Archive for the ‘Islington’ Category

Islington, Elton John and Long John Baldry

Friday, November 14th, 2008
“It’s absurd, you don’t really love her. You’re just a damned fool!”

In a basement flat on the corner of Liverpool Road and Furlong Road in Islington, the freshly monikered Elton John (to his friends and even himself it was still Reg) lived with his writing partner Bernie Taupin and his fiancé Linda Woodrow. On the 7th June 1968 Elton had written to an old school friend writing “Just a few lines to let you know I am getting married on 22nd June at Uxbridge Registary (sic) offices … Well if you think it’s a bit sudden you’re right. Seeing as we were living together we thought as well get married. Nothing much happening record-wise because I’ve got problems with my record company at the moment. Reg.”.

Only a week or so before Elton wrote the invite, Bernie and Linda were both having a an afternoon nap in their Furlong Road flat. Linda recalled ‘I came out of my room and Bernie came out of his, both thinking we’d heard a noise. We went into the kitchen, and there was Elton lying with his head in the the gas oven.’

Bernie quickly pulled Elton away from the oven fearing the worst but soon noticed that the gas was only turned to ‘low’ and the kitchen window was wide open. Elton had even thoughtfully placed a cushion in the oven to make his suicide attempt slightly more comfortable and in the end Linda merely remarked that it was just a waste of good gas.

Although the suicide attempt hardly seemed wholehearted it was nevertheless a cry of help from a man who was getting more and more confused and upset about his life. He was actually in a deep depression about his career, the failure of his first single and the continued false dawns and disappointments trying to sell his and Bernie’s songs. He was also coming to terms about his sexuality although up to then it didn’t really occur to anyone not least himself that he was anything but heterosexual. The lack of interest in women was just seen as a symptom of his shyness.

Towards the end of 1967 Dwight announced to the surprised members of Bluesology, a band led by the tall 6ft 7 inch singer Long John Baldry and for which he played keyboards, that he had ‘pulled a bird’. Bluesology had played at a nightclub called Fiesta in Sheffield and watching the band was a very short man who called himself The Mighty Atom, a DJ at the local Locarno ballroom, accompanied by a skinny blonde girl called Linda. The Mighty Atom apparently drove around town in a white E-Type Jaguar with wooden risers on the pedals and they must have made an odd couple as Linda was just shy of six feet.

Linda and Reg quickly found a lot in common and she travelled around with him for the last few dates of the Bluesology tour. At the end of the tour, just before Christmas 1967, Reg announced that he was leaving the band. Although Elton had been getting more and more frustrated about not being able to sing, it hadn’t helped that Baldry had just got to number one with the syrupy ballad ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’ – when he sang the hit a backing track was used and the rest of the band had to stand around doing nothing but looking suitably morose. Before Reg parted company he asked politely if he could borrow parts of Elton Dean, the saxophonist, and Long John Baldry’s names to re-name himself Elton John.

Linda and Elton found a basement flat in Furlong Road and Bernie Taupin soon moved in with them in the spare room. Linda was heiress to the Epicure Pickle company could live off a comfortable trust fund. Philip Norman, Elton’s biographer wrote that Elton had begun his affair with Linda “in the spirit of a non-swimmer, plunging headlong with eyes shut and fingers pinching nose, hoping that, if he went straight in at the deep end, everything would somehow sort itself out”.

Elton's first photo-shoot in 1968

Elton's first photo-shoot in 1968

It of course didn’t and in June 1968, three weeks before the proposed wedding, Elton was having a drink with Long John (who was to be Best Man) and Bernie at the Bag O’ Nails club in Kingsly Street where they both tried to dissuade him from the marrying Linda. Bernie remembered that Baldry, by then an unrepentant’out’ gay man, went on at Elton all evening – ‘It’s absurd, you don’t love really love her, you’re just being a damned fool…’. Almost certainly Baldry pointed out a few things about Elton’s sexuality that he might not been entirely aware of. Although Elton has since written “I cannot believe I never realised that he was gay. I mean, I didn’t realise I was gay at that time, but looking back on it now, John couldn’t have been any more gay if he tried”.

