Category Archives: Journalism

Farewell to The Borderline

I have a short piece in the current issue of Uncut about the Borderline (and another longer, very good, piece about the Flamingo).

The Borderline is due to close this summer after a rich history as a venue, hosting a huge number of US and UK bands including Amy Winehouse, REM and Pearl Jam. It was the last venue Townes Van Zandt ever performed, but it was also often used by labels hoping to break an act – its location, good reputation, atmosphere and 200 capacity made it an ideal showcase venue. For these reasons, Oasis chose to use it as the location for their “Cigarettes & Alcohol” video, before playing an impromptu set for the fans who attended the shoot.

I’ve seen loads of great shows here, the best of which was the UK debut by the Drive-By Truckers, which included a solo spot by new recruit Jason Isbell. I also saw Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent play here as Fillup Shack in front of an audience of around a dozen. Most of us were there thanks to the music editor of Time Out, Ross Fortune, who heard ticket sales were low so handed out freebies  to anybody who wanted a night out. Ross loved the Borderline and made it his venue of the year. He even had a favourite seat by the bar that gave him a perfect view of the stage while also allowing him to get served without having to stand up.

Jeff Buckley was another who made his debut at the Borderline – he then played a second show across the road at the 12 Bar for fans who couldn’t get tickets. I was talking to somebody recently who saw Pop Will Eat Itself at the Borderline supported by Suicide – when the crowd booed Suicide off the stage, Clint Mansell refused to perform with PWEI. A bunch of US actors who fancied themselves at musicians all played the Borderline, among them Bruce Willis, Russell Crowe, Minnie Driver and Kiefer Sutherland. How many venues in the world can claim that?

When REM played here it was under the pseudonym Bingo Hand Job, a legendary two-night stand that saw them joined by Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock as this massive band played a bunch of scuzzy covers to 200 fans under their assumed identity. For the piece, I talked to Mike Mills about the shows as well as fans who say it was the most fun they ever saw the band have on stage. That’s the power and pull of a good club venue, and one you’ll never see replicated at a larger theatre or arena.

The Borderline was also worked hard. During its peak years (1990-2005) it was open every night of the week, and after gigs hosted club nights like Alan McGee’s The Queen Is Dead – which caused some entertaining culture clashes at the doors as one group of fans left and the others arrived. The music booker was Barry Everitt, who had a fascinating career in music and whose obituary is worth a read. Incidentally, the manager during this golden period now runs the Crobar, the nearby dive bar and one of the few venues that seems to be clinging on in this part of London. He believes the current owners suffered from a “lack of experience, lack of understanding, lack of contacts”.

When I wrote about the changes to the Charing Cross Road on this blog eight years ago, I speculated about what Crossrail would allow to survive. The development of this area has cost London several venues either directly or indirectly, with the Astoria, 12 Bar and Metro all disappearing along with a number of smaller bars and clubs.

And now the Borderline is going too, leaving the 100 Club  as the last decent-sized West End venue standing. Enjoy it while you can.

Lennon/Ono and “RAPE” in Highgate Cemetery

I have written the cover story in the new Uncut about John Lennon in 1969. This was a pivotal year for Lennon, as he embraced Yoko Ono’s concept of experimental autobiographical artistic experiences and prepared for the break up with the Beatles.

Ono and Lennon were endlessly busy through 1969, releasing weird albums – Life With The Lions and Wedding Album – and forming the Plastic Ono Band. Lennon played free jazz in Cambridge University, sent acorns to world leaders, got married, sat in bags, took heroin and released several hit singles, including “The Ballad Of John And Yoko”, “Give Peace A Chance” and “Cold Turkey”.

One of the lesser known results of this creative outpouring was the film, “RAPE”. Sean Ono Lennon believes this to be: “A profound piece, especially in the context of the Me Too movement. It’s not designed to be entertaining, it’s a concept, a metaphor and an experience.”

