It takes me longer than I expect to find it, so discreetly is it tucked into its dingy corner of central London. And it does not look like much. It is, in truth, a drab little cul-de-sac, slouching as much as slanting uphill, mired in shadow thanks to the buildings that frame it on either side.
It is not much of a road either, bumpily cobbled, the tarmac petering out before it starts. And it runs to a stop some 30 metres beyond, a gate blocking the top end.
But for all this, it is instantly recognisable as the location where a cultural earthquake occurred. Fifty years ago this northern summer, Bob Dylan stood at the foot of Savoy Steps and filmed what is now regarded as the first ever music video – the two-minute vignette which acts as a visual accompaniment to his totemic track Subterranean Homesick Blues.
Shot by D. A. Pennebaker on May 7, 1965, as part of the documentary Don't Look Back – which was following the singer during his ongoing tour of the UK – these 134 seconds of camerawork have become iconic to the point of ubiquity.
Throwaway scribbles that revolutionised an industry
They capture the young Dylan – a fresh-faced 23, just short of his 24th birthday – in the process of smashing another mould. He had already broken away from his roots earlier in the year by releasing Bringing It All Back Home (on March 22, 1965), a record that incorporated elements of rock'n'roll into the folk music that had come to define him.
And here he was, relaying (some of) the lyrics to the album’s opening number via the literally throwaway schtick of words scrawled onto cue cards – effectively inventing MTV and YouTube in the process. 'Throwaway' is the key word. It is hard to believe that either Pennebaker or Dylan knew how influential the footage would become.
It is filled with sharp, knowing in-jokes. 'Success' is deliberately mis-spelled as 'suckcess'. For the line 'a man in a coon-skin cap in a pig pen wants 11 dollar bills', Dylan purposefully holds up a card which reads '20 dollar bills'.
He appears barely to be concentrating, tossing the placards to the floor with casual disinterest. Certainly, there is no hint that this is meant as a great statement.
Perhaps this explains why, 50 years on, Savoy Steps is shy about its place in the past. It skulks at the rear of London’s celebrated Savoy Hotel, yet is a very different beast to the grand entrance to this accommodation landmark a short walk away on The Strand.
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Stand on a step to musical history
Little more than an access alleyway, it offers only the merest hint that it backs on to a 5-star property – a set of windows at the top where diners and afternoon tea drinkers are dimly visible through the glass.
It might even be described as claustrophobic – hemmed in on the opposite side by the cold stone flank of the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy – a private royal church, completed in 1512, which belongs to the crown via the British monarch’s stewardship of the Duchy of Lancaster. Windowless where it runs along the east side of Savoy Steps, the chapel adds to the gloom which swallows the cul-de-sac on dull days.
Nothing identifies the spot, or its significance. Indeed, the only marker on Savoy Steps, apart from the street sign, is a scrappy, black-painted board that shouts: “Private Road: No Parking.”
And yet, wait at the bottom of the alley, and you are standing in history. Peering up the slope, I can clearly picture it as the scene of this most crucial of musical hours. True, the scaffolding that clings to the rear of the Savoy in the video is no longer there. But nothing else has changed.
Dylan could have been here yesterday. So, too, could the beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the artist Bob Neuwirth, who appear randomly at the left of screen – chatting to each other over a packing crate as Dylan plays with his words.
Two other sites were also used in the shoot – the roof of the Savoy, and the leafy expanse of Embankment Gardens, a (very) short walk south, down Savoy Hill, on the north bank of the Thames.
These extra moments would see the light of day in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 Dylan documentary No Direction Home.
Learn one of London's happy secrets
But it is Savoy Steps – dark, unglamorous, a dank scrap of the British capital – which retains pride of place in this story. Re-watch the video and you may notice that, when the song reaches the line 'you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows', Dylan finds his focus, staring at the camera and holding the viewer’s gaze.
He did know which way the wind was blowing – and how the contours of popular music were changing – in 1965. That an unloved and little observed cul-de-sac took a role in this narrative is one of London’s happy secrets.
Nine more music video locations in London
- Amy Winehouse, Back to Black: In Stoke Newington, at Abney Park Cemetery, Gibson Gardens and Chesholm Road.
- The Verve, Bittersweet Symphony: This classic video featured Richard Ashcroft lip-synching while walking down a busy London pavement. He begins at the junction of Hoxton Street and Falkirk Street, before heading north.
- Prodigy, Firestarter: The music video for The Prodigy's typically moody hit was filmed in the abandoned Tube station of Aldwych.
- The Stranglers, Golden Brown: Scenes from this video were shot at Leighton House Museum in Holland Park.
- The Spice Girls, Wannabe: The St Pancras Renaissance hotel (formerly the Midland Grand).
- The Beatles, Paperback Writer: In May 1966 the Beatles made a pair of promotional videos at Chiswick House for their new singles Paperback Writer and Rain.
- Musical Youth, Pass the Dutchie: This video was partly shot on the South Bank, opposite the Houses of Parliament.
- Kaiser Chiefs, Never Miss a Beat: This was shot in the Barge Pole pub in Abbey Wood, and at Thamesmead. The video for What Became of the Likely Lads, by the Libertines, was also filmed on a nearby council estate.
- Daniel Bedingfield, Gotta Get Through This: The video for Bedingfield's 2001 single featured Canary Wharf.
This article was written by Chris Leadbeater from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.