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If all the connections worked, I figured I could make it by bus Tuesday afternoon from the FlyAway depot in Van Nuys to LAX for the overnight flight to London's Heathrow Airport, where I could race through customs to the Tube (stick with the Piccadilly Line, much cheaper than the express line), then on to King's Cross train station for a late afternoon ride to Leeds.
I could then book a hotel room at the Leeds City Station tourist office, walk to the hotel, change clothes and take a cab to the Metropolitan University student union — just in time to catch one of England's hottest new bands, the Kaiser Chiefs, making a hometown appearance.
As it turned out, I arrived with 42 minutes to spare before the doors opened.
I like the start of my periodic rock 'n' roll pilgrimages to London and environs to be hectic because it gets the adrenaline flowing. The trip should have all the energy of the music itself.
If there's one city on Earth to best experience the future and past of rock 'n' roll, it's this one. London is to rock what Hollywood is to filmmaking. That's why I returned here in April, drawn by reports of another wave of promising young bands.
Rock may have been born in the American South, but it now lives in London most of the year, where new bands and old favorites are showcased nightly in clubs here and in other towns, like Leeds, a short train ride away. If you stand in any one place long enough in London, you'll probably spot some famous rocker.
I've seen Paul McCartney strolling along Charing Cross Road, David Bowie grabbing a cab on Oxford Street and Elton John being ushered through Heathrow. Robbie Williams (you'd know who he was if you lived in England) was on my flight to London.
Why the constant flow of bands?
One theory is that rock 'n' roll is one of the most attractive career paths for working-class youngsters who don't have many other options.
"That's part of it, but it's also just a magical thing for a young boy in England," Noel Gallagher, leader of the hugely successful British band Oasis, told me during this trip. "If you were 16, living in Rome, riding around in the sunshine all day with a beautiful girl on the back of your scooter, the last thing you're going to think about is playing guitar. If you grow up in England, you're on an island. It rains. It's cold. So you do think about picking up a guitar."
The Kaiser Chiefs, the night's attraction in Leeds, are part of a brigade of promising new British bands that also includes Bloc Party and Kasabian. Rolling Stone magazine has named the Chiefs one of the 10 bands to watch in 2005, and McCartney has called them "really cool."
The group has fans throughout England but especially in Leeds because, well, that's where they're from. Liverpool has the Beatles. Manchester has Oasis, Joy Division and the Stone Roses; Oxford has Radiohead; Birmingham has Black Sabbath. London has just about everybody else. Now, Leeds has the Chiefs.
After the long dash from Los Angeles, I joined a long line of fans, all hoping to get inside early so they could be close to the stage.
The student union concert room is pretty barebones, but that didn't kill the excitement of the thousand or so fans. The Chiefs' lyrics speak about life in Leeds — or anywhere a teen is looking for identity and a good time. The song that everyone loves is "I Predict a Riot."
Although the title suggests a punk spirit, the song, like the rest of the Chiefs' music, is in a more poppy, mainstream style. It was even a hit on KROQ-FM (106.7) in Los Angeles.
The fans were delirious, hugging one another during the show and racing to the edge of the stage at the end of it to shake hands with Ricky Wilson, the band's charming lead singer.
There was an after-show party at a nearby club, but I passed. I'd been up for more than 30 hours and wanted to catch an early train to London. Van Morrison and Bloc Party were waiting.
Home away from home
It was just past noon when I arrived at the Royal Adelphi Hotel in London, where I've stayed frequently. The rooms are not much larger than the bed and there's no room service, but the hotel is clean, the staff is helpful when asked for directions and it's scandalously cheap: about $125 a night, even with the terrible exchange rate.
Best of all, it has a dream location: It's on the edge of Covent Garden, which means you can walk to the Astoria, one of the city's most popular rock venues, and to the giant Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street and Foyles bookstore, plus most of the West End theaters. The hotel is also near two Tube stops (Charing Cross and Embankment ), a priceless convenience, and just a few yards from the River Thames, where a walk in the morning is as invigorating as a good concert.
After checking into the Adelphi, I went across the street to the newsstand at the Charing Cross train station to buy copies of NME, the weekly rock tabloid, and Time Out, which lives up to its boast of being "London's Weekly Listings Bible."
Although the Internet makes it easy to plan before leaving home, the magazines help fill in any blanks. You'll almost always end up frustrated because you'll have way more choices than time.
I had planned to devote Thursday night solely to Bloc Party, a new quartet whose intense style and social commentary are reminiscent at times of the Clash. The show was its return home after a tour of the States.
But Van Morrison, one of the great rock singers, was going to preview his new album for a small audience at the Shaw Theatre, next to the British Library. Sounded perfect — if I could get from the Shaw to the Astoria for Bloc Party's 9 p.m. set.
