Category Archives: Counterculture

Syd, psychedelia, If…. and the Olympics: an interview with Kevin Whitney

I have a piece in the current issue of Uncut about Psychedelia,  a film made in 1969 and featuring Syd Barrett. The film has been sitting underneath Kevin Whitney’s bed for 40 years, but will be shown in June 2014 at the ICA ahead of its sale. Whitney was on the fringes of the psychedelic movement in the late-1960s and later became the first official artist of the Olympic movement. ‘In my work there are still hints of psychedelic imagery,’ he tells me. ‘But using beautiful athletes instead of mad freaks.’ 

Psychedelia can be seen at Room&Book: ICA Art Book Fair, ICA, 6-8 June. 

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‘I was at art school until 1970 and during I was making the film. I was inspired by psychedelic light shows, which I’d screen on the front of Chelsea Art School  at underground pop shows at the Roundhouse. Chelsea Art School was a modern building off the Kings Road. It was the only building built in the 20th century to be used as an art school. It’s now a hotel. It was very anarchic. Art is now geared towards corporate success and Saatchi but then that sort of thing was frowned upon, you weren’t supposed to make any money out of it. You did conceptual things, it was against the system. Now it’s the opposite and has no balls. We were very privileged to be around then. We took art into the streets.

Chelsea Art School on Manresa Road, built in 1963

Previously, I’d been at art school in Ipswich with Brian Eno. We smoked our first joint together at Christchurch Park in Ipswich. We did a thing where about 12 of us would get on a bus and we’d have these sheets of Perspex the size of a newspaper. We cut out the title of the paper and glued it to the Perspex and then sit next to people on the bus pretending to read the stories from this empty sheet of Perspex. Everybody thought we were bonkers.

UFO Club flyer

I never did light shows at the UFO Club. I went there but they had some Americans, Joe’s Lights, who got the contract and nobody else could do it. I knew them and admit I was influenced by their ideas but I also showed them some of my tricks. One was fabulous. You’d get two pieces of Perspex and put in some olive or vegetable oil, then drop some vegetable dye – bright blue, red or yellow – and then close the Perspex together. You’d put that in the projector, which had a very powerful light and would heat up the dye and send it shooting to the edges of the Perspex. It was like going through a timewarp. Joe’s Lights liked this and used it at the Roundhouse for the big Jefferson Airplane/Door show in 1968. [Editor note: I think that while Joe’s Lights did the Roundhouse gig, the Boyle Family did projections at UFO.]

In 1968, I began making my film, Psychedelia. Syd was part of the scenario. Well, he was the scenario. Anybody that would agree I got to appear in the film, which was done at this basement on Old Church Street in Chelsea in a house owned by Antonia Chetwynd [regular visitors included Donald Cammell, David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Anita Pallenberg]. One day I went to Wetherby Mansions to pick up Syd. I was going to take him to the art school to this red and green painted studio I had in the annexe where I was making the film.

Syd Barrett in Wetherby Mansions

On the way, Syd offered me half a Mandrax. It’s like a sleeping pill that makes you very randy. We took half each. Then we got to the art school and I realised my camera didn’t have a cassette in it and all the shops were closed. So I said we’d do it tomorrow in Old Church Street. In the evening I called Duggie Fields [Syd’s flatmate, still resident at Wetherby Mansions] to check Syd had got back okay and Duggie told me he’d gone to Ibiza. He had a passport with him and he’d just gone to the airport and taken a flight to Ibiza.

When he got back we went to the basement and did the filming. I just had the camera with this psychedelic lighting. It was very amateur and everyone was very stoned. I’d sit people down and tell them to do whatever they wanted. Some took their tops off, some stared at the camera, talked, had a cup of tea… and I just filmed it because they were fabulous people. I filmed so many. In the scene I shot with Syd was Geoffrey Cleghorn, who was a friend of the Who and the Stones. I’d met him at art school in Ipswich and he’d followed when I moved to London and got involved in the whole scene. He’s an amazing guy. There was another chap called David Crowland. There’s a chap called Rupert [Webster], who was the very pretty boy in “If….”.

 

I screened it while playing Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray. I also use them on the other film I made Red And Green, when they are actually on the soundtrack, the Syd film was silent though I would have been playing Velvet Underground in the basement when making it. I was obsessed with them. It was all very Warholesque.