 

“RAPE” was commissioned by Austrian TV and filmed by Nic Knowland, a cinematographer working for World In Action. He told me, “An Austrian gentleman called me and said John and Yoko wanted me to work on a project. I said okay and went to meet them in hospital – I think Yoko had a miscarriage – and they explained what they wanted from this film. It was to reflect their sense of being hounded by the press. They wanted me to get a small crew and then follow anybody in the street until they screamed or broke down.”

For the next couple of days, Knowland filmed around North Kensington, shooting a lot of footage but never reaching the point Ono and Lennon wanted. The producer than gave Knowland the address of an Austrian woman who was in London and had outstayed her VISA. Eva Majlata was the sister of  a friend of the producer and Knowland was never sure how much she was told about the project.

For the next three days he followed her around London – Highgate Cemetery, Chelsea Bridge – ignoring her attempts at conversation and keeping the camera focused on her face. “Then on the third day we were given the key to her apartment,” says Knowland. “That’s pretty full on and ends with me being very aggressive with the camera, putting my foot on the phone so she can’t call the police. I felt we had pushed it as far as we could.”

You can watch the whole film on You Tube.

The finished film is extremely unsettling, as Majlata is essentially stalked for 90 minutes by a silent camera to her increasing discomfort and eventual alarm. We see everything from the camera’s perspective, making us complicit in the action. For Lennon and Ono, this was about fame but it’s also about everyday street harassment – which, as Sean Ono Lennon says, make it very appropriate today.

What makes it even more alarming was Majlata’s after story. The film landed her a couple of modelling gigs with Vogue but she then “got into a spot of bother” as Knowland put it, and moved back to Austria where, as Eva Rhodes, she opened an animal sanctuary. She then got involved in various legal tussles and was eventually murdered in suspicious and horrendous circumstances. One of the themes of Lennon/Ono’s 1969 was how life inspired art, and Majlata’s experience was the reverse – art became life.

“RAPE” is little known now, but of all the projects Lennon and Ono worked on in 1969, this was the most powerful. There are a couple of articles about it that are worth reading including here and here.

Crass – anarchy in the green belt

I have a piece in the current issue of Uncut about Crass, a unique band who mixed music and politics in such way that they really did inspire a new way of life, and thinking about life, for their followers. Theoretically, Crass were punks – and their music was loud, aggressive, fast and very direct – but they also advocated a philosophy that tried to combine humanism with libertarianism: be true to yourself but care about others. That balance of selfishness and selflessness creates a circle that isn’t always easy to square, but Crass’s absolute dedication to their message makes their story a fascinating one. “There is no authority but yourself,” they sang, a message that’s not a million miles from Aleister Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

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I’ve always been fairly sceptical about the idea there was a sharp divide between punks and hippies, and Crass are a case in point. They were every bit a product of the 60s counterculture as much as they were 1976. The band were even formed in a commune in Epping Forest that was founded in the sixties and was dedicated to that concept of dropping out. Crass were anti-war and promoted vegetarianism and identity politics. They screened avant-garde films and took part in Situationist-inspired stunts against the mass media.

Crass co-founder and drummer Penny Rimbaud was a fan of the Beatles as well as Patti Smith and Television. Here he is on Ready Steady Go winning a prize from his idol John Lennon. Rimbaud says that Lennon’s increasingly bold political and artistic statements in collaboration with Yoko Ono from 1968 were a model for Crass.

 

 

 

And yet few bands embraced the spirit of punk as much as Crass, who arranged their own gigs, ran their own label and communicated directly with their fans. They were in-your-face and anti-establishment, and their love of slogans, uniforms and banners caught some of punk’s militaristic fetish. A song like “Owe Us A Living” could surely only have been written in the punk era.

 

Rimbaud, as intellectually challenging an interviewee as any I have spoken to, discussed some of this during our conversation. “Punk wasn’t really about nihilism, that was just the theatre of McLaren,” he told me. “The Slits were a hippie band in appearance and attitude. Hippie was about people looking to find a way to live differently, what is now called DIY and is vaunted but was then common sense. You grew your own food and looked after yourself. The big difference was that punk was more urban. It was still people squatting and wearing strange clothes. People like McLaren tried to cash in on that natural and very long-existent form of youth discovery. It’s not protest, it’s youth discovering itself by buggering about. It’s only a big deal when somebody tries to market it, and punk and hippie were both exploited to the hilt.”

