Andy Lewis

Andy Lewis

Words Martin Copland-Gray

Portraits Etienne Gilfillan

“The Mod thing for me has always been this sense of adventure, doing something no-one else was doing…”

He takes another sip of his cappuccino and regards the creatures of the Soho night walking past the brightly lit frontage of Bar Italia where we are sat. For a moment we are both staring at the present but thinking back to a past which still feels very close. As a young boy of 7 from the relative calm of Hertfordshire, Andy Lewis first came to Soho with his parents in 1977 and the memory of it seems to have had a lasting effect,“I remember coming to Carnaby Street when it had that big sign –Carnaby welcomes the world and all that. It was just after The Jam shot that ‘News of the World’cover down there. It was just an amazingly colourful and vibrant place.”

Flash forward another ten years and Lewis would be discovering and slowly making the place his own stomping ground buying records from the now sadly departed Cheapo Cheapo, splashing the cash on threads from stores like Merc on Carnaby Street, and attending the ubiquitous Northern Soul all nighters at the 100 Club. From here on music consumed his life. It was only a matter of time before Soho became the place to be for this well educated Mod from the suburbs. When the glorious Brit-pop years of the mid 90s were in full swing Lewis was to be found as a regular DJ at The Wag on Wardour Street with nights such as Blow Up and DJing on Blur’s Parklife tour. As he says of that heady time;“That was almost a second, possibly third heyday of Soho. A very exciting time for people to come here. I’m sure that if you’ve never been to London before and you come through Soho, it’s got this notable energy and history about it, but nowadays it’s more like an artificial theme parky kind of energy.”

Next up for the talented Lewis was a stint as a solo artist producing two critically acclaimed albums for Soho stalwart label Acid Jazz. On his debut release Billion Dollar Project he got the chance to work with Mod legend and former vocalist with The Action, Reg King. Lewis must’ve thought he’d hit the Mod jackpot but that was just the start! Whilst doing a spot as a roadie, he met the man he now plays bass for and calls his boss; Paul Weller. And though Lewis is a well turned out man with an impeccable taste in tailoring, I wanted to know what it was like working for the man who has his own clothing line and is constantly being labelled as a style icon;“One of the things I like about working with Paul is, it’s the only job that I’ve ever had where my boss has been better dressed than me. He shows you how to go as a man of a certain age. He still looks great. Not always does he look Mod, but he always looks great.”

Mods have been an ever present fixture on the streets of Soho ever since the days of The Small Faces back in the 1960s when Steve Marriott & Co. had their wages paid in clothes from shops such as His Clothes and the wonderfully named I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet. But is it still possible to be a Mod in the days of Brand Consumerism that we find ourselves living in now? Lewis seems to think it is. “The Mod thing for me was all about keeping an eye on the future as much as having an eye on the past. Nowadays it’s all about buying a brand identity. The Mod thing was never about who made it, it was about what it looked like on you. The Mod thing for me has always been this sense of adventure, doing something no-one else was doing.”

The Mods are still here but life is changing in the dark heart of Soho. The dirty, sleazy and ever so slightly seedy element that has defined Soho as a popular haunt for creatives like Andy Lewis has transformed in recent years. Andy says, ”The problem is when people start knowing the price of it all and the value of none of it. Soho was a place that creative industries moved into because it was cheap and then people wanted to move here because it was creative and that pushed the prices of everything up and now it’s trading on its past. So if you locate in Soho it’s as if you’re buying into this period of history which isn’t here any more. It’s got a past but not a future and that’s what worries me.”

So what now for Soho? Every day more high street brands & the same old coffee shops arrive. As a visitor to Soho for over 30 years this is something that has obviously played on his mind;“All these little coffee shops that are opening up are essentially the same thing. Bar Italia is Bar Italia but people don’t want to come here they want to go to Starbucks and places like that because they feel comfortable with the Starbucks brand. It’s great but it’s also terrible as well and I think if we’re not careful we risk losing the reason why people want to come here. We’ll lose the reason why people think London is special”.

The temperature drops a degree or two and as the door to Ronnie Scott’s swings open for a moment the sound of a jazz refrain catches the ear. Lewis orders another cup of coffee and says “I’ve always been a cappuccino drinker. I’ve always liked a nice & strong, Italian frothy coffee and you cannot beat it. First thing in the morning and even last thing at night when you’ve got a gig to go to. That’s why I keep coming to Bar Italia, it’s just around the corner from all the places that I come to. When I was going for a night out in Soho and even working I’d come here first, have a couple of espressos or a latte and then go to Madame Jo Jo’s and be fit for a night’s DJing!”

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