Tim Arnold has Soho in his blood. The singer-songwriter comes from a long line of West End performers. Arnold, who is affectionately known in London as The Soho Hobo, found fame at the tender age of 19 as the frontman of the 90s Britpop band Jocasta. Since then, he's released 13 solo albums, composed music for Shakespeare’s Globe, and competed on the U.K. edition of “The Voice.” His career has been full of unexpected plot twists, but Soho has always been a constant in his life.
Tim Arnold with Benedict Cumberbatch
Never been to London's Soho district? Think of it as Greenwich Village's long-lost soul sister (with a dash of Times Square in the 70s). Like many Soho residents, Arnold was alarmed by the once-gritty neighborhood's rapid gentrification. The 2014 closing of the legendary Soho burlesque club Madame Jojo's pushed him over the edge. So he started a movement.
Founded by Arnold in December 2014, Save Soho is a coalition of performers, residents, and politicians dedicated to protecting the neighborhood's historic role as a platform for the performing arts. With the help of friends Benedict Cumberbatch and Stephen Fry, the group has attracted international attention. They've ruffled a few feathers along the way, but they've also scored some major successes—including this amazing sing-along with London mayor Boris Johnson.
Tim Arnold is a lot of things to a lot of different people. The first time I met him, he was simply a benevolent neighbor. A couple of hundred years ago, my husband and I lived in London and threw obnoxiously loud parties at inappropriate times. The Soho Hobo had the misfortune of living directly below us. Most people would have thrown things at us (or called the bobbies). Tim Arnold came in and drank wine instead. Since he doesn't hold grudges, he recently let me pick his brain on all things Soho. In summary: he's a pretty nice human.
HistoryBuff: Can you tell us a little bit about your Soho roots?
My Soho roots began with my grandfather Dickie Arnold. During World War II, he and my grandmother Mitzi toured the country with Max Miller as his opening act. By the 1950’s, Dickie had met Paul Raymond and became his actor manager for the touring Raymond Revue before it opened in Soho. Later, my grandfather married again and together with his beautiful new wife Dottie, they formed a double act. Dickie and Dottie performed all over the UK and joined Paul Raymond again in the late 60s at The Revue Bar in Soho.
Dickie and Dottie Arnold, Raymond Revue Bar, 1969
At the same time that my grandfather was working in Soho as a compere and comedian in several clubs, my mother, Polly Perkins, aged 15, also moved to Soho and became a Windmill girl in 1959. I grew up in one of those theatrical families when extended families are as close to you as your actual family. Every single one of my extended family, (the people who brought me up and cared for me), all worked in showbiz in Soho at some point with my mother.
Dickie Arnold and Polly Perkins during their Soho glory days
HistoryBuff: What is your earliest Soho memory?
My earliest memory of Soho would have been a play by Alan Bennett called ’40 Years On’. It was showing at The Queen’s Theatre and starred Stephen Fry and Paul Eddington. It was probably quite an adult play for me at the time (I was nine years old), but I had a reason to see it: my elder brother Toby who began his career as an actor, was in the cast. I believe it to be his first West End performance on stage. After the show, I was taken backstage where my brother presented me with my Christmas present, a BMX Diamond Back bike. It was 1984 and I remember the neon glow through the Soho streets as if it were yesterday.
Tim Arnold after his first gig in Soho in 1995
HistoryBuff: Do you think your Soho connection shows in your music? If so, how?
Well, three of my albums are about Soho so there’s a connection there. But, generally, I do think there is a deeper connection between my music and Soho in that all of my albums are extremely individual. Diversity seems to be at the heart of Soho, and it also seems to be at the heart of my music. Change has been the only constant in what I do as an artist, and the same could be said for Soho I suppose. Soho often appears to be quite clique-y to outsiders, but in all the years I’ve lived there, it’s more to do with individuals than groups, and I have certainly never been part of any Soho group. There’s also something to be said about being surrounded by so many experts (which of course Soho is full of wherever you go). My compulsive obsessive nature when researching new material for an album perhaps owes a debt to my time in Soho. I stitch lyrics together like a tailor. For singing, I have borrowed accents from almost every West End wanderer passing by. Most of my songs are written from the perspective of a character I inhabit, and in hindsight, I can see a lot of those characters were people I met or observed in Soho. But I am not unique in Soho being connected to what I do creatively. Soho has always been both an inspiration and a sounding board for artists trying to escape mortality by creating something that might last forever.
HistoryBuff: First Soho gig?