Read more in the current Uncut.

Santa Claus and Lapland’s Reindeer Antler Plan

I recently spent some time in Lapland for the Guardian. I wrote about my trip here  but thought I’d put a more complete version on the blog.

As soon as you land at Rovaniemi airport you see a reindeer. Not a real one admittedly, but somebody in a Rudolf suit cheerily greeting passengers who have just arrived and are planning to meet Santa Claus at his home in Northern Finland. A couple of miles from Rovaniemi airport –“Santa’s official airport” –  is Santa Claus Village, complete with elves, reindeers, huskies, shops, restaurants and the real Santa. It’s an attraction that draws more than 600,000 annual visitors to this isolated spot on the Arctic Circle.

There are reindeers everywhere in Rovianemi. Costumed at the airport, pulling sleighs at the Santa Village and recreated in statues throughout the town centre. There is also the outline of a reindeer embedded in the city’s streets. This is the “reindeer antler plan”, which was created by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto when he rebuilt the city after the Second World War. Aalto also designed the  town hall, library and concert hall, which are arranged in a complementary cluster to the south of the city centre. But while tourists flock to Santa Claus village, few seek out the work of Finland’s greatest architect. Frank Nieuvenhausen, a Dutchman living in Rovaniemi, hopes to change that through cultural tours that take in Rovaniemi’s museums, galleries and local history alongside the work of Alvar Aalto. “People get off the plane straight on a bus to the Santa Claus village but there is a rich history here,” he says. “We don’t all have to dress up as elves.”

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Rovaniemi was a quiet trading town of around 6,000 people before the Second World War. Russia invaded in 1939, and the Finns fought off their aggressors in the brutal Winter War of 1939-1940. After that, they allied with the Germans. The Finns were not Nazis and the Germans were not occupiers – this was a marriage of convenience to protect the Finns from the Russians and give Germany access to St Petersburg. Finnish Jews fought the Russians alongside German soldiers – three were offered the Iron Cross. Even today, this relationship continues. A few miles outside Rovaniemi by a lake is a memorial to the German war dead. It’s a peaceful spot, both respectful and isolated. The silence is only broken by the sound of Finnish jets protecting Rovaniemi from a feared Russian incursion.

Under the terms of German-Fin alliance, the country was split in half: the Finnish Army controlled the south and the German army had the north, with access to ports and nickel mines. The Germans were based in Rovaniemi and the town’s population doubled. The Luftwaffe built an airfield – Rovaniami airport – while Santa Claus Village itself is on the site of a German barracks. For years, the Germans and Finns got on famously. Then the war turned and the Russians told the Finns to expel the Germans or the Red Army would return. As the Germans departed, Rovaniemi was razed. Photographs show a smoking ruin with just chimney stacks left standing. Pekka Ojala, who runs a B&B and sauna near the city centre, still finds burnt wood and metal in his garden.

This desolation is what Alvar Aalto faced. But his ambition was vast. “He saw the burned town as an opportunity,” says Jussi Rautsi a former planner and researcher at the Aalto Foundation. Partly inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority Plan, Aalto created a plan for all of Lapland – a land mass as large as Holland and Belgium combined. The plan started with single housing units – designed to have as little cold north-facing façade surface as possible, and maximum external surface to the sun in south-west – and expanded outwards. Aalto factored in the hydroelectric plants being built on the great rivers of Lapland, and commissioned impact assessments to see what the effect would be on the environment, population, local industries, indigenous Sami, reindeer herds, water basins and microclimate. “Nobody in the world had done such a plan,” says Rautsi. “It had all spatial levels: regional, entire town, parts of towns, neighbourhoods, even peripheral estates. This was the only plan of this magnitude in the world.”

