House music – David Bowie’s Haddon Hall

The sad death of PiL guitarist Keith Levene sent me back to an old Great Wen blog post, about the flat in World’s End where PiL were formed. John Lydon’s flat on Gunter Grove was located on a busy road, where the noise of passing buses was accompanied by pounding dub music from Lydon’s stereo. Throw in some paranoia, weed, a cat called Satan and a lot of argumentative music-obsessed 20-something men, and you had the formula that produced PiL.

Levene lived here with Lydon and the drummer, Jim Walker. By all accounts, it was intense.

“John and Keith both remind me of Withnail & I, only they are both Withnail,” said Jah Wobble.

Serendipitously, the influence of architecture on music was one theme of my current Uncut cover story, which explores David Bowie’s life in 1971 as he began to write and record Hunky Dory. Bowie wrote most of the album in his ground-floor flat at Haddon Hall, a huge Victorian mansion house backing on to a Beckenham park and golf course. It’s a classic suburban setting – a main road at the front, countryside at the back – while the house itself was really extreme, a gigantic villa surrounded by balconies with a vast stained-glass window overlooking the park. It was built by the Price family, who made candles, and originally named Pettistice.

Bowie’s landlord was a Mr Hoy, the gardener, who is said to have inherited the house out of spite after it was passed to him by the Price family, who wanted to cut a descendent out the will. Hoy charged Bowie rent of around £14 a week.

Bowie lived here with Angie and their baby Zowie (later Duncan), as well as assorted members of the soon-to-be named Spiders From Mars. He filled the house with antiques including a grand piano, on which he began to compose some of the melodies that distinguish Hunky Dory, such as “Changes” and Eight-Line Poem”. It was a great place to entertain, and visitors included fellow musicians like Roy Harper and Marc Bolan.

The chief feature of the house was a huge staircase, which greeted visitors as soon as they stepped through the door. In this old picture from the Price days, it looks like something from a National Trust property.

The architecture of the house – its grandeur, its follies, its faded over-the-top decor, its location – found its way into Hunky Dory, a very English album with a distinct personality that oscillates between domestic, internal concerns and sweeping drama.

“The house was very theatrical and grand,” Geoff MacCormack, Bowie’s old school friend, told me. “That created a certain energy to the creativity, this huge staircase with balconies on each side – the ultimate staircase to descend or ascend. It was the perfect venue to have big ideas in. It counts, all that stuff, it counts.”

Angie Bowie described it thus: “As you might expect, Haddon Hall is a thoroughly Victorian edifice: solid red brick, ornately embellished with solemn white fasciae, and of course righteously, haughtily church like in basic aspect, so much so that the dominant feature of the rear face is a huge stained-glass window. The front is almost as imposing. The door opens, and the first thing you see is that magnificent stained-glass window rising above a short staircase at the far end of a central hallway fully forty feet wide by sixty feet long.”

It made me think of other London houses that informed the sound of an album, such as Kate Bush’s 400-year-old family home nearby in Kent.

Sadly, Haddon Hall no longer exists. Already in poor condition, it was demolished and replaced by some very boring looking flats. I spoke to a current resident, who knew about the Bowie connection. “Hard to imagine now,” he said, shaking his head in wonder.

Battersea Power Shopping Station

The reopening of Battersea Power Station last week drew a lot of publicity, much of which summarised the contents of Up In Smoke, my book on the power station, while sanitising most of the politics.

The reason I wrote the book was because I felt that much of what has happened to modern London – indeed, modern England – could be located within the bricks of the power station.

Battersea was always a symbol of prevailing trends and it still is today – from industrial powerhouse to decrepit ruin, reimagined as a retail experience for the ultra wealthy. Here is a landmark piece of British architecture on a patch of prime central London once owned by the British state but sold for a pittance to chaotic private enterprise only to end up in the hands of another country’s state pension fund.

If that doesn’t highlight the relationship between the short-sightedness and failure of imagination of privatisation and our current economic situation, where just about every British asset seems to be owned by other countries, I’m not sure what does.

