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Counter Culture Portobello
Psychogeographical History
by Tom Vague.

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After the 1965 Albert Hall beat poetry happening, the next key event in the history of British counter-culture was the London Free School. This proto-community action group has been described as an ‘anarchic temporary coalition’ of post-Rachman housing activists and the new hippy generation. To varying degrees of involvement, the latter numbered John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, Michael X, Pete Jenner, Michael Horovitz, Graham Keen, Neil Oram, Jeff Nuttall, Mike McInnerney, John Michell, Julie Felix, Joe Boyd of Electra Records, the jazz writer Ron Atkins, the Warhol star Kate Heliczer, Harvey Matusow, the Beatles manager Brian Epstein and RD Laing. At the inaugural meeting on Elgin Avenue the group announced that ‘the Free School hoped to run some local dances, carnivals in the summer, playgroups for children, street theatre, and so on.’

Hoppy told me it was “an idea – it lasted for a few months and so many interesting things came out of it… it was one of the myriad things that went down in those days.” In ‘Days in the Life’ he called it “a scam”, and “an idea that really shouldn’t be inflated with too much content, because there really wasn’t too much content.” His main co-hort, Pete Jenner, the LSE economics lecturer-turned rock group manager, described the Free School as either the first “public manifestation of the underground in England”, or hippy dogooding that amounted to little more than “a couple of sessions in some terribly seamy rooming house of Michael X’s.”

But it started Notting Hill Carnival; at any rate, as explained by Jeff Nuttall in ‘Bomb Culture’: ‘Ultimately the Free School did nothing but put out a local underground newsletter and organise the 2 Notting Hill Gate Festivals, which were, admittedly, models of exactly how the arts should operate – festive, friendly, audacious, a little mad and all taking place on demolition sites, in the streets, and in a magnificently institutional church hall.’ In the actual Free School building, 26 Powis Terrace/Hedgegate Court (a former brothel opposite David Hockney’s studio), by all accounts not much happened apart from band practices in Dave Tomlin’s psychedelic basement. Michael X, posing Puff Daddy-style with a silver-topped cane, is said to have scared off any actual local people.

At the same time, the Free School received its first and best publicity through Michael, when on May 15 1966 Rhaune Laslett’s neighbourhood playgroup, at 34 Tavistock Crescent (since demolished), was visited by Muhammad Ali. In the run up to his second Henry Cooper fight at Highbury, Ali (when still widely known as Cassius Clay) appeared apparently dressed for the occasion in a Beatles-style suit. In ‘The Grove’ newsletter he was reported sitting on the floor talking to the kids, as the street became blocked by onlookers: ‘The crowd went wild and he just grinned. “Are you happy?” a voice shouted. “Yes, I’m happy here”, he replied.’ After visiting other houses in the area, Ali inevitably ended up at Frank Crichlow’s El Rio café on Westbourne Park Road. There Michael attempted to take over proceedings, and serve only halal food to impress the Nation of Islam, causing a pre-big fight bout between himself and Frank. By all accounts Michael’s conversion to Islam was as genuine as his political commitment. After Ali retained the title Michael paraded his shorts, splattered with Henry Cooper’s blood, around Notting Hill.

By ’66 Michael’s press profile had gone from ‘landlord unable to live with himself’ to ‘the authentic voice of black bitterness’, as he was touted as the leader of the British Black Power movement. In spite of pressure from the police and Council on the Free School to drop him from the group, Michael stayed and the first Carnival happened, in late September, at Michaelmas (one of the medieval quarter days when, appropriately enough, rents were due to landlords). In ‘Notting Hill in the 60s’ his Carnival king status was thus verified: “He was a visionary right, all this Carnival down in the Grove is down to Michael you know… those guys decided to come on the road one day and they come up out and they following he and the next thing he’s talking to this woman who’s running a neighbourhood thing down on Tavistock Road, Rhaune Laslett, and they twos up and that kick off from there.”

As far as any kind of evidence goes, in 1964 and ’65, the alternate years of the media myth first Carnival, nothing happened. Rhaune Laslett told Time Out that the idea came to her in a vision, after she had been dealing with a tenant-landlord dispute, “that we should take to the streets in song and dance, to ventilate all the pent-up frustrations born out of the slum conditions.” Another social worker, John Livingstone, wrote to the Independent to dispel the myth that the Carnival began in ’68 ‘in response to racial unrest’: ‘The odd thing was that, while we discussed every local social problem under the sun, race was in itself not one of them.’ According to him, Rhaune started the Carnival for the local kids, who couldn’t afford to go on holiday, but instead got to meet Mohammad Ali, and see the World Cup in English hands – on the other great ’66 parade along Ladbroke Grove.

