Tag Archives: Earl’s Court

Earls Court and the death of fun in London

“In London, it seems everything that’s not a shop, offices or luxury apartments is being demolished,” sighed artist Duggie Fields when I interviewed him last month for a piece in Uncut about the imminent demolition of Earls Court Exhibition Centre. It’s a quote that, in a nutshell, seems to encapsulate all that is going wrong with London right now.

“There is so much damaged being done to London all over, Earl’s Court is just part of it,” says Fields. “London is losing a scale of living that has been very special for a long time. Now we have this mini high rises that could be from anywhere, they are characterless and there are so many of them.”

Earls Court will be pulled down early next year and replaced by houses, ending the area’s 120-year history as a place of fun. This history is well known to London nerds, but is worth repeating. The former cabbage field of Earls Court was transformed into a funzone by Yorkhire entrepreneur John Whitely at the end of the 1880s, when he brought Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to the newly transformed exhibition site, hemmed in between railway lines. It featured a miniature Rocky Mountains, Native American village, corrals and a cowboy bunkhouse. “The show was a revelation,” write Felix Barker and Peter Jackson in Pleasures Of London. A few years later, the site attracted London’s first big wheel – a 300ft monster called the Gigantic Wheel.

When that lost its thrill, new entertainments were sought – including plans for a mechanical racecourse. Numerous exhibitions were also held there – including Captain Boynton’s Water Show in 1893, the Greater Britain Exhibition, in 1899 and Shakespeare’s England in 1912. Then in 1937 the Exhibition Centre was built. It opened with a Chocolate and Confectionery Exhibition and went on hold swimming galas, motor shows, the Royal Tournament and events for the 1948 and 2012 Olympics.  It’s a decent looking building, too, well worth saving for its lovely Art Deco curve and revolutionary concrete engineering. So many magnificent buildings from this era are being lost.

Less, pleasantly, in 1939 it hosted a gargantuan meeting of Oswald Mosley’s fascist blackshirts.

From the 1970s, Earls Court also began to host pop shows. David Bowie was first to play there, although Noddy Holder of Slade claims they were the first to book it and then managed to improve the sound after Bowie flopped. Concerts by Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd followed. I saw Oasis there, unfortunately, and also the BRIT awards in 2000, when I threw a champagne cork at Christine Hamilton.

Slade fans at Earls Court

And now it’s to come down, replaced by 8,000 houses and some shops.

Duggie Fields has lived in Earls Court since the 1960s. You may recognise his flat – and former flatmate.

He points out that the removal of the Exhibition Centre will, at a stroke, remove any point or purpose to the Earls Court area. “It has nothing for people to come to,” he says. “Just boring anonymous shops and lots of traffic. All we’ll get is more chainstores because there’s no neighbourhood, there’s no locals. You can’t create villages, they grow over a long period of time.” He also fears for the pubs and restaurants that rely on the Exhibition Centre, which has still been functioning almost round the clock despite impending doom, for their custom.

He’s right. Earls Court is, even with the Exhibition Centre, one of the most boring areas of London. Without it, it’s pretty much irrelevant. But there’s a problem here too. London needs housing, desperately. Surely these 8,000 or so units will help?

It seems unlikely. The new apartments will – like those in the big new developments and Nine Elms – be aimed at the pockets of investors and speculators, people with deep pockets who have taken advantage of stagnant interest rates to buy up property and then charge eye-watering rents for them. It’s hard to blame them, as economic policy seems designed purely to over inflate London’s property market, but the damage is considerable. Because not only are they building identikit apartments in areas nobody that actually needs housing can afford, they are in the process annihilating anything that could be seen as fun – pubmusic venues, sports grounds as well as historic structures like Earls Court. It’s a depressing, dismal outcome that offers the worst of all possible worlds.

It’s also entirely typical of the current state of London: could you possibly imagine a scheme as imaginative and as exciting and beneficial for the public as the conversion of Tate Modern happening today? Not a chance. It would be flattened and replaced by luxury glass apartments. What do we get instead? A bloody Garden Bridge, stupid cable car and shopping centres. Thank god at least the Olympic site has been safeguarded – for now.

“There’s nothing to build on the heritage they’re throwing away,” says Fields of Earls Court. “It’s been an exhibition site for over 100 years. London is tossing that out with as many other things as it can toss out under this current administration.”

Slade in London

I have a piece in the latest Uncut magazine about Slade, the glam rock bovver boys who became the most successful British group of the 1970s.

Slade were proud Black Country band – all raised in and around Wolverhampton and Walsall – and they never really took to life in  London, something that may have explained why it took them so long to break through. As Don Powell, the drummer, told me, ‘We didn’t really feel comfortable in the London scene when we could just be in the pub with our mates in Wolverhampton.’ Even today, all four remain wonderfully faithful to their roots and have the flattest vowels of any band I have ever interviewed.

But London still had an impact on their career. In 1966, beanpole producer Kim Fowley spotted the band – then called the N’Betweens – playing Tiles nightclub in Oxford Street and promptly hustled them into the recording studio. This was the result.

Tiles was a Mod club. John Peel played there once but his hippie tunes didn’t go down too well with the audience and he recalled: ‘It was certainly not the kind of place where they wanted to hear what I was doing. And there were waves of irate customers coming up over the footlights to try and persuade me to play whatever it was they wanted me to play. Which certainly wasn’t the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish or whatever I was playing. They didn’t like me at all.’

This terrific Pathe newsreel shows The Animals playing at Tiles, and it was ex-Animal Chas Chandler who gave Slade their next big break after he saw them performing at Rasputins on Bond Street. Noddy Holder told me, ‘Chas wanted to see us live. So we were booked to play a tiny place called Rasputins in Bond Street and we played our usual set there. People stopped dancing to watch us, which didn’t really happen at the time, and as Chas came down the stairs he said we were that good he thought it was a record being played. He thought it was fantastic and signed us the next day, no second thoughts. We started working a lot of London clubs and bigger venues around the country.’

Thereafter, Slade became regulars on the London circuit, and were the first band to book Earl’s Court (Bowie played a show before them, but had booked it after Slade). While Bowie’s show was plagued by sound problems, Slade were able t learn from his mistakes and their concert was deemed a great success.

Their favourite venue was probably the Top of the Pops studio in Elstree, where their rabble-rousing songs and remarkable outfits meant they practically became the house band.

Sadly, though, two of their greatest London moments have been lost forever. As one fan writes here, the band recorded two promo videos for Top of the Pops, one at Chessington Zoo for “Look Wot You Dun” and another at Greenwich Observatory for “Gudbuy T’Jane”. Both films have been wiped and seem to  be lost, among with many other studio Top of the Pops appearances.

Finally, here’s the band just before they made it. Still known as Ambrose Slade, this promo for their first album was filmed in Euston Station. The band had recently come out of their skinhead phase, and are nothing like the colourful eccentrics they would soon become.