Tag Archives: punk

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.

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Paul Weller in Uncut

I’ve written the cover story for the latest issue of Uncut about a couple of days I spent in San Francisco with Paul Weller in October.

I enjoyed the incongruous location – Weller was staying in the Japanese district and played a country music festival at Golden Gate Park and a show at hippie landmark Fillmore West – as well as the chance to spend time backstage with Weller and his band unaccompanied by any label management or press officer.

Weller discussed his forthcoming projects, including an avant-garde film soundtrack he’s composed, and also reminisced about early tours of America with The Jam. On one occasion, he said, the band were asked to celebrate their London credentials by posing outside an English pub in Santa Monica with a double decker bus.

The_Jam_bus

I also got the chance to explore San Francisco – where I discovered ghost signs, parrots, a punk-themed restaurant called The Brixton, coyote warnings and a complete absence of cranes, billboards, pneumatic drills and the general intensive building work that blights daily life for so many Londoners.

 

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.

Punk at the Hayward: curate and destroy

Does any music form have as curatorial approach to its own history as punk? In many ways that is understandable, as the graphic art that came out of the punk movement is as interesting as most of the music, while many of the scene’s key movers always saw themselves as part of a cultural avant-garde that went back to the Symbolists and still wish to emphasise that. One of the most prominent of these voices is Jon Savage, and he has co-curated an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on punk called Someday All The Adults Will Die.

Despite punk now being nearly 40 years old and having been curated like a dead horse for several decades, it still has a visceral and visual appeal to many – and not necessarily the people you may expect. When I visited the gallery, most of my fellow visitors appeared to be in their 20s: this was clearly not simply an excuse for a nostalgic wander back through adolescence by men suffering a mid-life crisis. The kids dug it.

It’s a wide-ranging exhibition, with sections devoted to seven-inches, cassettes, posters, flyers and fanzines, including Savage’s own London’s Outrage.

My favourite stuff tended to be the less predictable such as pre-punk items involving the Diggers, who co-existed awkwardly with the hippies in San Francisco in 1966 and 1967, as these mimeographs demonstrate.

There was also items reflecting Savage’s fascination with Situationism, including this King Mob poster. Malcolm McLaren was loosely affiliated to King Mob.

I also liked the items relating to Suburban Press, the witty and brilliant pre-punk/Situationist publishing house created by Jamie Reid.

And, finally, I loved the handful of contemporary examples demonstrating how the mainstream tried to cash-in on punk with things like a punk-themed horoscope magazine and punk pulp fiction. Such money-grabbing tactics, it must be noted, have since been refined somewhat…

Someday All The Adults Will Die is at the Hayward until November 4.

Secret London: dealing with the counterculture at Maggs

This article originally appeared in Dazed And Confused magazine in February 2012.

Maggs Bros Ltd rare bookshop is an unlikely place to encounter the counterculture. For a start, it’s located on one of London’s poshest squares in Mayfair, the heart of the establishment, and even boasts a Royal warrant just inside the front door. Inside No 50 Berkeley Square – an imposing Georgian terrace once described as ‘the most haunted house in London’ – earnest young men in expensive suits sit at desks covered in large old brown books, which they flog to largely millionaire collectors that occasionally step through the front door.

But round the back, a different world awaits. Carl Williams works in an office converted from the stable block, in a room that is full of wonders. Come here at the right time and you will find boxes full of punk fanzines sitting on chairs draped with Republican flags from Spanish Civil War. Ask Williams nicely and he may show you brooches made by junkie poet Alexander Trocchi from used heroin needles, a complete set of ‘Anti-Monopoly’ board games or a pamphlet drawn by Latvian anarchist Peter the Painter, the shadowy figure behind the Sidney Street Siege of 1911. This recent catalogue will give you an idea of the material. 

Aleister Crowley

Williams, a fast-talking Yorkshireman , is one of the few booksellers who deals in items related to the counterculture, a nebulous term which covers politics, the occult, avant-garde art, film and literature, drug culture, rock and roll and alternative lifestyles. The interesting stuff, in other words. ‘There’s no guide to the counterculture,’ says Williams. ‘It’s not doctrinal. It’s whether something has the right feel, the way it looks, where it came from. It’s folk art, it’s the Watts Towers, it’s Austin Osman Spare, it’s Aleister Crowley. It’s not like Marxism where everybody knows the key texts. There are things in the counterculture that are still being discovered. There are things lost in libraries that will take it in a completely new direction.’ And it isn’t just books: Williams deals in paintings, posters, games, clothes and records. The only requirements are that Williams can locate it somewhere within his own concept of the counterculture, and that he can sell it. He also puts on occasional shows in the gallery beneath his office, such as the recent Lost Rivers exhibition.