 

I gave my camera to Derek Jarman, I was living with the artist Luciana Martinez and she said, ‘You’ve finished with films and Derek’s a lousy painter, so why not give him your camera.’ He’d just finished making The Devils with Ken Russell, doing the sets. I did that and the rest is history. I then got totally into paining, film was an art student fling. In 1982 I got involved with the Olympis and been there ever since.

“Female gymnast”, 1984

I knew Syd as well as anybody could know Syd. He definitely wasn’t on this planet but he was lovely, very charming, and he seemed to like my paintings. He liked to paint himself and because I was pretty good he warmed to me. Also, I don’t hold him in awe, I was the same with Bowie, they were friends and I’d talk to them like that. I’d ask to draw them but treat them as I would anybody. People can treat pop stars in a different way and they can get very isolated. Most people were too much in awe of Syd to ask to film him and I think that comes across in the film. He was a very troubled mind and this wasn’t a great time. He’d been eased out of the Floyd and Dave Gilmour had taken over. But people who knew him said he looks so happy.’

 

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Mama Cass in London: drugs, towels, Michael Caine and Charles Manson

I have a piece about Mama Cass Elliot in the current issue of Uncut. One area I didn’t have space to cover was Cass’s arrest in London in 1967 when The Mamas & The Papas were travelling by boat to England to play a show at the Albert Hall. They had arrived at Southampton when they were told police were waiting with a warrant for Elliot’s arrest. The band frantically tried to destroy their stash of weed and then went on to the dock where they were supposed to meet label boss Lou Adler and his friend Andrew Loog Oldham. They were instead greeted by six of the Met’s finest, who bundled Elliot into a police car and drove her to Scotland Yard.

Cass

Elliot was stripsearched and questioned, then denied bail and held overnight. The police said the charges related to a stay in London six months previously at Queen’s Gate Terrace, when she had absconded with an unpaid bill and several towels. Outside the police station, The Mamas & The Papas – Denny Doherty, John Phillips and Michelle Phillips – were joined by Scott McKenzie, brandishing FREE MAMA CASS placards while they waited for Elliot’s release. The Albert Hall concert was cancelled.

Elliot escorted to the police station in Waterloo.

Elliot escorted to the police station.

Elliot told the press she had been treated well, but not been given enough blankets. ‘Believe me,’ she said, ‘One blanket doesn’t go far round this chick.’ After a trial at West London Magistrates Court, at which no evidence was offered for the prosecution, she was released without charge and left the courtroom munching on a hash cookie that she found in her handbag. That may account for the big smiles in the photo below, taken shortly after her release.

Elliot on release.

Elliot on release.

The Mamas & The Papas with Scott McKenzie after Elliot's release.

The Mamas & The Papas with Scott McKenzie after Elliot’s release.

The Mamas and the Papas with Scott McKenzie in London.

The Mamas and the Papas with Scott McKenzie in London.

While such heavyhanded treatment by the authorities of rock stars was fairly common at this time, it later emerged that Elliot’s arrest actually had more to do with her occasional boyfriend, Pic Dawson, who the British police believed was involved in a major drug-smuggling operation. According to Michelle Phillips, this was the only subject the police in London were really interested in.

Pic Dawson and Cass Elliot at Whisky A Go Go.

Pic Dawson and Cass Elliot at Whisky A Go Go.

Dawson, who died of a drug overdose in the 1980s, was certainly an interesting figure with connections to the underworld. Numerous rumours circulate about him partly thanks to his peripheral involvement in the Manson Family murders.

Dawson, left, and Elliot, right, at Mama Cass’s house with guests including David Crosby and Eric Clapton

Dawson knew several of the victims – basically, he supplied them drugs – and after the murders John Phillips is said to have told the police that the bloody PIG daubed on Sharon Tate’s wall actually said PIC. The LA police were also informed that Dawson, along with another of Elliot’s drug-dealing boyfriends, Bill Doyle, had been ejected from a party at the Polanski house shortly before the murders. Dawson was subsequently arrested, questioned and cleared, as was Doyle.

These were not Elliot’s only connections with the Manson murders. Dave Mason recalls, “One of the freakiest parts was that at Cass’s I saw a lot of Abbie Folger and Wojciech Frykowski until the Manson crew slaughtered them” and she knew all the victims well. But she also knew the murderers – in his autobiography, Michael Caine of all people recalls attending a party in Hollywood with Jay Sebring and Sharon Tate, where Mama Cass introduced him to a ‘scruffy little man’. His name was Charles Manson.