The 1966 Notting Hill Fayre & Pageant, or the London Free School Fair, was a weeklong series of events following the traditional English carnival/fair format, as more accurately portrayed in the ‘Bedknobs & Broomsticks’ knees-up than by most Carnival historians. The pageant on Sunday September 18 1966 featured a man dressed as Elizabeth I and children as Charles Dickens characters, ‘musicals’, and a Portobello procession; consisting of the London Irish girl pipers, a New Orleans-style marching band, Ginger Johnson’s Afro-Cuban band, and Russell Henderson’s Trinidadian steelband (from the Coleherne in Earl’s Court), followed by a fire engine. The next Saturday a torchlight procession was planned, and throughout the week All Saints church hall, on Powis Gardens (on the site of the old peoples’ home hall), had various ‘social nights’. These included ‘international song and dance’, jazz and folk, Dickens amateur dramatics, and ‘old tyme music hall’. The first Carnival also featured inter-pub darts. The West London Observer reported ‘such jollity and gaiety at the Notting Hill Pageant’ that the organisers ‘decided to make the pageant an annual event.’ The radical 70s Carnival chairman Darcus Howe has recalled ‘66, not all that fondly, with a few hundred people dancing in the rain to one steel band, led by Andre Shervington dressed in African costume.

Michael Horovitz’s 1966 ‘Carnival’ poem adds to the Beatles’ local street credibility with: ‘Children – all ages chorusing – we all live in a yellow submarine – trumpeting tin bam goodtime stomp – a sun-smiling wide-open steelpan-chromatic neighbourhood party making love not war.’ In the hippy origin theory, as propagated by Horovitz in ‘Days in the Life’, Notting Hill Carnival began as a jazz-poetry extension of the Albert Hall beatnik happening, and the headline act was Pink Floyd. In what could be hippy confusion with the renowned Nottingham Goose Fair, Horovitz remembered saying: “There used to be a goose fair or something, spelt F-A-Y-R-E, before the last war, and Hoppy said ‘Hey, man, there used to be this fayre thing! Listen, man, you poets, we ought to get together and start live ‘New Departures’ (Horovitz’s poetry mag) in the local community.” The Horovitz first Carnival recollection goes on (probably merging various mid to late 60s gigs and demos) to include Pink Floyd and Soft Machine, the first psychedelic lightshows (by Mark Boyle and Joan Hills), and hippies in pantomime animal costumes leading local kids into the Powis Square gardens. In his ‘Vision of Portobello Road’ poem, in the ‘Children of Albion’ anthology, there are ‘screaming tricycles and melons, lettuces and ripe negroes, stripe shirt, and others proud walking, it’s gay and sad and rich enough.’

In a similar vein, Neil Oram’s ‘Raps from the Warp’ play features a hippy guru character addressing his commune in the Free School basement (at 26 Powis Terrace). In other scenes a hippy talks about opening Colville Square Gardens, so the kids can generate more positive cosmic energy, and a psychedelic pied piper/saxophonist leads Portobello processions of ragged kids. At the time the first issue of the Free School newsletter, ‘The Gate’, reported that ‘the photography group (Hoppy and Graham Keen) was last seen at a ‘happening’ at the Marquee club, surrounded by people dancing around in cardboard boxes. The teenage group have been playing folk music, and listening to Dylan records.’

As Hoppy became involved in the Marquee’s ‘Spontaneous Underground’ happenings, the London Free School spawned the Electra subsidiary label DNA, for an album by the surrealist jazz band AMM, who performed in lab coats. All Saints hall went on to host Dave Tomlin’s ‘Fantasy workshop’, a proto-ambient house ‘gallery of peace and relaxation’, and the ‘Sound/Light workshops’ of Pink Floyd. After the fair, in October and November, Hoppy presented ‘London’s farthest out group in interstellar overdrive stoned alone astronomy domini – an astral chant and other numbers from their space-age book.’ On Powis Gardens the Pink Floyd Sound dropped the ‘Sound’ from their name (the rest of which came from ‘2 old blues guys’), and the Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley covers from their set, as they developed their whimsical folk pop further out there into the prog-rock freakouts ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ and ‘Astronomy Domini’.

