It Came from London: A virtual tour of Post-punk's roots
Time Out London, April 2005
by Simon Reynolds
If you want to get a vivid sense of what London felt like in the late Seventies, rent the DVD of Rude Boy. Filmed during 1978-79, the Clash's semi-documentary teems with great footage of Rock Against Racism carnivals and National Front demonstrations. But what really strikes the contemporary eye is how crap everything looks. With its washed-out colour schemes, shabby clothes, and grey faces, London resembles an Eastern Bloc city compared to today's design-conscious and style-saturated metropolis.
Beneath the drab surface, though, late Seventies London was culturally vibrant in ways that make the sharp-dressed and monied capital of today seem frankly impoverished. Rock music, avant-garde art, critical theory, and militant politics cross-contaminated each other to create a ferment of creativity and dissent. Although the capital was getting an early taste of Thatcherism--spending cuts, attacks on public transport and council housing--courtesy of the Conservative leadership that took over the GLC (Greater London Council) in 1977, London still had plenty of spaces for alternative lifestyles. Squat culture and low-rent bohemia thrived during what was effectively the glorious last blast of the counterculture.
1977 was supposed to be Year Zero, as far as the punks were concerned. They scorned the lank-locked hippies, rolling joints on their gatefold album sleeves and blissing out to noodly guitar solos. Yet in truth punk rock was really a historical blip, a brief interruption in the continuum of progressive music and culture that stretched from the psychedelia of 1967 to the avant-funk and industrial dub of 1979. This explains why Ladbroke Grove and its surrounding neighbourhoods were so key during the postpunk period. Former stomping ground of Pink Floyd and Hawkind, home to the epoch-defing progressive labels Island and Virgin, the Grove segued seamlessly from the era of kaftans, flares and Afghan coats to the Doc Martens, drainpipes and holey out-size jumpers of postpunk.
One thing shared by the hippies and the postpunks was the white Brit boho veneration for reggae as the ultimate "roots rock rebel" sound. Former Island Records press officer, reggae journalist, and maker of the dubby post-punk single "Launderette", Vivien Goldman lived in W11 during this era. She remembers there being at least half-a-dozen illegal sound systems within walking distance from her house on Ladbroke Grove. Known as "blues," the parties typically operated out of someone's flat or house. "You'd pay a quid on the door, get a spiff and a Red Stripe, and rave all night to dub and lover's rock. Ladbroke Grove was much more scuzzy in those days, and much more like a village. It really was a scene where you'd run into everybody on Portobello on Saturday afternoon without fail, whether you wanted to see them or not."
A major hangout for West London's postpunk community was the Rough Trade record shop, which took over a building on Kensington Park Road that had formerly been the site of the UK's first hippie "headshop. "Rough Trade became a real magnet," says RT co-founder Geoff Travis. "You could just hang out and browse without anyone harassing you, and there were chairs and huge speakers pumping out all the reggae pre-releases. We made the connection with punk really early." Ladbroke Grove was The Clash's manor, after all. Their lyrics were shadowed by the Westway flyover and the Brutalist monstrosity of Trellick Tower (which now looks almost charmingly quaint with its utilitarian design), while "White Riot" was inspired by the disorder of the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival.
Rough Trade the label started almost exactly two years after the record shop opened for business in February 1976. Operating out of a little shed at the back of the store, between 1978 and 1981 Rough Trade released many of postpunk's defining records, some from out-of-towners like Swell Maps, Cabaret Voltaire, Kleenex, and The Fall, and others from London vanguard outfits like This Heat, Scritti Politti, and The Raincoats. As striking as its discography, though, was the idealism that informed the way Rough Trade operated. Despite being a privately owned company, it was run as a cooperative, with all the staff enjoying equal pay and equal say (just like Time Out, in those days).
Travis embodied the continuity between the counterculture and postpunk. He talks about growing up during the era of Schoolkids' Oz and the Grosvenor Square demonstrations, and living in squats all across London. "Mile End, Camden, Bloomsbury... I was living in a squat when the Rough Trade store opened." Later he became Vivien Goldman's housemate and tested her patience with the endless succession of Rough Trade bands from outside the city who kipped on the floor when in town to make records or play gigs.