New London writing, or What the fuck is psychogeography anyway?

I don’t think anybody, with the possible exception of Will Self, really knows what psychogeography means but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of it about. For years, the London writing landscape has been dominated by three masters of the genre, the Ackroyd-Sinclair-Self trinity (in this interview, Self distinguishes between their different approaches) – it’s hard to find a book in the Museum Of London bookshop that doesn’t have an intro penned by one of them – but that is starting to change. In the past year or so, three books have been written by debutant writers that take a broadly psychogeographical approach – you can tell this by the use of words like ‘palimpsest’ and liminal’ –  to the city or patches thereof but are happy to present it in a more approachable, less LRB-approved style.

The man above is Nick Papadimitriou, and his Scarp is the most Sinclairian of the three, written by a man obsessed with a small parcel of land on the city’s northern border. ‘I’m trying to get below the surface into something that’s moving in my mind as much as in the landscape,’ he says, which doesn’t say a great deal and is therefore as neat a summary of his obscure methodology as you are likely to find. Scarp is a wonderful book, a brilliantly obsessive and beautifully observed celebration of the meditative quality of what Papadimitriou calls deep topography and the rest of us know as walking. It’s also classic psychogeography in that you read it in the knowledge that a significant proportion of the theorising is total codswallop, but at least it is entertaining codswallop, an intriguing combination of the occult and broad generalisations about place drawn from a tiny physical space.

Next up in This Other London by John Rogers, a lighter but similarly intentioned account of ten walks – ‘a plunge into the unknown’ – around fairly random parts of London that were previously just strange names on old maps to the author, a film-maker and good egg. Rogers has none of the astonishing familiarity with his territory as Papadimitriou and he makes a virtue of this, imbuing the book with the joy of new discovery. It is, as a friend noted, a salute to the rewards of simple rambling, of going somewhere unusual and just strolling, or flaneuring to use the specific vernacular of psychogeography. As an alternative guide to London walks – or an inspiration to do the same yourself – it is a marvel.

Finally, came Gareth Rees‘s Marshland, hallucinatory, speculative non-fiction about the marshes of Hackney and Walthamstow that combines Scarp‘s deep knowledge about a specific locality with the dry wit and accessibility of This Other Land. Again, Rees is fond of that psychogeographical turn of phrase – ‘There is no final draft of London’, being a particularly fine example – but laces it with humour as he explores this odd landscape of rave holes, filter beds, football pitches and reservoirs (and a fascinating landscape it is too), mixing in a bit of fiction and even offering an audio soundtrack. Rees has a tremendous, natural, written voice and the book fairly skips along. I loved it.

All three books are a lot of fun and that is the great, dirty, secret of psychogeographical writing – it is hilariously fun to do as you train your brain to make grandiose statements about people, place and history that you are fairly sure won’t stand up to any great inquisition but look fucking brilliant on paper. Bill Drummond’s neat summary of psychogeography is perfect – ‘An intellectual justification for what I have been doing most of my life’.

I do not consider myself to be a psychogeographical writer (and here I express some of my dislike of it), but that’s not to say I’ve never indulged in it myself of occasion (as here, when writing about Wappingness), particularly when asked to do so by property developers, who seem to love this style of writing as a way to signify their deeper engagement with the city they are hoping to exploit.

By my experience then, psychogeography is used as much to shift property as it is to expand and combine the frontiers of space and mind, which is perhaps inevitable in London, where any amount of folklore and fauna only really has any value if it can be seen to have a positive effect on land prices. I’m not entirely sure that this is what Guy Debord was hoping for when he first conceived his theory, but given that he’s long gone there’s not a great deal he can do about it.

Situationists at the Sailors' Society in London during the 4th Conference of the Situationist International. Those assembled included (from l. to r.): Attila Kotányi, Hans-Peter Zimmer, Heimrad Prem, Asger Jorn (covered), Jørgen Nash (front), Maurice Wyckaert, Guy Debord, Helmut Sturm, and Jacqueline de Jong. To ensure that the proceedings were kept away from any contact with artistic circles or London newspapers, the conference took place in Limehouse, "a district renowned for its criminals."