Rovaniemi’s “reindeer antler” street plan was conceived by Aalto in 1945. This was a stroke of visionary genius, as he simply imposed a reindeer outline on existing topography like those people who find animal shapes in the London Underground map. Aalto highlighted the natural shape of the land and the way the main roads and railway crossed. The football stadium became an eye, and the reindeer was born. It was magnificent branding, but Aalto then embellished the plan, creating different zones for commerce, residential and administration within the lines of the reindeer.

All this had to be built without Marshall Aid as the Finns had been on the side of the Germans and were also paying “reparations” to the Russians. Aid did come from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the precursor to UNICEF, which was brought to Rovaniemi by the UNRRA patron Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of FDR, in June 1950. Roosevelt wanted to visit the Arctic Circle, so the Finns built a log cabin near the airport, furnished with chairs designed by Alvar Aalto. They told her it was in the Arctic Circle although it was actually a little to the south. Roosevelt sent a letter from the cabin to President Truman – the first letter ever posted in the Arctic Circle – and wrote about it in her memoir. The log cabin became tourist attraction and was visited by other world leaders, including Brezhnev and Golda Meir. The log cabin still stands today on the edge of Santa Claus Village, where it is roundly ignored by tourists.

Tourism took time to build after the war but by 1984 Concorde was bringing visitors to Rovaniemi to see the Arctic Circle. That’s when some local entrepreneurs created the Santa Claus Village. According to Finnish myth, Santa came from Korvantunturi or Ear Fell, which is shaped like an ear so Santa can hear the wishes of every child in the world. Korvantunturi is to the far north and almost inaccessible, whereas Rovaniemi already had the airport thanks to the Luftwaffe. A rural-style wooden village was created around Roosevelt’s cabin, offering shops, reindeer rides, a Santa and a post office so visitors can send letters from the Arctic Circle. This is also where every letter addressed to Father Christmas ends up – up to 700,000 a year. In the 1990s, the Santa myth took over the town. Even part of one of the town’s nuclear bunkers was turned into Santa Park, a subterranean theme park.

As tourism grew, Rovaniemi was rebuilt. The zoning aspect of Aalto’s reindeer plan was never fully realised, but he did create three buildings for the town’s municipal centre. These were an undulating concert hall, a town hall (completed by his wife after Aalto’s death in 1976) and a library that is one of his finest works. He also built a small section of housing in the suburb of Korkalovaara, which featured terraced housing and two large apartment blocks that were modelled on the garden cities of England. In the city centre, he designed a Frank Lloyd Wright-style private home and a commercial block. Not everything Aalto planned came to pass but for Raulti his successes included “climate responsive housing, separating traffic from housing neighbourhoods, using local materials, the human scale and in situ brick construction. Sound building according to nature and terrain conditions. He wanted the community to have a good and visible centre and in Rovaniemi the Aalto-centre indicates its position as the capital of the polar region.”

 

These are the sort of buildings that Frank Nieuvenhausen wishes to show visitors as an alternative to the Santa experience. A knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, he is creating an Aalto tour, and is being supported in this endeavour by Rovaniemi tourist office, who want to increase visitors in the summer months. “Summer used to be bigger, then cold and dark became exotic,” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, who runs Visit Rovaniemi. “We’d like to get that balance back.”

Santa is not the only challenge. As Aira Huovinen, curator of the Korundi contemporary art gallery acknowledges, the city’s cultural attractions also compete with nature – the Northern Lights, pine forests and wildlife. With most visitors coming for less than a week, that leaves little time to visit attractions such as the Korundi or the Arkitum, a local history/science museum. It doesn’t help that the city’s appearance is dominated by a certain post-war blockiness, encouraging tourists to stick to their out-of-town hotel resorts. There are some architectural highlights. The Arkitum has a stunning glass central corridor while the Korundi is located in one of the few buildings to survive the war, a huge brick bus depot that provided locals with shelter when the city was destroyed. Joining the gallery is a lovely new concert hall built for the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, while across the highway is a delightful and award-winning football stadium (the eye of the reindeer). The chief attraction is Aalto’s library, with its sunken reading pits, beautiful lighting and open plan. In one corner is a small section dedicated to Aalto, complete with Aalto-furniture and a picture of the reindeer antler plan on the wall.

