Archive for August, 2008

Brixton and the riots in 1981

Friday, August 15th, 2008

“It is noh mistri / we mekkin histri” – Linton Kwesi Johnson

On the Metropolitan Police‘s own website, it says that the first Brixton riot in 1981 was actually the first serious British riot of the 2oth century. It was states that it was the first riot that entailed substantial destruction of property since the formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. It also says on the site ‘working together for a safer London’ – isn’t that what the police are for? How much did some PR company get paid to come up with that trite nonsense?
The rioting that started on Friday 10 April 1981 was a complete and utter shock to the local police and it was pretty obvious to anyone watching the news that evening that they couldn’t really cope. If you look at images of the rioting that took place in Brixton 27 years ago it’s the police uniforms, equipment and stance that look old-fashioned and almost quaint not the flares and hairstyles of their protagonists.

In 1978 Margaret Thatcher made an infamous speech asserting that Britain “might be rather swamped by people of a different culture”. The Metropolitan police, I suppose intentionally, wittily thought that ‘Operation Swamp 81′ would be a good name for the overt stop and search policy they introduced at the beginning of April 1981.

The Met operated this policy under the ‘sus’ law (actually a very old law and officially known as the 1824 Vagrancy Act). In order to stop someone, police needed only ‘sus’, or suspicion, that they might be intending to commit a crime. To a lot of people at the time it was obvious that the police were using the ‘sus’ laws on the basis of racial prejudice.

Margaret Thatcher with undoubtedly the wrong approach

In Brixton, there had long been a simmering tension between the local black population and the police and twenty years before in 1961 an organisation called the West Indian Standing Conference produced a report which stated “It has been confirmed that sergeants and constables do leave stations with express purpose of ‘nigger hunting’…the difficulty to apprehend the policemen in these hunts lies in the fact that they go out in plain clothes..person who are threatened or assaulted cannot get their numbers.” Two decades later in the opinion of many of the local population the ‘nigger hunting’, again involving plain clothes policemen, was back. Many Brixton residents at the time said that a few of the local police were openly wearing National Front badges on their uniforms.

On 10 April 1981, the police tried to assist a young Black man who had been stabbed in the back and a rumour quickly went around that the police were trying to arrest the injured man, rather than take him to hospital. A crowd of black youths took him from the police by force and drove him to St Thomas’s hospital by car. Tensions increased, especially as Operation Swamp searches continued the next day, and with the arrest of another man outside a minicab office serious violence suddenly sparked off.

Within half an hour, according to Brixton resident Darcus Howe, a group of young men took command and directed groups of ‘insurgents’ through the alleyways and passages that linked lots of central Brixton. Barricades were put up and crude petrol bombs were constructed – these would be the first molotov cocktails used in the UK outside Northern Ireland. The men also organised scouts, who could move quickly around the area on roller skates and bicycles. Suddenly, as Howe put it – “A spontaneous social explosion transformed itself into an organised revolt”.

The police were at a massive disadvantage, not only did they have no experience of this kind of inner-city rioting, most of them had been brought in from other parts of London and had no idea as to the layout of Brixton. Their equipment was next to useless, and for shields they had to grab any dustbin lids they could lay their hands on. When plastic riot shields were brought to the area the police had had no training to use them and then found they weren’t flame resistant. At one point a rioter came up to the line of shields, tipped some whisky, stolen from a looted off-licence, over an officer and tried to set light to him.

Buildings were torched, including a school in Effra Road, the Windsor Castle pub, and the post office. Most of the violence was concentrated along Railton Road, locally known as the ‘front line’. Serious looting began the next evening but by 10pm that night, the police had begun to regain control. Although sporadic fighting and looting continued through the night.

By the time the violence had subsided, over 360 people had been injured, 28 premises burned and another 117 damaged and looted. Over 100 vehicles, including 56 police vehicles, were damaged or destroyed during the rioting. The police arrested 82 people.

