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)


My London

Originally published March 2014

“The Greater London Council is responsible for a sprawl shaped like a rugby ball about twenty five miles long and twenty miles wide; my city is a concise kidney-shaped patch within that space, in which no point is no more than about seven miles from any other. On the south it is bounded by the river, on the north by the fat tongue of Hampstead Heath and Highgate Village, on the west by Brompton Cemetery and on the east by Liverpool Street station. I hardly ever trespass beyond those limits, and when I do I feel like I’m in foreign territory…It is the visitor who goes everywhere; to the resident, a river or railway track, even if it is bridged every few hundred yards, may be as absolute a boundary as a snakepit or ocean.”
Jonathan Raban, Soft City (1974)

A bloke at work asked me recently if I’d been to Abbey Road to see the famous zebra crossing and was really shocked when I said I hadn’t. He assumed that, being a Londoner, I must have.

Besides the fact that I would never act like a sight-seeing tourist in the city I grew up in*, Abbey Road is in NW8 which might as well be Mars to this boy from Fulham SW6 who rarely ventured to the north of the city. To me, Camden was a foreign land I only ever visited to go to the Electric Ballroom. My London — the city I knew well and was comfortable in — was bordered on the north by the Westway, went about as far east as Holborn, out west to Hammersmith, from there south of the river to Barnes, and then on that side of the Thames east to Putney.

If it was a Tube map it would look like this:

Though I have lived and worked in some of them at various times, the areas beyond these borders might as well have a Here Be Dragons sign on them – or at least Here Be Media Luvvies (North London) and Here Be Pub Fights (SE London) — for all I know about them, or care to. Visiting friends who lived outside my comfort zone I often didn’t feel like I was still in London even though the A-Z said I was — I mean, where the bloody hell is Stoke Newington? It’s doubly uncomfortable feeling like a stranger in your own home city, and you don’t ever want the shame of someone thinking you’re a tourist or out-of-towner by asking for directions or looking at a map.

Every Londoner will have their own version of the city like this (just as there are New Yorkers who never go uptown or downtown) because it’s just too big for one person to feel at home everywhere. I remember several times falling asleep drunk on a night bus and waking up in unfamiliar territory near the end of the route. You quickly get off the bus in a panic — where the fuck am I? — and start walking (or staggering) back in what you think is the right direction. Then, in the distance, you see a building or road that you know and immediately your spirit lifts and your pace quickens. You’ve crossed the border into your London and everything is going to be all right.

Download: London Town – Light of The World (mp3)

*I have also never been inside Westminster Abbey or The Tower of London.

Every Picture Tells A Story

Originally published October 2010

If you have a copy of the terrific photo book London Through A Lens turn to page 199 where you’ll find the above picture titled “Roll’s-Royce at the Hilton” taken in 1965 with a caption that describes it as “the perfect image of urban glamour and sophistication in 1960s London”. Which it is, but besides being a great photo what makes it special to me (and gave me quite a nice surprise when I first looked through the book) is that the man in the top hat is my grandfather.

He was a doorman at The Hilton (and then The Dorchester) in the 60s and 70s and I imagine that working the door at such a swanky, jet-setter hotel during the height of Swinging London he must have seen and met a lot of the beautiful people of the era. Unfortunately I don’t have any stories about that or if I did I’ve forgotten them, and back then I wouldn’t have cared anyway unless he told me Captain Scarlet had stayed the night.

That salute he’s giving reminds me that another thing I never knew much about was his military service. I knew he’d been in the Navy on a submarine during WWII (which seems to have been about the toughest job a sailor could have ) but his generation never talked about that and, to be honest, my generation never asked either. Besides I reckon he’d rather play golf than talk about that stuff anyway, the only hint that he might have had another, more serious, life in the past was the faded tattoos of anchors on his forearms. But I never could quite square those and what they implied with the warm, happy man who used to give me 50p to wash his Ford Capri at the weekends.

As is often the case by the time I was old enough to think that maybe my grandad did have some interesting stories to tell he had passed away, having a heart attack while playing golf in the early 80s. At least he went doing something he loved and it gives me a real happy feeling to see him immortalized in such a great book — as part of London’s history too.

Download: A Salty Dog — Procol Harum

Country Life

Originally published February 2007. This post actually got a comment from Kit Hain herself thanking me for the track because she didn’t have a copy of it (the album was out of print at the time). Sadly the comment was lost when I moved the blog from Blogger to WordPress.