My first gig in Soho was at The Borderline in 1995, around my 20th birthday. It was the last in a series of gigs I did with my first band Jocasta, and it was the gig that got us a worldwide record deal with Sony. It will always be a pivotal moment in my life and I will always be grateful to all the friends, supporters and musicians who made it so pivotal. For better or worse, that was the gig that changed my life.
HistoryBuff: How has the neighborhood changed over the past ten years? Is Soho still artistically relevant?
Good choice of words. “Artistic”. I prefer that word to “Creative”. Creative seems to be applicable to anything these days. But artistic…in Soho? Yes. In my book, yes. There is art in everything from the tailors’ designs to the pattern on top of a cappuccino and the architecture of the place. I think it’s still relevant to people who are not enslaved to smartphones and Twitter. You know? For people who enjoy reading more than a headline, Soho still has a lot to offer artistically.
Polly Perkins in 1959
HistoryBuff: What inspired you to found Save Soho?
In a word, what inspired me to start Save Soho? Indie. I’m not sure I know another musician who has clung on to staying ‘indie’ as much as I have. And I mean it in the truest sense of the word: independent, with complete autonomy over what one does creatively and succeeds in creating work without the pressures of commercial returns. I may have stayed cocooned in my Soho bedsit making DIY albums for the last decade while the rest of the world got seduced by reality TV shows, Simon Cowell’s stable and mainstream mediocrity, but I don’t regret it for a second. Indie is a culture that all my favorite music came from, and it’s a culture that was made possible by grass roots music venues. Those are the places where artists like me are able to explore our work and share it with an audience. You knock those down, you’re knocking my life down. What else could I do? Save Soho is just me expressing myself, and fortunately for the grass roots music culture that is under threat, I had some very high profile figures who believed in me and what I had to say.
Tim Arnold doing what he does best
Save Soho also started at an interesting time for me. I was approached by the producers of The Voice UK and asked if I would appear on the show as a contestant. At the time, I saw it as an opportunity that might be good for my music. Unfortunately, the producers had their own agenda and my suspicions of reality TV being completely lacking in any reality whatsoever were confirmed. However, upon leaving the show, I was immediately aware of how lucky I have been to live in an area like Soho where unlike many musicians, I was able to perform in all these amazing little venues in the middle of London. I had been fully prepared to go the distance on The Voice, so I was, as you might say ‘pumped’ with energy when I was ‘rehearsed’ out of the show. I didn’t get the chance to use that energy on The Voice. But as soon as some iconic music venues were closed down in Soho, I suddenly had something to put that energy in to. I don’t believe YouTube is an ecosystem for tomorrow’s artists. The ecosystem for innovative music artists are grass roots music venues that are inclusive and affordable, just like the ones we’ve had in Soho that have spawned 6 decades of innovative music. Be it mainstream, underground, or teetering between the two, that’s worth saving in the middle of a city that is seeing the most dramatic land change since World War Two.
HistoryBuff: Has the coalition scored any major successes?
Many plans have been changed because of Save Soho’s influence. Certain attitudes regarding planning have also been affected by Save Soho. We are one of many voices who share a genuine concern about the future of music venues in London, along with The Music Venue Trust whom we consider to be the leader in the field. But this is a long-term campaign, so whenever there are successes, we jump for joy in private and then get on with the job at hand.
Overall, Save Soho has brought a lot of people together. I may have ruffled some feathers along the way with the campaign, but you know what? I long ago traded any kind of respectability in society for a bohemian life that meant I could express myself and what I believe in. And I believe in the rights of any individuals who choose to do the same. As long as freedom of expression is protected in Soho, then the rest of the country and indeed the world are in with a chance.
The Soho Hobo in action
HistoryBuff: Best spot to grab a drink at 3 a.m.?
It still has to be Trisha’s. But I can’t tell you the address in print or she might give me a clip round the earhole.
HistoryBuff: Most random Soho encounter?
I don’t believe any of my encounters in Soho have been random. I believe in a karmic plan that is connecting all of us. Having said that, there are some unexpected encounters that have gone on to become meaningful in my life, and far too numerous to list. You know who you all are!
London party circa 2008. Translation: Tim Arnold is a saint
HistoryBuff: Loudest neighbors?
I have rented rooms in Soho across 21 years. I was probably the loudest resident in the area since wherever I lived was also my recording studio. However, sometime in 2008 I rented rooms in Lexington St. On the floor above me, there lived an American couple who appeared to have walked straight out of a book by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway. At the time, I was fast asleep while a social gathering took place above me. I went upstairs, initially to comment on the noise, but ended up staying for a drink and found them to be both charming people and exquisite hosts. We have remained friends ever since, and I guess that IS Soho.