Tag Archives: John Lennon

A Monkee in London: Alf Garnett, John Lennon, Princess Margaret and Balham

I have a feature on the Monkees in the current issue of Uncut.

It’s the second time I’ve spoken to Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, having interviewed them both – plus the late Davy Jones – five years ago to discuss the recording of “Randy Scouse Git”. This time I also spoke to Mike Nesmith.

“Randy Scouse Git” was a song inspired by London. Dolenz wrote it in a London hotel, riffing on a line from Alf Garnett. He told me in 2011:

“We were in London doing press and the Beatles threw us a big party. We were staying at the Grosvenor. Mike and I had turned up on Top of the Pops to surprised everybody by saying hello and they’d smuggled us in in the boot of a car. That’s where I met my first wife Samantha who was a Top Of The Pops DJ, the record girl. It was an amazing experience. I am told I had a great time. I met Samantha and we had a massive love affair. Brian Jones hid in one of our rooms when he was hiding from police and then we got a letter from Princess Margaret asking if we could keep the fans quiet as it  was disturbing her sleep.

The next morning there were a few people hanging around, Mama Cass was in town, and I’d met this girl and I just started doodling with the guitar and singing about Samantha and my friend in the room and the waiter who came in with breakfast and the girls outside screaming. It was like a diary, word association. There’s no deep hidden meaning.

‘The being known as wondergirl’ was Samantha and the ‘wonderful lady’ at the start was Mama Cass. I must have been watching Till Death Us Do Part on TV. Alf Garnett called the kid (Tony Booth, Tony Blair’s future father-in-law) a ‘randy Scouse git’. I had no idea what it meant, but I thought it was funny so I wrote it down.”

Dolenz also talked about visiting The Beatles at Abbey Road.

“I’d gone to a Sgt Pepper session at Abbey Road in my paisley bell-bottoms and tie-dyed shirt and hair in beads and giant sunglasses. I looked like a cross between Ronald McDonald and Charlie Manson. I was expecting a wild, psychedelic funfest freak-out happening, but it was more like a high school gymnasium with four guys in jeans and t-shirts sitting on folding chairs and playing. I must have looked such an idiot. John Lennon said, ‘Hey monkey man, do you want to hear what we’re doing?’ and in the booth is George Martin in a three-piece suit and he presses the button and played “Good Morning, Good Morning.”

Dolenz is something of an Anglophile. His first two wives were British and he lived in London for many years, in Tooting Bec. While working as a TV producer in the UK, he directed this 1979 take on the classic 1950s Denis Norden/Frank Muir sketch, “Balham – Gateway To The South“.

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Norman Mailer and Christine Keeler’s bra

Jay Landesman was an American writer and eccentric entrepreneur who arrived in London in the mid-1960s and immediately flung himself headfirst into the emerging counterculture scene, largely because the first person he met when he arrived here was Peter Cook. Landesman later became best known as the male half of a famously open marriage, much to the shame of his son Cosmo, who gained revenge by marrying Julie Burchill. (‘She hated hippies, ex-hippies, food freaks, open marriages and old people,’ wrote Jay, ‘The only thing she liked about us, was that we were Jewish.’)

In his entertaining 1992 memoir Jaywalking, Landesman’s non-ideological dalliances on the fringes of the London scene make great reading, with walk-on roles for the likes of John Lennon (‘He was uptight about Wendy Cook’s insistence he sample her salade Nicoise, a dish he was highly suspicious of and couldn’t pronounce’), Tom Driberg (‘He took us to a pub whose entire clientele consisted of lesbians, transvestites, young Danish sailors, ageing pederasts and an assortment of amputees’) and Germaine Greer (‘I watched her challenge Jimi Hendrix to an arm-wrestling match, and win’). Although it’s never entirely clear what he did – bar run the disastrous UFO rip-off the Electric Garden for a couple of minutes – Landesman was clearly good company with a penchant for meeting interesting people, and at some point was asked by The Sunday Times to write about the art of giving a party. His ideal guest list is worth repeating in full:

Minimum of three potential celebrities; at least one real celebrity (any field); a foolish couple; a serious couple (straight feed for comics); an engineer or non-speaking Czech (to point out); six swinging teenagers (girls); a bitchy girl who can generate masochism in men; a gym instructress who drinks too much; an older woman who sits and smiles (who is she?); a rune beauty (who was she?); Christine Keeler; no fat people unless Peter Ustinov; nobody jet or Court Circular; no dogs; no Peter Hall, Jonathan Miller, David Frost (or equivalents); no crew cuts; a swinging accountant; a buff (a jazz-hair or gambling buff); two attractive lesbians (to get wrong); one international drug trafficker (to point out); a beautiful flawed couple; a gay MP; Tariq Ali (not Christopher Logue); an Irish showbusiness GP; a titled person (to show you’re not snobbish); no artists’ agents, editors or publishers; no children or headshrinkers (except RD Laing); an eccentric lawyer or priest (no respecters of confessionals); an articulate tradesman (electrician, cabinet maker, house painter, bank manager); a forgotten culture hero; a reliable loudmouth who’ll come early and leave early; the ex-wife of a world celebrity; a pop singer no one recognises; a girl with buck teeth, a corrective shoe, or both; an established figure who decides that night to drop out…

Landesman was fond of Christine Keeler. He met her soon after arriving in London at the Kismet, a Soho drinking club, and the pair became friends. He also knew Norman Mailer from the mid-1950s, Mailer having interviewed Landesman while researching his pioneering essay on hipsterdom, The White Negro. In London, Landesman had an opportunity to bring the two together.

