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Counter Culture Portobello
Psychogeographical History
by Tom Vague.

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After Latimer Road was cut in half by the Westway roundabout, the southern end (parallel with St Ann’s Road), now Freston Road, became a squatted bohemian enclave. In 1977 the hippy and punk squatters declared their independence from Britain, as the Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia, and appealed to the UN for assistance against the GLC’s plans to evict them and build an industrial estate.

‘We appeal to the United Nations, in particular to other small, emerging and non-aligned nations, to treat our application with the utmost seriousness and urgency. If delay in processing our application occurs, an invasion into Frestonia and eviction by the GLC and other organs of the British government may occur, in which case the necessity may arise for Frestonia to require the UN to send a token peace-keeping force. These are developments which we must at all costs avoid. If necessary, we would of course co-operate with a repeat referendum of Frestonian citizens, supervised by the UN, which would again reveal the desire of the overwhelming majority of inhabitants for self-determination and independence from Great Britain.’

Part William Blake Albion Free State, part Marx brothers’ ‘Freedonia’, with some Chestertonesque whimsy and Orwellian nightmare thrown in, Frestonia was organised by Nick Albery and Heathcote Williams of the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff squatting agency. As they set up border controls, embassies and a national newspaper, ‘The Tribal Messenger’, all the citizens double-barrelled their names with Bramley from the adjacent road.

The National Film Theatre of Frestonia in the People’s Hall (where the Clash and Motörhead subsequently practised, now studios) presented ‘Passport to Pimlico’ (the 1949 Ealing comedy in which Pimlico becomes part of Burgundy to avoid rationing restrictions), Heathcote Williams’ ‘The Immortalist’, and film of the Sex Pistols. The hippy/punk crossover group Here & Now appeared at the Freston Road Ceres bakery (now the Notting Dale technology centre). When the actor David Rappaport, who meets Napoleon as the ‘Time Bandits’ leader ‘Randle’, was the Frestonian minister of state for foreign affairs, the Tory MP Geoffrey Howe wrote (whilst in opposition), in support of Frestonia and Chesterton’s ‘small is beautiful’ principle: ‘As one who had childhood enthusiasm for ‘Napoleon of Notting Hill’, I can hardly fail to be moved by your aspirations.’

The Frestonian punk rocker Tony D recalled hanging around the Portobello Hotel bar all night, because it was too dangerous to travel through Notting Dale with spikey hair before daybreak. In the early 90s, as Frestonia became the Bramley housing co-op community development, the squatting pioneer Scottish Jack told Jim White of the Independent: “It was tough here. The locals didn’t like us, criminal families, they used to come round mob-handed with pick-axe handles for some fun after closing time. Irish tinkers would come to your door and tell you that they were taking over your house. The black kids would nick anything you had. You felt vulnerable. The police? Well, the drug squad used to use us for practise raids; 30 of them would turn up, plus vans and dogs, break down your door, and you’d be sitting there with one solitary spliff.”

The hippy Napoleon of Notting Hill, Nick Albery (officially the Frestonian minister of state for the environment) went on to write ‘The Time Out book of Country Walks’ and ‘The New Natural Death Handbook’. Heathcote Williams recently appeared in the holy grail conspiracy thriller ‘Revelation’ featuring Trellick Tower. The poet-playwright-painter-actor-etc is most renowned locally for spraying No graffiti on the Talbot Road studio of the prog rock group Yes. ‘Quadrophenia’, Franc Roddam’s film adaptation of the Who album, made during the late 70s mod revival, features a Freston Road scene in which a mod is beaten up by rockers, as an obviously late 70s tube goes by. The Hollywood W10 boulevard also appears in ‘The Blue Lamp’, ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’, ‘Steptoe & Son’, ‘The Satanic Rites of Dracula’, ‘The Squeeze’, ‘The Sweeney’, ‘Minder’, ‘Sid And Nancy’ and ‘Withnail And I’.

In the short-life housing aftermath of Frestonia, out of their Car Breakers art gallery, came the Mutoid Waste Company. The Steptoe & Son go Mad Max show was also influenced by JG Ballard, Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Laboratories, Einsturzende Neubauten, and the Mutoid mastermind Joe Rush’s grandmother wrote ‘Bedknobs & Broomsticks’. As they progressed from the Freston Road Apocalypse Hotel, and proto-acidhouse raves featuring a car-Stonehenge, to happenings around the world, Simon Reynolds posited that their ‘skip culture – the detournement of refuse into art – is one of the few contemporary examples of the fun side of Situationism, their dream of a life of perpetual play.’ But the post-Situationist Wise brothers dismissed them as ‘art junk-bond market’ traders: ‘Take the seemingly endless repeats of deadend 60s artistic happenings, all over Notting Hill throughout 1986 and since. Basically they’re simply dress rehearsals for inventive ads promoting products.’

