SO MUCH FOR THE UNDERGROUND
"As I sit and listen to Galloway, surrounded by Muslim elders and a handful of the Trot faithful, I can't help but think that someone is spinning in his grave in Highgate Cemetery at the prospect of the Marxist hand in Islamic glove approach to radicalism today. In an area noted for its radical heritage -- Poplarism in 1921 and the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 -- it's sad to see things reduced to this."
Andrew Stevens takes a look at music, literature, art and politics on the East London Line
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
It begins with the sound of drums and bass in unison as I descend the stairs of Whitechapel tube station, having navigated my way around the ever-present diminutive Bangladeshi ticket tout and swiped myself through with my Oyster card. 'Public Image Limited' by Public Image Limited (taken from their debut, Public Image, of course) kicks in on the walkman with Jah Wobble's thundering bass competing for attention against Jim Walker's pounding drum-beat. Through the strains of post-punk I fumble to get to grips with the device, the passengers ascending the stairs en masse become annoyed at my stationary presence impeding their progress, delaying the question "Finished with your Travelcard, mate?", something I am asked every evening, as it happens. The introduction of the pre-pay Oyster card scheme has seemingly not put the enterprising young Bangladeshi out of business. Whitechapel has always played home to the blagger and he is no exception. Finally, as the volume increases, my journey on one of London's shortest tube lines can commence.
The East London Line has proved to be a fascination to me since I arrived in London and (unintentionally) found myself living in the (then) deeply-unfashionable area of New Cross in the South London backwater borough of Lewisham. A fraction under five miles in length and with six trains running an hour at all times, the line connects the arts incubator of Goldsmiths College at New Cross with the more commissioned world of the Shoreditch gallery, running through such lovably shabby districts as Whitechapel, Wapping and Rotherhithe in the process. You could say that the line acts as something of both a beacon for the arts and a conductor for talent. Tonight I am on my way to see Art Brut, one of the bands featured on The New Cross sampler of bands on the Angular Recording Company -- the label of the hour as far as promoting the nascent post-punk to have emerged around New Cross this year. Art Brut, alongside agit-post-punks Bloc Party, have, of course, been lapped-up in familiar AOR frenzies by larger concerns since their low budget debuts, but it's still possible to catch them playing small venues like Deptford's Paradise Bar , previously an edgy dive playing Jungle for local Caribbean youth but now the locus of the post-punk revolution happening around these parts. As the train passes Wapping, Rotherhithe and Surrey Quays, I notice I am sharing my compartment with an Andy Warhol lookalike and two skinny girls with ra-ra skirts and perhaps hastily-applied make-up (looking like Annabel Lin of Bow Wow Wow and Toyah, respectively). As the trains pulls into New Cross station the sight of the legendary uber-ubiquitous gig-attendee Jim Rat-Tail merely confirms I am where I am supposed to be.
This takes place against the backdrop of the second set of London elections in the capital for the Mayor and grandly-titled London Assembly, for which we have the devolutionist leanings of New Labour to thank. A UK Independence Party sticker on the station front for local boy mayoral candidate, the boxing promoter Frank Maloney, reminds me as much. Peckham-born Frank, the straight-talking cockney for whom political correctness holds no appeal, has just said that he won't be campaigning in Camden because of its gay population and will be concentrating on Southeast London. Yet New Cross itself, indeed very familiar to him, is not fertile ground for his brand of populist xenophobia and appeals for a return to the civility of yesteryear. At the last local council elections, it returned two Socialist Party (formerly Militant Labour) councillors and a Green (the London mayoral candidate Darren Johnson). The deprived area may have been singled-out for government regeneration largesse through its New Cross Gate New Deal for Communities local quango (known as, in patronising regeneration-speak, 'NXG NDC') but a group of former Goldsmiths College students who have stayed in the area are lobbying for their own Parish Council to recognise the area's unique character. In part, this is born of frustration with the local council, whose Creative Lewisham Agency is pouring money into the local arts but failing to recognise the musical contribution made by the area. It is known for the prize-winning Laban Centre on the banks of Deptford Creek and the galleries that have sprung up in the late 90s to capitalise on the profile of Goldsmiths College and the BritArt of Damien Hirst, but the Angular bands are relative latecomers to all this, though the college is responsible for bringing quite a few of the key players together in itself.
