Saturday, 28 August 2010

Existence Beyond the Guildhall: The Last Night of Punk

Do you remember where you were when you heard Michael Jackson had died? How about Princess Diana? My mother remembers hearing that Kennedy had been shot while she was doing the ironing.

For a group of local forty-somethings there's a time and place that will live with them in exactly the same way. Friday February 2 1979 - The Guildhall Newcastle. And it links the Staffordshire market town to a tale of rock 'n' roll excess and suspected murder that brought to an end the short life of a pantomime punk star and signalled the passing of an era.

In his excellent history of London music In the City (2009) Paul Du Noyer describes the Sex Pistols as the "last great music hall act." In retrospect it' s easy to understand where he's coming from. While in the seventies it appeared to the establishment that they represented the forces of anarchy that were never far from the surface of a society at war with itself, there was always something reassuringly traditional in their Dickensian posturing.

Indeed at one of their occasional get togethers the group took to the stage to the sound of Vera Lynn's There'll Always be an England and, as Du Noyer notes, it appeared the sentiment was genuine. John Lydon has gone further, claiming "there would never have been a Sex Pistols without dear old London town" and bemoaning the postmodern city with its corporate towers and smoke-free pubs. "Where's my England?" he demands. "I want it fucking back."

Lydon has always been an insightful commentator on the state of the nation. While the bunting and flags were flying to mark the Queen's silver jubilee in 1977 he warned that England was dreaming. God Save the Queen didn't call the monarch a moron but it was banned by the BBC and almost every other station and when it shot to number two that spot was left blank in the charts.

Made You A Moron
By this point original bassist Glen Matlock had been replaced by another young Londoner John Ritchie (also known as John Beverley). Ritchie had been a fan of the Pistols and dabbled with other faces on the London punk scene like Siouxsie Sue and Keith Levene. He looked the part and, in true showbiz fashion, was rechristened Sid Vicious.

Despite the sneering threat "we mean it man" Lydon was intelligent enough to understand that Rotten was a construct. Ritchie, on the other hand, thoroughly believed in Vicious and the self destructive rock 'n' roll mythology of which he was a pantomime product. It was destined to end badly and it did.

Pantomime Product
In the meantime punk had outgrown its London roots and every town from the North to the South boasted a crop of three chord wonders with practiced sneers and soaped- up hair. Staffordshire was no exception. Step forward the Verdict and the Veins and, the only ones to enjoy any degree of national/international success, Discharge.

This tale, however, involves a band whose short career has been eclipsed by the presence of one of its members on the local music scene for the past thirty years. For many, like fan Tony, they were local heroes. "I had my first pint after one of their gigs," he says. "And whistled UFO all the way home." The band in question is, of course, the wonderful Beyond the Wall.

Featuring Chris Bailey, Steve Colclough, Tim Simpson, John Oakes and the irrepressible Gary Jewess, Beyond the Wall combined punky swagger with some genuinely memorable melodies. And, like the Pistols, they were unmistakeably English. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and you'll still find Gary and John singing about bluebells and ten pound notes.

Gary& John: Still 'friendly' after all these years
While Beyond the Wall were attracting an ever growing fan base in North Staffs the leading lights of the London punk contingent were experiencing differing fortunes. Whereas the Pistols were happy to call themselves anarchists in an iconoclastic sense the Clash were earnestly raising the red flag and changing the political direction of a movement that, a couple of years earlier, had flirted dangerously with fascist imagery.

London Calling (curiously, given its 1979 release, Rolling Stone Magazine's album of the 80s) saw the Clash at their expansive best embracing everything from reggae to Americana while, without Matlock's pop sensibility, "the last great music hall act" were floundering and imploding. A chaotic US tour ensued before Lydon walked off stage and reclaimed his own Public Image.

Ritchie/Vicious, still under the Svengali-like control of erstwhile situationist Malcolm McClaren, recorded a couple of solo singles that were intended to establish him as a genuine rock 'n' roll star but My Way and Something Else only underlined the fact that, despite his now legendary status, he couldn't be taken seriously.

By this point, along with his American girlfriend Nancy Spungen, he was struggling with an escalating heroin problem. Let loose in New York the couple took refuge in the famous Chelsea Hotel - the same Chelsea Hotel where Bob Dylan had written Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands and Janis Joplin told Leonard Cohen she preferred handsome men - and it was here that Spungen died and Vicious, protesting his innocence, was charged with her murder.

Nancy: Something Else
Writing in a tabloid newspaper A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess said it was entirely predictable that punk would "end in evil" - as though the movement had never been about anything else other than a bit of ultra-violence. Vicious was released on bail and the orange was ticking.

Back in North Staffs another Beyond the Wall fan, Dean, recalls his own reaction. "I heard it on the news before I went to college," he says. "And I thought 'how bloody stupid'. I know someone had died but it felt more like a farce." Farcical or not Vicious was still a cult figure to many young punk rockers and as they prepared for the Wall's next gig all eyes were on events in New York.

The Guildhall is an eighteenth-century building with some Victorian modifications that dominates the town centre. In recent years it's been a failed pub and has been sadly neglected. Today, fully restored, its the public interface of Newcastle Borough Council. Back in the seventies though it  could be hired for wedding receptions, birthday parties and exhibitions by local art groups. And on a cold February night in 1979 Beyond the Wall took to its low stage and what followed was truly remarkable.

Memory can be unreliable. As any investigator will tell you, ask half a dozen people to describe what they saw at a particular time and you're likely to get four or five differing accounts. When the event in question took place over thirty years ago the problem is compounded. "I think Discharge played too," Tony says. "Did they bollocks. It was the Wall and that was that" Dean insists. "I know it was packed" Tony recalls. Dean nods. "Yeah, I was sweating like fuck."