Morrison can be notoriously unpredictable onstage. He has been known to walk off if something displeases him. Also, I feared he might be late. But he was on at 7:30 p.m. sharp and the new R&B-shaded music was his most appealing in years.
To reach the Astoria in time, I had to leave a few minutes early, so I exited carefully between numbers — while his back was turned. I didn't want to do anything to put him in a bad mood.
It was a short Tube ride on the Northern Line to the Tottenham Court Road stop, just across the street from the Astoria.
The show was sold out, but brokers in London or scalpers at the venue were selling tickets. If you use a scalper, expect to pay two to three times the face value — and hope the ticket isn't counterfeit. In this case, scalpers were asking $74 to $92 for tickets that originally sold at the door for $28 plus service fee.
The day had been lovely, sunny and in the low 60s, but the temperature inside the drab, grimy building felt like triple digits as Bloc Party took the stage.
Some English critics think Bloc Party could be the most substantial of all the new British bands, and the group played with authority. The Astoria audience seemed delighted as it left the theater — and not just because of the fresh air.
After dinner at Wagamama, a wonderful noodle chain that seems to have a location in every fashionable block in London, I walked back to the hotel, thinking about the day to come: a performance by Rufus Wainwright, one of America's most acclaimed singer-songwriters, and maybe even some sightseeing.
The Beatles and Churchill
Despite lingering predictions of rain, the weather was fine Friday morning, making for a lovely walk along the river.
If it's your first trip to London, you might spend the afternoon checking out famous rock tourist spots, starting with a stroll by Abbey Road Studios.
It's where the Beatles made their landmark albums and where many bands still record. You will often find fans retracing the Beatles' steps in the crosswalk out front — a scene from the cover of the band's album "Abbey Road." The studio is in St. John's Wood, which means you'll need to take the Jubilee Line to the St. John's Wood Tube stop. (Be sure to buy an all-day pass so you have unlimited rides.)
If you want to explore historic sights, stop by the Cabinet War Rooms, the underground headquarters of Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II.
It's on King Charles Street, near the Houses of Parliament and easy walking distance from the hotel. The fixtures and supplies (all the way down to the pins in the map room) have been preserved so faithfully that it's almost eerie.
Once back at the hotel, it was a short walk to Foyles on Charing Cross Road, a London institution for so long that there's even a book detailing the shop's history. In recent years, it's been modernized — two spacious, fast-moving elevators now supplement the old, tiny, slow one, in response, no doubt, to the new Borders across the street.
I've never walked away from Foyles without at least one pop music book. The one that caught my eye this time was Nick Hornby's "31 Songs," a series of essays on the recordings that have touched him over the years. In one, he raves about Wainwright's recording of "One Man Guy," a song written by his father, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. Hornby says he tries not to believe in God, but he hears something in the record — something so beautiful or moving — that it brings him up short.
I thought about the line that night when listening to Rufus Wainwright at Shepherds Bush Empire, a more comfortable theater than the 2,000-capacity Astoria. The place was packed when I arrived, so I had to stand.
Blessed with marvelous range as a composer and insight as a lyricist, Wainwright had "big star" written all over him from the moment his first album appeared in 1998, but he's often disappointing live, and he has been slow to pick up a U.S. following.
This night, however, was a revelation.
Before an adoring audience, he sang every song as if it were the only time he'd ever done so. Wainwright thanked the audience and went on at length about how at home he felt onstage in London.
Backstage, he said audiences here were more open to variety in music than in the States, not so programmed by what they hear on the radio or by what's supposed to be cool at the moment. "It felt wonderful tonight," he said.
On the Tube ride back to the Charing Cross station, I thumbed through the copy of Time Out to narrow down Saturday's options — perhaps King Sunny Ade at the Royal Festival Hall, rapper Common at the intimate Jazz Cafe or a matinee performance of the musical "Jailhouse Rock" at the Piccadilly Theatre.
I still hadn't figured out what to do when a message at the hotel settled it. I had been trying to set up an interview with Oasis' Gallagher. He could do the interview but only on Saturday night. "Jailhouse Rock" in the afternoon and Oasis in the evening.
After buying a half-price ticket for "Jailhouse Rock" at the tkts booth in Leicester Square, a 10-minute walk from the hotel, there was time to visit the nearby National Portrait Gallery. It's free, except for special exhibits, and it's nice that it's not too snobbish to embrace rock culture.
The first photo you see is of Vivienne Westwood, who helped design the Sex Pistols' punk style (the torn black leather and safety pin look) in the '70s. On another wall, paintings of Paul McCartney and Elton John hang alongside portraits of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
More rock was showcased in the Proud Gallery, just around the corner from my hotel. The main exhibit featured photos of singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, who drowned in 1997. The warm, intimate shots, all by Merri Cyr, capture Buckley's sweet, sad quality.
Both galleries were delights, which is more than you could say about "Jailhouse Rock."