When writing the book, I found one of the most honest interviews to be with Sir David Roche, the power station’s overlooked first developer. Sir David came on the scene in 1983 after a distant relative saw a competition in the Times inviting applicants with ideas to redevelop the power station. Roche’s relative, an architect, wanted to build a science-theme park but Roche went along with it but privately thought that was a daft idea.

“To me,” he said. “It was a shopping centre.”

Roche’s secret plan was to come up with a design that had a few rides in prominent places in and around the power station, while filling most of the space with shops. “We’d win the competition on the basis it was a theme park as that is jolly nice and makes people comfortable and exciting. But to make money it had to be a retail destination.”

As cynical as he was, Roche has proved to be completely correct, it’s just taken 40 years for everybody to admit it. The problem at the time was that Tory-controlled Wandsworth didn’t want to build shops because they didn’t want to threaten Clapham Junction town centre, just as they didn’t want to build houses because they didn’t think people would buy them. The fact there was no other viable use of the power station – an art gallery is a lovely idea but it’s too damn big – meant developers were forced to conceive completely unpractical uses for decades. That only changed when Wandsworth admitted that okay, maybe shops and houses were a good idea after all – but only for really rich people. By then, most of the developers either went bankrupt or sold to people who would eventually go bankrupt.

Roche was one of the latter. To make the theme park idea work he needed somebody with experience and brought on board John Broome, the owner of Alton Towers. Broome was even more cynical than Roche and outmaneuvered his rival to take control of the consortium, paying Roche a tidy sum to walk away – before going bankrupt trying to achieve the impossible.

That made Roche the first of several developers to pocket a tidy profit without have done all that much to earn it.

“It was mega bullshit by lots of people including me,” he admitted quite cheerfully. “But the problem with bullshit is it can sometimes work but when it doesn’t the whole thing falls apart.”

Welcome to Britain 2022. We hope you enjoy your stay.

In praise of scavenging

If there was anything good to come out of lockdown, which there wasn’t, it was the fact that many people took the opportunity to clear out their homes of supposed junk. This meant that during my state-sanctioned daily 60-minute constitutional around SE24, there was nearly always a house somewhere on my route were the owners had left a pile of books on the pavement for passers-by to scavenge through. Now, I cannot walk past a box of books without rifling through it, hoping that amid the crap – so many books about coding and old travel guides – there would be an wanted gem. The tiny victories I had in lockdown were a rare source of pleasure in a miserable time.

I struck lucky time after time. There was that set of National Geographic from the late 1990s, which made excellent bathroom reading for most of 2020. When those were done, I found four months’ worth of The New Yorker from May-August 2020, which took me another 18 months to work through, containing as they did many more reminders than I needed of that awful summer of Coronavirus, George Floyd and Trump. More happily, I had wanted to read Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde ever since I’d heard it was being adapted for cinema by Andrew Dominik, and there it was one afternoon waiting for me alongside William Maxwell’s marvelous novella So Long, See You Tomorrow.

I’d also long felt I needed to read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and once more, there it was. And thank god I hadn’t had to pay for it because after three months and 150 painful pages I finally gave it up with considerable relief, placing it rather guiltily on my own garden wall for some poor sucker to take home.

Then there were the books I would never otherwise have read, such as The Dog Of The South by Charles Portes. This had a good cover and promising blurb, and I was intrigued to see that Portes had also written High Noon, but all the same it sat unread on my shelf for a year until I attended a birthday party where somebody gave this very same book to the host as a present. That was recommendation enough for me, and I devoured it in a few days. The novelisation of Wargames? A Jack London compendium? An unproofed review copy of Dan Hancox’s excellent history of grime, Inner City Pressure? Each one found a willing home.

I thought such bounties would end with lockdown but this week I had the finest haul of all. Check a load of these goodies below.

Such a haul, and not even a lockdown to suffer for it.

See you on the other side of summer, when I might have made my way through some of the above.

Time Out special edition

Time Out ceased publication – in physical terms at least – a few weeks ago. However, there is a special one-off final issue on the street today, which looks at the history of London over the past 54 years through the prism of the magazine.

I feel very privileged to have been part of Time Out’s story, so was delighted to be asked to contribute to this issue.