Guy Debord’s Situationists in Limehouse, in search of Wappingness and investment opportunities.

Jonathan Gili, on collecting and connecting

Paul McCartney-designed wrapping paper for Indica bookshop and gallery.

Paul McCartney-designed wrapping paper for Indica bookshop and gallery.

The wonderful new catalogue by Maggs counterculture is dedicated to (a fragment) of the vast collection amassed over four decades by the film-maker Jonathan Gili. An insight into Gili’s collecting instinct comes from this article by Anthony Gardner:

Lift the lids of the boxes, and you can scarcely believe your eyes. There are bottles of Star Wars bubble bath and packets of Beatles bubblegum; fridge magnets shaped like kettles and Danish pastries; hair clips
commemorating the Queen’s coronation; Camembert boxes and plastic lizards and packets of tortilla chips. It is as if all the flotsam and jetsam of post-war consumer society had been washed up on a concrete shore and painstakingly catalogued by an tireless, obsessive beachcomber.

Although the catalogue focuses on the recognised brilliance of London’s 1960s psychedelic poster artists like Martin Sharp and Haphash And The Coloured Coat, Gili would collect anything – indeed, Gardner notes he was particularly drawn to sardine tins and even self-published a book about them. The items Maggs has for sale includes such magpie oddities as shopping bags, wrapping paper (albeit designed by Paul McCartney) and old newspaper posters, such as this one regarding Joe Orton’s murder, taken from a newstand in London in 1967.

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In 1986, Gili wrote an article about his collection asking rhetorically: ‘Who could resist records shaped like Elton John’s hat or Barry Manilow’s nose? They have poor sound and often can’t be made to play at all… but as art objects they are sublime.’

Sadly, there are no records shaped like Barry Manilow’s nose in this catalogue as much of Gili’s collection went to a private collector sympathetic to the intentions and ambitions of Gili. But what makes somebody collect stuff like this? In his short, thoughtful, introduction to the catalogue, Carl Williams – who knows much about collectors – ponders that question. Collectors are often said to be creating a bulwark against their own death, but perhaps, speculates Williams, they also wish to act as a guardian for those things that would otherwise be ‘forgotten, scorned or destroyed’ as tastes and times change?  Today’s trash is tomorrow’s museum piece; yesterday’s lunatic is the future’s visionary. Gardner touches on this, with an anecdote in which Gili ‘rescues’ a particularly revolting object from a garage forecourt. It’s a revealing story. By the very nature of his collecting this worthless item, Gili has given it value. But he’s also, clearly and very simply, enjoyed the moment, relishing both the acquisition and the reaction it will get from his co-conspirator. Why collect? Why not!

Lucinda Lambton tells a story which epitomises Gili’s passion for acquisition. ‘We were driving through the outskirts of Guildford,’ she says, ‘and he suddenly shouted “Stop!” Then he jumped out of the car while it was still moving and ran across this huge, horrible garage forecourt. When he came back, he was triumphantly waving a gold-lamé-clad Michael
Jackson doll.

Collections also gain their own momentum, and I sometimes wonder how many collections have been made almost by accident – one minute you are idly picking up old books about London from secondhand shops and markets, the next thing you know you have 250 of the things and, inadvertently, the beginnings of a minor collection. And if you’ve started, you might as well finish. What else is there to do with your time?

More obviously, collectors hoard items that carry the echo of a cherished memory, certain pieces that remind them of a special moment in their past, or of a past they wished they had. Many of the items being sold by Maggs are focused around the London underground scene of the 1960s. I’m not sure quite what relationship Gili had with the counterculture, but he was clearly an interested observer at the very least – and he edited cult London film Bronco Bullfrog, with soundtrack by 1960s Gilbert & George support act, Audience.

Gili’s 1960s collection includes a number of items from that era that have always been regarded as important and beautiful, such as these stunning posters by Martin Sharp, one of my favourite psychedelic artists and, in my view, a rival to anything that came out of the more lauded Bay Area poster scene.