You won’t see many tourists studying this however. It’s a different matter at Santa’s Village, which is open all year round but crammed in December. The experience isn’t quite as tacky as it might sound – we’re not talking Winter Wonderland levels of crassness – and children are enraptured. The Finns’ Santa has been shorn of any religious significance but isn’t excessively commercial. “We never let our Santa go to the mall,” says Mayor Lotvonen from his Aalto-designed office in the town hall. “He is a charitable figure.” Rovaniemi’s businesses contribute to a cheque for UNICEF at the start of every season, a reminder of the fact the city’s own resurrection and current good fortune came from an act of charity.

Santa occasionally accompanies the Mayor on official business to meet trade delegations, and he is an excellent and unique ambassador for the city. The international appeal of Santa can be seen by the make-up of Rovaniemi’s visitors, which is led by China, followed by Israel and then the UK. All find a Santa they are happy with. It’s tempting to see this as another example of the Fin’s seemingly infinite capacity for accommodation. They will make the German Army feel at home, move the Arctic Circle to keep Eleanor Roosevelt happy and then balance the needs of the West and East during the Cold War. So what would Alvar Aalto make of Rovaniemi’s adoption of Santa Claus? “Aalto liked people,” says Rautsi. “He was a social person. He would make Santa ride in a chaise lounge version of his Paimio chair pulled by three reindeers and they would leave Lapland with one of Aalto’s Savoy vases in their cabin luggage.”

 

 

Bus Fare – new anthology of bus writing

I’ve written about my love of buses several times on this blog – most recently when I reproduced some of the bus columns I wrote for Time Out back when I tried to take every route, end-to-end, in numerical order.

Now a new anthology of bus writing has come out featuring two of my old pieces (on the first day of the Boris Bus and on a group of retired women who took every bus in London) alongside writing by Charles Dickens, Will Self and Virginia Woolf.

Bus Fare is published by AA and edited by Travis Elborough & Joe Kerr. What’s particularly great is the way the pieces combine to tell a complete history of London buses, covering all areas from design, engineering, letter-suffixed routes, night buses, Routemasters and Green Line buses. It’s beautifully compiled, containing a variety of voices and a mix of poetry, fiction, newspaper extracts, diary entries and journalism. Lovely images too. Perfect reading for when you are stuck on the Walworth Road on the No 68 AGAIN.

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The Small Faces and Colour Me Pop

Fifty years ago, BBC2 had just switched to colour and was looking for a programme that could promote the potential of colour television. Steve Turner, a vision mixer on Hancock’s Half Hour and occasional presenter on Late Night Line Up, suggested the Beeb used pop music, and Colour Me Pop was born.  I briefly write about Colour Me Pop in this month’s Uncut as part of a wider feature looking at the Small Faces in 1968 – a story that involves acid trips at Jerome K Jerome’s house, altercations in Australia, breakdowns in Alexandra Palace, boat trips on the Thames and the recording of Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake – but thought it might be fun looking at the show in more detail.

Colour Me Pop was the first BBC2 flagship pop programme. It transformed briefly into Disco 2 before eventually becoming The Old Grey Whistle Test. Like Whistle TestColour Me Pop was focussed on music beyond the charts, with artists coming into the studio to perform 30-minute gigs of album material.

Turner produced the show on a shoestring and it only lasted 53 episodes, but Melody Maker readers declared it the best music show on the telly at the time. “I was very chuffed to beat Top Of The Pops,” says Turner, who was the show’s booker, presenter, director, editor, producer and vision mixer.

“I went round the clubs to find pop groups who could hold a half-hour programme together,” he says. “I had a budget of about £100 and three cameras.” Among those who featured were Fleetwood Mac, Spooky Tooth, The Hollies, Moody Blues, The Move, Free and Family.

