Remembering the glory days of the British rock underground.
Living in Notting Hill today feels a little like arriving at a party just as things are winding up, with all the interesting guests long gone. Portobello Road, once the hub of the underground, has long since lost more or less all the interesting and alternative shops and businesses that were scattered throughout its length, the former Princess Alexandra/Portobello Gold where Hawkwind, Motorhead and the like once lurked now a vacuously trendy wine bar co-owned by Ed Sheeran and the hangout of reality TV stars and second division models and Ladbroke Grove offering no hint of its former status as a central hub of the UK underground from the late Sixties into the 1990s. Well, that’s life, I suppose.
Once upon a time, it was all happening. The alternative press, alternative records labels, shops and scenesters – Rough Trade, Vinyl Solution, Virgin, Island, Frendz magazine, Mick Farren, Caroline Coon and all the rest, now long gone apart from Rough Trade, which somehow hangs in as the last shop standing, and Coon, who is still a local resident and still very much on the cultural underground – that ran from the hippy days through the punk scene and into a more vague ‘alternative culture before being priced out or moving on from the Portobello Road scene. The Notting Hill Carnival, the history of which has been rewritten to remove its genuine multicultural origins where bands like Pink Floyd and Hawkwind played gigs alongside the Jamaican acts. And all the bands that made their home in the area, creating an enclave of post-hippy revolutionary underground rock with the aforementioned acts, the Pink Fairies, the Edgar Broughton Band and the Deviants among the bigger names, running through to The Clash and Transvision Vamp, all of whom eulogised their home turf in music. I’m not sure if there is a league table of areas of Britain that have been sung about but if there is, then Notting Hill must be up near the top, even inspiring Kim Fowley to pen – with Cat Stevens – an uncharacteristically chirpy ode to Portobello Road that was performed by Ellie Janov in 1967. When it was a collection of squats, art collectives and creatives, it must’ve been quite the place. As with everywhere and everything, the monied and the soulless ruined it. The house down the road from us recently sold for £25 million and a one-bedroom flat is likely to cost you a couple of grand a week to rent. The oligarchs and the insanely rich from Saudi Arabia and China are gobbling up property that they don’t even live in and every privately-owned house seems to be under a constant state of reconstruction, with new basement car parks, cinema and swimming pools boosting the self-importance of the billionaire owners as certainly as they are undermining the foundations of the immediate area. Notting Hill still has its poor people – the council and housing association tenants who sometimes live side-by-side with the super-rich – something that does give the area a sense of balance and authenticity, though how long it will be before the public housing is diminished to the point of non-existence is an interesting question. I like Notting Hill and I think it still has a fascinating vibe – the second-hand book and clothes shops of Pembridge Road (and the Record Exchange around the corner) that seem immune to change, the local eccentrics that can still be seen wandering the streets, the odd shops that have held out against the touristification of Portobello and even the amusement from seeing the rich and spoiled in their little cultural enclaves. But it’s not what it was and that seems a shame.
What it was – from the days when it became the centre of the British underground and pre-punk anarchy to the point when the hippy movement finally fizzled away – is captured on Deviation Street – High Times in Ladbroke Grove 1967 – 1975, a typically thorough three-CD collection from Grapefruit Records, just released via Cherry Red. As you might expect, if you are at all familiar with similar collections on the label, the music here runs the gamut of the familiar and the forgotten – or perhaps never known to begin with – and gives a good taste of just what was out there, from the defiantly underground to the pretty commercial.
There are several odes to Notting Hill across the discs – the collection opens with Quintessence’s (Getting It Straight in ) Notting Hill Gate, a national anthem of sorts even though the band were a mix of Australian and American ex-pats, newly relocated to the epicentre of Britain’s alternative scene. The track, a moody, groovy, spaced-out number that has a 1970s porn soundtrack vibe, is – of course – about everything but ‘getting it straight’, at least not in the way you might associate with being ‘straight’. It was a track evocative and symbolic enough of its time and place to inspire the 1970 documentary Getting it Straight in Notting Hill Gate. Roger Bunn’s Powis Square Child is harder work unless you really like solo guitar folk angst while Ram John Holder’s Notting Hill Eviction Blues and Ladbroke Grove Blues are both very area specific grooves, the latter reeling off as many local streets as you might think is possible to squeeze into three minutes. The former speaks to a problem that was clearly as prevalent then as it was now – though back then, the eviction was as likely to be from a squat than from a flat suddenly made unaffordable. The same issues pop up on The Deviants‘ Slum Lord, a track from their second album Disposable. The Deviants also appear with the track that gives this collection its name, Deviation Street, taken from their extraordinary debut LP Ptoof!, which remains a masterpiece of the bizarre and an experimental classic that the band could never quite live up to on future releases.
