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.