It’s a real souvenir edition, so grab one if you can. You can also access it online here.

Performance in Powis Square

Performance is probably the greatest London film of all time. When this strange and unsettling fusion of counterculture and crime was finally released in 1970, it was accompanied by a novelisation – a cheap paperback by William Hughes published by Tandem – that I chanced upon last week behind the counter in the fabulous Bookmongers on Coldharbour Lane. I love novelisations, so this was a no brainer.

Although I’ve read a few books about Performance – the best is Paul Buck’s 2012 biography of the film published by Omnibus, which frustratingly lacks an index – I’m not sure I was aware there had been a novelisation. There’s a short review here, but there’s little about William Hughes on the internet, although his name does crop up on Abe Book alongside some other novelisations of the era – 1968’s Secret Ceremony, 1971’s Lust For A Vampire, 1974’s The Marseille Contract, 1976’s Aces High and 1978’s Death Sport among others. A follower on Twitter suggested his real name was Hugh Williams.

UPDATE Head to the comments for a great twist on the “who was William Hughes” question…

It didn’t cost 9p

What particularly appealed was the knowledge that novelisations are often written from early drafts of scripts, which means there are interesting differences between the plots as told in the books and what you get in the finished films. I was very keen to see how Performance the book differed from Cammell and Roeg’s final film, and also curious at how the author would tackle some of the stranger moments from the film, including the famous ending. Incidentally, apparently the film’s dialogue coach and underworld/counterculture figure David Litvinoff wanted to write it, but was declined.

The book is, as you’d probably expect, a lot more conventional than the film – but that isn’t saying a great deal, as most things are more conventional than Performance. William Hughes is a decent writer who has a great sense of pace and solid grasp of genre, so he is pretty assured when dealing with the first half of the story – about the gangster Chas who oversteps the mark and has to do a runner. This all unfolds at great speed, but we are also treated to some insights into Chas’s background, motivations and general sense of unease at his chosen career as a heavy. We learn that Chas lives in a “luxury flat in predominantly working class” Shepherds Bush, and his activities take him to various parts of London including Campden (sic) Town, where he terrorises a mini cab firm, Mayfair, Liecester Square (sic) and the Temple, where a lawyer’s chauffer is shaved while his Rolls-Royce is covered in acid.

In the film, things get much weirder when the action moves to the home of a reclusive rock star in West London – in the film this is located at Powis Square but here it’s named as 22 Melbury Terrace, “behind Notting Hill Tube”. Hughes handles that transition fairly well and there’s a sense of Chas’s discomfort as he encounters Turner and his two female friends, Pherber and Lucy. But while in the film this relationship becomes relationship increasingly complex and sinister, the book – presumably following the initial script – has the two worlds quickly come to an understanding. They develop a sense of mutual respect and it all feels far more comfortable than it does on film. There’s also much less sex. Or as one Twitter user put it..

Concise summary.

What that suggests is how ordinary a film Performance could have been without Cammell’s influence and without the performances of Edward Fox and Mick Jagger, whose uneasy sparring is one of the signature flavours of the film. Plot-wise, the most notable difference is right at the end, but there are other more subtle plot differences that affect the mood – for instance, at one point in the book we go into the garden at Powis Square/Melbury Terrace, while there’s also a pivotal, and topical, drug bust that never made it into the final film. Both these scenes would have diluted the claustrophobic, hallucinogenic nature of the second section of the film, which has one of the most peculiar atmospheres of any film by a major studio thanks, it seems, to the way Cammell and Anita Pallenberg manipulated Fox and Jagger. Oh, and the book also omits one of the greatest lines in the film: “Comical little geezer. You’ll look funny when you’re fifty.”

These aren’t the only differences. Chas runs to Powis Square/Melbury Terrace because he murders a rival, Joey Maddocks, bringing down unwanted heat on the mob led by Harry Flowers. In the film, there are strong suggestions that Chas and Joey were former lovers and that Chas’s repressed homosexuality is part of the “performance” but in the book this relationship is made explicit. By contrast, Flower’s own homosexuality, alluded to on film, makes no appearance in the book.

