"Everyone I knew, and/or admired, moved on from punk as soon as it was given a name. There was no room for the green-bearded man, the besuited Lesbian or the Francis Bacon obsessive. The richness of that scene had been traduced to the saleable gob'n'pogo archetype: spiky hair, permanent sneer, brothel creepers, Lewis Leathers. McLaren and Westwood's commentary about the commodification of culture had itself become commodified. Maybe they intended it that way…"
Paul Gorman on late 70s King's Road and the birth of British punk.
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
In 1973 one of my older brothers, Timothy, was employed as an assistant at the shop Domidium in the Kings Road, just ahead of the curve of World's End, where the Bluebird Café is now situated and, if Heat magazine is to be believed, Kylie Minogue sometimes breakfasts.
Domidium sold ethnic, post-hippy: Indian mirrored cushions and Moroccan rugs, that stuff. The first time I visited Tim there, having left the 31 at its last stop in Langton Street, I walked past the glam emporium Granny Takes A Trip, where I knew Ronnie Wood and Keith Richard bought their gear, and encountered the slogan "Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die" emblazoned above the small shop at number 430.
My hero Alice Cooper had been talking in the NME about James Dean's line: "Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse", so I understood the ethos, but was too afraid to enter, especially alone. It seemed to my untutored eyes to be a Teddy Boy joint, although the establishment, by that time, was moving away from neo-Edwardianism and pushing its line of rocker clothes and biker t-shirts, with zoot suits on the side.
Whatever, I steered clear. Coming from north-west London I had good reason to fear Teds. They were worse than the hardcore hoolies of Finsbury Park who terrorised us outside the gigs we attended at The Rainbow, where I once watched these men, some of them already well into middle age, rip up the stage and trash seats in fury at a woefully short set by Chuck Berry. Teds came from Harrow, had jobs, Ford Consuls and birds with haystack beehives, forcefully applied make-up, skinny legs, short fur swing coats and old-fashioned spike heels. I knew this because Nigel, who lived next door to my family in Hendon, was the bassist in revival band Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll, and brought home a series of them, much to the consternation of his poor old mother.
Timothy's appearance changed over the months of his employment at Domidium. From feather-cut he went to a hennaed rocker quiff, Italianate, by Pascal & Jack above the stalls of Berwick Street market. He had an earring, straight 501 button-fly Levi's and tooled pointy-toed cowboy boots from Terry de Havilland. With those he wore American slogan t-shirts and a black-and-yellow corduroy elasticated-waist bomber jacket with "Rockets" emblazoned on the back from The Emperor Of Wyoming.
Sometimes he wore a most unusual shirt: black with a cutaway Capri collar which stood up around the neck, cap sleeves and a thick waistband high on the midriff. He told me he had bought this and his straight Levi's at 430 Kings Road, which by this time had changed image and name to Sex. Here he also picked up a pair of custom-made jeans with plastic pockets and a pink t-shirt with zips over the nipples and pornographic text scrawled upon it. He once lent this to a posh cookery writer of his acquaintance to wear to a party and never saw it again. Tim also coveted, but never bought, the white brothel creepers sold by the odd couple who owned the shop, Malcolm and Vivienne. He'd become acquainted with them while queueing to cash money in Barclays or drinking in the local pub The Roebuck or the wine bar The Last Resort.
Chelsea was a hotch-potch of extraordinary characters in those days. I recall one older man, balding with a comb-over, who dyed his very long and curly beard a vivid hue of green and strolled up and down the thoroughfare with a parrot on his shoulder for no more apparent reason than to liven things up. One ancient Lesbian regularly paraded in immaculately cut tweed suits, with a silver-topped cane, men's shoes and a trilby sat atop her Brilliantine-ed hair. One obnoxious young man, name of Phillip, was nicknamed "Bette Davis" because of his ludicrous jet-black coiffure. He combined that with a collar-less shiny Beatle suit from Acme Attractions and an unending stream of catty asides. It was not uncommon to note the presence in local cafes and shops of exquisites such as Derek Jarman, Duggie Fields and Andrew Logan. Janet Street-Porter would be here, Edna O'Brien there, drug deals occurred at Jean Junction, I was told, though I was never party to them. Lunchtime drinking marathons were held in shabby places like The Man In The Moon and The Markham. On more than one occasion Marianne Faithfull could be observed in The World's End pub throwing back glass after glass after glass of red wine as though she was dying of thirst.
The Trafalgar, a very seedy hole, featured blowsy strip-shows on weekdays. Timothy told me how he had slipped in there for a pint one day and a kerfuffle broke out: one of the strippers became indignant when she noticed a punter had furtively released his cock from the confines of his trousers and was vigorously manipulating it as she shimmied and sashayed. "Well what d'you expect me to do?" the bloke reasoned as he was ejected into the noonday sunlight.
Gene Krell, co-owner of the later incarnation Granny Takes A Trip, later told me the heights of aberrant behaviour were scaled when one clothing outlet bought a lion from the pet shop at Harrods and kept it on a chain inside the shop during opening hours until the local authorities were alerted by frightened customers. This may have been Alkasura, whose tortured owner John Lloyd used to stalk World's End garbed in a monk's habit complete with cowl. He was to commit suicide via self-immolation within a couple of years.