Cream by Martin Sharp

Cream by Martin Sharp

Purple Dylan by Martin Sharp

Purple Dylan by Martin Sharp

Oz magazine

Oz magazine

UFO Club poster

UFO Club poster

Many of the objects are related specifically to the London scene – the shops, clubs, galleries and ‘fun palaces’ of 1960s London. Gili, then, had a close relationship with this city. One of his best-known films is the charming To The World’s End, about the No 31 bus journey from Islington to Chelsea. Interestingly, 1960s historian Jonathon Green recalls a map of this very bus route once published as a cover of IT newspaper, showing how it connected some of the key points of swinging London – ‘The hippie highway: all the way from Granny Takes a Trip to the Roundhouse’, as Green puts it.

A semi-thorough scouring of the ever-so-distracting IT archive has not turned up this delightful sounding map, so perhaps it was produced by one of the many other underground papers of the era. But it is not a massive leap to speculate that Gili, the great collector of underground London, noted this off-kilter way of observing and uniting the London villages, and later chose to make a film taking precisely that approach. Collections, like buses, are a way to make connections.

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Mick Farren: dead good Deviant

‘Sure the underground was elitist: we were an elite. We were the cutting edge of ongoing bohemianism at that point.’ Mick Farren in Days In The Life by Jonathon Green

The last time I spoke to Mick Farren (May, 2013) he was waiting for the doctor to come round. He was, he told me, in pretty poor shape but welcomed our interview as it gave him something else to think about. Farren’s ill health had been known for some years, but it didn’t stop him going on stage with his old band the Deviants every now and then. It was while performing at the Borderline last night (Saturday, July 27) that he collapsed and died.

It seems crude to say that is how Mick Farren would want to go, but it’s certainly no great surprise that this vivacious ball of hair and action, the closest thing London ever came to producing an Abbie Hoffman,  should die while giving it all to his great love rock and roll. (The following, and all subsequent quotes, are from my interviews with Farren.)

‘Essentially, from when I was in art school through to Joe Strummer the major communication medium of the counterculture certainly in the second half of the 1960s was rock and roll music. You start with that and everything else was peripheral to it.’

Farren’s Deviants were pre-punk noise terrorists whose self-distributed debut album, Ptooff! was one of the first records to come directly out of the London counterculture. When I spoke to Farren for Uncut about the Rolling Stones free gig at Hyde Park in 1969, I asked him whether the Deviants had wanted to play the show. He said,

‘We asked if we could play. We were vetoed, it was probably Jagger. Everybody said I wouldn’t behave myself and start rabble rousing, which was fair enough.’

I put this to Pete Jenner, who co-organised the gig, who responded.

‘Well, there was that and also the fact they were a rotten band. I really like Mick [Farren] but they were a rotten band who smashed instruments on stage. It wasn’t kick out the jams motherfucker, it was let’s have a joint and a buttercup sandwich.’

The Deviants weren’t really a rotten band, but Farren certainly saw them as London’s answer to the MC5. He was heavily active in the political end of the counterculture, forming the London branch of John Sinclair’s White Panther Party and leading the occasional putsch at the International Times when he felt it was getting too bourgeois and boring. Farren was a key figure in so much of what happened in the counterculture, running the door at UFO, writing for and editing alternative newspapers, organising free festivals while playing shows and really meaning it, man. He was fixer and a doer, a wit and sometimes a sage.

‘IT came out of the Beats – poetry, jazz and art with a bit of lefty politics. I told them this was fucked up, they weren’t talking about the weird changes going on with The Who, or where The Beatles were coming from. I’d say that with all respect to John Coltrane there’s this black geezer in the Bag O’ Nails who has long hair and plays guitar with his teeth, what are we going to do about THAT?’

His politics though, always came with a sense of fun – at one anti-war demo the Deviants played he annoyed the po-faced organisers by being more concerned with getting on stage without splitting his trousers than with espousing the cause. He was once described to me by a fellow traveler as being one of the three coolest men in London in 1967, and that made him one of the three coolest men in the entire world.

”We were always condemned as frivolous and philosophically disorganised, and the counter-accusation was they were just boring totalitarians who wanted to sing the Red Flag when we’d rather listen to Voodoo Child and smoke pot.’

When the alternative press disintegrated, Farren – like many from the underground – went on to write great pieces like this for the NME:

The immediate legacy of the underground papers was the NME because we all went there. They had a very profound effect on the visual effect of magazine publishing, but much more important is that the spirit of the thing is now preserved on the internet.  It’s all still there, it’s just become more specialised and you have to go looking for it.’

