Tag Archives: Roundhouse

Syd, psychedelia, If…. and the Olympics: an interview with Kevin Whitney

I have a piece in the current issue of Uncut about Psychedelia,  a film made in 1969 and featuring Syd Barrett. The film has been sitting underneath Kevin Whitney’s bed for 40 years, but will be shown in June 2014 at the ICA ahead of its sale. Whitney was on the fringes of the psychedelic movement in the late-1960s and later became the first official artist of the Olympic movement. ‘In my work there are still hints of psychedelic imagery,’ he tells me. ‘But using beautiful athletes instead of mad freaks.’ 

Psychedelia can be seen at Room&Book: ICA Art Book Fair, ICA, 6-8 June. 

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‘I was at art school until 1970 and during I was making the film. I was inspired by psychedelic light shows, which I’d screen on the front of Chelsea Art School  at underground pop shows at the Roundhouse. Chelsea Art School was a modern building off the Kings Road. It was the only building built in the 20th century to be used as an art school. It’s now a hotel. It was very anarchic. Art is now geared towards corporate success and Saatchi but then that sort of thing was frowned upon, you weren’t supposed to make any money out of it. You did conceptual things, it was against the system. Now it’s the opposite and has no balls. We were very privileged to be around then. We took art into the streets.

Chelsea Art School on Manresa Road, built in 1963

Previously, I’d been at art school in Ipswich with Brian Eno. We smoked our first joint together at Christchurch Park in Ipswich. We did a thing where about 12 of us would get on a bus and we’d have these sheets of Perspex the size of a newspaper. We cut out the title of the paper and glued it to the Perspex and then sit next to people on the bus pretending to read the stories from this empty sheet of Perspex. Everybody thought we were bonkers.

UFO Club flyer

I never did light shows at the UFO Club. I went there but they had some Americans, Joe’s Lights, who got the contract and nobody else could do it. I knew them and admit I was influenced by their ideas but I also showed them some of my tricks. One was fabulous. You’d get two pieces of Perspex and put in some olive or vegetable oil, then drop some vegetable dye – bright blue, red or yellow – and then close the Perspex together. You’d put that in the projector, which had a very powerful light and would heat up the dye and send it shooting to the edges of the Perspex. It was like going through a timewarp. Joe’s Lights liked this and used it at the Roundhouse for the big Jefferson Airplane/Door show in 1968. [Editor note: I think that while Joe’s Lights did the Roundhouse gig, the Boyle Family did projections at UFO.]

In 1968, I began making my film, Psychedelia. Syd was part of the scenario. Well, he was the scenario. Anybody that would agree I got to appear in the film, which was done at this basement on Old Church Street in Chelsea in a house owned by Antonia Chetwynd [regular visitors included Donald Cammell, David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Anita Pallenberg]. One day I went to Wetherby Mansions to pick up Syd. I was going to take him to the art school to this red and green painted studio I had in the annexe where I was making the film.

Syd Barrett in Wetherby Mansions

On the way, Syd offered me half a Mandrax. It’s like a sleeping pill that makes you very randy. We took half each. Then we got to the art school and I realised my camera didn’t have a cassette in it and all the shops were closed. So I said we’d do it tomorrow in Old Church Street. In the evening I called Duggie Fields [Syd’s flatmate, still resident at Wetherby Mansions] to check Syd had got back okay and Duggie told me he’d gone to Ibiza. He had a passport with him and he’d just gone to the airport and taken a flight to Ibiza.

When he got back we went to the basement and did the filming. I just had the camera with this psychedelic lighting. It was very amateur and everyone was very stoned. I’d sit people down and tell them to do whatever they wanted. Some took their tops off, some stared at the camera, talked, had a cup of tea… and I just filmed it because they were fabulous people. I filmed so many. In the scene I shot with Syd was Geoffrey Cleghorn, who was a friend of the Who and the Stones. I’d met him at art school in Ipswich and he’d followed when I moved to London and got involved in the whole scene. He’s an amazing guy. There was another chap called David Crowland. There’s a chap called Rupert [Webster], who was the very pretty boy in “If….”.

 

I screened it while playing Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray. I also use them on the other film I made Red And Green, when they are actually on the soundtrack, the Syd film was silent though I would have been playing Velvet Underground in the basement when making it. I was obsessed with them. It was all very Warholesque.