The Mutoids and Test Dept both happened beside the Westway, in the most authentic post-apocalypse-style venue, the old BR maintenance depot (now Monsoon) at Paddington. The latter’s avant-garde metal bash received the following comparatively good review from the Wise brothers: ‘Test Dept, with their tin-can futuristic music, even bringing in a few Kent miners (forever the populism) to improvise with them under the M40 Westway, were immediately signed up for a TV Heineken lager ad. The end product was one of the most ingenious promos ever made.’ As the late 80s Peace Convoy stopped off on Evesham Street, maintaining the area’s historic gypsy-traveller tradition, Freston Road was the engine room of Blyth Power, the anarcho-folk-punk Sound of the Great Western Railway. In the later 90s the anarcho-rave Spiral Tribe and Transglobal Underground appeared at the squatted Bridgehouse next to Latimer Road station.

World Domination Enterprises were the last of the Ladbroke Grove underground bands, to make any impact on the world – if not domination as such. In the bohemian tradition of Hawkwind, the Pink Fairies, 101ers, Derelicts and the Clash, Keith/Kifkif Dobson and Steve Jameson (from Rough Trade) inhabited a house on Bevington Road, described in NME as ‘a junk museum belonging to a housing co-op... a more captivating environment would be hard to find.’ Kifkif, introducing his new venture in Melody Maker: “Steve has got a total grasp of black bass playing. He’s one of the few white bassists who can get that heavy sound. He used to work selling specialist reggae records in Notting Hill, and operated a sound-system for a while called Sir Alias… I started at the age of 16 as the drummer for Here & Now, who were a kind of Hawkwind/Gong type comic band. This was around the time of punk, we toured with ATV and tried to bring together the 2 anti-establishment forces of punk and hippydom, but it didn’t quite work.”

WDE’s first single, ‘Asbestos Lead Asbestos’, was released in 1985 on Nick Jones’ Karbon label, which was based at 19 All Saints Road. The sleeve features a picture of Victorian slum children from the Notting Dale Urban Studies Centre, then in the Harrow Club on Freston Road. The agitprop rant, featuring the line ‘we live on the westside’, rails against the toxic Tory tyranny of the Westminster Council leader Shirley Porter. In her gerrymandering scandal, probable Labour voters in marginal wards were re-housed in the asbestos-ridden tower blocks Chantry and Hermes Points, on Harrow Road. WDE’s next single ‘Hotsy Girl’ was a Ballardian ode to their car. Their eponymous debut album received a favourable review from Laura Lee Davies in Time Out, as ‘deep under the fingernails of grebo trash rock’, but she found that their ‘grubby, decaying Ladbroke Grove squat existence’ gave her nightmares.

Laura Lee Davies wouldn’t have liked the Warwick Castle (before it was censored to the Castle), at 225 Portobello Road, the local of WDE, PIL, Clash, Aswad, Raincoats, Skids, Pop Group/Rip Rig & Panic, Pogues, Transvision Vamp and Members members. In its Irish/West Indian pool hall heyday, the Rough Trade pub (the record shop local and literally) featured in JB’s ‘Portobello Pirate TV’, Aki Kaurismaki’s ‘I Hired A Contract Killer’, and the Notting Hill pub in William Gibson’s cyber-punk novel ‘Mona Lisa Overdrive’ has to be modelled on the Warwick. In a similar vein, Danny John Jules, who plays ‘Cat’ in ‘Red Dwarf’, appeared in the Standard posing with a pool cue in the back bar. The ‘Live At The Warwick’ album features tracks by Gareth Sager of Rip Rig, Keith and Kevin Allen, the landlord Seamus Costello calling last orders, ambient pub noises, and the Clash roadie-poet Jock Scot’s ‘Ode to the Warwick’; in which ‘Lords and bores rub shoulders with the pride of London’s building sites.’

As such local characters as Lord Patrick Conyngham and Ian Bone, the editor of ‘Class War’, cohabited, the Warwick stalwart John Duignan stood as the Class War candidate in the 1988 bi-election, on a ‘Stop the yuppie invasion’ ticket. The one thing the Wise brothers definitely got wrong in their critical history of Notting Hill was describing the pub as gentrified in ’88. The Warwick easily shook off such premature scaremongering to leave the 20th century as the one remaining example of authentic pub squalor on Portobello. In the mid-90s, when the Warwick corner was the scene of a yardie driveby contact killing, a Roughler ad had it ‘still kicking aginst the grain, still a real pub, specialising in traditional ales and beers, cryptic crosswords, and extremely weird dancing. Mingle with the intelligentsia, spot the loonies, witness for yourself the only bar in Portobello Road with permanent and irreparable full moon syndrome.’ John Lydon as a ‘pivotal customer’ was also stretching it, as much as the Standard review in which Jason Donovan, Matt Dillon and Harry Dean Stanton were regulars, though they did all appear.