Farren is one of the dominant figures in Jonathon Green’s essential history of the British underground, Days In The Life, and also wrote brilliantly, if unreliably, about his own activities in Give The Anarchist a Cigarette. What resonates from those books is what an unlikely fit Farren seems in the upper-middle-class world of the counterculture, which was largely run by public schoolboys and Oxbridge graduates imbued with that remarkable confidence that comes with a good education. Farren was different, his confidence was self-generated and less polite, while his art school experiences meant he ‘learned to manage chaos’. Indeed, he relished it. Take a look at the clips below if you don’t believe me.

In his own writings and when interviewed, Farren always came across as funny and incredibly sharp but there was more to it at than that. He was fundamentally, intrinsically, decent. A man without edges. As Jonathon Green told me when hearing the news of his death: ‘Of the underground ‘stars’ he seems, and always did, to have been one of the good guys.’

RIP Mick Farren. He will be missed by many.

Farren invading The Frost Show.

Farren recollecting the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam riot of 1968.

At the Poll Tax Riot

I attended the Poll Tax Riot by accident. I was at the theatre with my family on Charing Cross Road when the lights came up at the end of the performance and the house manager told us there had been a little disturbance outside so we would have to remain in our seats for a short period. As we did so, this was taking place on the street above.

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We’d seen the coaches parked up as we drove into London, but I had little interest in politics. I knew who the Prime Minister and  leader of the opposition were, but that’s about as far as it went. I would have recognised other names – I watched and enjoyed Spitting Image – but none of it really meant very much to me. Perhaps that’s as it should be when you are 14. Questions of policy were largely irrelevant so the anger towards the Poll Tax Riot had passed me – and my Daily Mail-reading parents – almost completely by. And, boy, were people angry.

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When the house manager gave us the all clear, we climbed the stairs – the theatre  was in a little basement – and emerged on to a devastated Charing Cross Road. What I most remember is the stench from all the overturned bins, debris spilling on to the streets, and the complete absence of traffic, people and noise. It was spooky. That smell I can still recall, a horrible, fatty, sweet stink of rot and decay. London then was a dirty city, but this was something else.

My father – surely in a state of some fear – ushered us through back streets towards the car park in Soho but I remember little of this journey, which surely would have taken us past smashed shops, mobs of protesters and riot police desperately trying to get their shit together. Once we reached the car, my father visibly relaxed but one junction, he had to hit the accelerator while we waited at a red light. He later said he’d seen we were about to be sandwiched between a bunch of rioters and some police and decided this was not a time to obey the laws of the road. Once again, I’d missed this sight.

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I thought about all this again while reading a pamphlet I picked up recently for £2 in a local bookshop. Produced by ACAB Press (an acronym for All Coppers Are Bastards) and ‘dedicated to all working-class heroes’, Poll Tax Riot: 10 Hours That Shook Trafalgar Square contains 12 eyewitness accounts of the riot. The interviewees all appear to be anarchists, and are as equally contemptuous of the traditional Left – Militant are particularly despised, and there are amusingly barbed references to George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan – as they are the police. Most of them seem to have had a great old time, chucking stuff at coppers, smashing windows and setting fire to South Africa House. This is about revenge.

‘Off we go intent upon destruction, up Charing Cross Road, into the West End, everything a target, everything subject to our rage and deep down surely a demonstration of how hated this world is.’

Cars are turned on their roofs, shops looted, the Hippodrome smashed and the police attacked whenever they are seen. There are no dissenting voices to the general feeling the Met finally got what they had deserved for a decade. One protester who ended up in a cell even claims that his fellow cellmate was a prison officer who joined in the fun because he ‘fucking hates the cops’.

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The pamphlet is so gleefully celebratory of the riot that it has to distance itself from the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign, set up to help those that had been arrested, even as it promises it will give them all proceeds from its sale. It also announces that ‘this pamphlet is anti-copyright and can be freely reproduced by any revolutionary group. But copyright protects it from being used by journalists, rich bastards, etc.’ I hope they don’t sue.