Throughout the country during the summer of 1981 places such as Handsworth, Southall, Toxteth, and Moss Side exploded into more rioting and violence.

After the Scarman report on the riots was released, the ancient Vagrancy Act (older than the Metropolitan Police itself) was no longer law, However there were two more riots in Brixton, albet of not quite the intensity, in 1985 and 1991.


Brixton and David Bowie’s early years

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

‘It’s time we were united and stood up for our curls.’

Opposite a graffitied skateboard park and just up the street from Brixton’s premier music venue – The Academy , is Stansfield Road where David Robert Jones was born in 1947. His family stayed in Brixton for just six years before they moved to the South London suburb of Bromley a few miles a way. Bowie went to Bromley Technical College and studied art and graphic design (incidentally he was taught by Peter Frampton’s father).
David Bowie’s first proper band, formed in November 1963, was called Davie Jones and the King Bees – and they released one single called ‘Liza Jane’ on the 5th June 1964. The band sold few records and soon split up due to their relative lack of success.
Davie Jones and the King Bees performing in 1964

Davie Jones and the King Bees performing in 1964

Later in the same year David appeared on the BBC’s Tonight programme, a current affairs show presented by Cliff Michelmore. He was asked to appear after starting the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to long-haired men.

The London Evening News reported on the society quoting Bowie;

“It’s really for the protection of pop musicians and those who wear their hair long,’ explained the founder and president, David Jones, of Plaistow Grove, Bromley. ‘Anyone who has the courage to wear their hair down to his shoulders has to go through hell. It’s time we were united and stood up for our curls.’ David is in the process of enrolling members. ‘Everybody makes jokes about you on a bus, and if you go past navvies digging in the road, it’s murder!’”

Bowie in 1965

Bowie in 1965

Bowie showing off his lovely long hair to Barry Langford 1965

Bowie showing off his lovely long hair to Barry Langford 1965

Bowie’s next band was Davy Jones and the Mannish Boys and after playing as the backing band for Gene Pitney on a Gerry and the Pacemakers’ tour they released a single in March 1965 – a cover of Bobby Bland’s I Pity The Fool. On the b-side, however, was Bowie’s first ever recorded composition called ‘Take My Tip’ (Jimmy Page was the young session guitarist).

The Mannish Boys’ manager Leslie Conn arranged for the band to appear on the BBC show Gadzooks! It’s All Happening but the producer Barry Langford insisted that Bowie cut his long hair. Bowie, of course, refused and Conn cleverly organised a protest outside the BBC with fans holding banners such as ‘Be Fair To Long Hair’.

The BBC eventually backed down on the condition that if there were viewer complaints the band’s fee would go to charity. No complaints were received and the band kept their fee. Over the next couple of years Bowie sang with a band called The Lower Third and subsequently a group called The Buzz. Success still eluded Bowie and both bands were short lived although making recordings for the labels Parlophone and Pye.

It was during this time that he changed his name to Bowie to avoid confusion with the singer in The Monkees and in 1967 he recorded an album as a solo project and called it simply ‘David Bowie’. Unfortunately the record again sold poorly and it would be two years before Bowie recorded again. During the sessions a novelty single recorded at the same time called ‘The Laughing Gnome’ which would became a number six hit when it was released in 1973.



In 1968 the choreographer and mime artist Lindsay Kemp let Bowie appear in his show Pierrot in Turquoise, it was said, in return for sex. Kemp was a fantastically camp character, very self-consciously avant-garde, and once described a performance of his at school (realistically setting the tone for the rest of his career!) -

“I first danced Salome in the dormitory of my boarding school, naked except for layers of toilet paper, heavily rouged with the red paint I’d rubbed off the wall. The boys in the top bunks played mouth organs, and I danced to entertain them. I was busted, of course, not for the decadence of my performance but for the wastage of school resources, namely the toilet paper.”