The cause was Mailer’s decision to challenge for the Democrat candidacy as Mayor of New York under the slogan ‘Vote The Rascals In’. The sizeable US expat community in London – there were frequent baseball games in Hyde Park featuring the likes of Tony Curtis, Marlon Brando, John Cassavetes and Charles Bronson with Phil Silvers as umpire – decided to hold a fundraising event.

The Friends of Norman Mailer Committee was founded by charismatic rogue Harvey Matusow, and he put on a celebrity auction, featuring myriad bizarre offerings from Yoko Ono like ‘Dirt From Central Park’, ‘Air over Greenwich Village’, ‘Vial of Genuine New York Tears’ and ‘Jar of Captured Cloud Formations over the Bronx’ as well as bottles of Robert Lowell’s sweat and a slice of raw liver from Philip Roth’s fridge. The star exhibit, however, was supplied by Landesman: Christine Keeler’s bra.

Bidding began at £100. There were no takers. The auctioneer tried again, at £50. Nobody moved. Next he tried £10 for this ‘psychosexually historical’ item, but the opening bid was a measly 10 shillings. Landesman tried to get the bidding going and raised his own hand, but nobody followed suit and he ended up winning the item back for a mere 10s 6d. Later, he discovered it wasn’t even Keeler’s. ‘Christine doesn’t wear a bra,’ a mutual friend confessed, ‘But the deception was justified in a good cause.’ The mayoral election was just as successful – Mailer came fourth, in a field of five.

Hippy-dilly: squatting and the London Street Commune at 144 Piccadilly

Tonight, Radio 4 will broadcast a show on squatting, called ‘From Frestonia To Belgravia‘.

Squatting as a 20th-century phenomena originated in the wake of the acute housing shortage after the Second World War. Homeless families began to occupy empty mansion blocks and hotels, including Duchess of Bedford House in Kensington.

Squatters move into Duchess of Bedford House

Some of the squatters of the 1960s took this as their inspiration. Among the most political were the London Street Commune, a group of self-declared space cadets from the streets who were turned into a minor political weapon by a Spart called Phil Cohen, aka Dr John, who had previously been involved with the British Situationist International group, King Mob. The LSC became loosely involved in the counterculture scene and even at one point managed to occupy the offices of the underground newspaper, International Times, believing it was ‘bourgeois’ and needed to be ‘liberated’. They gave up after a few days when they realised they didn’t really understand how to put a newspaper together.

The London Street Commune’s most conspicuous act came when they squatted a vast Park Lane mansion, 144 Piccadilly, at Hyde Park Corner in September 1969. This gained them massive media attention, and the building quickly came to be dubbed ‘Hippy-Dilly’ and attracted vast crowds of largely hostile onlookers. The LSC responded by barricading the front door and creating a ‘drawbridge’ out of wood from one of the ground-floor windows, and asking the Hell’s Angels to protect them.

Around 100 people were said to be living in the building, among them the odd journalist who infiltrated the squat so they could produce salacious copy about the drug-taking ne’er-do-wells. After surviving an attempt by skinheads to ‘take’ the mansion – the LSC threw carpet bowls and balloons filled with ink at the approaching skins – the police decided to take action.

The police moved in on September 21, leading to in the words of the Daily Mirror, ‘The Fall of the Hippy Castle‘. This took place the day after a free festival at Hyde Park, which many of the LSC had attended. The squat was now filled with numerous disparate groups, including Hell’s Angels and French veterans of May 1968, alongside the original Dilly drop-outs, but they were quickly moved out by police, who arrested around 70 of the squatters.

While John Lennon went on TV to offer the displaced squatters a home in the shape of an island off Scotland, the high-profile eviction was greeted with delight by the media. The Times demanded the squatting be made illegal and that hippies be arrested under the vagrancy act. This remarkable Pathe newsreel – with talk of ‘scroungers and drop-outs… snubbing the conventions of decent society… doing the real homeless a disservice’ – demonstrates the prevailing attitude. It is difficult to conceive of broadcast media speaking in such terms today.

In 1972, American film director Sam Fuller wrote a pulp novel about 144 Piccadilly, but the building itself was not to last much longer. It was knocked down in the 1970s and replaced by the ghastly Intercontinental Hotel.