The tragedy of Colour Me Pop is that very little of it is now watchable, as the Beeb were in the habit of recording over the tapes. One show that has survived in its entirety is the Small Faces performance of Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, which marks the only occasion the band reproduced their concept album on stage (albeit they are miming). Turner even got Stanley Unwin to come in and reproduced his gobbledygook narrative. As Unwin was a BBC engineer at the time, Turner didn’t have to pay him. Unwin was in make-up as the show began, and almost missed the first song.

“The first show was Manfred Mann and then we got the Small Faces,” says Turner. “I’d heard Ogdens and it told a story, and I liked that idea. The band was miming but it was a live show. Because I was on my own vision mixing I was able to switch to a different camera without having to tell anybody. I told them to enjoy themselves and they did, it really came over. It was fun, most of the shows were. The groups we got weren’t prima donnas as they were usually quite new and it was a very homely studio, so I think they treated it like a gig in a small hall.”

Part of the plan was that Turner celebrated the use of colour. For the Small Faces show this basically involved inserting a flashing psychedelic picture of a fly during the performance of “The Journey”. Turner says the amateurishness of this still makes him cringe. On later shows he used paintings by his son, or a drawing he did himself of the sun. He would listen to records carefully before filming to see where he could place these inserts, and also so he could cut to the right instrument before a solo or a dramatic moment.

Although Turner was able to introduce a pretty impressive roster of guests, he does admit a couple of acts who got away. Rod Stewart was rejected because Turner listened to a demo and thought “his voice was too squeaky”. And on another occasion, Turner went to watch Elton John at the Scotch Of St James. “I  sat next to his mother,” says Turner. “I liked him but didn’t see what I could do with it over half-an-hour.”

Wikipedia has much more about Colour Me Pop, while many of the surviving episodes are on You Tube, a little miracle itself in some ways. Here’s The Moody Blues in September 1968.

And also the magnificent Move.

Americana in Perivale

Maybe it’s just me, but Perivale is one of those London places names that always make me want to snigger. It’s also the unlikely location of one of London’s most beautiful buildings, the Hoover Factory.  The building has recently been turned into flats, which meant I got to look around it when writing a piece for the Telegraph.

I’d only ever driven past it before, so seeing it up close was a real treat. I even took some photographs. None of the interior I’m afraid but take my word for it that it’s been converted in the best possible taste.

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The premise of this piece was that the Hoover, along with several other buildings in the area, represent a brief flowering of Americana in London – that is, buildings that are billboards and look like they belong alongside a Californian freeway rather than next to A-road in suburban west London. I’m not sure whether “Americana” as a distinct architectural term even exists, but I know what I mean when I use it.

When I was at Time Out, we named the Hoover one of the Seven Wonders of London. You can tell why when you get a close-up gander of the entrance. What a beauty!

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The Hoover was built by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, who called their style “fancy factories” and admitted the influence of not just American factory architecture but also Madison Avenue advertising techniques. Their most accomplished vision was the Firestone Factory, which was infamously knocked down on August Bank Holiday weekend in 1980. As a result, Michael Heseltine hastily listed a number of other buildings from the same era, including the Hoover and Battersea Power Station.

The Firestone was a stunner. As anybody who has driven along the Great West Road knows, there are still several other amazing buildings of this type in the area – there’s surely a book to be written about this unique collection of London buildings.

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Despite all that, my favourite building in this style might be one that is outside London. The India of Inchannin building is located on the road between Glasgow and Greenock and is too cute for its own good. Read more here.

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Cruising London’s canals: the Paddington Packet

This original appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of Waterfront, the Canal & River Trust’s excellent magazine for supporters.

Canals haven’t only recently embraced the leisure industry. As early as 1801, passenger boats ran from Paddington to Cowley in Uxbridge along the newly opened Grand Junction Canal, stopping at various points between including “several Nobleman and Gentleman’s Seats, Villas and Country Residences”. The Paddington Packet boat took three hours and was pulled by four horses. For many, it was a relatively quick route into London as well as a fun day out and an illustration from 1801 shows a jolly boat party with dozens of Georgian gentlefolk carrying parasols and wearing top hats. The full journey cost 2s and passengers could bring luggage. People could also hire boats for private trips, including ones “sufficiently capacious to accommodate conveniently from One to Two Hundred Persons”.