In an era without mobile phones or Twitter it's difficult to understand how the news from New York was conveyed to the band and their wildly pogoing fans. But at some point in the evening rumours began to emerge that Sid Vicious had died. It was an overdose some people said. It may have been suicide others suggested. "Yeah I heard he'd topped himself" Tony says. "God knows how anyone knew. Was someone listening to a radio?"

Stokebeat describes the evening as the highlight of Beyond the Wall's career. "As rumours and then news filtered through," the website records, "the crowd and the band rose to the occasion." Neale and Pete remember the night too. "John Oakes was particularly cut up about Sid's death" Neale recalls. "I think a lot of young punks felt betrayed by such a senseless act." "If I remember correctly," Pete adds, "John was dressed like Sid Vicious that night." Several witnesses recall people crying. Others describe acts of self mutilation. "Some people just went nuts" Dean says. "The atmosphere was electric."

"It was really charged and vibed up," adds Louis. "I do remember feeling sad that Sid had died but, also, that the crying and gnashing of teeth was bogus. The Sid thing had long been a freak show and people were upset about the passing of their own rebellion. The sadness about this man was genuine but misplaced. Sid's death came at a time when the nihilism and existentialism of punk was shown to be a hollow shell compared to life and death."


The day after the gig Tony remembers going out to buy every newspaper which he saved until he moved house a few years ago. Dean doesn't recall seeing Beyond the Wall ever again. "I don't know if it was their last gig," he says. "But it felt like it. It felt as though the seventies and punk were over."

Indeed within a few months Margaret Thatcher had toppled the crisis ridden government of James Callaghan and Britain entered an era of right wing Tory rule that saw the face of the country changed irrevocably. As for the characters featured in this tale well, they were changed too. "It's like nothing happened before punk but all the choices I've made since are influenced by it to some degree," Tony tells me. "And I wish Gary Jewess would release those Beyond the Wall tapes." Now that would be something else.

To learn more about the North Staffordshire music scene during the 1970s & 1980s visit and the visitors to whose guestbook deserve a special mention. So thanks etc etc....

Monday, 23 August 2010

Borough Boy: A Chance Encounter With Leslie Marr

I don't usually attend exhibition openings. While I'm grateful for the  invitations, luke-warm wine and self congratulatory bonhomie don't really appeal to me. No, I'd much rather leave my viewing until the glitterati have departed and I can mingle with the public safe in the knowledge that I won't have to explain for the hundredth time that I'm NOT a journalist.

Recently however I made an exception based purely on the fact that the invitation arrived in the post and was printed on an attractive reproduction of one of the featured paintings. The exhibition in question was a group show at Keele University featuring a number of contemporary artists which, as is the nature of these things, turned out to be a rather mixed bag.

Having got off the bus at the wrong stop and  then caught in a shower I was already beginning to regret my decision but there was a surprise in store that changed the complexion of the evening entirely. Unbeknown to almost everyone present Professor Ray Pahl had chosen the occasion to donate a painting to Keele and a ceremony had been duly arranged to which the artist of the work, Leslie Marr, had been invited.

                              Leslie Marr, Prof Ray Pahl, Vice Chancellor Dame Janet Finch

Following a short question and answer session in which the reluctant Marr was skillfully prompted by Professor Pahl it was time for that luke-warm wine and the opening of the main event. Glass in hand, browsing  rarely seen portraits from the university's own collection by celebrated twentieth century artists including Jacob Kramer, Julian Trevelyan and George Clausen I was approached by the curator and asked if I'd like to interview the visiting artist. For once I didn't immediately deny the journalist tag.

Leslie Marr is 88 years old but you'd never guess. Accompanied by his charming wife he could easily pass as 20 years younger. But here he was- a living link to the history of  British modern art- to the world of Kossoff and Auerbach and, as I discovered, to his one time father-in-law David Bomberg.

Marr met Bomberg's step-daughter Dinora Mendelson carrying her portfolio in the Wheatsheaf in Soho. "I liked what I saw", he smiled, clearly referring to Dinora the woman as much as Mendelson the artist. Immediately Marr defected to Bomberg's class at the Borough Polytechnic (now London South Bank University) and so began an association that would result in his marriage to Dinora in 1948 and his membership of the Borough Group which he served as secretary.

The Borough Group was established in 1946 to develop the ideas that Bomberg promoted and to provide a platform for furthering those ideas. Bomberg had studied at the Slade under Sickert and displayed an  understanding of avant-garde European painting such as Cubism and Futurism. His early work, described by Marr as his "intellectual work", was abstract and geometric. He exhibited with the Vorticists although he declined membership. Slowly, however, he developed a more "intuitive" style akin to Expressionism. This is the work Marr prefers.

                                               Leslie Marr by David Bomberg

The Borough Group can't really be described as a 'school' as all the artists involved were encouraged to develop their own styles but Bomberg exerted his influence over his followers in a sometimes ruthless manner. On one occasion he expelled a member because she was pregnant and, as she was likely to get pregnant again, could never be a professional artist.

"He was a dreadful man" Marr told me although the two had been close. "He felt neglected and this made him bitter. Before his death (in 1957) he was sharing a house with a woman he never spoke to and living on toast."

With the passing of Bomberg and his divorce from Dinora, Marr's link with this fascinating period of British art history was broken. "I still respect him as an artist", he said. "And it's ironic that now he's talked about as the greatest colourist since Turner. He'd like that." I should, perhaps, go to more opening nights.