“No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Samuel Johnson (1777)

Marshall Hain’s beautiful song “Back To The Green” is an ode to escaping from the chaotic bustle of the big city to the peaceful green spaces of the countryside. Personally I’ve always thought the countryside was a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. Growing up in London made me the sort of person who has an existential crisis if I live too far from a tube station, and if I’d wanted a “country” experience I could always get that in the city anyway – from the lovely vistas of Hampstead Heath to the herds of deer roaming Richmond Park, the rich landscapes of Kew Gardens, the peacocks in Holland Park, boating on The Serpentine, or lazy summer Sundays watching a cricket match on Barnes Common. Besides, the problem with the countryside is the people that live there: Tories, rich arseholes from the city, and Daily Mail-reading reactionaries who look at you funny if you aren’t from “around here” or look different (believe me, I was an art student in Kent and know what it’s like to walk into a little country pub with a friend who had blue hair.)

But even this council-estate-raised city boy recognizes the subconscious attraction of the pastoral idyll; escaping the city’s cacophonous nightmare of traffic and other people’s cell-phone conversations for a picture-postcard village where the bells of an old stone church ring out through warm summer air, willow tress hang lazily over glistening streams, and rosy-cheeked children fly kites over sun-dappled green hills. Such fantasies are the warm baths of city-dweller imaginations.

Julian Marshall and Kit Hain are only really known for the one song, the 1978 hit “Dancing In The City” which came from their debut album Free Ride. The single’s sensual synth-drummy groove isn’t much like the rest of the record which is mostly clean and modern adult pop in the jazzy mold of Steely Dan with the middle-class English smartness of a 10cc. Unfortunately the album was a flop and is now out of print* which is a shame as it’s rather good. The final track “Back To The Green” is a gorgeous ballad that ebbs and flows in an appropriately dreamy mood, languidly drifting along before building to a symphonic crescendo of strings and brass. Kit Hain has a lovely, clear-as-a-bell voice that makes me think of her as a well-spoken young lady who probably played netball at school (a thought I find vaguely erotic which I’m sure all the English boys reading this will understand.) It makes the idea of moving to the country quite a warmly appealing prospect – for a few moments anyway.

Download: Back to The Green – Marshall Hain (mp3)

*It was finally reissued in 2011.

Back To The Old House

For the first 10 years of my life my family lived in an old Victorian block of flats in Fulham called Humbolt Mansions. It was knocked down soon after we moved out and in the years since I don’t recall ever seeing a photo of the place and even internet searches yielded nothing — it was like the flats had been wiped from memory. Then recently I found these images at The London Picture Archive and had one of those “oh wow” moments that suddenly unlock your brain and bring the memories flooding back.

Though the building was solid in the way Victorian ones are, our flat was dingy and run down. There was a massive hole in our bathroom ceiling and one night a mouse fell out of it and landed on my mum when she was in the bath. There was also a small hole in the living room floor by the skirting board that a pet gerbil I had disappeared down and never came back. On the plus side it had a long, narrow hallway I could race my Hot Wheels cars down.

Though Fulham wasn’t exactly a dodgy part of London we were burgled twice. The first time I vividly remember coming home from school one day and walking up the stairs to find the glass in our front door had been smashed in. Luckily my Dad was with us (he was still living at home then) so he went inside first to make sure no one was still in there and called the police. They’d didn’t get much except our big old radio and all the money out of the gas meter. Not much consolation though, if you’ve ever been burgled you’ll know how strange it can make your own home feel.

When the building was demolished the entire street block was taken down with it which included an old disused library, a doctor’s surgery, and a junk shop called Abbot’s which we spent a lot of time in as kids. It was a little place piled high with all kinds of stuff and felt a bit like Aladdin’s cave to me — albeit a very musty and dusty one.

I can’t say I have a lot of happy memories of living there, besides the things mentioned above it’s where my parent’s marriage fell apart. I remember them arguing in the living room and crying because I had no clue what was going on and why they were shouting at each other. That’s the sort of thing that scars you for a long time. With my Dad gone my mother was left in a bad financial situation which cast a pall over a lot of our life there. The electricity was cut off at one point, and a creepy loan shark came around once a week to collect on the money my mum had borrowed. Happily, life improved a whole lot when we moved to a 1960s council flat that was brighter and cleaner and my sister and I got our own bedrooms.