Long John Baldry on Top Of The Pops 1968



Long John Baldry, although to his many fans after the success of ‘Heartaches’ wouldn’t have had a clue, was as flamboyantly ‘out’ to his friends as it was possible to be in 1968. Which possibly shows Elton’s innocence at the time but it has to be noted that homosexuality had only been legal in the UK for less than a year. Baldry had become rich (for a short time) from the number one hit and was leading a very hedonistic life in 1968, often attending the non-stop party at the home of Oliver composer Lionel Bart, who shared his interest in young men – the age of consent for gay men at the time was, of course, twenty-one.

Baldry’s sister Margaret does not go into detail, but does reveal that “some of them were very young. John was blackmailed on a couple of occasions. I used to meet a lot of these young guys who were way beyond their years, and they were clearly out to get his money.”

Baldry at the hairdresser John Stephen in Carnaby Street 1968

Baldry at the hairdresser John Stephen in Carnaby Street 1968

By the time the Bag O’ Nails closed Baldry, Elton and Bernie were joined by PJ Proby and also Cindy Birdsong from The Supremes, all acting as celebrity agony aunts and telling him that it was wrong to marry Linda.

PJ Proby

At four in the morning, and drunk, Bernie and Elton trudged back to Furlong Road. Elton was determined to finish the relationship and that night he did just that. ‘All hell broke loose’ according to Bernie with Linda pretending that she was pregnant and that she would commit suicide in the hope that Elton would change his mind. All to no avail.

In the morning Elton called his mother and in a few hours a van drew up outside the Furlong Road flat driven by his stepfather Derf Farebrother. In less than an hour Elton, Bernie and their respective record collections made the journey back to Elton’s family home at 30a Frome Court, Northwood Hills. Bernie and Elton were still sharing bunk beds at his old family home eighteen months later. Elton by then a huge star.

Long John Baldry, immortalised as Sugar Bear in Elton’s song ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ never repeated the success of ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’. However he will always be remembered as instrumental in the birth of British blues and a link between black American blues and British rock. Other than Elton John he played with Mick Jagger before the Rolling Stones existed, went to school with Charlie Watts where they started a Jazz and Blues appreciation society and he famously found an 18 year old Rod Stewart singing a version of John Lee Hooker’s Dimples on the platform at Twickenham station.

Brian Auger and Trinity with LJB and Rod Stewart 1965

LJB 1973
After recording a relatively successful album in 1971 called ‘Take It Easy’, a side each produced by the now very famous Elton and Rod Stewart, Baldry moved to Canada in 1978 where he recorded sporadically including a record called ‘Out’ which could either have been about his sexuality or that he had recently been released after being institutionalised due to mental health problems. He died of a severe chest infection in 2005. It was always difficult for Baldry to accept that he was more well-known for who he knew and who had played in his bands than for his music.

Linda Woodrow (now Hannon) lives in America and seemingly still bitter about Elton John and the, it has to be said, slightly misogynistic and one-sided ‘Someone Saved My Life’. Making up for not marrying Elton in 1968 she has since married four times.

The Mighty Atom has now sensibly reverted back to his real name Chris Crossley and is now an artist in Brincliffe, Sheffield.

The Mighty Atom today

Reg's erstwhile fiance Linda Woodrow in 2007

Linda Woodrow and The Mighty Atom today

Two messages, received on 5th December 2008, from Linda Woodrow or Hannon as she is today.
I am very curious as to where you got all the information about me. Some of it is correct and some is not. You need to find out the truth before you go printing things about me.

Linda Hannon

There are many stories about Reg putting his head in the gas oven. In most of them I was to blame, however Reg was going through a very frustrating time with his music. He was then recording at the Dick James studio. I used to sit there many evenings while he played his music. At that time he was only earning approx. 100 pounds a week or less, it is true that I did take care of both him and Bernie financially. I didn’t realize at the time that he was bi-sexual. I think he used to fantasize after John Baldry. Reg had been out with both John and Bernie when they came home very drunk and Reg informed me that he was leaving. It was definitely John who told him not to get married. I cared very much for Reg and had really hoped for a future with him. At that time I never imagined that he would become such a huge star.

Someone Saved My Life Tonight – Elton John
Don’t Try And Lay Down No Boogie Woogie – Long John Baldry
It Ain’t Easy – Long John Baldry
Empty Sky – Elton John
Dimples – John Lee Hooker

The Holloway Road, Joes Meek & Orton and Michael X

Monday, October 29th, 2007

His home was in the Holloway region north of London, and then divided from it by fields and trees. Between Battle Bridge and that part of the Holloway district in which he dwelt, was a tract of suburban Sahara, where tiles and bricks were burnt, bones were boiled, carpets were beat, rubbish was shot, dogs were fought, and dust was heaped by contractors.

Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens 1865

The Holloway Road, which is also part of the A1 and seemingly for ever traffic-choked, is unlike most of the surrounding area, in that it has always managed to resist gentrification. However much money is spent by the council and effort made, the second-hand furniture shops and cheap greasy cafes stubbornly remain, and probably always will.

The maverick record producer Joe Meek had his home and studio in a flat above a leather shop at 304 Holloway Road, and although a lot of people probably think that the Beatles were the first big British success over in America, it was Margaret Thatcher’s favourite record – the Meek-produced Telstar by The Tornadoes that was the first UK recorded US number one in late 1962. Joe Meek produced hundreds of records, was a undoubtedly a visionary and huge influence on the record industry but in reality he only had a few other hits, albeit great records, such as ‘Just Like Eddie’ by Heinz, Johnny Remember Me by Johnny Leyton and the unforgettable, stomping Have I The Right by the Honeycombs.Have I The Right was a record famous for having its drumming augmented by the group stamping on the stairs in the studio – a noise recorded by four microphones attached to the bannisters using bicycle clips.

The success of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the so-called ‘Beat Boom’, however, suddenly seemed to make Meek’s production work old-fashioned, and his career certainly wasn’t helped after he was caught in a public toilet just off the Holloway Road and charged with “persistently importuning”. It was still four years away that homosexuality would be legalised and he was fined for ‘the crime’. The next day on the front page of the London Evening News he was named and shamed as ‘The Man Who Wrote Telstar’, and it brought his world crashing down around him.

Joe Meek deteriorated into depression and paranoia – he was once convinced that Decca Records had put hidden microphones behind his wallpaper in order to steal his ideas, something he also accused Phil Spector of, hanging up furiously after receiving an apparently innocent phone call from him.

Meek was also obsessed with the occult and he would set up tape recorders in graveyards in a strange attempt to record voices from beyond the grave, in one instance capturing the meowing of a cat he claimed was speaking in a human voice. In particular, he had an obsession with dead rock and roll stars especially Buddy Holly who he once claimed had communicated with him in dreams.

In the meantime, the hits had dried up and as Meek’s financial situation became increasingly desperate, his depression got worse. On February 3rd, 1967, not coincidentally the eighth anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death, Meek shot his landlady Violet Shenton and then himself with a single barrelled shotgun that he had confiscated from his protegé, former Tornados bassist and solo star Heinz Burt at his Holloway Road studio and kept under his bed along with some shells.

In 1970 John Lennon and Yoko Ono dropped by 95-101 Holloway Road – a complex of adjoining terraced housing and shops that had become the headquarters of several black separatist organisations and ran by a man born as Michael de Frietas but by now was calling himself Abdul Malik or more often Michael X – in tribute to the American Black power leader Malcolm X.

De Frietas had unfortunately named the building ‘Black House’ – ironically the name Oswald Moseley had called his British Union of Fascists Chelsea headquarters in the 1930s. John and Yoko had arrived to partake in a publicity stunt for the headquarters where they were going to give for auction, very generously I’m sure you’ll agree, a bag of their own hair, that they had recently shorn off, in return for the bloody pair of shorts worn by Muhammad Ali, or Cassius Clay as he was then, when he defeated Henry Cooper at Highbury in 1966. The much-loved boxer had given them to de Frietas saying ‘here are my shorts stained with the blood of an Englishman’.

Michael de Frietas has arrived in London in 1957 and became a pimp and drug pusher, eventually working as ‘protection’ and rent collector for the slum landlord Peter Rachmann (his excuse for this later was that Rachmann was one of the few landlords that would take West Indian tenants). He became heavily involved in black separatist politics by the mid-sixties and enjoyed a large cult following from the hip and fashionable. However his RAAS (Racial Adjustment Action Society) black power group was, in reality, largely a newspaper creation, with Malik as a scare figure. It all provided good copy and the newspapers were happy to massively exaggerate the membership numbers. In 1965 he became the first non-white person to be imprisoned (for 18 months) under the new Race Relations Act when he publicly urged the shooting of any black woman seen with a white man. He also responded, when asked what the establishm
ent should do about racism, that a black man should impregnate the Queen, so that they could rear a half-caste child. Predictable ‘shocked’ headlines followed.

