29 Apr (koko.co.uk). The House of Koko is open now (thehouseofkoko.com)