45 years later and that whole block is just an empty patch of grass with nothing built on it despite being in what is now a very desirable part of London. Even after all this time I still look at this spot and think there’s something missing. It’s like a big hole where my childhood used to be.

Download: This Is The House (12″ Version) – Eurythmics (mp3)

Time Out for London

To me, London listings magazine Time Out was as much a part of the fabric of the city as red buses and the Underground. I started reading it in the late 70s when I first had my own money to go out, and in those days it was how you found out about the billion things that were happening in London every week: Where to catch a midnight showing of Taxi Driver, what exhibitions were on, good places to get cheap food, what clubs to go to if you wanted to hear a particular kind of music. It was essential if you wanted to get the most out of living in the greatest city in the world.

If you’re familiar with the magazine you might notice from these covers that it was a very different publication in the 70s and early 80s to what it is now. Emerging from the counter-culture underground, it was founded in 1968 as a collective with all the staff being paid the same, and those socialist principles were echoed in the content which reflected the more radical and gritty London of the time.

Back then it had a section called AgitProp which listed all the demonstrations and political meetings in the city that week and often ran to several pages — so you knew where to go to support the Chilean resistance, Anti-Nazi League, Gay Rights, or any of the other causes and factions that made up militant London. As the magazine’s sections were organized alphabetically AgitProp came first and apparently Mick Jagger once complained that it was “like crossing a picket line” to get to the entertainment listings.

The art director during those years was the great Pearce Marchbank who was responsible for all these bold and punchy covers which still look brilliant today. Even more impressive is that, as Time Out was a weekly, he often only had a day or two to come up with these. A classic example is this cover for the 100th anniversary of Churchill’s birth which cut through the bullshit sycophancy of the event in startling, iconoclastic style and was produced in only 24 hours using Marchbank’s studio cleaner as a hand model.

As with so many other good things about London the magazine changed in the 1980s. In 1981 founder Tony Elliot ended the collective pay structure which caused an exodus of staff who founded the rival listings magazine City Limits that kept the old radical flag flying. With them gone the magazine focused less on what demos were happening that week and more on where the best restaurants and shops were. Covers became more celeb-driven, the AgitProp section shrunk, a new one called Shopping was introduced and it became more about consumer culture than counter-culture.

But this was really just another case of the magazine reflecting the way the city was going at the time: the dirty old London of cheap flats, political graffiti, and squats was making way for the gentrified new London of fancy food, designer boutiques, high property prices, and “the City”. London has always had that element of bourgeoise indulgence and Time Out covered it, but now it became its defining characteristic.

Time Out is still going but now it’s an ad-supported freesheet. I haven’t seen an issue in years but it’s website is awful, full of crappy listicles about the Best Brunch and Best Spas. I know this story is typical in publishing these days (see: the NME) but I feel sad about it’s decline in the same way I feel sad when I see Soho torn apart for luxury flats, characterful old pubs and shops closing, or the city’s skyline being constantly scarred by new glass towers. Like the city it covered, Time Out made more money after the 1980s and become a global brand, but it wasn’t anywhere near as interesting as it was.

Download: London’s Brilliant Parade – Elvis Costello (mp3)

Dirty Old Town

I look at photos of London from my youth and it looks like another world compared to the shiny capitalist megapolis the city is now. The scars of WWII were still everywhere in the form of old bombsites that had been untouched for decades and become wastelands surrounded by brutalist corrugated iron fences. I don’t think we knew what they were at the time, just that we had all these empty spaces to play in and that the city was a bit shabby, the colour of a smoker’s lungs, with dog shit all over the pavements.

Look at these photos of the East End in the 1960s and you wouldn’t think Swinging London was happening just a few miles to the West. Or these ones from the 1970s where the city often looks like the set of some bleak post-apocalyptic movie.

Many of the buildings were black with soot. Famous landmarks like St. Paul’s, Tower Bridge, and Westminster Abbey in particular were reminders of why London used to be called The Big Smoke.

They’ve since been cleaned up and restored to their original glory, but having grown up with the dirty versions they don’t look quite real to me anymore. With all the centuries of history washed off them they seem more like faux reconstructions at a Disneyland London theme park.