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Boats initially ran both ways every morning and afternoon, but this changed as time went on. The service also switched from widebeams to narrowboats after six months, when it was taken over by Thomas Homer, a speculator who helped build the Regent’s Canal. Boat crews were noted for their jaunty blue uniforms with yellow capes and yellow buttons, which makes them sound a little like Bananaman, and passengers could get tea or coffee.  Following the construction of the Regent’s Canal, the service travelled as far as Camden but closed when it could no longer compete with faster coach services.

 

John Lydon in Gunter Grove

There’s still time, just about, to grab a copy of the current issue of Uncut, which features my cover story on PiL, the band Johnny Lydon formed after the Pistols. One of the first things Lydon told in our interview was about the importance of the top-floor flat he owned at 45 Gunter Grover, on the border of Fulham and Chelsea. “Gunter Grove definitely had this ominous influence,” he said. “The house shook day and night with the traffic, non-stop revving of vehicles going by. So up would go the record player and the mood would get darker and darker. We were in a constant competition with the traffic outside.”

Although it was only round the corner from the King’s Road and World’s End, where so much punk began, Gunter Grove was a rather strange place for a Finsbury Park native like Lydon to end up. There weren’t many record shops around, for a start. Lydon now describes it as “suburban, with an aspect of Tring”, and the street was certainly in something of a no man’s land between Fulham and Chelsea. For Lydon, though, it was an important retreat from the world of the Sex Pistols, where he had been treated viciously by his old band, his former manager as well as the public and press. Here he could regroup and create a new reality.

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Gunter Grove soon developed a demonic character of its own. Lydon and his bandmates and other trusted friends would spend days hanging out at Gunter Grove, listening to music, smoking, speeding and arguing endlessly. Lydon has always been provocative, and those who hung around him had no choice but to join in. “What did we argue about?” said Lydon. “Everything. We’d argue over a curry. Was the spice content right? Was there enough butter in it?”

The flat was decorated minimally, with some of Lydon’s own paintings on the walls. The most important feature was the “very serious” Japanese stereo, on which Lydon would play dub and krautrock at deafening volumes. “John’s place was the best club in London,” said guitarist Keith Levene. “We had all this dub from Jamaica that nobody had and an amazing sound system. Loads of people would come through and we’d sit around arguing.”

Levene and drummer Jim Walker eventually moved in – Lydon says Walker was given money for furniture but spent it all on a moose’s head and slept on newspapers. Bassist Jah Wobble was a regular visitor. “It was heavy,” said Wobble when we met at the Chelsea Arts Club. “John and Keith both remind me of Withnail & I, only they are both Withnail. I had a girlfriend so I could stay until it got too much and then leave. I’d say to people, ‘If you’ve got any sense you’ll fuck off home’, but they never did. They wanted to be around the scene and were scared that if they went, they’d miss out on something. It was like Waiting for Godot, that Irish thing. I’ve always been good with chaos, I start arguments, I wind people up, that didn’t bother me, but it was like Beckett, quite desolate.”

Don Letts was another regular visitor. Was it as intense as people were telling me, I asked. He said, “Intense was a fucking understatement. People would come to visit and leave broken people. Even his fucking cat was nuts. He had a cut called Satan that he trained to fetch things and even this cat was freaked out by the whole experience. It was very dark.”

And all of this mood fed into the music. Lydon told me that with PiL, he wanted the music to be scratchy, to be irritating, nerve ridden and anxiety prone – and several songs on First Edition and Metal Box will still leave you feeling a little like Satan the cat. A crucial element of that was Lydon’s vocals. “His voice was at the same tone as a whining baby,” said Wobble. “Russians used the frequency to jam American recon jets. But it was this strident rabble rouser.”