 

I gave my camera to Derek Jarman, I was living with the artist Luciana Martinez and she said, ‘You’ve finished with films and Derek’s a lousy painter, so why not give him your camera.’ He’d just finished making The Devils with Ken Russell, doing the sets. I did that and the rest is history. I then got totally into paining, film was an art student fling. In 1982 I got involved with the Olympis and been there ever since.

“Female gymnast”, 1984

I knew Syd as well as anybody could know Syd. He definitely wasn’t on this planet but he was lovely, very charming, and he seemed to like my paintings. He liked to paint himself and because I was pretty good he warmed to me. Also, I don’t hold him in awe, I was the same with Bowie, they were friends and I’d talk to them like that. I’d ask to draw them but treat them as I would anybody. People can treat pop stars in a different way and they can get very isolated. Most people were too much in awe of Syd to ask to film him and I think that comes across in the film. He was a very troubled mind and this wasn’t a great time. He’d been eased out of the Floyd and Dave Gilmour had taken over. But people who knew him said he looks so happy.’

 

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The Ramones in London: What if nobody speaks English?

I have written a cover story about the Ramones in the current issue of Uncut. One element of the Ramones story is their two gigs in London in July 1976, when the band played the Roundhouse and Dingwalls before audiences of around 5,000 at a time they were drawing around 150 back in New York.

These are considered key dates for the punk revolution in the UK, giving a kickstart to the three pioneering London punk bands, the Sex Pistols, Damned and Clash. The truth is a little more complex. One of the reasons the Ramones even got a record deal was because of interest in the New York scene in the UK. As Craig Leon, who produced Ramones for Sire, told me: ‘There had been inklings in the British press that something was happening and Malcolm McLaren had been over for a while managing the New York Dolls and took a lot of the scene – mainly Richard Hell’s dress sense – over to London, where it began developing in its own way. Sire felt that if we could make a cheap album and then get our money back in Europe it wasn’t a risky proposition.’

So even before the Ramones went to London, they knew the city was familiar with the CBGBs scene. For a band that loved English pop, this was quite a thrill. As Tommy Ramone explained, ‘They said the UK was interested and we’d grown up with all our favourite bands coming from the UK [Tommy told me that “Judy Is A Punk” was basically based on “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits] so we were very excited and we thought it might give us our break. We went over for a few days and played the Roundhouse and Dingwalls. We met a lot of the English bands, who came to the soundcheck at Dingwalls. We knew that we had sold out these place so we had an idea something was going on.” The success of the Camden shows did nothing for the band’s reputation back home, however. When they returned they continued playing in front of small crowds. In fact, as the Pistols gained in notoriety, being associated with English punk acts was more of a hindrance.

Nonetheless, Danny Fields, the band’s manager, felt the Ramones appearance gave London a crucial fillip. ‘To be the toast of London was incredible. There were people line up to meet them, to sleep with them, to sleep with me. All the would-be bands were there to see them. The  dressing room was full of people from the Clash, Damned and Sex Pistols. They were amazed that a band could put out a record like this, that they would even be allowed to play. We sat with Paul Simonon before the show and he said to Johnny he was in band but they weren’t good enough. Johnny said, “You’re going to see us for the first time. We suck, we can’t play. But don’t worry about it, just do it.” Johnny Rotten had to climb up knotted sheets. They took inspiration and thought the Ramones were exotic. The inspiration was, “We stink, stop rehearsing, start playing.’”

The only problem with Fields’ narrative is that the Pistols and Clash already were playing. Indeed, both bands actually missed the Ramones show at the Roundhouse because they were playing that same night, at the Black Swan in Sheffield, while the Stranglers were supporting the Ramones. The Damned made their debut a day after the Ramones show at the Dingwalls on July 6. So Rat Scabies, Damned drummer, thinks the influence of those London shows was more subtle. ‘Their influence on British punk rock is negotiable, because the London bands had already started,’ he says. ‘We were rehearsing, the Sex Pistols and Clash were doing the odd gig. But I remember listening to the Ramones debut album with Paul Simonon and we thought it was great as it was exactly what we were all about, three minute pop songs about life. We felt an immediate connection and it was confirmation: we realised we weren’t the only ones doing it. What was important isn’t ‘who came first?’ but the fact the same thing was happening in different parts of the world. It wasn’t just London frustration, it was the next generation getting angry. It made us realise we weren’t alone.’