The Warwick fanzine, ‘The Roughler’, originally the programme of the Old Roughians Rough Trade cricket team, has been described as the proto-Loaded, Class War meets the Tatler, and worse. The Wise brothers called it ‘a magazine which manages to praise Jasper Conran (the ultimate in designer wear at £500 a throw), the cricketer Bob Willis, and Class War, in almost one and the same breath, even the London Standard noted favourably its Tatleresque spoofs.’ Looking back, the editor Welsh Ray Roughler-Jones (Alexei Sayle’s mate in the ‘Strike’ Comic Strip) says: “We became disillusioned with the Warwick after 10 great years when we could do everything we wanted… When people used to live there more than hang out there... They saw through us in the end, they thought it was a boring old Paddy pub and they didn’t realise what was going on in there. Then they realised there were women in there, rock stars, actors and models getting in there.” The roll call included Neneh Cherry, Andrea Oliver, Anna Chancellor from ‘Four Weddings’, Gina Birch of the Raincoats, Margi Clarke in ‘Contract Killer’, Ronna Ricardo from the Profumo affair, Wendy James, Jerry Hall and Jade Jagger.

In the late 80s all the requisite multicultural Grove style elements came together in Neneh Cherry’s ‘Buffalo Stance’ on Virgin. ‘What’s she like?’ As defined in Time Out: ‘She slips in and out of Portobello Road banter, New York street talk and fluent Swedish... She’s on nickname terms with the Face/Grove posse, and formulated the single from the Face ‘Buffalo’ fashion identity kit.’ The proto-‘Buffy’ pop appeal of Transvision Vamp was more problematic. Originally a DIY cyber-punk sci-fi soundtrack tape, by Wendy James and Nick Christian Sayer, hawked along Portobello in the mid 80s, this local pop revolution was televised. On the Wendy website she describes Ladbroke Grove as a ‘spiritual powerpoint’, with an ‘accommodating dole office’, and recalls initially recruiting the bassist and drummer, Dave Parsons and Tex Axile, to spray Transvision Vamp graffiti around the area.

Their ‘W11 Blues’ track tops the Portobello pop psychogeography chart, with Wendy ‘walking down the line, heading for the Grove’, echoing the Clash and Hawkwind in encounters with police and thieves, she ‘strode on down the line to Grove… left out of All Saints across Portobello Road, underneath the Westway and into Ladbroke Grove, up 2 flights of stairs into a darkened hall.’ Rounding off the night, after Neneh Cherry and Tone Loc shoutouts, her flat is raided by police. It can be argued that Transvision Vamp were the most successful local band, with top ten hits and million selling albums, but they fared less well than Sigue Sigue Sputnik/anyone in the press. At the end of the 80s, Wendy held court in the Warwick Castle with their second album ‘Velveteen’ at number 1 and Wendy herself the first Portobello pop pin-up since Marc Bolan. Yet Andy Gill’s Independent review wasn’t so much unfavourable as the final epitaph of Ladbroke Grove rock. In spite of being as successful, original, and local as any Portobello pop product, Gill concluded that ‘TV are little more than a series of references to pop culture icons sewn together with vaguely memorable stitches from rock’s rich tapestry.’ But, hey, who isn’t?

On the particularly derided Wendy solo album, ‘Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears’ (the Vamp slayer Gill disagreed), the track ‘London’s Brilliant (in the rain)’ contains the Elvis Costello line, ‘still digging up the bones of Strummer and Jones.’ In the late 90s, as Costello covered Charles Aznavour’s ‘She’ in ‘Notting Hill’ the movie, the front door of Tex Axile’s former Westbourne Park Road abode, opposite the Warwick, took the starring role. Meanwhile, back in the States, the Transvision Vamp bassist Dave Parsons became bigger than Oasis as part of Bush (the Brit grunge group named after Shepherd’s Bush). Wendy was dubbed the ‘Imelda Marcos of Portobello Road’, in a Standard article on Mario’s cobblers on Talbot Road. This is the way the Sound of the Westway to the world story of Grove rock ends. Not with a bang, with Wendy.

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