Somehow 15 years have passed since VICE arrived in London and the editors would have to push piles of magazines around the city asking pubs to please take them. Since then we've grown, conceiving tiny content babies that have grown into leading industry voices (see us, here – Noisey – recklessly tooting our own horn). To mark this anniversary, this week VICE UK is throwing a bunch of events and we're running a series of content about a time in British music that most of us shouldn't, but weirdly do, struggle to remember.
Late on 9 February 2008, a Saturday night, I left a gig at Koko and made my way up Camden High Street in north London toward my house. I didn’t get very far before I was stopped by a policeman who told me that Camden was “on fire”, which struck me as unusual. Places, of course, are not usually set ablaze. Going the long way round, I found myself stood on a bridge over Regent’s Canal watching the most famous pub in British indie music burn. Or at least that’s how it had been put in the pages of NME at the time.
To be honest though, that wasn’t too far from the truth – over the previous couple of years barely a day had gone by when The Hawley Arms wasn’t in the papers. The likes of Liam Gallagher, Kate Moss, and Pete Doherty all drank there, but above all the Hawley owed its fame and notoriety to Amy Winehouse. In the mid-2000s she was a prime tabloid quarry. I was living on Camden’s Bonny Street at the time, and she lived round the corner on Prowse Place. Paparazzi used to crouch on our road, scouting down the perpendicular street, waiting for her to leave her flat.
When she did go out, more often than not she was heading to the Hawley. Even after “Back to Black” made her a celebrity in 2006, she was never likely to be put off going to her local. “She used to come in and say: ‘Craig, babydoll, can I serve some drinks?’” remembers the Hawley’s manager, Craig Seymour. “I’ve seen grown men break down in tears after being served by Amy.”
Her presence, coupled with being conveniently located a couple of minutes from the MTV studio, led to the Hawley becoming the British music industry’s favourite boozer. Tim Burgess of The Charlatans had already seen a few of those haunts come and go by then, but he remembers his days at the Hawley fondly. “Britpop had The Good Mixer but The Hawley Arms was the followup to whatever the followup was – a scene so cool it didn't have a name,” he tells me. “The Hawley Arms was the who's who of what's what. Amy Winehouse was pulling pints when I first went in – pretty sure she didn't work there, but it was that kind of place.”
Burgess remembers a collegiate air that made the atmosphere more than just a musicians’ clique. “The mayor of Camden, who was from the village where I grew up, was often in there so it kind of had a feel of a cross between Stella Street and Camberwick Green,” he says. “Debbie Googe from My Bloody Valentine would stop by, and I remember after-hours quizzes being a favourite. There was a real family feel to the place. It seemed to be the most happening place; with The Mighty Boosh in one corner and a Libertine or two at the bar, there was always something going on.”
The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding was one of the Hawley’s most recognisable regulars. Younger readers may know him only as the host of a televised nationalist baked-goods competition, but at the time the television show he’d created along with Julian Barratt was so wildly popular that The Mighty Boosh Live was selling out venues like Brixton Academy more readily than most of the bands he was out boozing with.
It was all a far cry from the 80s and 90s, when the Hawley had been a bikers’ bar noted for speed-fuelled lock-ins. It was bought by current owners Ruth Mottram and Doug Charles-Ridler in 2002, and among their first acts was installing a jukebox full of classic soul, rhythm & blues, funk and rock which seemed precision-designed to lure in musicians. Later, they started putting on their own shows too. “When Doug and Ruth got the keys the pub was very different from its current form,” explains Seymour. “There was only a ground floor bar, no upstairs bar or roof terrace, so there was no space for live music. After a couple of years trading we invested in building an upstairs bar and through our clientele we decided to pull in some favours and get some of our locals to play impromptu gigs.”
By then their regulars included Razorlight, who were arguably an even bigger deal than Amy – something which seems ridiculous to think about now. They’d had a number 1 album in 2006, and in April 2007 frontman Johnny Borrell turned up at the Hawley with then-girlfriend Kirsten Dunst – a snapshot of an era when his uncannily smooth features would stare out from the cover of British Vogue.
The fact that a band like Razorlight were topping the charts, appearing in fashion mags and dating genuine Hollywood A-listers seems to represent a sort of high-water mark for the strange era of British indie that the Hawley came to stand for. At the time, tabloid gossip pages and music magazines alike would report straight-faced about seismic events like the Arctic Monkeys and Kaiser Chiefs being spotted drinking together at the Hawley, with lines like: “Alex Turner was sipping on lemonade.” It’s hard to imagine up-and-coming guitar bands garnering that sort of feverish attention today. For a few summers they were riding the crest of a wave of celebrity, which eventually broke and rolled back in a wash of Kooks, The View and Ordinary Boys singles.
The Hawley Arms survived the aforementioned fire, with a little help from their friends. Noel Fielding hosted a benefit gig over the road at Dingwalls. Razorlight played a show on the roof to launch their new album shortly after it re-opened. “A massive ball-ache to arrange, but it was amazing bringing Camden to a standstill,” remembers Seymour. “Our neighbours weren't happy about that one.”
What their neighbours could have found to complain about in being treated to a preview of the third Razorlight record is anyone’s guess. Suffice to say, the scene to which the Hawley had become a sort of avatar was in decline well before Amy Winehouse was found dead in July 2011 at the home she’d moved to in Camden Square. “It was immensely hard losing a friend and then dealing with the press camped outside in the aftermath of her passing,” remembers Seymour. Nowadays, a silhouette of the singer keeps watch from a top floor window of the pub.
The Hawley remains a special place for musicians who came of age during that mid-00s indie wave. Seymour jokes that Wolf Alice have been hanging out at the bar “since they were probably underage”, and says he bet them at a staff Christmas party bowling match that if they lost they’d have to play a gig at the Hawley for free. Sure enough, in October they launched their new album with a packed show at the pub – although overcrowding the dancefloor is not the most dangerous thing they’ve done at the Hawley.
“On [bassist] Theo's birthday we all got fucked up and thought it would be a good idea to get on the roof of the building and set off some fireworks to mark the occasion,” says Seymour. “Obviously health and safety goes out the window when you are fucked up, and I almost killed Theo with a stray firework. Thank fuck they were budget supermarket fireworks otherwise I might be telling this story from Royal Holloway Prison, serving time for manslaughter.”
The mid-00s indie scene may have ended up fizzling out like one of those cheap firecrackers, but the Hawley Arms abides. It even gets a seal of approval from Daniel Jeanrenaurd, 'Camden's last rockstar', who at the time of the scene’s heyday had a six-night-a-week, midnight to 4AM residency up the road at the Marathon kebab shop. “I think that place was cool, allowing a lot of bands to play,” he says. “It doesn’t seem there’s much of a music scene left [in Camden today], but of course I don’t know everything that’s going on.”
His own favourite memory of the Hawley Arms is fittingly enigmatic. “Never went there that much, but once was passing in front of it and Mick from Babyshambles encouraged me to play my guitar in front, taking the attention away from some Morris dancers performing there at the same time,” he says. “That pissed them off.”
This article is part of VICE UK’s 15th anniversary series, presented by VANS.