They scared audiences, revolutionised guitar playing, inspired the world to tackle famine, created a new subculture and reinvigorated opera. Alfred Hitchcock, Jimi Hendrix, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie and George Handel are five of the greatest artists to live in London, and their former homes and haunts are now shrines for tourists.
While the adjoined homes of Hendrix and Handel have been made into a comprehensive and impressive museum, it is fans who have put the other three locations on the tourist trail.
Because Mercury, late lead singer of the legendary rock band Queen, was cremated and doesn’t have a grave to visit, his former home has become a popular site for fans. But there are no signs to direct you there and the property is blurred out on Google Map’s street view function.
The search ends in a quiet Kensington street, where handwritten letters are stuck to a wall alongside a heavily fortified door.
“Dear darling Freddie, how have you been? Now I’m here to see you,” reads one note, decorated by flowers, a heart and a French-language letterhead.
“The best of the universe,” read another, embellished by a sketch of Mercury and a second tribute in Spanish. The Google Maps censorship, thick security door and CCTV cameras suggest whoever now owns the home where Mercury lived from 1986 to 1991 doesn’t appreciate its status as a shrine, and likely removes these notes regularly.
Not that that seems to deter Mercury fans. It says a great deal about the devotion we have to our favourite artists that, in a city that bulges with tourist attractions, foreign travellers make the effort to visit a nondescript laneway to leave a message for a dead hero.
Despite Mercury having died 30 years ago, he continues to beguile a new generation. His appeal is maintained not just by Queen’s enduring popularity, but also the 2018 Hollywood biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and the viral YouTube videos of the band’s renowned show at Live Aid.
Widely considered one of the great rock performances of all time, Queen were the standouts at that 1985 benefit concert to raise funds for the Ethiopian famine.
Meanwhile, movie lovers entranced by Hitchcock’s films visit the London home he occupied from 1926 to 1939, before moving to the US. Hitchcock’s old house is easier to find, thanks to a plaque dedicated to the film legend on the building’s facade. The otherwise unremarkable townhouse is just a 600-metre walk from Mercury's former home.
Arguably the most influential English filmmaker of all time, Hitchcock is credited with revolutionising the horror and thriller genres with his unique pacing and use of suspense. Hitchcock fanatics can also visit the home where he was born, about 15 kilometres east of his Kensington house, in the suburb of Leytonstone.
It’s another plaque, on a building amid a cluster of bars in downtown London, that draws fans of Bowie. That sign marks the location where the English singer posed for the cover photo of his most famous album, 1972's Ziggy Stardust. Recoloured by an illustrator to make it look like a sketch, the photo showed Bowie holding a guitar in the doorway of this building, which is located in one of London’s busiest tourist precincts, just a 400m walk from Piccadilly Circus.
Bowie is estimated to have sold about 140 million records during his extraordinary career. That figure surpasses even the superstar Hendrix. While Hendrix was born and raised in the US, it was near that Bowie plaque in London where he launched his career. In 1966, aged 24, Hendrix was brought to London by his new manager and quickly found fame.
At the top of a rickety stairway in an old London home, there’s a choice – turn right to see Hendrix or left to meet Handel. This is the Handel & Hendrix in London museum, which is based in the neighbouring homes where these two musical geniuses lived, albeit more than 200 years apart.
Originally, these adjoining buildings were occupied by the Handel House Museum, which opened in 2001. That facility showcased the German composer’s old apartment, while using Hendrix’s former home as offices.
Owing to popular demand, the latter spaces were incorporated into the museum to tell the story of Hendrix’s early years in London.
The museum uses photographs and artefacts to chronicle Hendrix’s metamorphosis from a talented but little-known musician into a blossoming superstar.
Chief among the items on display is the first guitar Hendrix ever played on British soil – a Wandre Blue Jeans model. Hendrix’s bedroom, with its eclectic, hippie design, has also been painstakingly recreated.
By comparison, the interior of Handel’s adjacent apartment is far more austere. This home, too, is intended to replicate its former appearance, in this case during the early to mid-1700s. Handel was aged 27 when, in 1712, he decided to leave Germany for London, where he lived for the remainder of his life.
Just like with Hendrix, Handel’s career skyrocketed in England. He quickly became one of the country’s most admired composers, crafting a series of revered operas. I was able to explore the entirety of his two-floor home, where he lived for 36 years, including his bedroom and the dining room where he rehearsed singers and performed for friends.
Handel’s work may not appeal to current generations quite as strongly as that of Hendrix, Bowie, Mercury or Hitchcock, but his legacy remains strong thanks to his restored apartment.
All five of these legends influenced, and were influenced by, London. And in this city, they remain famous from beyond the grave.