In that sense, the Ramones shows were more like the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, when the hippies, ex-Beats, freaks and flower kids all turned up at the same place for the first time and realised they had a constituency, that the happenings they were organising in silos could be fed into a collective scene. It’s a glorious movement for any youth movement, the realisation you are part of something bigger than yourself. Even the underground wants to be popular.

The Ramones shows then have passed into punk legend, to be reinterpreted by new generations. ‘There’s a comic book called Gabba Gabba Hey that talks about the Ramones trip to London and how we were so concerned about the economic conditions, the UK depression, unemployment, children out of work,’ says Fields. ‘In truth, we were there for three days and the last thing anybody was thinking about was whether the British state was unfair to unwed mothers. They only thing they were worried about on the flight over is whether we had enough t-shirts to sell and what if nobody speaks English.’

Here’s an excerpt from the Ramones documentary End Of The Century talking about the Ramones in London.

Jonathan Gili, on collecting and connecting

Paul McCartney-designed wrapping paper for Indica bookshop and gallery.

Paul McCartney-designed wrapping paper for Indica bookshop and gallery.

The wonderful new catalogue by Maggs counterculture is dedicated to (a fragment) of the vast collection amassed over four decades by the film-maker Jonathan Gili. An insight into Gili’s collecting instinct comes from this article by Anthony Gardner:

Lift the lids of the boxes, and you can scarcely believe your eyes. There are bottles of Star Wars bubble bath and packets of Beatles bubblegum; fridge magnets shaped like kettles and Danish pastries; hair clips
commemorating the Queen’s coronation; Camembert boxes and plastic lizards and packets of tortilla chips. It is as if all the flotsam and jetsam of post-war consumer society had been washed up on a concrete shore and painstakingly catalogued by an tireless, obsessive beachcomber.

Although the catalogue focuses on the recognised brilliance of London’s 1960s psychedelic poster artists like Martin Sharp and Haphash And The Coloured Coat, Gili would collect anything – indeed, Gardner notes he was particularly drawn to sardine tins and even self-published a book about them. The items Maggs has for sale includes such magpie oddities as shopping bags, wrapping paper (albeit designed by Paul McCartney) and old newspaper posters, such as this one regarding Joe Orton’s murder, taken from a newstand in London in 1967.

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In 1986, Gili wrote an article about his collection asking rhetorically: ‘Who could resist records shaped like Elton John’s hat or Barry Manilow’s nose? They have poor sound and often can’t be made to play at all… but as art objects they are sublime.’

Sadly, there are no records shaped like Barry Manilow’s nose in this catalogue as much of Gili’s collection went to a private collector sympathetic to the intentions and ambitions of Gili. But what makes somebody collect stuff like this? In his short, thoughtful, introduction to the catalogue, Carl Williams – who knows much about collectors – ponders that question. Collectors are often said to be creating a bulwark against their own death, but perhaps, speculates Williams, they also wish to act as a guardian for those things that would otherwise be ‘forgotten, scorned or destroyed’ as tastes and times change?  Today’s trash is tomorrow’s museum piece; yesterday’s lunatic is the future’s visionary. Gardner touches on this, with an anecdote in which Gili ‘rescues’ a particularly revolting object from a garage forecourt. It’s a revealing story. By the very nature of his collecting this worthless item, Gili has given it value. But he’s also, clearly and very simply, enjoyed the moment, relishing both the acquisition and the reaction it will get from his co-conspirator. Why collect? Why not!

Lucinda Lambton tells a story which epitomises Gili’s passion for acquisition. ‘We were driving through the outskirts of Guildford,’ she says, ‘and he suddenly shouted “Stop!” Then he jumped out of the car while it was still moving and ran across this huge, horrible garage forecourt. When he came back, he was triumphantly waving a gold-lamé-clad Michael
Jackson doll.

Collections also gain their own momentum, and I sometimes wonder how many collections have been made almost by accident – one minute you are idly picking up old books about London from secondhand shops and markets, the next thing you know you have 250 of the things and, inadvertently, the beginnings of a minor collection. And if you’ve started, you might as well finish. What else is there to do with your time?

More obviously, collectors hoard items that carry the echo of a cherished memory, certain pieces that remind them of a special moment in their past, or of a past they wished they had. Many of the items being sold by Maggs are focused around the London underground scene of the 1960s. I’m not sure quite what relationship Gili had with the counterculture, but he was clearly an interested observer at the very least – and he edited cult London film Bronco Bullfrog, with soundtrack by 1960s Gilbert & George support act, Audience.

