Something for the Weekend

This was the single Marshall Hain released after “Dancing In The City” but it wasn’t much of a hit despite being quite lovely. I think I’ve mentioned this before but Kit Hain once left a comment on this blog, but sadly it was lost when I switched to WordPress so you’ll just have to take my word for it.


Glam Palace

Originally published February 2008. Updated with more photos.

Shopping with my mum in the 1970s usually involved dull shops like C&A, Richard Shops, and British Home Stores looking at beige polyester slacks and brown nylon tank tops, but once in a while we’d go to the wonderland that was the Biba department store on Kensington High Street. Housed in the Art Deco splendour of the old Derry & Toms building, it looked like a Roxy Music album cover come to life: all mirrors, chrome, leopard skin, ostrich feathers and black walls, and with it’s dark lighting and loud rock music blaring from massive floor speakers it felt more like a nightclub than a store.

Biba started out in the 60s as a poky little boutique off the High Street selling miniskirts and skinny tops to the beautiful young things of Swinging London and by 1973 had expanded into the seven opulent floors of what became known as “Big Biba” which was like some mad Kubla Khan fantasy palace amid the dingy grayness of early 70s England. Their “look” evolved into an extravagant mix of Art Deco elegance with Hollywood glitz and bohemian decadence that defined the trashy cabaret and retro-futuristic look of Glam and the peacock style of 70s rock fashion. Not just the spangly shirts, tight pants, feather boas, and platform shoes, their dark and exotic cosmetics range was perfect for that elegantly wasted look. Lou Reed and Freddie Mercury both wore Biba’s black nail polish and a young suburban girl who would later call herself Siouxsie Sioux took the train into London to buy her red eye shadow there.

The shop’s founder Babara Hulanicki said she designed her clothes for “Fresh little foals with long legs, bright faces and round dolly eyes. Postwar babies who had been deprived of nourishing protein in childhood and grew up into beautiful skinny people” so it wasn’t exactly aimed at single mums with two children like mine, but it was a great place to take us for the day, only a short bus ride away and it was free. You could literally spend all day there and I think we often did, the store actually encouraged hanging out.

For a kid my age Biba was like a theme park, every one of it’s seven floors an exercise in high concept and pure fun, like the men’s department where you could play darts and bowl with a “Mistress Room” that sold lingerie and had a huge leopard-skin bed. For obvious reasons my absolute favourite place was the kid’s department which looked like it had been designed by Lewis Carroll, with a castle and a dog kennel that were big enough to walk into. I remember the kennel had a giant stuffed Snoopy sitting outside that my sister and I desperately wanted mum to buy for us but I think it was beyond her budget. It wouldn’t have fitted into our little council flat anyway.

But while the clothes were meant for skinny, 20-something, Nova-reading, girls about town, at Big Biba they stuck their famous black and gold logo on everything from fashion to furniture, toys, soap powder, and baked beans, so everyone could take home a bit of Biba cool — even eat it on toast. It was probably the world’s first lifestyle emporium (before the concept of “lifestyle” had been invented), you could wear, eat, wash, play, and literally live in Biba.

On the top floor was the gorgeous Rainbow Room restaurant and concert venue which dated back to the 1930s style of the original building. It was the place where 1970s rock and style collided, the clubhouse where Freddie Mercury had afternoon tea, David and Angie Bowie hung out with Mick and Bianca in the evenings, and Bryan Ferry shot his “Let’s Stick Together” video. The New York Dolls played two infamous concerts there (their only London shows I think) and it must be the only place ever to host both the Dolls and Liberace. The Wombles played there too but that’s a whole other story.

Suzi Quatro might not have been as chic as our Bryan but the video for “Devil Gate Drive” was shot at the store too (on the Ground Floor). It shows what a well-know cultural icon the brand had become that the Biba logo is shown so prominently here. Though this must be one of the few cases where a store looks more glamourous than the pop group.

Sadly, Big Biba was only open for two years and closed in 1975, the store was making money but not enough to escape the sinking gloom of the times. During those two years the miners went on strike, the country was put on a three-day work week and power cuts meant that people were living in darkness and some stores were lit by candles in the afternoon.

It’s been said that the store lived up to the rock and roll credo of “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse”, and looking back there’s something all a bit Weimar Republic about Big Biba with it’s extravagant decadence in the middle of a country falling apart — according to Ziggy Stardust we only had five years left before the end of the world anyway so why not build a monument to dressing up and looking as fabulous as possible.

The Derry & Toms building is now occupied by a Marks & Spencer which about as far from Biba as you can get. I bet they don’t sell black nail polish.

Download: Make Up – Lou Reed (mp3)
Download: Something For The Girl With Everything – Sparks (mp3)
Download: Trash – New York Dolls (mp3)

Buy: “Welcome To Big Biba” (book)

The Big Music

When The Waterboys released the song “The Big Music” in 1984 it wasn’t only a good description of the sort of grandiose music they were playing at the time but also became a blanket name for what a whole lot of other bands like U2, Simple Minds, Big Country, Echo & The Bunnymen and, um, The Alarm were doing too.

As a genre “The Big Music” was thunderous drums, anthemic choruses, lyrics with vaguely religious and metaphysical imagery, and ringing guitars that sounded like they were leading a charge into battle. Everything was turned up to 11 with epic, spacious dynamics like it was recorded in a cathedral and the singers were baring their souls to God. Visually it meant videos and album covers shot in desolate landscapes, and unfortunate post-punk mullet haircuts.