Art Brut (their name taken from the term for no formal training in the arts) are playing the Pop Of The Tops night at the Paradise Bar, this weekly showcase for the local scene rapidly gaining much media interest being put on by Caffy St Luce, the brains behind the Rocklands Tourist Board set up to promote the area's music. Caffy, a feisty young black girl, can rightly point to the area's musical heritage -- not only the bands on Deptford Fun City Records in the late 70s such as Squeeze and ATV, but also the fact that Malcolm McLaren leant his Situationist craft and routine while a student at Goldsmiths College. There is much to keep her occupied today, alongside the Angular bands like Lady Fuzz and The Swear, there are Corporation:Blend, Saint Rose and Special Needs. Before Art Brut take the stage however, local historian Neil Gordon-Orr, a punk survivor from the first time round who now gives talks at the Use Your Loaf social centre nearby, gets up to plug his pamphlet on the area's musical heritage criss-crossed with a bit of radical politics. I am stood at the bar with the former guitarist from C86 mainstays the June Brides and we observe few of the younger members of the audience paying much in the way of attention, this being year zero and all that to them. Art Brut's manifesto is mind-blowingly simple -- the old 'celebrate yourself while you can' formula, as evidenced on their simple but effective single 'Formed A Band'. As I leave the venue, I see flyposters for local nights such as 'Fear Of Music', so clearly the whole art rock thing is catching on if promoters are naming their nights after Talking Heads albums. On the front of the Prangsta shop, I also see one for the Gluerooms, a night of experimental music and toys. It reminds me of the gang of girls I used to see around when I went to Goldsmiths myself -- all of them wore fairy wings.
Another occasion takes me to the other end of the East London Line -- Shoreditch. The station, actually at the north end of Brick Lane among the Indian eateries and try-hards' bars that have become the tourist cash cow for an otherwise deprived borough, shares its name with the now casually-derided locale to the north of the City of London. It's threatened with closure by the planned but perpetually-delayed extension of the East London Line -- a policy I worked on myself during my three years of working for Lewisham Council as it happens. I'm here to see Victor Malloy, an experimentalist duo from Brighton, play a free show at the Spread Eagle at the bottom of Kingsland Road. However, it being a free show, the tiny venue can't cope and the friendly bouncer says I can try to get in but he doesn't hold out much hope. Not to be defeated, I make my away directly across the road, where a guy handing out flyers beckons me into On The Rocks for their 'Punks Jump Up' evening, billed as a collision of punk and reggae like it used to be. The feel of the flyer evokes the 'Sound' discothèque of Christiane F, the early 80s West German narco-flick, while the DJ looks as if he honestly thinks he is pioneering a new sound or something if the look on his face is anything to go by. Shoreditch try-hards stand cheek-by-jowl with middle aged suited types from the City, who've probably made their way north to see what the Evening Standard hype is all about. I'm out of there. I retreat to the Bricklayers' Arms on Charlotte Road, the infamous BritArt hangout popularised by Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin due to its proximity to the White Cube gallery on Hoxton Square, for a few and witness a guy in a wedding dress, white face paint and sailor's cap spin electro for a few records. After last orders, I make my way across the road to the Stuckist Gallery, where friend of 3AM Charles Thomson debates with me in his slippers the value of BritArt and shows me the piece by Sean Hall that's been making headlines in the art world recently.