Gili’s 1960s collection includes a number of items from that era that have always been regarded as important and beautiful, such as these stunning posters by Martin Sharp, one of my favourite psychedelic artists and, in my view, a rival to anything that came out of the more lauded Bay Area poster scene.

Cream by Martin Sharp

Cream by Martin Sharp

Purple Dylan by Martin Sharp

Purple Dylan by Martin Sharp

Oz magazine

Oz magazine

UFO Club poster

UFO Club poster

Many of the objects are related specifically to the London scene – the shops, clubs, galleries and ‘fun palaces’ of 1960s London. Gili, then, had a close relationship with this city. One of his best-known films is the charming To The World’s End, about the No 31 bus journey from Islington to Chelsea. Interestingly, 1960s historian Jonathon Green recalls a map of this very bus route once published as a cover of IT newspaper, showing how it connected some of the key points of swinging London – ‘The hippie highway: all the way from Granny Takes a Trip to the Roundhouse’, as Green puts it.

A semi-thorough scouring of the ever-so-distracting IT archive has not turned up this delightful sounding map, so perhaps it was produced by one of the many other underground papers of the era. But it is not a massive leap to speculate that Gili, the great collector of underground London, noted this off-kilter way of observing and uniting the London villages, and later chose to make a film taking precisely that approach. Collections, like buses, are a way to make connections.

fotoflexer_photo

Pete Townshend and the London counterculture

For my recent piece in Uncut on the London underground press, I contacted Pete Townshend to ask if he had any memories of the era. His reply was long and illuminating, and is worth reproducing in full.

85348475, Redferns /Redferns

ME: Pete was a regular at UFO. Was it unusual for somebody so well-known and from a Mod background to go to a hippie club?

PT: I was taken hostage in a sense. My partner Karen Astley (whose pretty face was used for a few UFO posters) was working with her old friends from the Ealing Fashion School – Angela Brown and Annie Dupée. They had a company called Hem & Fringe. They made clothes for various boutiques, but in particular were designing for an adventurous new King’s Road store in the manner of Granny Takes a Trip. It was to be called Gandalf’s Garden. It was a joint effort by Barbara Allen and Michael Rainey I think.

Michael McInnerney was doing the window design, with – I believe – another artist called Dudley Edwards (who had decorated Lennon’s big Rolls Royce in psychedelic style). I had met Mike and Dudley after the Who had played Monterey Pop Festival with Jimi Hendrix in 1967, and I was interested in Meher Baba who they both followed.

The Who then went off on a very long tour supporting Herman’s Hermits, and while we were away there was a widely reported hippy wedding in Hyde Park, Michael McInnerney married Katie, and Karen was there, and in many of the photos. There is also newsreel film of Karen dancing with Barbara Allen and Hoppy. Mike McInnerney worked with Hoppy and Miles on IT. Karen was right in the centre of the hippy scene, and knew a lot of the leading faces of the time. Through her I met Joe Boyd, the producer of The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention, and Barry Miles and his wife Sue (who was a terrific restaurateur), and Hoppy. I also got to know John Dunbar [Marianne Faithfull’s first husband] and met the other founders of the Indica Bookshop in Southampton Row at a party with the Beatles, but I never went to the shop. The way I remember it is that Paul McCartney was the chief patron of Indica from the Beatles and the pop scene at large. He was passionate about legalising marijuana, and came close to being arrested for some of the things he said. As far as I could see, marijuana and LSD were what the politics of the times revolved around. There may have been more, deeper things, but I never saw much sign of it at the time. Vietnam was big news of course, but sadly not to me. More of my myopic tendencies later.


Michael English was an old friend from Ealing Art College, and his partner was Angela Brown. When I wasn’t performing we hung out together. Michael was developing his air-brushing techniques, but also making silk-screened posters for hippy events with his colleague Nigel Weymouth. Michael and I were extremely close for about a year in 1967, and I became very fond of him. My friendship with Mike McInnerney lasted much longer, and although we don’t see much of each other today, his work on the Tommy artwork went much further than just coming up with cover art. I flew every single Tommy song past him before I played it to Kit Lambert my mentor and Who producer and manager.

