Words by Matt Barnaville, Photos by Helena La Petite
As Helena and I were anxiously awaiting the tour group at Tottenham Court Road tube station, our ears were bombarded by a busker playing raucous rave tunes that were starting to get a grip on me. You could say he stands for what made and still makes Soho a global focal point for musicians - a place where they can let go and create the sounds they want. As gentrification springs up around the area he’s there making his music in the same way that Soho is still withstanding evermore salivating developers.
I spotted our tour guide, Malcolm, an unassuming, friendly, and (as I was soon to find out) unquestionably knowledgeable music lover, wearing his Rock and Trips polo top. After a brief intro we set off to find the concert hall that saw Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Cream on the bill in just one month in 1967. It has now been engulfed by Odeon cinemas with no reference to its rich musical history. As the tour develops we’re soon to find out that London is moving at a pace somewhat unsuited to preserving any musical heritage.
After Malcolm’s introduction we crept through some back alleys emerging at Denmark Street where Malcolm told us so much about such a short and quirky little street that I wanted to write a book on the subject there and then. This was the place where music publishing began in London, where Elton John got his first job, where David Bowie used to come for coffee. Only three of many facts that I can bring to mind as I write this.
As we set off for the next stop, the girl next to me mentioned that Denmark Street should be a world heritage site, and it’s clear that the more we see and learn with Malcolm, the more this statement rings true.
We continued into the beating heart of Soho. Everyone was struck by the sheer number of places where the most significant events in popular music took place. Malcolm continued to amaze us with his tour and three hours later we were dragging our fatigued limbs around Soho like drunken musicians stumbling out of Ronnie Scott’s at 3am.
Helena and I were struck by Malcolm’s tenacity and drive from the moment we met him to the point where our feet were numb and blistered - I remember contemplating whether he was battery operated.
Malcolm retired and started Rock and Trips which is now a thriving small business. With countless outstanding reviews on TripAdvisor, Malcolm has seen the business grow significantly in recent years. He gives three standard tours around various parts of London as well as bespoke tours for those with a more specific hunger for music knowledge. His lifestyle involves educating curious music lovers around a city that has carved out an impressive world music history timeline for itself. A friendly, tenacious, enterprising person, Malcolm is an example of someone who doesn't settle for the standard way of doing things, but takes things into his own hands and goes with what he loves. Helena and I learnt a lot on this tour, from London’s music history, to the way people like Malcolm turn something they’re passionate about into a successful small business. It makes me think of how you can always reinvent yourself and your business, whether you’ve had a career in recycling and want to run your own business, or if you’ve become indoctrinated into a particular career path and are looking for a more fulfilling change. As we can learn from Malcolm in the following interview, you only have to do two things, put yourself out there, and secondly, do it well. Undoubtedly, doing this takes time, effort, and patience, but if you get even half of the satisfaction that people like Malcolm do from these things, it’s well worth it!
Here’s our interview with Malcolm. A great man with a great story.
Your knowledge of music is widely celebrated across the world wide web - just spending a couple of minutes reading through Rock and Trips reviews makes minds go spinning around ‘discovering amazing little hideaways’, and hearing ‘great stories about Soho and its music history’. What’s your story? What did it take you to accumulate such a broad range of knowledge?
I was born in London. My fascination for the city comes from my father who used to take my two brothers and myself into the centre of London on the bus. He would show us all sorts of fascinating and unusual things. Just as I entered my teenage years, youth culture came into its own. The Beatles broke and things would never be the same again. It brought with it a whole new dimension to being a teenager. My interest has never really stopped. I have continued throughout my life liking all sorts of music and the stories that go with it.
We believe that the love for what you do is what ultimately spreads the word about your business. How have you experienced your passion helping your business grow?
People that come on the tours all seem to like and enjoy them. With a music tour, I realise that you either like this sort of thing or you don’t. If you don’t, then you are not going to come on one of my tours. If you like such things, then you are in some way a captured audience. It’s therefore down to me to ensure that people enjoy the tours and are entertained. Whether the people come from overseas or are locals, I just want them to enjoy something different and go back home with many fond memories of London’s music history. If I succeed in that, they then use social media and tell their friends, families and colleagues and that helps the business grow.
Running tours isn’t quite the same as working a 9 to 5 job, or even building a startup and possibly working 24/7. How do you manage your time, and what’s the secret trick to switching off?
It goes without saying that customers are important to the business. It is essential to respond to their requests, bookings and queries as soon as possible which I am able to do with today’s technology. As long as customers receive a reply within 24 hours they seem to be happy. I am able to manage my time around those requirements. Having a supportive wife and family who understand how the tour business works helps us balance my work life with family and social life.
Even though you practically run an offline business, it’s still important to build an online presence. How do online and offline tie into each other? What were your first steps towards becoming an established online business?
The promotion of my business is essential to its success. My first step was to establish a website and I was fortunate enough to be able to use my nephew to build and establish the website for Rock and Trips. From then on it was a matter of promotion. I used various marketing companies to help cultivate the business. Some were good, some were bad. Some were profitable for the business and some not so much, but you learn what is beneficial and what isn’t. As word spreads about the tours, whether through social media or word of mouth, the tie in between them leads to additional custom.
Let’s have some fun - If you were to start a band now, where would you set it up and why?
I would want my band to last in the long term. Therefore, I would play in and around the London area plus the few clubs left in the centre that encourage up and coming bands. I would like my band to walk before it could run and so you should be able to get the experience in the number of venues available. There are too many five minute wonders. You really have to serve your apprenticeship (and also have a bit of luck!).
Assume you have 30 minutes, you can travel to any time in the past in London. Where would you go, what date/time/year, and why?
Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on Frith Street, London in the evening of 16th September 1970. It was the last time that Jimi Hendrix ever played live.
Can you share the most random fact in musical history with us?
The UK Rock and Roll music business has its birthday on 15th July.
Thanks Malcolm for sharing your thoughts on business with us, as well as your incredible amount of knowledge of London’s music history.
For issue one we’re looking for more people and businesses who are passionate about and create positive change. People who do good. Good that goes beyond just business, but has a real, lasting impact on the world, drives global change, and encourages sustainability, social and environmental growth. Know someone? Let us know.