 

Throughout my interviews with the band I was interested to discover whether the social and political atmosphere of the late 1970s – National Front marches, constant strikes, IRA bombs and the Yorkshire Ripper – had fed into PiL’s sound, but time and again I was told it was all about Gunter Grove. Don Letts put it best. “They were in their own microclimate, it didn’t matter what was happening in the wider political social cultural universe, they were in a place all of their own,” he said. “And that came from the whole Gunther Grove thing, which was an alternative world. Looking back, I can see it was scary. They created their own world. They weren’t checking out other music, they weren’t into politics, PiL was in spite of all that.”

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving the canal

I wrote this piece for a recent issue of Waterfront, the Canal & River Trust’s superb magazine for canal lovers.  

In theory, it doesn’t take long to move off a canal boat. When I finally left my floating home of seven years, all I really needed was a couple of hours with some sturdy cardboard boxes and a roll of bin bags, such is the lack of storage space for anything other than the most basic of life’s essentials. But how long does it take to get over moving off a canal boat? I’ll tell you when I manage it.

I left for love, having bought a flat with my girlfriend, but also for central heating, storage space, flushing toilets and a water supply that never ran out. The decision was helped by the fact my boat was in poor condition. I’d been spending less time there, and the neglect was starting to show. I’d never been the most diligent of handyman and a boat deteriorates quickly, so by the time I moved away the boiler, fridge and cooker were condemned or unreliable. Then there was the toilet. The terrifying condition of this medieval contraption was the main reason my girlfriend wouldn’t spend much time on the canal, and helped make dry land – with its ready access to an actual sewer – seriously appealing.

There was more. Now at least I wouldn’t have to mentally filter every item I acquired – every book, CD, mug, apple or pair of socks – to decide whether I could really afford the room. I’d never wake frozen to the core having come home too late to light the fire. I’d never run out of water in the middle of a shower because I’d forgotten to refill the tank. That time when I ended up taking a shower in diesel after a can of oil leaked into my water tank would, surely, never be repeated. I’d be able to have a bath, and my mum could stop worrying about me accidentally falling in the canal when I arrived home, unsteadily, after midnight.

All this was true, and yet from the start there was much I missed. Quite simply, living on a boat never gets boring and it was never something to take for granted. I had never grown tired of returning each evening and unlocking the mysterious gate in an unremarkable wall that allowed me to descend from noisy street to the secluded world of the towpath. I felt privileged to be part of this secret universe, populated by fascinating people. It wasn’t just about seeming cool – although that had something do with it. Boat life really is interesting, both as a concept and as a way of life. These were the rewards you got for the discomfort.

It could also be exhausting and at first, I revelled in the luxurious space of my tiny flat but even this proved illusionary. A good boat has excellent storage but also genuine, unbreachable limitations on what you can accumulate; flats and houses have no real limits, you can continue stacking stuff almost indefinitely in corners and under beds and sofas until you are so suffocated by physical objects you find yourself desperate to move. On a boat, you cannot hoard. It was an excellent discipline that in some ways I retain – I don’t keep newspapers or magazines, for instance, and am always getting in trouble for instinctively throwing away any letter or piece of paper that seems to have been abandoned in the same place for too long.

I didn’t return to the canal for several years after leaving my boat – canals being easy to avoid unless you go out of your way to find one. When I did go back, I was struck by a disorientating sense of saudade, a nostalgic melancholy for what has passed. As I wandered down the once familiar towpath, noting old boats in new moorings, new boats in old moorings and the excellent paint job on my former home, I realised how much I missed the chaotic camaraderie of boat life. We lived on top of each other in a way that was as close to communal living as you can get outside of student digs. In my flat, by contrast, I took the stairs rather than get stuck with a stranger in the lift.

Even now, years later, there are times I miss the canal most painfully. The pang can be triggered by the slightest thing – the smell of coal smoke on crisp winter evenings, the sight of a perfect blue sky in August, the sound of hard rain late at night. It comes back most powerfully every time I step aboard a boat. There is that initial give and roll, the subtle shift of weight that comes every time you leave dry land, and then the short descent into the comforting darkened corridor of a cabin with its warm smell of water, smoke and diesel. One day, I think, one day I will come home.