The following evening, I meet with 3AM's Andrew Gallix and Gerard Evans (AKA George Berger) in The Foundry bar-cum-gallery, which sits adjacent to London Mayor Ken Livingstone's re-election campaign HQ of all things. The Foundry, somewhat redolent of a crusty meeting place literally set in a former bank, was set up alongside the Hoxton arts boom of the late 90s and is a work of art in itself, which is fortunate given that most of what they show in there isn't very good. Somehow we end up in the Kick Bar on Shoreditch High Street, a football-themed bar that demonstrates the collision of all aspects of popular culture with art in the late 90s. Tonight is an event hosted by philosophyfootball.com to commemorate St George's Day in an inclusive and non-jingoistic way. We act inclusive for a while and depart for the Bricklayers' again, passing a Chinese guy selling flashing necklaces in the process. There we see Elle, a friend of my flatmate who's just taken a job working as an assistant to Fiona Banner, the Turner Prize nominee. My flat is situated near Whitechapel tube station on the East London Line, immediately adjacent to both Jubilee Street (home of the anarchist social club founded by Rudolph Rocker in the late 1890s) and Sidney Street (scene of the 1911 siege of the same name by Russian anarchists). So it's conveniently located to take all this in as it happens for the next few months. My flatmate studies at Goldsmiths College and hosts a regular spoken word night in the Indo bar (where a Palestinian flag hangs over the bar) opposite the East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road, if you're passing.
The Sunday sees me handing out leaflets on Brick Lane near Shoreditch station as the tourist throng and the Kelly Osborne lookalikes pass me and I listen to 'Mongoloid' by Devo on my walkman. My mother often has a stall selling crafted handbags there but she's not here today. I have offered my services to the London Assembly Against Racism, who are only too aware that the British National Party could gain a seat on the London Assembly if the turnout is as low as people are predicting. The British National Party may be riding higher in the opinion polls than ever -- thanks to their slick rebranding -- but they're still the heirs of the National Front skinhead movement who brought violence to the streets of New Cross in the late 70s. I stand with Steve, a fellow tall Northerner and a member of the local Labour Party, who coordinates the campaign from their Whitechapel office near to the gallery of the same name. Considering the amount of people who hand out flyers for clubs and restaurants on the street to routine indifference, the public actually seem interested in what we have to say. A group of young Asian men in Ted Baker and Evisu offer to take a pile off our hands to give to their neighbours. It's not long before my stock is exhausted. That night, on the invitation of Charles Thomson, I return to the Spread Eagle to see the Deptford Beach Babes, a proto-punk surf band fronted by Ella Guru, formerly of 90s fanzine favourites the Voodoo Queens. The Spread Eagle is a curious venue -- a former strip bar with a pole still mounted on the stage whose toilets advertise all manner of clandestine gigs where locations have to be ferreted out by calling a mobile phone number.
Spurred by a leaflet pushed through my door, I attend a public meeting of the Respect Unity Coalition in my local community centre. The party is led by George Galloway, the expelled Labour MP known for his fondness of designer wear and womanising - an attempt to fuse the radical politics of the Trotskyite Socialist Workers' Party with the anti-war Muslim opinion that has emerged since Blair's war in Iraq. As I sit and listen to Galloway, surrounded by Muslim elders and a handful of the Trot faithful, I can't help but think that someone is spinning in his grave in Highgate Cemetery at the prospect of the Marxist hand in Islamic glove approach to radicalism today. In an area noted for its radical heritage -- Poplarism in 1921 and the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 -- it's sad to see things reduced to this. As I leave the centre, two pretty Asian girls in salwa kameez sashay past me, completely oblivious to what's going on inside in their name.
The NME referred to the Rhythm Factory on Whitechapel Road as being a "grimy, sweaty hole fast becoming the epicentre of London's underground rock scene" but when I visit there to see Wolfman and the Side Effects (an acolyte of local heroes The Libertines, who are by now plunged into atrophy by frontman Pete Doherty's narcotics problem) and Selfish Cunt, the much-vaunted of the confrontational electro acts taking the London stage (banned by the ICA no less) in the tradition of Throbbing Gristle et al, I am far from taking with the place, it seeming more akin to an All Bar One chain pub than anything else. The clientele might appear like extras from the graveyard boogie scene of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video but it's nowhere near as genuine as what's going on across the river in New Cross.
