Monthly Archives: September 2011

Hell W10: the film that killed the Clash?

In 1983, just as the band were starting to fall apart, The Clash decided to make a film. But stung by their experiences on the strange but compelling Rude Boy, they decided to make it themselves. They called it Hell W10, filmed it on 16mm silent black and white film, and made the plot up as they went along. The result, understandably, was somewhat bizarre.

‘Let’s make a film!’ said Mick Jones in 2005. ‘We had no other agenda there than that. Everyone put in their time without thinking about it. That was what we did on our time off; we worked! It was totally Joe [Strummer]’s idea. He directed it, he shot it, he did it. And then it was gone. It didn’t even come out!’

Strummer believed the film was lost forever. In 1987, when it looked like he might carve out a new career for himself in the film world, he told an interviewer, ‘I have directed a film myself, a black and white 16mm silent movie and it was a disaster. Luckily the laboratory that held all the negative went bankrupt and destroyed all the stock, so the world can breathe again. I shot without a script. God knows what it was about. I’m the only other one that knew, and I’m not telling.’

In 2002, the film was rediscovered on video tape and re-edited by long-time Clash collaborator Don Letts, who added a fine Clash soundtrack over the top. It is a strange piece indeed, a gangster tale that follows Earl, a musician and small-time hood played by Paul Simonon, who falls foul of the local crime boss called Socrates, ‘The Lord of Ladbroke Grove’, played with some relish by Mick Jones, resplendent in white tux (‘You wanna end up as a pillar in a Canning Town flyover?’ he threatens one lackey). Strummer gives himself a cameo as a corrupt and racist policeman. It’s a cross between The Harder The Come and some of the pulp London crime novels of the 1950s (many of which have been republished by London Books).

Hell W10 also features some cracking period photography of Notting Hill, Paddington and Ladbroke Grove, and weighs in at almost 50 minutes, which suggests it must have taken quite some time to film.

What makes it particularly fascinating is that it was filmed just as the band were starting to go belly up; Topper Headon had already been kicked out for drug abuse, while Simonon and Jones were barely speaking, making their feud in the film a little too close to the truth. Things came to a head within weeks of Hell W10 being made, with Jones sacked from the band in September 1983.

In Letts’s documentary, Westway To The World, both Jones and Strummer confess that the band had simply spent too much time in each other’s company and should have taken a break; if they had done so, hotheads may have had time to cool. Instead, they made a film. Perhaps if they’d had a summer holiday in 1983 rather than fool around with a camera, the band of Jones, Strummer and Simonon might have lasted another few years. Still, it looks like they had fun making it.

Was it worth it? Watch and decide, this is the first of five parts.

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Secret London: stink pipes

There is one of these just around the corner from where I live.

Herne Hill stink pipe

It’s long, thin, green and old and thrusts straight into the air like a giant’s, er, finger. It’s not a telegraph pole – there are no wires coming off it – and it’s too tall to be a broken street lamp.

It is, in fact, a stink pipe, one of four such items of street furniture that can be found within a half-mile radius of Brixton Water Lane. These stink pipe were built around the same time as London’s Victorian sewer network in the 1860s and are basically just huge hollow pipes that allow potentially lethal gas to escape into the atmosphere, far above the rooftops.  They often seem to located near the locations of culverted rivers – these ones are found more or less on the route of the Effra or its tributaries – suggesting that when these rivers were incorporated into the sewer system, they required some sort of additional safety valve (the buried Fleet famously exploded at King’s Cross after just such a build-up of gas in 1846).

Some stinkpipes are rather elaborate, but the ones I’ve seen around Herne Hill and Brixton are pretty basic and utilitarian. If you want to find some finer examples, like the fine crowned stench pipes of Kennington Cross, you should check out the excellent London Stench Pipes blog, which is devoted to these marvellous oddities leftover from Victorian London.

Secret London: Brixton’s Windmill

I finally got round to visiting Brixton Windmill during Open House Weekend. I first heard about the windmill ten years or so again, when I would go to gigs at the Windmill pub and pop out between acts to try to catch a glimpse of this extraordinary building in the nearby park, lost and derelict like an abandoned spaceship.

The windmill was built in 1816 and run by John Ashby of Brixton Hall. It was originally on a hill in fields, surrounded by outbuildings like a mill cottage and bake house, where bread was baked with the mill’s stone-ground wholemeal flour and sold to locals.

By the 1850s, Brixton was starting to grow and new housing blocked the wind, hampering performance. In 1862, the Ashby’s took their milling business to the Mitcham watermills along the Wandle, but the Brixton Windmill somehow remained, used for storage. The sails, though, were removed and sold for firewood.

In 1902, the windmill was returned to use, albeit as a location for a steam-powered provender mill. The mill was finally closed in 1934 and left empty until the LCC purchased it in 1957, after at least one attempt had been made to demolish it and cover the site with flats. Despite the sails being restored in 1983, the windmill, now owned by Lambeth, was allowed to run almost to ruin, which is how it appeared when I first saw it.

Since then, a major restoration project has taken place and the windmill is now open again to the public around once a month. The Friends of Windmill Gardens, a local residents association, also hope to start grinding flour again, using the provender mill that still survives on the first floor.

In celebration, here are the Fuck Buttons playing at the Brixton Windmill pub.

How about them Silver Apples

I have a piece in the latest Uncut about 60s electronica pioneers Silver Apple. If you’ve never heard them before, you should. Their main instrument is The Simeon, a bank of nine oscillators mounted on plywood and played by 86 different colour-coded buttons and pedals.

Here is their amazing country-electronica jam from 68, “Ruby”, on which they also play a banjo.

After forming by accident – everybody else in the previous band left, leaving just singer and oscillator-player Simeon Coxe and drummer Danny Taylor – the band had to split in 1970 when they created an LP cover that featured the pair in a Pan Am cockpit on one side, and with a plane crash on the back. Pan Am sued and that was that.

The band reformed in the mid-90s, however, although now it’s Coxe on his own after Taylor died of a heart attack in 2005. Silver Apples play Corsica Studios in Elephant on October 27. Check them out.