Tag Archives: Skinheads

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.

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Morrissey and London: ‘I like it here, can I stay?’

Like many adolescent boys who thought they were cleverer than they really were and were scared of girls, I was obsessed with The Smiths and Morrissey.

The Smiths are a Manchester band, but by the time I became a fan, Morrissey had – like so many Northerners – fled the provinces for London where he spent the next few years revelling in the size, confusion and culture of the Big Smoke. Instead of Whalley Range and the Moors Murders, he sang about Earl’s Court and the Krays and as he entered his ‘Glam Nazi’ era he became obsessed with distinctly London aspects of working-class life such as skinheads, West Ham and the Cockney Rejects.

This was Morrissey’s London period; you could argue it began with the Smiths songs London (1987) and Half A Person (1987), and lasted until he was hounded out of the capital for going a bit crap around a decade later. Sure, London still cropped up in later songs – 2004’s Come Back To Camden, for instance – but the love was gone. He would later sound like any other tedious expat whn complaining to the NME that ‘if you walk through Knightsbridge on any bland day of the week you won’t hear an English accent. You’ll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent.’ But it was fun while it lasted.

Interesting Drug (1989)

Although Morrissey’s previous solo singles were very London-influenced, this was the first – rather odd – video to be clearly filmed in London. But where? The red bus glimpsed at 1:21 may tell somebody with better eyesight than I. Is it a 34, placing this somewhere between Barnet and Walthamstow?
Update: Comments suggest this is Battersea, so not the 34 after all. Maybe the 37?

Our Frank (1991)

A pretty poor song, but the video marks the start of Morrissey’s skinhead obsession – it was not long after this that he took to performing before a skinhead backdrop and brandishing the Union Jack at Finsbury Park. There are lots of buses here, and also a gorgeous ghost sign at 1:47. But where is it shot? Charing Cross Road? The City? Victoria? Anybody?
Update: Comments place this definitively as King’s Cross.

We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful (1992) 

I hated this when it came out, but I was wrong because it is brilliant and the video is a treat as Morrissey wanders around a still not-quite-gentrified Wapping with the gang of bequiffed young boys who have put a smile back on his own thin and youthful face. Most Morrissey fans get a kick out of seeing the old boy looking happy, which is why his recent ‘love’ album, Ringleader Of The Tormentors, got such strangely good reviews. The abandoned pub in this video is now the Turk’s Head cafe and you can also catch a glimpse of Oliver’s Wharf, which was one of the first warehouses in the area to be redeveloped into housing.

You’re The One For Me Fatty (1992)

An awful song, but an unmistakable setting as a young skin takes ‘fatty’ on a date, while Moz whines about how ‘all over Battersea’ there’s ‘some hope, and some despair’, over a shot of the power station. Interestingly, a scene from one of Morrissey’s favourite Northern kitchen sink dramas, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ was filmed by director Karel Reisz around here, in Culvert Road, Battersea. Of Reisz, we’ll hear more later.

Boxers (1995)

From the start of Morrissey’s decline – and height of his obsession-with-male-physicality – this ho-hum single was filmed at the legendary York Hall, Bethnal Green, as can be seen in the rather elegant closing shots.

Sunny (1996)

Such a terrible song I didn’t know anything about it until now, as I had long lost interest in Morrissey at this point, but it’s filmed in Victoria Park in East London. And the cover featured this iconic Morrissey shot, outside old Kray haunt the Grave Maurice (now, I think a fried chicken shop).

There were many other London influences in Morrissey’s songs at the time, with the Kray-referencing Last Of The Famous International Playboys, the song Spring-Heeled Jim (a reference to the Victorian London monster Spring-Heeled Jack), the song titles Piccadilly Palare and Dagenham Dave, and the album titles Your Arsenal and Vauxhall & I, as Morrissey explored the seamy side of London life. He was also rumoured to be making his first acting appearance at around this time as the South London gangster Charlie Richardson, although sadly that never came to pass.

I’ll leave you with one last example. This clip is of Kennington kids discussing the infamous case of Derek Bentley, who was sentenced to death for his part in the shooting of a policeman in Croydon, and it comes from Karel Reisz’s classic London documentary ‘We Are The Lambeth Boys’. It was sampled by Morrissey for the track Spring-Heeled Jim, which featured on the Vauxhall & I album. How much more London can you get?