A short walk from Rough Trade, at the far end of Portobello beyond the Westway, stood the former premises of Sixties underground paper International Times. By the late Seventies it was occupied by a company called Better Badges. Wearing your allegiances--political or musical--on your lapels was the thing to do in those heady days, and Better Badges was the market leader. But the guy behind Better was no "breadhead." An original hippie who had worked as an editor at International Times and legendarily hadn't cut his locks since 1968, Jolyon McFie started an idealistic "print now/pay later" scheme to help fledgling fanzines like Jamming get off the ground. The editors could then lug the copies down the road to Rough Trade, whose burgeoning distribution network would get them into independent record stores across the nation.
On their way from Better Badges to Rough Trade, the spotty zine kids would pass Acklam Hall, a venue tucked under the Westway flyover. Later renamed Subterrania, Acklam Hall started out hosting benefit gigs (including ones for Rock Against Racism), survived a neo-fascist arson attack, and blossomed as a crucial performance space for postpunk groups. Scritti Politti made their live debut there in November 1978, playing a four song set (because that's all the tunes they then had) and going down so well, the audience insisted they play the 15 minute set again. On the same bill were Latimer Road postpunks pragVEC, whose offshoot band The Atoms featured comedian/actor Keith Allen singing ditties like "Max Bygraves Killed My Mother."
Another key West London venue was The Chippenham, a dingy upstairs room of a Westbourne Grove pub, where bands performed without a stage. In 1979, it was the place to see Rough Trade's gloriously shambolic feminist postpunkers The Raincoats and lesser-known absurdists like The Tesco Bombers and The Vincent Units. Raincoats bassist Gina Birch lived nearby in the squat-infested Monmouth Road. "Some of the houses had been burnt out and were literally uninhabitable," she recalls. "The one we lived in was not a pretty sight. People would say, 'we're making a post-holocaust film, can we shoot in your house?' We had mushrooms growing out of the toilet wall."
Vicky Aspinall, the Raincoats' violinist, was recruited after she spotted the band's ad--"female musician wanted: no style but strength"--in Camden's late lamented radical bookstore Compendium. There were postpunk outposts across the city--John Lydon and PiL's bunker at Gunter Grove in the grubby end of Chelsea, the Cold Storage studio on Brixton's Acre Lane where This Heat recorded, Throbbing Gristle's 'Death Factory' HQ in Hackney--but in truth Camden was Ladbroke Grove's only real rival during this period as an alternative culture stronghold. It was home to Scritti Politti and the clutch of likeminded do-it-yourself bands who clustered around them, and to the London Musician's Collective.
"Being in Camden, it just felt like you were in the right place," recalls LMC co-founder David Toop. He says that the area's bohemian prime really kicked off with punk. "One time I took this musician from America to a local café, and the guy was utterly astonished when the Clash walked in. But that was actually totally normal at that time." The Clash were doubtless taking a break from rehearsing at their practice space, a disused British Rail storage shed on Chalk Farm Road. The LMC also repurposed British Rail property, taking over a former BR laundry-cum-social club on Gloucester Avenue and turning it into a performance space.
Originally born out of the UK's free improvisation scene, the LMC began to attract discontented ex-punks like Viv Albertine of The Slits and Mark Perry of Sniffin' Glue/Alternative TV, who chafed against the strictures of conventional rock. Fans of the early, chaotic incarnation of the Slits, Toop and LMC co-founder Steve Beresford wanted to foster a dialogue between the virtuosos of British improv and the non-skilled DIY types who'd emerged from punk. A spirit of irreverent playfulness and quirked-out whimsy informed the LMC scene's music, symbolized in a shared penchant for toy pianos and other unusual instruments. On one memorable night, Bendell from LMC regulars The Door and the Window played a solo set using the room's radiators. "The whole idea was 'to make music you don't need to have a musical instrument," says Perry. "'Fuck the rules'."
In 1979/80, the LMC became a real vortex of activity. "The monthly meetings were hugely well attended, and quite fractious," says Toop. Anarcho-feminist ideas were in the air, and inevitably there was a tension between wanting to dismantle conventional power structures and actually getting anything done. "A lot of people's typical LMC gig was, you arrived at 8 o'clock, nobody was there, so you'd go to the pub," recalls Toop. "You'd come back and somebody was collecting money on the door, but the musicians weren't there. Gradually the musicians might drift in, somewhat pissed. And it might be a great gig musically or it might just fall apart. Usually there was no PA system." In the end, Toop got worn down by being the de facto organizer and quit the LMC. "That's the main argument against collectivism--it's just too exhausting!"