A few months before John and Yoko had dropped round to The Black House, de Frietas had also been charged at the Old Bailey for robbery and demanding money with menaces in what was known as ‘The Slave Collar Affair’. De Frietas had apparently enticed a businessman called Marvin Brown to The Black House where he was beaten up and a spiked collar placed around his neck and subsequently paraded around the building. De Frietas, fearing a second term of imprisonment jumped bail and fled to Trinidad and set up a another commune there. However it was only a few years later, in 1975 , that he was hanged for his part in two murders (despite John Lennon donating £10,000 to help his defence) including that of a 27 year old English woman called Gale Ann Benson, the daughter of the former Tory MP Leonard Plugge (improbably, it was his house in Lowndes Square that was used as the location for Mick Jagger’s film Performance). Forensic evidence showed that Gale Ann Benson was forced into a shallow grave, hacked at with a cutlass and buried while still alive (the autopsy found earth in her lungs).
The Black House was run by voluteers and always a bit of a disorganised shambles and without de Frietas’s energy, contacts and hustling abilities it closed down in the Autumn of 1970.

Islington’s library is situated on the corner of Holloway Road and Fieldway Crescent, a few hundred yards up from Highbury Corner. It was here that in the late fifties and early sixties that the gay author and playwright Joe Orton, along with his lover Kenneth Halliwell, defaced 44 library books. The couple then hung around the library giggling every time an unsuspecting browser came across one of their obscene reviews typed carefully to fit in the dust-jackets of popular novels or an illustration swapped around from an incongrous book, for instance a nasty looking monkey would be placed in a gardening book where a picture of a rose should be.

Influential playwright Joe Orton may have become, however the library at the time thought the humour schoolboyish and obscene, and somehow worked out that the defacing was almost certainly Orton and Halliwell. They sent the two of them a fake letter pretending it was from the Town Hall and accusing them of dumping a car near their flat in Islington and Halliwell typed a furious response. Unfortunately the Library found it easy to prove it was the same typewriter that had been used to deface the library books and the two of them got, what seems today to be an incredibly stiff sentence for what seems to be relatively trivial vandalism, six months in jail. They also had to pay 18 shillings and four pence (approximately 92p) in overdue library fines.

The library in its Joe Orton Collection keeps, rather hypocritically, what it still has of the defaced books as an archive of a local literary great.

After 16 years together Halliwell ended up killing Orton by smashing him in the head with a hammer before he himself took an overdose of sleeping tablets. John Lahr in the biography of Orton Prick Up Your Ears described the scene like this:

“Halliwell lay nude on his back in the centre of the room, three feet from Orton’s writing desk. The back of his hands, the top of his chest, and his bald head were splattered with blood. Except for his arms, rigor mortis had set in. Halliwell’s gory pyjama top was draped over the desk chair. On the linoleum floor near him was a glass and a can of grapefruit juice which had speeded the twenty-two Nembutals into his blood, killing him within thirty seconds. Halliwell had died sooner than Orton, whose sheets were still warm when the police discovered him in bed, his head cratered like a burnt candle.”

In Prick Up Your Ears - the film of the biography, written by Alan Bennett, Orton’s sister while mixing the ashes of Orton and Halliwell together says “I think I’m putting in more of Joe than of Kenneth.” “It’s a gesture, dear, not a recipe,” replies Vanessa Redgrave who played Orton’s agent.

Joe Orton and Joe Meek, two of the most famous gay men of the sixties both died in tragic circumstances within a few months of each other in 1967 – the very year that the Sexual Offences Act was passed by parliament that decriminalised homosexual acts, in private, between two men over the age of 21. Kenneth Halliwell, though, just couldn’t contain his jealousy and frustration with his lover’s sexual behaviour, private or otherwise. It was this behaviour written about very graphically in Orton’s diary that Halliwell’s brief suicide note alludes to:

If you read his diary, all will be explained. KH PS: Especially the latter part.

The Tornadoes – Telstar

The Honeycombs – Have I The Right
Just Like Eddie – Heinz

Buy Joe Meek stuff here