There was a street near us I didn’t like walking down when I was a kid because the tall, dirty-grey terraced houses on either side turned it into a dark canyon that I found a bit creepy. The dusty net curtains and peeling window frames of the houses didn’t help either, nor did the fact that no one seemed to live in these houses because I never saw anyone going in or out of them. Almost every street back then had a dingy house your friends claimed was inhabited by some crazy old person you never saw.

Our estate was built in the 1960s but every flat still had a coal chute by the front door (we never used ours but the chute was handy for getting in when I’d forgotten my key) and some older people on the estate still had coal delivered in big black sacks well into the 70s. To add the extra Dickensian touch, I can still remember the Rag & Bone man clip-clopping down our street with his horse and cart, even an old bloke who used to ride around in a bath chair.

The modern London we recognize today didn’t start to appear until the 1980s. Young, middle-class professionals started buying houses and doing them up, giving the old exteriors a new lick of paint which made formerly dingy streets brighter. Property prices skyrocketed, and new restaurants and shops appeared in response to this influx which changed the character of so many neighborhoods. I lived in Clapham for a while after leaving college and I remember overhearing these two Sloane Ranger girls on the Tube talking about their houses (a major dinner-party topic back then). One said she had lived in Clapham for two years and her friend replied “Oh so you’re one of the originals then!” as if the area hadn’t existed before their kind brought with them the new wine shop and trendy Tapas bar.

I’m not going to romanticize dirt and decay, but at least London was more affordable back then. The remodeled houses, gourmet sandwich shops, and gastropubs are all very nice, but they’ve created a different kind of wasteland.

Download: London Bye Ta-Ta – David Bowie (mp3)

Little Ted

I love everything about this 1977 photo of a young Teddy Boy in London. With his immaculate DA, purple drape jacket, pink socks, and white brothel creepers he looks like a proper dandy. Then there’s the Evening News box, a London newspaper which doesn’t exist anymore, and the Wimpy Bar which is a rare sight in England too now. He’s probably having a burger before heading down the King’s Road to beat up some Punk rockers.

You used to still see a lot of Teds in the 1970s, but at some point in the 80s they just seemed to vanish. I think maybe a lot of the youngsters got into Rockabilly style but I don’t know where the older ones went. Probably moved to Essex where they’re now retired and voting for UKIP.

This is a Rockabilly classic from 1956 that has been covered by The Yardbirds, Aerosmith, and Motörhead but this version still rocks like crazy, man, crazy. 

Download: The Train Kept A-Rollin’ – Johnny Burnette (mp3)

Beyond Belief

Dah yard de odder night
when mi hear “Fire!”
“Fire, to plate claat!”
Who dead? You dead?
Who dead? Me dead?
Who dead? Harry dead?
Who dead? Eleven dead

Download: Mi Cyaan Believe It – Michael Smith (mp3)

Michael Smith was a Jamaican Dub Poet who released just the one album in 1982 before being murdered in his homeland the following year. The album was produced by his British peer Linton Kwesi Johnson, but Smith’s patois is so thick he makes Johnson sound like WH Auden so this can be hard to understand, though his passion and anguish aren’t. Words with translation here.

I heard John Peel play this one night back in ’82 and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s still mesmerizing and chilling. 

Sadly the experience of being poor or a coloured immigrant hasn’t changed much since he wrote it. We might even be going backwards. With its combination of greedy landlords trying to save money at the expense of the lives of the less well-off in one of London’s richest boroughs, the Grenfell Tower tragedy is like something out of Dickens.

The First Time From Jamaica

I posted this image on Twitter last week and it got 91 retweets and 130 likes, by far the most popular tweet I’ve ever had. Not exactly Kim Kardashian numbers but good enough for me. The only thing I know about the photo is it was taken by none other than Linda McCartney in 1977 but I have no idea where.

I don’t need to tell you clever people that what makes this photo so interesting and retweetable is the poster on the right advertising the concert Joe Strummer went to that led him to write possibly The Clash’s best single. That list of names is virtually a chorus of the song.

Sadly, not only is Joe Strummer no longer with us but the Palais is gone too. In place of the legendary venue where my parents met and I saw so many great gigs now stands luxury student flats with a swanky 24-hour gym. There’s probably a song in that too.

Download: Happiness Is My Desire – Leroy Smart (mp3)
Download: Once Upon A Time – Delroy Wilson
Download: Is It Because I’m Black? – Ken Boothe (mp3)