Being trivial, I also enjoyed some of the moments of trivia. We learn the name of Turner’s band – Turner And The Spinals, or Turner And The Spinal Cords – and the fact they scored seven No 1s and three No 2s. In fact, “not one of his singles ever missed the charts. Up until the end, I mean”, says his still faithful housekeeper. It turns out that Turner was such a star he shook the Queen’s hand at a film premiere. At one point, Chas even hums one of his hits.

“Of all the crap I ever perpetuated, that was the vilest, man,” says Turner.

London’s Lost Music Venues

The most depressing thing about Paul Talling’s new book, London’s Lost Music Venues, is that this is the second volume. The first volume featured on club-sized venues, including the likes of the Marquee, 12 Bar, Bull & Gate and the Cartoon in Croydon – there’s a full list here – while volume two takes in some of the larger theatres as well as smaller clubs that didn’t feature in the first volume and others that have closed since it was published – the list is here.

Talling is the creator of Derelict London, which was one of the great early London blogs and remains popular today. It features photographs of London buildings that the bulldozers had left behind: abandoned houses and factories, decrepit churches, empty shops and forgotten cinemas. There was something about this skeletal remains – boarded up doors, faded graffiti, floor strewn with rubbish, ivy and buddleia sprouting through the brickwork – that drew people’s attention. A couple of books followed, as did walking tours; Paul writes about the history of the blog here.

It’s always amazing to see how rapidly a building can descend into ruin once it’s left alone. The rot might take a while to set in, but as soon as it does the decline is fast – it literally seems to decompose before your eyes. Most of the venues in London’s Lost Music Venues haven’t quite reached that point however; they have either been demolished outright or given different uses. As well as great London venues such as the Astoria, Earls Court, and Borderline, there are the two big music shops at either end of Oxford Street, HMV and Virgin, both of which hosted in-store performances.

I’ve often pondered the absence of theatre-sized venues in central London since the demise of the Astoria as I knew the likes of the Lyceum and the Saville – although I’d never clocked that the Saville was located in what is now the rather dismal Odeon Covent Garden on the deadest part of Shaftesbury Avenue. But it’s some of the outer London venues that really resonate, such as Hobbit’s Garden, a club located in William Morris House in Wimbledon that hosted Roxy Music and Genesis before switching to hardcore punk in the late 80s, or the Acid Palace in Uxbridge, where Uriah Heep, Wishbone Ash and Audience all played in thee later 60s.

Then there are all the decent-sized venues – the ballrooms, local theatres and cinemas – that hosted live music through much of the 60s and 70s. Think of the Assembly Rooms in Surbiton, which hosted Black Sabbath and The Fall, or the Orchid Ballroom in Purley, where The Who, Small Faces, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and Slade all played at some time. Such spaces are now almost impossible to conceive. Sadly, a third volume feels almost inevitable.

Crowley’s London

Several years ago, I commissioned a writer at Time Out to go and explore what we then described as one of occultist and writer Aleister Crowley’s few remaining London homes – an apartment at 73 Chancery Lane, that was about to be turned into offices. In these rooms, Crowley had set up a temple for his magical friends, the Order of the Golden Dawn, and our writer made a valiant attempt at conjuring up a spooky atmosphere from what was probably a rather forgettable set of empty rooms. He even quoted a builder working on the site who claimed to have discovered a human skull and pentangle formed from sticks.

Time Out article on Crowley’s temple, Jan 18 2006

This seemed an entertaining and fairly useful thing to do because even though London is replete with memorials and blue plaques to long-forgotten politicians and music hall artists, there are no blue plaques for Aleister Crowley. London has a plaque for the dog that inspired the HMV logo, but even today, the one-time “wickedest man alive” is beyond the pale for the heritage industry despite his decent literary output and outsized influence on popular culture. (I have written about one such story here.)