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Selling ‘psychedelic marmite’ in Ladbroke Grove with the rock ‘n’ roll doctor

 

Before he met Gram Parsons and became country and western singer Hank Wangford, Sam Hutt was an avowed member of the sixties counterculture as well as a qualified doctor. Like many on the scene, he managed to combine his two lives for a brief period when he and two other doctors ran a practice prescribing marijuana to junkies. Hutt, incidentally, was one of the signatories of Steve Abrams pro-pot advert in The Times.  I spoke to him recently, and he explained how it all came about:

‘I qualified as a doctor and didn’t know what the fuck to do. I didn’t like doctors, I didn’t like medical students, I didn’t like working in hospitals and I didn’t want to do general practice. Then I heard this guy, Ian Dunbar, had a place in Ladbroke Grove. I found this out from Bernie Greenwood, who was the only doctor I really liked and was also a musician, playing saxophone and keyboards.

 

So we both joined in. Ian had this practice on the crest of the hill in Ladbroke Grove. There’s a church and right opposite is the church building and we had the top floor. Ian’s big thing was to help people who were on heroin. He’d discovered that doctors could still prescribe cannabis, ironically in tincture form, which means in alcoholic solution. Ian prescribed it to people who were coming off smack, not because it replaces the heroin – it doesn’t – but as a way of getting high. That’s counter to the usual treatment of heroin, which is to use methadone. The rationalisation for methadone, which can kill you if you overdose on it, is that you don’t get high. It doesn’t make you feel good, whereas heroin makes you feel good.

It seemed to me this was a Presbyterian attitude – if you like something, it must be bad for you. So they switch you on to something you don’t like. Ian went counter to that, offering them something that let them get out of it, just in a different way to heroin. People often switch between heroin and alcohol as alcohol is much closer to heroin than cannabis is. Cannabis doesn’t achieve wipe out, it doesn’t achieve oblivion, which both heroin and alcohol do.

So me, Ian and Bernie set up this hippie practice and as a political act, we prescribed cannabis. In the 60s, smoking a joint was a political act, it was you saying you were a freak, a part of an alternative society, not a straight. And you didn’t touch alcohol because it would kill you. Our ethos was that we wouldn’t prescribe speed: uppers or downers. If that’s what you wanted you had to go to the straight doctors in pin-stripe suits in Harley Street. They’ll give you bucketloads. So I’m not a grocer, but I will prescribe you cannabis. They closed that law down in 1973. We were seeing all sorts of people but when we got our first cheque from the National Health it was for £11. That’s for three doctors after six months work. Even then, £11 wasn’t much. So we had to support ourselves by making it a private prescription charging a couple of quid a time.

We got the cannabis from William Ransom & Son. They were the company in Hertfordshire that had a government license to extract cannabis from the plant. They made it into this sticky thick stuff, like a psychedelic marmite. That would then be dissolved in alcohol to make a tincture. The extract was much stronger than the tincture, you could get very, very stoned.

That practice was eventually closed by the police, because they didn’t like junkies being treated like you and me, they wanted to lock them up. I continued being a rock and roll doctor. I went on tour with Family and I shared a house with Jenny Fabian and Roger Chapman before, through Keith Richards, I met Gram Parsons and discovered country music.’

 

Gilbert & George and David Bowie at the Marquee, 1968/9

Should you be fortunate enough to attend the superb David Bowie exhibition at the V&A this spring, one of the first thing you will see is a video of the artists Gilbert & George performing their ‘Singing Sculpture‘. The intention, I think, is to draw a connection between Bowie and conceptual art, but there is another facet of the relationship between David Bowie and Gilbert & George that goes unmentioned: they both played gigs at the Marquee.

I have an article in the current issue of Uncut about the Marquee club. It mainly focuses on The Who, and while asking around about people who may have seen Townshend and Co perform at the Marquee I received an intriguing email from the writer Jonathon Green, who recalled a show at the Marquee in 1968. ‘They were holding auditions and some pals of mine who had a band tried their luck. Unsuccessfully. Naturally we friends tipped up to cheer. But the weird moment of the evening was when this pair of blokes appeared and, saying nothing, sat for some minutes on either side of a table that they placed centre stage. The two blokes, it transpired, though I must admit I can longer recall when I made this discovery, were Gilbert and George.’

Astonishingly, it seems London artists Gilbert & George did play the Marquee at least once – as they mention here – and possibly even twice. Because as well as the evening Green recalls they also played a show there in early 1969, when they were supported by Audience (who later played on the soundtrack to cult suedehead film Bronco Bullfrog).

