Tag Archives: Joe Strummer

Pirate radio in London: The Clash, Keith Allen and biscuits

There’s currently a small exhibition at the ICA looking at the history of London’s pirate radio. The Guardian recently ran a great photogallery on the subject.

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Not coincidentally, I’ve been reading a new book on pirate radio, London’s Pirate Pioneers by Stephen Hebditch, who formerly edited a magazine dedicated to pirate radio. It’s a great book, crammed with detail and utterly absorbing.

My knowledge of pirate radio was restricted to the 1960s offshore stations, and then the 1980s dance stations. I knew about the latter because I sometimes stumbled upon them while retuning from Capital Gold to LBC in search of football results. There would be a javelin of static, a man shouting, booming bass and a general feeling of chaos. I also diligently watched Lenny Henry, so knew all about the illegal broadcasting activities of Delbert Wilkins, who ran the a pirate radio show in Brixton.

Hebditch’s book mentions Henry, who was a supporter of probably London’s most famous pirate, Kiss FM, which like many others broadcast using transmitters stuck above shops on Westow Hill in Crystal Palace. But he also talks in detail about aspects of pirate radio that are much less well known. The book looks at developments in the pirate scene year-by-year from the 1960s, starting with a general overview taking in major shifts in technology, approach, licensing laws and law enforcement, followed by a longer look at a couple of  the year’s most important stations, and then a round-up of all the other stations that broadcast that year – some of them only surviving a week.

The detail is astonishing and what really fascinated me was the range of stations that existed. Many were playing jazz, dub, soul, funk and reggae – and the story of the way Black Londoners embraced pirate radio in the 1980s is an important one. Hundreds were later playing dance music, but there was also stations for heavy metal, classic rock, pop, and rock and roll as well as for local community groups: Poles, Greeks and South Indians all had stations. There was even said to be a far-right station, Radio Enoch, broadcasting in the Midlands, which was shut down after members from one London rock station went to pay a visit.

From these stations came numerous DJs we know today – Tim Westwood, Gilles Peterson, Annie Nightingale, Pete Tong, Judge Jules and Steve Lamacq – but also a hint of the variety of music and programming that the radiowaves could support. Many paid their costs by charging advertisers; some even charged the DJs for the right to present.

A station like Phoenix (1981-1985) would play early indie – Ellery Bop, Nightingales, Inflatable Boy Clams – mixed with “dub, jazz, industrial and African”, with guest presenters like Robert Wyatt and The Monochrome Set. Similar was Network 21, that played alternative rock and dance, while also covering news, cinema listings, concerts, plays and exhibitions.

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Then there’s Radio Concord, which grew out of the west London squatting scene between 1972 and 1976, sometimes broadcasting from the house in Maida Vale where Joe Strummer lived with the 101ers. This was a politicised counterculture station, and would comment on issues like Northern Ireland and housing rights. “They have even been critical of the Queen,” the Daily Mail reported. One time, they were busted while broadcasting so stuck  a mike through the letterbox to try and interview the law live on air.

Then there was Radio Amanda, that lasted from 1982-1984 playing a pre-Resonance diet of space rock and electronic music. At roughly the same time, there was Our Radio, a station started by anarchists that had shows devoted to feminists, gay groups and Brixton-based anarchists. It had few listeners but the police hated it: in one court case it was described as an “anarchist, terrorist, homosexual” radio station.

Radio Wapping broadcasting briefly in 1986 to support the printworkers striking after News International’s move to Wapping. And in 1983, comedian Keith Allen launched Breakfast Pirate Radio, which was broadcast “using helium-filled balloons over Notting Hill” (ahem) and featured “comic-characters, malicious celebrity gossip, radio outtakes and the names of supposedly bent coppers.” Robbie Coltrane also featured and you can listen to it here.

Best of all, though, was a station called The Home Of Good Baking which broadcast for a few weeks in 1989 using a jingle from United Biscuit Network, the 1970s in-house radio station at United Biscuits in Hayes.

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The Clash in Soho

The Clash have opened a, wait for it, pop-up shop in Soho to promote the release of their new box set. It’s only open for a couple of weeks, and I happened to be in the West End yesterday so paid a quick visit, joining a crowd made up entirely, and unsurprisingly, of middle-aged men.

I wasn’t actually expecting a great deal, but was pleasantly surprised by what I found. While the upstairs is essentially a Clash mini-mart, flogging copies of the band’s albums as well as the Sound System box, the downstairs is more like a mini-museum of Clash memorabilia, featuring the iconic alongside pleasing ephemera.

So while the biggest draw was the buggered bass guitar that Paul Simonon is seen smashing on the cover of London Calling

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… I rather preferred witty juxtapositions like this, which places a punk-referencing pizza box alongside a Vince Taylor LP.

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A long cabinet acts like a timeline of the band’s history, crammed with ephemera relating to the band personally and politically, but also to the musical and literary influences they were absorbing along the way. So the section around the time of, say, Sandinista!, is full of South American political paraphernalia, lyric sheets and cassettes of the music they were discovering, while further along, at the time of Combat Rock, it’s all about cowboys and indians, and the US military. It was a bit like the Bowie V&A show in miniature with a better developed sense of humour, and ably demonstrated that the three-dimensional, technicolor world of rock and roll offers huge potential for entertaining and informative exhibitions when handled with the right blend of respect and irreverence. One day, one hopes, somebody will do a Beatles exhibition that works along similar lines.

Other items of interest included the Clash’s map of the world, Paul Simonon’s certificate of appreciation from the Guardian Angels, the hand-written lyrics to “Guns Of Brixton” and an old beat box, with rather touching home-made cassettes. Everything is offered entirely without explanation, which is part of the fun. Check it out.

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Black Market Clash, 75 Berwick Street, W1. Open until September 22.

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.