Phil Baker’s fabulous new book, City Of The Beast, corrects that oversight. This is a biography of Crowley told through London locations – 93 in all, a number with magical significance for Crowley’s Thelamic religion. Baker, whose biography of artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare is a minor classic, began the book as a lockdown project, listing London places associated with Crowley as something to do to pass the time and stop worrying about the end of the world. He’d soon listed dozens of Crowley homes thanks to Crowley’s inability to settle anywhere for long. That residence at Chancery Lane is mentioned, along with numerous apartments around Piccadilly plus others in Chelsea and Fitzrovia. At times, Crowley resided in such unlikely spots as Streatham, Surbiton, Richmond and Paddington, sometimes living for only weeks, fleeing in advance of creditors as his circumstances declined. It’s likely that most of us will have walked past one or two of Crowley’s front doors and certainly visited the same shops or drank in the same pubs. London overlaps – that’s one of the reason we like blue plaques. As Baker notes at one point, Caxton Hall in Westminster, the site of a public performance of a Crowley rite in 1910, was also the location of “Churchill’s election speech; the assassination of Sr Michael O’Dwyer in revenge for the Amritsar Massacre; the founding of the National Front; and the wedding of Ringo Starr”.

This is more social history than psychogeography, thank goodness. Drawing from Crowley’s unpublished personal diaries, Baker presents Crowley’s rather sad progression through homes and temples as well as the museum, shops, restaurants, printers and courtrooms of Edwardian London. We follow Crowley’s dramatic, even thrilling rise and then a rather pathetic long decline, a petering out, as he hops, heroin-addicted, from home to home, desperately trying to maintain his image and reputation. That must have been awful for a man who once supped with giants – Augustus John, Anthony Powell, WB Yeats, Nina Hamnett, W Somerset Maugham, Auguste Rodin – and in the diaries, some of the frustration comes through. We also get to meet many other remarkable figures who are now largely forgotten such as Labour MP and Crowleyite Tom Diberg, Allen Bennett, who lived with Crowley at Chancery Lane and later became a leading proponent of Buddhism in England, and composer and occultist Peter Warlock, father of the great art critic Brian Sewell. A typical entry will introduce a character like JFC Fuller, a successful soldier who loved yoga the occultism and fascism, becoming one of only two Englishmen invited to Hitler’s 50th birthday parade.

Crowley’s magical and philosophical beliefs are explored in outline, as are his literary achievements, his impressive sexual exploits (these were carefully recorded as Crowley practised sex-magic) and, rather wonderfully, his recipes. Crowley loved to cook and enjoyed strong flavours: a Crowley recipe book could surely be created for the niche occult-gastronomic market, although it would take a brave soul to sample some of these recreations.

Baker presents Crowley as a man whose outlook was formed in the decadent 1890s, one who never really adapted to the changing world, his own age or the reduced circumstances that meant a gentleman without money could no longer shop at Fortnums and live on Jermyn Street and would, instead, have to spend some time in a bedsit near Praed Street drinking at the Royal Oak. He quotes Cyril Connolly’s observation that Crowley bridged “the gap between Oscar Wilde and Hitler”, and that’s a neat way of looking at Crowley both in terms of the age he occupied and the principles and philosophy he espoused. That makes this a very rewarding social history – a look at London in the first decades of the 20th century, still clinging to the veneer of Victoria, like Jeeves And Wooster with magic.

It’s ultimately a very human study of the man, stripping him of much of his mystic allure without making him seem ridiculous, which could easily be the case when dealing with figure who did as many ridiculous things as Crowley. It’s hard not to see Crowley as analogous to those pop stars of the 1960s who worshipped Crowley’s libertarianism and whiff of stage-conscious evil who are still living a priapic life with full heads of hair, clinging to those glory days. And frankly, who can blame them?

City Of The Beast by Phil Baker (Strange Attractor).

“The building doesn’t represent or resemble anything other than itself.”

I was delighted to be sent this excellent article about Battersea Power Station by Richard Garvin, who introduces himself as a writer and retired English professor with an interest in architecture. Richard recreates great buildings from Lego and then writes about them on his blog, combining his appreciation of architecture with his deep knowledge of literature. For Battersea Power Station, that means using an absolute ton of Lego red bricks – and then references to Shakespeare, TS Eliot, John Milton and, er, me – Richard drew much of the factual content of his post from Up In Smoke, my book on the power station.