Williams was born in 1967 – ‘the autumn of love’ – in Scarborough. Despite failing his O-Levels, he went to the LSE to read sociology, where he discovered the library and ‘read indiscriminately’. In 1997, after a decade of odd jobs and working in book shops, Williams returned to the LSE to do a Masters just as the library was selling off its old stock during a refurbishment. Almost by accident, Williams became a ‘runner’, a pejorative term that describes something which, in essence, all book dealers do. ‘Running is a pre-internet term, now it’s much more transparent, but it means taking a book quickly from one dealer or auction house, to another dealer or collector and selling it for more money than you paid,’ says Williams. ‘The idea is that you get it from A to B without B finding out how much you paid A.’

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With the LSE library at his disposal, Williams was blessed with early success. ‘I was able to sell all these political economy and philosophy books,’ he says. ‘But although I knew the books I didn’t really know what they were worth. I realised this when I took one dealer the first Western European edition of the Koran, and walked out with £500 when it must have been worth thousands.’

As the stock from the LSE ran out, Williams began frequenting other dealers and auction houses to find sellable books. In February 1999, he wandered into Bloomsbury Book Auctions, where he picked up a book from 1864 called The Pure Logic Of Quality by William Stanley Jevons. ‘Jevons thought this book would revolutionise how we understood logic, but he only sold six copies,’ says Williams. ‘I’d never seen one outside a library. I took it to a dealer, Pickering and Chatto, and a man called Jolyon Hudson asked if he could keep it for a day or two.’

Hudson recognised the book had been stolen from the London Library. The police were notified and Williams’s discovery unravelled what the Guardian described as ‘the most systematic plundering of Britain’s great libraries ever carried out by an individual’. William Simon Jacques, a dealer, had stolen books worth more than £1 million. He was eventually sentenced to four years in prison. (Jay Rayner covered the story here.)

‘I was devastated,’ says Williams, ‘because I thought I’d tried to sell a stolen book, but it turned out to be a blessing because Hudson told the Guardian that I had behaved impeccably and that gave me an entry into the higher levels of the trade.’

Williams began working at Maggs Bros, selling books on the internet and looking after the catalogue. ‘I got to know the customers. There was one guy who had been coming in for 20 years. He’d usually walk out with a travel book, but one day they asked this guy what he actually wanted and he said he wanted books on drugs.’

The man was Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a Colombian billionaire, and Williams sold him a painting made by a Mexican artist after he had been injected in the neck with LSD. Santo Domingo was in the process of putting together one of the great private collections of drug books and paraphernalia, a stunning selection of material that ranges from ancient books about Chinese opium smoking to a bicycle that belonged to Syd Barrett. ‘I worked for Julio [who died in 2009] for three years,’ says Williams. ‘His collection is one of the great untold stories of the 21st century. It’s not just drugs, it’s sex, rock and roll, the occult, erotica and art. And it’s not just books. It’s everything.’

Santo Domingo had a remarkably open concept of what to collect, not just concentrating on the old and valuable but hovering up anything with drug connections. ‘Somewhere in it is a McDonalds coffee stirrer from the 1970s,’ says Williams. ‘It looked like a coke spoon, just in plastic rather than silver. There were press rumours that it was the hillbilly coke spoon and so McDonalds discontinued the range, but I found an original. What do you do with that? Sotheby’s don’t want it, Christie’s don’t want it. But it’s gold. So that’s what I do.’

McDonald's coffee stirrer

Williams operates in a rarefied world, selling unusual and arcane items to billionaires and academic institutions. Some are interested in the subject, others are professional collectors, and still more are collectors who collect other people’s collections, as investments and for the pleasure of ownership. ‘It’s a very small world of dealers and a very large world of buyers, who work on the basis that they should buy now when it is relatively cheap and is all still out there,’ says Williams. ‘And some of it is cheap. The 1960s stuff isn’t because it is more mainstream and the top Beat stuff is far too expensive, although I’ll still buy manuscripts.’