I loved the UFO club. Hoppy was always on the door, smiling, welcoming, never spoke about politics although we knew he was involved in trying to get marijuana legalised. On the stairs I often found Mike McInnerney, who would never stop drawing and painting, and sometimes took his work out with him. One night Gustav Metzger who had lectured at Ealing Art College did the acid-based-light-projections for The Soft Machine. In those days Soft Machine were really very jazzy, and I seem to remember they played a few pieces by John Coltrane. I’ve always been a huge fan of Robert Wyatt, and he married one of my friends Alfreda Benge who edited The Lone Ranger, the first film for which I ever made a soundtrack. Pink Floyd were regulars, and I thought they were wonderful, and not just Syd. I’d met Syd at a few parties, and he was already pretty mad, too many trips we all thought. One Pink Floyd night at the UFO a bunch of Mod boys circled me and ridiculed my hippy coat that Karen had made me, and from then on I think I started wearing boiler suits and Doc Martens, attempting to disown both fashions. We had a lot of fun, I had about five LSD trips, one good one, the rest pretty scary. The UFO was a very friendly place, unless you happened to run into Roger Waters. I’m joking, he was friendly enough, but though handsome he was extremely scary looking, and was rather too keen on Karen for my liking, but then a lot of men were.

I am simply name-dropping here, over and over again, because I was not really a part of this scene at all. I just met all these extraordinarily glamorous and friendly people through Karen, then jumped back in the shitty old Who tour bus and went off to play in fucking Morecambe.


 
Was Pete’s comfort with the counterculture a result of his art school background?

I was not comfortable with it. This is where I confess my myopic nature. I never ever managed to find a sense of place in it. I think when we played Woodstock a year later, and my famous argument happened on stage with Abbie Hoffman, I suddenly realised I simply hadn’t understood how divided society had become by then. This divide was not just between young and old, but between those younger people who saw themselves as political agitators and those who simply wanted to conform, get a job and have a quiet life.

As an artist I operated within the Who as a kind of mirror or commentator, always looking at the local neighbourhood rather than the international scene, trying to give a voice to that part of our audience that seemed most disaffected, but I lost touch completely during the hippy years. Tommy was possibly only accepted from the Who because in hindsight some aspects of the hippy movement had been seen to be counterfeit and bogus. But the spiritual yearning that grew out of the LSD revolution was carried in Tommy, and made a connection somehow. 

My art school work had been hugely inspiring, especially with respect to the possibilities of future technology and the way it would affect art. I have always felt I juggled art, technology and spiritual matters fairly well. But those three issues really needed from me an awareness of politics to produce balanced artistic work. That never happened for me. My mostly apolitical protests were rather sullen and sometimes resentful.

Did interviews with International Times allow musicians to reach different audiences or talk about different subjects than was possible with the mainstream press?

Oh yes. But I don’t remember my talk with Miles, I just remember Miles himself, and I adored him. Around that time (1967) I began to specialise in thought-stream interviews, just rapping really. I spoke creatively, sometimes absurdly, often moving into territory I knew little about. Occasionally this system did produce the most wonderful ideas. At other times, looking back, I just sounded out of my depth.

Why did rock stars like Pete and Paul McCartney get involved with IT, UFO and the counterculture scene? What did Pete personally do to help?

It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that Macca got taken hostage as I did, but in his case by his partner Jane Asher. I know that her brother Peter was involved in some way with John Dunbar. We were all part of what we thought would be a new London intelligentsia. In the end it was just a group of young pop stars with extremely pretty girl friends. I can remember one gathering – I think it was at an art opening for Simon and Maryka – where George Harrison was talking about Krishna, Macca about legalising marijuana and Eric Clapton and I were with the artist and lyricist Martin Sharp talking about the Oz Trial. I don’t think I helped at all, but Macca did. He gave money when Hoppy was arrested, and later for the Oz trial I believe.

Did Pete attend or have anything to do with International Times happenings at the Roundhouse or Alexandra Palace?

Yes I went to both events. Michael English and I took LSD and walked all the way to the Roundhouse from his house in Portland Road. A long, wonderful trip, one of the good ones. At the Ally Pally Rave I ‘discovered’ Arthur Brown and started recording him. Kit Lambert got thrown out of the Alexander Palace event. God knows what he did. He was rather posh, maybe he was thought to be too straight, but I got Hoppy to get him back in. The Who actually performed at one of the last IT Roundhouse events, with Elton John’s new band. By that time IT and Hoppy had lost control of the London hippy scene and it was being taken over by the old guard of promoters.