Richard Garvin’s awesome model of Battersea Power Station

This served as a welcome reminder of the ability the power station still has to influence, inform and intrigue upon people’s thinking as well as the value my research has for others. Richard writes wonderfully about how the power station has been used in film and TV, something I explored in Up On Smoke but which he develops more fully. I also particularly enjoyed Richard’s thoughts on the strange, powerful architecture of the power station, which he astutely summarises is completely unlike anything else “other than itself” – which is precisely why it is been used so brilliantly in films and TV programmes such as Richard III, Children Of Men and 1984.

Read it all for yourself here.

There was only one Tony Elliott

When I started freelancing at Time Out in 1998, originally on sport and then with the TV section, I often sat on the “Channel 5/cabsat desk” – the desk for the journalist appointed to review the best Channel 5 and cable & satellite programmes of the forthcoming week (yes, we were so flush we had reporters for each channel,, even C5).

The desk was close to the office photocopier, which was frequently used by a young-looking old man – I mean, he was at least 50 – invariably attired in jeans and a paisley shirt. This chap would engage me in conversation – not unusual in the friendly Time Out office I was beginning to realise – and he usually had an opinion on something I had reviewed. This was more surprising given I was only writing about Channel 5, was an infrequent freelancer and reviewers were identified only by their initials.

I’m not sure precisely when I worked out this was Tony Elliott, founder and owner of Time Out, but it’s safe to say that Tony knew who I was long before I recognised him. Tony seemed to read every single word – and remember each initialed byline – of every magazine and was then happy to discuss your review of Hitler’s Secret Pets, even when you had no idea who he was. Coming from The Sunday Times, where I’d never met the editor let alone the owner, it was a bit of a shock but I soon learnt to roll with it, and it helps explain why there was so much emotion and, yes, love in the room at the Roundhouse on Monday evening when 800 people attended Tony’s memorial service. We all had an experience like that, and it shaped who we were.

Tony died in July 2020 and the memorial event celebrated a wonderful life, kicking off with a speech from Alan Yentob and including reminiscences from significant figures in media and business as well as former colleagues and friends. Several talked about being part of the “Time Out family”, which seems a bit soppy when I write it down but which in that moment, surrounded by former colleagues – including those who had worked at Time Out longer before I started or long after I had left – it made a lot of sense. Others said that Time Out was the best place they had ever worked, the happiest time in their careers. That’s partly because we were young and excitable with unprecedented access to an entire city through our free travel cards and ability to get on any press list – but it’s also because of that welcoming spirit that came from the very top. Time Out wasn’t shangri-la but it had a culture that was intoxicating.

Right at the end of my Time Out career, when I was no longer such a happy member of the family, Tony sought me out to recommend I meet this guy, a bookseller, he knew. He kept on at me so much that eventually I acquiesced – something that ultimately led to one of the most fascinating projects of my career, writing a book about a billionaire who amassed the world’s largest private library devoted to altered states of consciousness. Tony wasn’t doing this with any particular outcome in mind, he just thought me and Carl would get along so went out of his way to make it happen. That was his gift and a microcosm of what he did with Time Out – opening up first London and then the world to as many people as wanted access to it. What you did after that was down to you.

After the Roundhouse, still reeling from all the old friends I had encountered, I was chatting to a lawyer who worked for Time Out during Tony’s long battle to democratise TV listings. This was discussed during the memorial service and the lawyer confirmed all the details in more colourful language. Basically, in the 1980s, the BBC published their listings in the Radio Times and ITV published theirs in TV Times. This was a cartel of information suppression that represented everything Time Out and Tony stood against. Time Out was all about opening things up, allowing Londoners to know about every nightclub or cafe or poetry reading or korfball match – the 24-hour city for everybody. TV listings was just another aspect of this philosophy.

Time Out won their battle but first they were given a unique opportunity – Time Out and Time Out alone could print complete TV listings, a privilege that would not be extended to other publications. For the lawyer, this was the best possible result. It would give Time Out a legal victory and a massive competitive advantage. He urged Tony to accept but Tony refused. He believed everybody deserved the same access. Within 18 months, the Guardian launched their own Time Out-style Guide based on their TV listings, and soon everybody was doing it. Time Out’s circulation began a slow decline.