I asked two members of Audience about their show with Gilbert & George. Sadly, G&G themselves did not respond to repeated queries about their Marquee days.

Trevor Williams: ‘It was an audition night for us, but I’m not sure what they were doing there unless it was to audition an act they were planning to perform later at the Marquee. It was our first live gig but their act basically consisted of them sitting at a table on two chairs facing each other. They were in suits and their faces were painted gold or silver and one told the other stories while the other said nothing. These were very macabre little stories one of which involved a dwarf committing suicide in the bath and the water getting pinker and pinker but never got red because there’s not enough blood in a dwarf.

They were really nice, pleasant, social guys. I don’t remember how they were received but it was an era when anything went and people enjoyed anything off the wall. I’ve no idea how many people were there although somebody once told me that Germaine Greer was in the audience that night.’

Howard Werth: We first encountered Gilbert & George at the back of the Marquee when these two tweed besuited gentlemen with metallic gold heads and hands, in the style of shop window dummies of a gentlemen outfitters, poked their heads into our van politely asking where the entrance to the Marquee was. We were getting ready to audition as were they. Their act consisted of them both seated with one of them (Gilbert I believe) relating a rather strange tale involving dwarves whilst the other one (George) listened intently, chin on fist. I remember Germaine Greer backstage who was trying to get members of another audition band to retrieve some of their equipment they’d left at her flat in the Pheasantry in the Kings road. We shortly after did a gig at the Lyceum with Gilbert & George, I believe they were about to leave Central St Martins art school around that time.’

So there we have it. In an alternative universe perhaps Gilbert & George gave up art and continued their life in music, while David Bowie, fed up of playing bottom of the bill at the Marquee, jacked in the pop trade and threw himself wholeheartedly into the curious world of conceptual art.

Time Out – logo-agogo

As has been reported elsewhere, the big glowing Time Out sign came down this week from the front of the TO office in Tottenham Court Road where it has lived since around 1993. It has gone into storage, ahead of a proposed office move and will at some point, we are promised, be restored to wherever the magazine ends up next. I hope it does. This is, after all, one of London’s few bursts of neon and probably the only one that is halfway decent to look at.

That’s because the logo is a design classic, the work of Pearce Marchbank, an art school student who drifted into the more agitated end of the counterculture after the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam demo. ‘The impact on me,’ he said, ‘Was blowing away all that love and peace shit which I thought was bollocks and complete pretence.’

After working on Friends, Marchbank was asked by Time Out founder Tony Elliott to redesign his shambolic magazine. ‘I hated the unadventurous way it looked,’ said Marchbank. The entire magazine was redesigned, with the logo being created at the last minute on a Sunday afternoon in November 1970. ‘It was supposed to look like an out-of-focus neon light,’ Marchbank explained. ‘It was Letraset Franklin Gothic, shot out of focus so it had a glowing fuzziness to it. I put a negative over the positive and the gap between the two made the glowing neon outline, which I shot in line then again out of focus. It was deliberately transparent, so the cover images could read through it, as if it were on the glass of a window.’

This distinctive, blurry effect was intended to be a short-term solution, but Elliott refused to change it. It was a wise decision although not everybody liked the new look. One reader wrote in asking if the magazine could include a pair of glasses with each issue as the typeface was now too small to read.

TOAllNight

Marchbank continued to work for the magazine on-and-off throughout the 1970s creating some of the best covers in the history of publishing. He was back there in 1981 when it imploded in a series of strikes, stand-offs and occupations between staff and management over wages and the historic equal-pay system. As Elliott attempted to regain control he learnt that the logo – which was now being branded all over London and which the strikers were hoping to claim as their own – actually belonged to Marchbank.

Elliott called Marchbank, saying ‘I want you to write me a letter saying you’re giving the logo to me.’ Marchbank figured it was probably worth as much as £100,000 but, strapped for cash and short of time, asked Elliott for a mere £2,000.

‘What? £2,000! How can you do this to me after all the things I’ve done for you?’

The conversation ended. Shortly afterwards, however, Marchbank was offered a job with Richard Branson’s new London magazine, Event. As his parting gift, he presented all rights to the logo to Elliott. To turn into a real piece of neon was both a no-brainer and a stroke of genius. I hope one day the sign will be back above the door in some London street – if not, I’m sure it’ll fetch more than £2,000 on eBay.