When I was 15, over the August Bank Holiday of 1975, Tim commandeered me to assist him in the decoration of the nearby flat of one of his customers, a batik artist and opera singer called Thetis. If rumour were to be believed, she had once arrived home to find her brother, a priest, furiously masturbating beneath one of her artworks: a life-size print of Christ on the cross. Thetis didn't really mind speculation about that. What she didn't want leaking out was the fact that her real name was Susan. The decorating job took us a week and she wasn't at all pleased with the end result. By painting the entire place in eggshell finish gloss, all the surfaces gleamed insistently, creating a blinding effect for the occupant during the hours of daylight.
Every night after work we repaired to The Roebuck, the hub for the shopkeepers and restaurant workers in the immediate area. The staff at the pub didn't pay much heed to the fact that I was an all-too-obvious underage drinker, allowing me to sit back, learn how to drink Guinness and smoke Senior Service and observe the antics of these fascinating creatures.
One evening we were joined by the ginger geezer Malcolm, who wore a black rubber t-shirt and assiduously relieved my brother of every spare Senior Service he had. We talked about straight Levi's (I had just acquired my first pair) and when I caught him sneaking the last cigarette from my brother's packet I couldn't control my giggles. He looked at me fiercely and then nonchalantly lit it.
Behind him were a collection of young men about four or five years older than me. I took them to be French; they had the look of the continental students who were our "paying guests" at home in the mid-60s; skinny t-shirts, mohair jumpers, elephant cords or blue jeans, baseball boots and unkempt grown-out crops. I certainly don't remember any green hair but I can see the profile of one in particular now if I close my eyes: disdainful, with an unwavering gaze of deliberate disorientation. They left -- I gathered much later to audition the surly quiet one in front of the Sex shop jukebox -- and the evening swirled around me.
At one point an aggressive black man pleaded with Timothy to give him Francis Bacon's telephone number. Timothy had never met Bacon, although he had once been invited to attend the great man's famously filthy studio by another drunken painter, Sir Francis Rose. Very taken with Timothy's appearance when they met in The Devonshire Arms, Stratford Road, Rose had made a date to escort my brother to Bacon, who, he insisted, would want to paint his portrait on the spot. Timothy stood him up.
Later that night in The Roebuck an observant barman attempted to have me removed but relented under pressure from my new friends. Somebody I took for Freddie Mercury in my derangement -- but who I now believe to be John Cale -- held court imperiously at another table. Upon closing time my brother was copiously sick over his blue boiler suit in the back of a black cab outside a flat in Maida Vale. The cabby ordered him to clean it up. I drifted indoors and put on The Wailers' "Natty Dread". Timothy entered, turned green, and was sick again.
In time he gave me that black shirt; it had become too small for him. I wore it with my Big Smith painter jeans in the late summer of 1976. Dressed in that outfit one night I told Tim I was going to see The Damned. "You'll love it," he pronounced. "Visconti's a genius. You should see The Leopard too." He looked crestfallen when I informed him that I was off to see a new group, not a film.
I also urged the shirt on my first girlfriend. She wasn't impressed because it didn't go with her dungarees but did take from Timothy his short-sleeved Acme summer shirt.
One time she borrowed it to wear to a party and it was never seen again.
I myself last wore the Capri-collared shirt in 1978, to a terrible show by some third-rate new wavers at the Music Machine near Mornington Crescent. Uniformed Sid-a-likes sneered that it made me look "a poof". Like I cared, but still…
Everyone I knew, and/or admired, moved on from punk as soon as it was given a name. There was no room for the green-bearded man, the besuited Lesbian or the Francis Bacon obsessive. The richness of that scene had been traduced to the saleable gob'n'pogo archetype: spiky hair, permanent sneer, brothel creepers, Lewis Leathers. McLaren and Westwood's commentary about the commodification of culture had itself become commodified. Maybe they intended it that way…
But I kept the shirt.
In 2000 I interviewed Glen Matlock for my book The Look. Unfairly maligned in the received history of punk, Glen is, after all, the Sex Pistol whose eye for design enabled him to recognise the extraordinary achievements of McLaren and Westwood years ahead of the pack, from future band-mates and style magazine writers to Vogue to, well, the V&A. Talking about the items he sold as an assistant at 430 Kings Road between 1973-5, Glen mentioned unprompted the Capri-collared shirt, pointing out it had been half-inched from a design in a catalogue for 50s menswear outlet Vince's Man Shop.
I've never seen another, not worn by any of the Pistols or the scenesters, nor in the footage or photographs I have scanned exhaustively. If I didn't still possess it, a little washed out and crumpled, I would doubt its existence myself.
It's not among Nellee Hooper's 160-or-so strong collection of McLaren/Westwood items, and neither is it included in the V&A's Westwood retrospective, where pride of place has been reserved for the most exotic of her creations. But to me this small piece of cloth with its intriguing design speaks volumes. Mainly it tells me about a lost world filled with fascinating adults indulging in the exciting and the forbidden, forever.
Pictures courtesy of Jiri Rezac
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
has written for a wide variety of publications from Music Week
in London and Screen International
in LA to the Evening Standard
, Daily Telegraph
, Radio Times
, The Independent
. He has also published the following books: The Look: Adventures In Pop & Rock Fashion
(Sanctuary, 2001) with a foreword by Malcolm McLaren ("No crease is left unironed" -- Vanity Fair
), In Their Own Write
(Sanctuary, 2001) with a foreword by Charles Shaar Murray ("The definitive account of the collective madness known as the music press" -- Tony Parsons), Nine Lives With Goldie
(Hodder & Stoughton, 2002) which Lynn Barber described as "Fascinating". Straight With Boy George
is forthcoming from Century/Random House). Read more articles by Paul Gorman here