Back in the early 2000s, some of us would, in idle moments, compare Tony to Richard Branson, another figure who emerged from the counterculture to create a business empire – and who delivered a nice video tribute at Tony’s memorial. But Tony Elliott’s empire was never anywhere near as powerful as Virgin something that we then saw as a flaw – Tony was basically a bit of a control freak who couldn’t move on. But now it’s pretty obvious that the flaw was simply one of principle. You could never imagine Branson making that same decision when it came to TV listings because he simply didn’t have the same desired outcome. He would have placed the profit imperative over principle every time. That’s fine, but there are already enough Richard Bransons in the world. There was only one Tony Elliott.

Third generation rock and roll

That headline is not a phrase you hear much of – or in fact at all – these days, but in 1972 it was a much-discussed concept that attempted to define the music and performance of the early 70s as demonstrated by the likes of David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Roxy Music, New York Dolls and T-Rex. As author Peter Stanfield explains in his fabulous new book Pin-Ups 1972 about the London music scene in 1972, this went by other names too – Fag Rock and Poof Rock being just two of them – which is a reminder of how insensitive even the progressive rock papers of the time could be.

That distance between then and now is the focus of Stanfield’s book. So much has been said and written about the 1970s that it’s easy to believe we all lived through them and already understand everything there is to know, but by going back to the journalism of the time, Stanfield demonstrates how writers were attempting to comprehend the music of the time without benefit of hindsight or obscured by four decades of received wisdom. Stanfield has devoured the journalism of 1972 – underground, national press, music weeklies, colour monthlies, even soft porn titles – to examine the music through a detailed reading of the writing of Nick Kent, Nik Cohn, Richard Williams, Michael Watts, Simon Frith, Mick Farren, Chrissie Hynde and many more – not just their greatest hits, but deep cuts that even they will have forgotten writing.

We see these writers in real time try to get to grips with the ambiguities and contradictions of third generation rock and Stanfield writes in an approximation of these pioneers, dropping theories, connections and cultural references with intoxicating verve, daring the reader to keep up and learn something. Look it up or go with the flow, your call.

What is third generation rock? By this reading, the first generation were the original ’56 rockers – Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard – and the second generation were those that grew from R&B – the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Floyd, Zeppelin and you know the rest. Third generation were those that followed, essentially the ones who had more time to understand the grammar, scriptures, cliches and language of rock and roll and then tried to do something different with it – even if many of them, Bowie, Bolan, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop for starters, had been making music for almost as long as the second generation.

It’s a slippery concept (whither Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies?), as such genre-defining often is, but that isn’t really the point. What compels is the approach of exploring the acts through the media of the time. We see hippie journalists struggle to accept the sudden elevation of Marc Bolan from underground hero to teenage fantasy, haphazardly chronicle the New York Dolls’ ill-fated trip to London in 72, or write in awe of the arrival of the semi-mythical Iggy Pop and Lou Reed when the pair come and live in London (Lou Reed settling down in Wimbledon of all places). How do you make sense of Bowie and Roxy Music, when they are happening right in front of your eyes and you have no real frame of reference? The latter explains why for much of their first year, Roxy are likened to Sha Na Na: when something genuinely revolutionary happens, critics are left grasping for comparisons – only later are they able to go back and make it all fit together. But watching that struggle, and the sheer intellectual effort demonstrated by so many writers of the time, is fascinating and a little humbling. The through-line to punk and indie is clear to us but obviously was unknown at the time, and despite walk-on roles for Malcolm McLaren and Glen Matlock, Stanfield wisely leaves that largely unsaid, helping to seal 1972 into its own time capsule.

That makes this very much a book for those who enjoy historiography and media studies almost as much as they love rock and roll. What you don’t get is recycled anecdotes, biography or even too much in the way of music criticism – although the reappraisal of Bowie’s Pin-Ups is magnificent. Stanfield is more interested in the wider culture, with rock being as much about performance and publicity and fandom as it is about chords and melodies. Which for the writers and musicians of 1972, it almost certainly was.

http://www.reaktionbooks.co.uk/display.asp?ISB=9781789145656