I had hoped the musical would offer some imaginative interpretation of the Presley story, but it was a wooden reworking of one of Elvis' earliest films, "Jailhouse Rock," minus some of his most popular numbers, including, surprisingly, "Jailhouse Rock." It closed April 23 after a month's run.
After dinner, I took the Tube's Bakerloo Line from the hotel to the Marylebone station, leaving enough time to walk around the neighborhood before meeting Gallagher at the plush Landmark hotel. The Marylebone railway station itself has some rock 'n' roll history: The chase scene in the Beatles' film "A Hard Day's Night" was shot here.
Then it was off to the Landmark. For a while in the early '90s, Oasis' richly melodic, mostly optimistic brand of rock achieved a popularity in England that hadn't been seen since the days of the Beatles. But the band lost its touch and has been struggling to regain its footing. Gallagher thinks the band's new album, "Don't Believe the Truth," is its best since those glory days.
I asked him why so many young people in England start rock 'n' roll bands — and why fans are so passionate that even some U.S. groups, including the White Stripes, have been discovered here before they were in the States. His answer dealt with the rock tradition in England.
"There's even a network waiting for you," he replied. "Everyone knows someone in a band, so it doesn't seem so mysterious or so impossible. In Manchester, for instance, there are rehearsal spaces, guitar shops and lots of clubs to play. If you are any good, it's easy to create excitement. The country is so small that you can build a following quickly. The fans are just as passionate as the musicians. That's why people enjoy coming here to play."
After the interview, I took the Tube back to the Charing Cross station and looked around for somewhere to eat a late supper. After a couple of blocks, one bright light beckoned. Wagamama keeps late hours.
On Sunday, I had a late lunch at Cafe Pacifico, which I've eaten at so many times that it borders on superstition. The Mexican food restaurant, on a side street near the Covent Garden Tube stop, is noisy even when it's half-empty. Everyone seems to be celebrating something. The rain was starting by the time I headed to the Forum to see Bo Diddley, one of my childhood favorites.
The 2,100-capacity Forum is another former movie theater, this one in Kentish Town, several Tube stops from central London on the Northern Line (Kentish Town stop). This show wasn't sold out, which meant the scalpers raced to get to fans before they could see the ticket window was still open.
Bo is in his 70s, and he sat on a chair during the set, but he still has the spirit and he still gets his exotic rhythm out of his guitar, one of the most infectious ever in rock.
Watching him, you could imagine how excited a young Keith Richards and countless other British youngsters were in the '50s and '60s seeing him and other musicians who brought this haunting, sensual music with them from America.
Bo told the crowd repeatedly how much he felt at home here and how much he appreciated their continuing support. At the end of the set, he said he was looking forward to coming back soon.
I knew how he felt.
To hear samples from these bands, visit latimes.com/london.
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From LAX, nonstop service to London is available on Air New Zealand, British, American, United and Virgin Atlantic; connecting service (change of plane) is offered on Northwest, Delta and Continental. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $488 until May 29, increasing to $778 until June 15.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 44 (country code) and the local number.
To stay: Royal Adelphi Hotel, 21 Villiers St.; 20-7930- 8764, fax 20-7930-8735, http://www.royaladelphi.co.uk . Great location and price. Doubles from $125.
To eat: Cafe Pacifico, 5 Langley St., Covent Garden, 20-7379-7728, http://www.cafepacifico-laperla.com/Pages/Pac_Lon.htm . It's as though the El Cholo staff moved to London. Entrees $14-$27.
Wagamama, 1 Tavistock St., Covent Garden, 20-7836-3330, and 4A Streatham, 20-7323-9223, http://www.wagamama.com ; You sit at long, school-cafeteria-style tables, but the noodle and rice dishes are both tasty and ample. Entrees $10-$17.
To browse: Foyles, 113-119 Charing Cross Road; 20-7437-5660, http://www.foyles.co.uk . The shop carries so many books in almost every field that you always feel just one shelf away from some surprise delight.
Virgin Megastore, 13-19 Oxford St., 20-7631-1234, http://www.virginmega.co.uk . Think of it as the Foyles of record shops.
The Astoria, 157 Charing Cross Road, London; ticket info 870-534-4444, http://www.meanfiddler.com .
The Forum, 9-17 Highgate Road, Kentish Town; ticket info (Ticketmaster) 161-385-3500, http://www.meanfiddler.com .
Shepherds Bush Empire, Shepherd's Bush Green; 20-8354-3300 or ticket info 870-771-2000; http://www.shepherds-bush-empire.co.uk .
TO LEARN MORE:
NME, http://www.nme.com , about $3.50, and Time Out, http://www.timeout.com/london , about $4.65. For lists of upcoming shows, http://www.pollstar.com or http://www.bigmouth.co.uk .
Visit Britain, (800) 462-2748, http://www.visitbritain.org .
— Robert Hilburn