This realisation takes me back to the Paradise Bar to the Pop Of The Tops night to see Angular favourites The Swear and the much-hyped Poptones act from north of the river, The Others. I haven't seen such fervour since Britpop -- nor tomboy girls in Fred Perry tops either -- and I'm not sure if that's a good or a bad thing. Either way, the place is considerably more packed than my last outing here and promoter Caffy St Luce is appreciably loving it. Alongside the girls in diagonal stripes and garish make-up there are blokes in Siouxie t-shirts who probably remember all of this from last time round. The NME article extolling the area's virtues seems to be responsible for half of those in attendance, though the DJ playing Aphex Twin appears to be considerable out of touch with the proceedings. This all takes place against the backdrop of another Angular Records sampler, Rip Off Your Labels, being released and a triangulated festival in three venues over three nights confirming the scene's position as the capital's defining moment musically of 2004. The Paradise Bar is the (Camden) Good Mixer for the 00s, just don't tell Frank Maloney that's all.
After this, I recorded a psychogeographic encounter for 3AM:
"Turn out of New Cross station, down Amersham Vale, past the pet hospital, allotments, police station and Deptford Green secondary school. Turn left onto Edward Street, past the Celestial Church of Christ, past the tube drivers' staff room and under the railway lines. Continue round so you're on Sandford Street with Canary Wharf now in view, past all the England flags hanging off council flat balconies and Vietnamese slogans in windows. Pass BJ's cafe and continue on where it morphs into Trundleys Road, up past all the scrap yards and under the railway arches with fly-tipped sofas underneath them, past all the Millwall banners on houses and cars, past the derelict Rival Envelope Co. Ltd depot and the Old Manor House pub onto Bush Road to navigate the one-way system around Surrey Quays tube station. Pass Tantastic and the Docklands Cafe with their Millwall banners and cross at the pawnbrokers to get onto the Lower Road, where the Swiss Re Tower comes into view, passing Jubilee Sandwiches, La Cigale and the Surrey Docks pub. Then past Surrey Quays tube station up to the pedestrian crossing (replete with half-torn BNP St George stickers) next to The Caulkers pub with its Millwall banners up, past The China Hall pub and the Swedish Seaman's Church. Cross the road and turn onto Surrey Quays Road, past the old Dock Offices and Canada Water tube station and continue round onto Needleham Street, past the printing works for the Daily Mail and Evening Standard, taking care to traverse the plot of wasteland-cum-skatepark and down a path through unkept shrubbery onto the Albion Estate, past all the Millwall banners, before coming onto Brunel Road and past the Adam and Eve pub with its Respect sticker outside, whereupon you enter Rotherhithe tube station and travel through the orange 70s decor, onto the platform and take a train through the Brunel-built tunnel one stop under the River Thames to Wapping tube station, alighting here. Travel up Wapping Lane, past the warehouses-cum-yuppie flats, past the White Swan pub and the unclean water of Tobacco Dock, turning left onto The Highway, then right onto Dellow Street. Then you turn right onto Cable Street, past Shadwell tube station, then right onto Watney Street, past the Old House at Home pub and Shadwell DLR station and onto Watney Market before hitting Commercial Road, turning right there to pass the disused synagogue and turning left up Jubilee Street, site of the anarchist social club in the late 1800s/early 1900s, past a solitary West Ham FC banner. Turn right onto Adelina Street, past the Rinkoff Bakery (the last remaining Jewish bakery in the East End) and onto Sidney Street, site of the seige of Sidney Street by Russian anarchists in 1911, before turning left onto Whitechapel Road, past the infamous Blind Beggar pub of Kray Twins fame. Continue up Whitechapel Road, past the Grave Maurice pub of Morrissey fame, past Urban Bar and the Royal London Hospital, before passing the East London Mosque, Indo bar and the Rhythm Factory club then the Nag's Head strip bar ("£10 - girl of your choice"). Pass the Aldgate East tube and the Whitechapel Gallery (maybe checking out Freedom Books the anarchist bookseller down Angel Alley) and up Osborn Street onto the now infamous Brick Lane of Banglatown, up past a plethora of Indian restaurants, before hitting the Old Truman Brewery with Cafe 1001, 93 Feet East and the Vibe Bar. This then brings you to Shoreditch tube station."
In a capital fast being homogenised by chain pubs, regeneration babble and estate agent speak, it's important to remind yourself of this kind of thing occasionally.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is a Chief Editor for 3am Magazine and lives in London, England.