Hawkwind are here, of course – a 1969 demo of debut album opener Hurry On Sundown, recorded when the band were still Hawkwind Zoo (and arguably better than the ultimately released version) and the more arbitrary choice We Took the Wrong Step Years Ago, a deep cut from a 1971 album, as well as associated acts like Michael Moorcock’s Deep Fix with unreleased track Kings of Speed (later recorded by Hawkwind), Robert Calvert (represented here by the anthemic The Right Stuff from his typically oddball concept LP Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters) and, of course, Motorhead, who appear here with the period-appropriate recording Lost Johnny, one of the tracks from the United Artists demos with Larry Wallis on guitar that only saw release in 1979 once the band had become a success under a different line-up.
Similarly grungy, loud and hairy underground rockers connected to the Notting Hill scene also appear. The Edgar Broughton Band with the magnificent evocation of the spirit of the age Out Demons Out, the Pink Fairies with Uncle Harry’s Last Freak Out (both these tracks, coincidentally, being highlights of the shamefully missing-in-action Glastonbury Fayre live album), Mick Farren with his deconstructed version of Summertime Blues. But lest you think that the Notting Hill music scene was a one-trick pony, the collection also has more esoteric choices. There are the hippy folk sounds of The Third Ear Band and a pre-glam Tyrannosaurus Rex (with Marc Bolan still a warbling hippy at this point), pre-Clash pub rockers the 101’ers and avant-garde composer/Pink Floyd collaborator Ron Geesin, for a start. Tomorrow’s Hallucinations and Family’s Song for Lots represent the (relatively) more mainstream side of the underground while The Pretty Things appear as a connection to the pre-hippy era, even if 1970’s Sickle Clowns is as stoned and bluesy as anything else here. also scattered across the collection are early Seventies pop-rock from Cochise, Quiver, Mighty Baby and Stray and cult acts like Hapshash and the Coloured Coat and Boeing Duveen and the Beautiful Soup, both made up of psychedelic era scenesters (with the latter re-emerging, many years later, as country singer Hank Wangford), but perhaps the most interesting material comes from the acts that came and went without making much impact. Carol Grimes and Delivery offer up disjointed but intriguing jazz-blues freakouts with Blind to Your Light, psych-popsters The Tickle – an unfortunate name, that – hit with Subway (Smokey Pokey World) and Sam Gopal comes up with a slice of heavy psych majesty in the form of Cold Embrace. None of these acts were exactly commercial and so it’s no surprise that they didn’t make it beyond the outer fringes of the underground. Acts like The Action, on the other hand, were probably too much of the time to really stand out amongst a slew of psychedelic pop acts. The biggest losses to music history, based on what is featured here, might be The Misunderstood, who were psychedelic before it became a thing and Mataya, whose groovy fusion track Changes has ‘hit’ written all over it yet never even made it past the demo recording included here.
Also on the collection are entries from Arthur Brown’s wildly experimental Kingdom Come, Davey Graham, Tomorrow offshoots The Aquarian Age and early Roxy Music, while lesser-known acts like ethereal folkies Trader Horne, blues-proggers Noir, Afrobeat pioneer Ginger Johnson and his African Messengers and psych-folk-pop act Trees all show how varied – yet strangely connected – the Notting Hill scene was at this time. That’s the odd thing about this collection – it works as a whole despite the acts often being very different in style, direction and intent. There was clearly something in the air – the bands intermingling at local gigs, trading members, attending the same protests and being subject to the same harassment from the authorities – that gave them a curious unity, at least in the early days. Localised music scenes develop through a sense of connection that transcends differences of style and nowhere was it clearer than here, now. As communities are homogenised and creatives priced out from both housing and the ability to experiment, so music too becomes more corporate and generic, made by those who are already wealthy or those who only make music in order to become wealthy; that or shameless bandwagon-hoppers who simply ape the latest global musical fashions rather than toil in the workshop of filthy creation. Art all around has become a lot more contrived and manufactured in recent years – throwaway product that is packaged, sold, critiqued and consumed with a sense of cynical conformity. The Ladbroke Grove scene gave way to the Notting Hill Set of rich Tory MPs, the music venues replaced by chain stores and high-priced boutiques. This collection is an essential historical document – itself, of course, now carefully packaged as nostalgia because such is life.
Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!