New items are acquired from auctions and the internet, book fares, private sellers and other dealers. A recent haul brought in the first issue of Heat Wave, a British Situationist International magazine written in 1966, which nobody has seen outside the British Library for decades. There’s a file full of items William Burroughs collected during his short-lived immersion in the Church of Scientology. There are four skeletal marionettes that used to live in an amusement arcade in Hastings. There are posters of Black Panther Bobby Seale, complete collections of short-lived No Wave fanzines, cloth bags designed by Yoko Ono and the programme from Michael Clark and The Fall’s collaboration on the ballet ‘I Am Curious Orange’, which took place at Sadler’s Wells in 1988. And there are books, loads of them, by Richard Neville and BS Johnson and Gregory Corso and Timothy Leary. Some of this stuff is hard to sell, partly because it’s difficult to know how much it is worth – ‘there simply isn’t a precedent for some of these things, so you’ve nothing to compare it with.’

 

Williams found his niche with a little help from Edward Maggs, the man who inherited the family firm. ‘There might have been something brewing in Ed’s mind that we needed to cover this demographic,’ says Williams. ‘It really began when I started cataloguing all this proto-counterculture American Beat stuff from the 50s and it did really well, I sold about 80% of it. I designed a catalogue based on Ginsberg’s Howl, the same size and typeface. It did well, people liked it and I realised I had the right skills for the subject.’

And what are those skills? Williams pauses. ‘It’s judo,’ he says. ‘I have one real ability. I can pick up a book, look at the front, open it, look at the back and I can usually understand what that book is about, condense it, understand where it came from and put a price on it before I’ve put it down. That’s not a talent many people have. It’s like judo, you’re fighting an opponent who is much bigger than you but you don’t need take on the whole thing at one time if you are going to defeat it. It’s an intellectual work-out every day. I have to explain each item, do the research, understand its value, and then I try and sell it.’

Unstable at Maggs Bros Gallery is on until June 8, 2012.

Blank Generation: original punk posters in South London

In 1977, Gary Loveridge spotted a Damned poster that he liked the look of hanging on the wall at his local record shop in Weston Super Mare. He decided to take it. ‘It was on the wall of the listening booth. I took it off the wall, rolled it up and stuck it under my jumper. I walked out, looking very suspicious. They probably knew exactly what was going on.’

And so it began. Loveridge, a landscape gardener, now has around 250 original music posters, and 100 devoted to punk are on display until March 8 at the 198 Gallery  on Railton Road. Not all were collected in quite the clandestine way of the first, but they are all original and numerous bands are featured, including the Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Lurkers, Buzzcocks, TV Personalities, Mekons, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, PiL and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

The Damned poster that got it all started

‘This is the first time I’ve seen them all on the wall together in one place,’ says Loveridge. ‘At home they are all in tubes, some on the walls but I haven’t enough room to put them all up.’

The posters were largely used to promote LPs and singles in record shops, although there are some from bus stops and concert venues. Most such posters will have been thrown out by the stores, making such a large collection quite unusual. Loveridge collected many on his way from gigs in Bristol, and then later added to his collection at markets and record fairs.

The exhibition takes in two rooms and also features part of Loveridge’s collection of badges, flyers, fanzines and other ephemera, some of which – such as the flyers for the Sex Pistols banned tour – are much sought after. Also on display is a framed advert from 1977, cut out from a local paper, promoting a gig by a mysterious band called The Spots. Now who could they be?

Punk was an incredibly visual movement, as one would expect from something inspired by glam and Situationism and created in art schools and clothes shops, so these posters are eye-catching and iconic.  A small selection are reproduced below, but the real thrill is seeing them collectively and close-up; many have pulled from walls and windows so have an authentically battered look, while the accumulation of colour and striking design is a treat for the eye. But you’ve only got six weeks, so hurry.

Blank Generation: A Collection of Original Punk Posters, 198 Gallery, 198 Railton Road, SE24 0JT. Until March 8, 2012

Spiral Scratch by Buzzcocks

Pretty Vacant by Sex Pistols

The Clash at Brixton Academy

The Mekons at North Staffs Poly

The Pop Group and Alternative TV

Blondie poster rejected by band as it featured only Debbie Harry

Elvis Costello

Sandinista by The Clash

The Only Ones

Siouxsie And The Banshees (with Human League third on bill)

London Calling by The Clash ('two for a fiver!')

Sex Pistols - used to introduce the band to the United States

Ian Dury

Sex Pistols

The Jam

Badges and flyers

Never Mind The Bollocks beer and fanzines

Sex Pistols flyer from SPOTS tour

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.