Over the road from the LMC was The Engineer pub, whose back room became "the court of Scritti," according to Steve Beresford. Scritti Politti were also a collective. The core trio of musicians were surrounded by a think-tank of some 20 people who vigorously debated all aspects of the group's existence. As well as attending regular meetings at the band's Carol Street squat, some members of the collective would also come onstage at Scritti gigs to add extra clamor and commotion to the group's "scratchy-collapsy, stop-start mistakes, falling-over sound", a style that singer Green christened "messthetics."
"The squat was pretty squalid, there wasn't even a bathroom," recalls Green. Oi! band Skrewdriver lived a few doors down the road, and the contrast between Scritti (members of the Young Communist League) and the Far Right Skrewdriver neatly captures the political polarization of the time. In the May 1979 general election, the National Front ran candidates in every electoral seat in the country, prompting Rock Against Racism to retaliate with the 40 date "Militant Entertainment" tour. 1979 was a banner year for racial attacks and street violence, inspiring songs like the The Jam's "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" and Fatal Microbes' postpunk classic "Violence Grows", on which singer Honey Bane describes people looking the other way as someone gets "kicked to death in a London pedestrian subway." Green remembers the threat of aggro as a constant presence. "A lot of my friends in Camden were beaten up. We'd get attacked coming back from gigs. I was doing some part-time work at the Communist Party HQ in Covent Garden and there were letter bombs while I was there."
Today the average price of a house in Camden is £420,000. At the tail-end of the Seventies, though, it was an edgy place to live. Compendium served as a crucial resource for radicals of all stripes, crammed as it was with small press periodicals, activist pamphlets, fanzines, critical theory paperbacks, and early translations of French post-structuralist philosophy of the sort that would eventually inspire Green to write a catchy ditty entitled "Jacques Derrida." "You could go downstairs in the basement and root about, spend hours in there," recalls Green. "It was a really important place."
One member of Scritti's sprawling collective in those days was Ian Penman, the legendary music journalist (in)famous for introducing the jargon of deconstruction to the ink-smutted pages of NME. He occasionally blew freeform saxophone onstage with Scritti, as well as playing on pragVEC records under the pseudonym "Reeds Moran." According to Penman, life for the amphetamine-fiending postpunk aesthete was organized around a clandestine cartography of "grotty squats, grotty art house cinemas, grotty record shops." All-night cinemas like Screen on the Green or the Scala were crucial hang-outs. This was an era, remember, before the mire of entertainment options offered by video stores and DVDs, satellite and cable. If you craved culture, you had to go to specific locations to find it, meaning that you would experience it not in the solipsistic pod of your living room, but in a collective environment, surrounded by fellow freaks and night creatures.
Postpunk bohemia started crumbling in the early Eighties when the Thatcher effect kicked in. It was time to "get real," clamber onto some kind of career(ist) track, whether within pop music or outside it. Hence New Pop, in which squat-punk fellow-travelers like the Thompson Twins followed Green's lead and ditched their saxophones and hand-percussion in favor of synths and drum machines, and embraced the aesthetic and promotional possibilities of video.
Boy George had lived in squats in Kentish Town and Warren Street, alongside characters like gender-bender Marilyn and Haysi Fantayzee's Jeremy Healey, but then his band Culture Club stormed the charts with a pop reggae sound even more sugary than Scritti's failed crossover bid "The 'Sweetest Girl'." Camden became synonomous with New Romantic club the Camden Palace, and with Madness, whose latterday hits included a cover of "'The Sweetest Girl.''
Partly impelled by losing hit-hungry bands like Scritti to big labels with the muscle to get them in the charts, Rough Trade tried to shed its "brown rice" collectivist image and adopted competitive practices in tune with the Eighties. They overhauled their managerial structure and hired radio pluggers. For those who didn't take the chartpop entryist route, the alternatives were to continue making marginal music in an increasingly discouraging environment, or... get a job. Sue Gogan, vocalist for pragVEC, briefly worked as a road sweeper for Camden Council after the band fell apart. One cold morning in 1984, working her broom at the bottom of a short steep hill near a photographer's studio, she saw "a pretty flash motor pull up. The driver got out and opened the back door of the car. Out stepped Green. I guess he'd 'made it'. Funny."