Bowie 'in mime' at the Middle Earth Club, 19th May 1968

Bowie 'in mime' at the Middle Earth Club, 19th May 1968

Kemp and Bowie had a very close working relationship and Kemp would become a huge influence on the future star especially in the creation of alter ego characters on stage . Thus Kemp, indirectly through Bowie, influenced an innumerable amount of performers and bands over the next twenty years or so.

After a few weeks of performing together in Pierrot in Turquoise Bowie disappeared one night with the artistic director of their show – a woman called Natasha Korlinov. Lindsay Kemp was devastated and tried to commit suicide by cutting his wrists, failing however in his attempt. Two months later Bowie returned back to Kemp, but unfortunately this time it was the turn of Natasha to try and kill herself, eventually surviving an overdose of sleeping pills.
In 1968 Bowie, as a solo mime artist, opened a show for Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex – the performance was apparently a version of the Chinese invasion to Tibet. Performing with Bolan meant that Bowie was introduced to Tony Visconti who was producing T-Rex at the time. Bolan and Bowie were at similar stages of their career – both incredibly ambitious but wavering between different musical styles and ideas – but desperately looking for an approach that would find them success. Visconti became the catalyst that realised this for both of them.
During the same year Bowie, with John Hutchinson and the ballet dancer Hermione Farthingale, formed a multi-media band, initially called Turquoise but subsequently known as Feathers.
David Bowie and Feathers at Trident Studios, London 1969

David Bowie and Feathers at Trident Studios, London 1969

Bowie and Farthingale were soon seeing each other and this may have been Bowie’s first serious relationship in his life. Unfortunately Hermione soon left Bowie, running off with a male fellow dancer – Bowie later wrote;
“I was totally head-over-heels in love with her, and it really sort of demolished set me off on the Space Oddity song”.
It took him along time to get over Hermione and his next album contained two songs about her – Letter to Hermione and Occasional Dream. The album also contained the song Space Oddity which was to become the reason for Bowie’s first brush with fame, something he had been seeking for years.
The song was written in 1968 but was planned to be recorded and released to coincide with the lunar landing the following year. A plan that worked and the BBC eventually used the track for their coverage of Apollo 11 and the first moon landing in 1969. Considering the importance of the event (men landing on the moon, not the BBC playing David Bowie) the BBC wiped the tapes of the moon-landing a few years later.
Space Oddity famously used the cheap, portable battery-operated Rolf Harris advertised stylophone – Marc Bolan later wrote;
“I remember David playing me ‘Space Oddity’ in his room and I loved it and he said he needed a sound like The Bee Gees, who were very big then. The stylophones he used on that, I gave him. Tony Visconti turned me on to stylophones. The record was a sleeper for months before it became a hit.”
Ironically Visconti saw the song as just a novelty and left the production to an assistant Gus Dudgeon who would soon become famous as Elton John’s main producer. The original video made for song actually features Hermione Farthingale.<span class=”lb-half”></span>
Bowie put the finishing touches to Space Oddity while living with Mary Finnigan (as a flat-mate and occasional lover) at Foxgrove Road in Beckenham, South London. Finnigan and Bowie ran a folk club on Sunday nights at The Three Tuns pub in Beckenham High Street but the night slowly turned into what became to be called the Beckenham Arts Lab. During the summer of 1969, The Arts Lab hosted a Free Festival at a local park. The festival was later immortalised by Bowie in his song Memory of a Free Festival.
An unshaven Bowie organising free festivals at Foxgrove Road, Beckenham 1968

An unshaven Bowie organising free festivals at Foxgrove Road, Beckenham 1968

In 1969 Bowie met the 18 year old Mary Angela Barnett (he later said that ‘they were fucking the same bloke’ – the record executive Calvin Mark Lee) and they were married in the Bromley Registry office on Beckenham Lane in 1970. He was by now well on his way to become the rock superstar he had spent years craving for.
David, mum and Angie at Beckenham Registry office

David, mum and Angie at Beckenham Registry office