I think the origin of the sound can be traced back to The Skids who probably don’t get enough credit (or blame) for the influence they had on 80s post-punk rock, just the intro of “Into The Valley” alone could have launched the genre.

This extended version of “Waterfront” is like being repeatedly hit with Thor’s hammer, but it’s still quite exhilarating even if it does mark the point when Simple Minds became arena rockers. Produced by Steve Lillywhite who was the Michael Bay of The Big Music, it’s like, how much more big could this be? The answer is none. None more big.

Download: Waterfront (12″ version) – Simple Minds (mp3)

The Dark Stuff

Originally published June 2013

A lot of 1970s cinema was a reflection of the decade itself: grim, cynical, often violent, with very few happy endings. It was also the era when I started going to the pictures seriously — meaning without parents and not to see some Disney or Ray Harryhausen movie — so my initial grown-up cinematic education was in films like Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Eraserhead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I first saw all of those in my late teens, mostly at late-night showings in small art-house cinemas with my schoolmate Martin who had an old Mini that made coming home from the movies at 2am a lot easier.

Our favourite haunt was the Paris Pullman cinema in Fulham (long closed now) which showed a late-night double bill of cult movies every weekend that attracted the sort of night-owl crowd of punks, hippies, insomniacs, film nerds, and other reprobates who you imagine would be up for seeing both The Exorcist and Dawn of The Dead after the pubs had closed. It was a shabby but friendly little place and, despite the “No Smoking” sign on the wall, the air was always thick with the smoke of cigarettes and other, um…substances. If we didn’t fancy what was showing there we usually ended up at the Scene cinema on Wardour Street (also closed now) which showed a double bill of Taxi Driver and Midnight Express that must have run for about 10 years. We never got tired of going to that.

Like most young men with pretentions and a sense of intellectual superiority we loved these films because they were edgy and gritty, often taboo and morally murky, which at that age you think is more “real” and meaningful than mainstream culture which seems fake and plastic — and not cool — in comparison. Plus, there was violence and the occasional naked woman, that’s always good.

Now you can pretty much see any film you want, whenever you want, in the comfort of your own home, there’s no need to check Time Out every week to see what’s on and then sit in a musty, dark room with a bunch of strangers. But that convenience probably won’t give you the same illicit thrill I had as a teenager being in a little fleapit cinema in the wee small hours watching Robert DeNiro shoot some guy’s hand off, Linda Blair doing obscene things with a crucifix, and whatever the hell was going on with those baby chickens in Eraserhead.

I lost count of the amount of times we saw Taxi Driver back then so it’s the defining film of that era for me, not least because of its terrific Bernard Herrmann soundtrack with that gorgeous saxaphone which just reeks of seedy urban jungles and late nights in dark rooms.

Download: “Taxi Driver” Main Titles – Bernard Herrmann (mp3)
Download: I Still Can’t Sleep/They Cannot Touch Her (Betsy’s Theme) – Bernard Herrmann (mp3)

Day Dreaming

Doris Day was one of those stars you think is going to live forever and I’m genuinely upset that she’s gone. She was always there, from watching her films on the telly as a kid with my mum — our favourite was Young At Heart with Frank Sinatra — right up to my own daughter going through a cowgirl phase and loving Calamity Jane.

Though probably more famous now for the fluffy rom-coms she made in the 60s (which are mostly delightful) I prefer the films she made, as the joke goes, before she was a virgin. In movies like Calamity Jane, Love Me Or Leave Me, The Pajama Game, and Teacher’s Pet she was an acting and singing double threat with a firecracker presence. Watch her opposite big male screen icons like Cagney, Gable, and Sinatra, and she more than holds her own. Not that it means anything but I thought she was dead sexy too.

I think her huge mainstream popularity and sunny, sweet image meant that she was always underrated. In 1962 she made the album Duet with the Andre Previn Trio and shines in the intimate, cabaret setting, showing what a great Jazz vocalist she was. I just wish she’d recorded more stuff like this.

Download: Close Your Eyes – Doris Day with The Andre Previn Trio (mp3)

(Like A) Cash Machine

Originally published April 2013

I didn’t have a bank account until I started college when I was 20. The jobs I’d had before then paid me cash (in those little brown envelopes nicely stuffed with notes) but I got a grant to go to college and I had to put the cheque somewhere. So I opened an account with NatWest who gave me one of those new-fangled cash cards that let me get money out of a hole in the wall anytime I wanted. Quite a radical idea at the time which meant you didn’t have to rush to the bank before 3pm on a Friday to make sure you had enough cash for the weekend.

But giving a student easy access to money is not a good idea and by the time I left college I had an overdraft of £300, most of which went on beer and records so it’s not as if I wasted it. It seems like a piddling amount now but the bank got a bit shitty about it during my final term and took my cheque book and cash card away from me. I had to go to my branch every time I wanted money and tell them what it was for. Saying “I need £40 because they’re having a sale at Our Price” wouldn’t have gone down too well so I had to use it for boring stuff like food. I guess they weren’t confident that I’d be a wealthy, world-famous graphic designer one day. Very wise of them.

I paid it off once I left college and got a job, but then the fools went and gave me a credit card. Uh-oh. Big trouble.

Here’s one of the records I spent my grant cheque on. Super dirty funk music from 1983.

Download: Cash (Cash Money) – Prince Charles & The City Beat Band (mp3)