What turned into a 12 gig residency, encouraged by the liberal vicar, and promoted by Timothy Leary’s ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ slogan, has been described as initially ill-attended, or elite ‘social nights’, proper educational events with questions from the audience afterwards, and auditions for EMI. The legendary original singer Syd Barrett was inspired to write ‘See Emily Play’, their second single (duly covered by Bowie), in All Saints hall, by the early Floyd fan Emily Young. Now a renowned local sculptor, she was then the ‘aristocratic flower child’ who ‘tries but misunderstands, dressed in a gown that touches the ground.’ The daughter of Wayland Young, Lord Kennet (the author of ‘Eros Denied’), girlfriend of Dave Tomlin, and some sort of muse spirit to poor old Syd, Emily was recruited from Holland Park School to the London Free, by Hoppy, with her schoolfriend Anjelica Huston (the daughter of the director John, future actress and wife of Jack Nicholson). Holland Park Comprehensive was almost as prog as the Free School, with Andy McKay of Roxy Music as a music teacher and muso parents including Alexis Korner and John Mayall.

The All Saints avant-garde rock scene seems to fall somewhere between San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom and New York’s Factory, in most accounts veering towards the west coast sound of the Grateful Dead. Hoppy says: “There was a certain amount of synchronicity in that it turned out that what we were doing in London towards the end of ’66 was also being done in San Francisco, lightshows and showing movies on walls and generally throwing together different art forms. The Velvets were in New York, as far as I know they weren’t quite the same scene, but that was sort of thrown into the mix as well.” But in Nicholas Schaffner’s ‘Saucerful of Secrets’ Pink Floyd book originally New York was more influential, with the All Saints gigs imitating Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, Hoppy’s Warhol star girlfriend Kate Heliczer bringing over VU tapes, and Pete Jenner making an attempt to become the Velvets manager. Emily Young and Anjelica Huston have described themselves at the time as existentialists or proto-goths, rather than colourful hippies, always wearing regulation Velvet Underground black clothes and make-up. Jenner says Pink Floyd were imitating the Grateful Dead, without knowing what they sounded like, or taking acid, but turned out more psychedelic, “in the purest psychedelic sense.” At the first All Saints gig, according to Schaffner, the American associates of Timothy Leary, Joel and Tony Brown, turn up, tune in and project slides on the group. Then the British psychedelic ‘blob’ liquid-slide lightshow was developed by Pete and Sumi Jenner, John Marsh, Joe Gannon, Peter Wynne-Wilson and ‘the psychedelic debutante’ Susie Gawler-Wright.

The ‘business beatnik’ Pete Jenner gave up his day job at the LSE to become Pink Floyd’s manager, and set up Blackhill Enterprises, with Andrew King, Syd, Roger Waters, Rick Wright and Nick Mason, on Alexander Street, off Westbourne Grove. Jenner was also the first Carnival treasurer, making Pink Floyd more influential on the event than the Beatles. A loved up Courtney Tulloch called the London Free School ‘a prolonged love programme which ended with Carnival and continued in the form of IT.’ During the ’67 ‘summer of love’ Tulloch wrote of worsening relations between the police and black community and looked back to the ’66 fair – incorporating the Caribbean ‘Notting Hill Carnival’, and jazz enthusiast police – as the hippy heaven W11: Michael ‘cooling it by the door, impersonating a villain but coming over strongly as the saint he is, hugging all the white guys and talking beautifully about the exciting way everyone was enjoying their little bit of freedom.’ Hoppy ‘always jumping about the place in his camouflage kit, flying on and off the weeny stage.’

Paradoxically, Emily Young’s ‘Days in the Life’ recollection of the Westway site is of a Roger Waters-directed post-apocalypse film set: “It was the dark side of the moon, the other side of wonderful Britain. It was the Martian wasteland. There were dead donkeys lying around, and dead people, a dead baby one time. A very weird place, desolation...” The Free School adventure playground on Acklam Road was founded by Michael X, with a Gustav Metzger auto-destructive art performance; basically local kids burning a pile of rubbish. Metzger was part of the Fluxus avant-garde art movement, which included Yoko Ono and influenced Hendrix and the Who’s guitar smashing stage acts. While the Acklam adventure playground experience influenced Pink Floyd’s 1979 single ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, as portrayed in the video’s Gerald Scarfe animation, Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour both acquired local brick piles.

As well as Notting Hill Carnival, Pink Floyd, the blob lightshow and adventure playgrounds, the London Free School launched the UK underground press, and the rave concept of clubbing on the world, from All Saints hall. ‘International Times’, or ‘IT’, the first and longest running British hippy underground paper, was a continuation of the Free School newsletter; alternately titled ‘The Gate’ and ‘The Grove’. But, again largely via Hoppy, IT was inspired by the US underground press; the 50s Village Voice, the East Village Other, LA Free Press and the Berkeley Barb. The IT logo was the face of the 20s Hollywood ‘it girl’ Clara Bow – by mistake, it was meant to be Theda Bara. Taking the term ‘underground’ from wartime resistance groups was pushing it, but the hippies were persecuted by the authorities, unlike all ‘underground’ pop cults since. They also had George Orwell’s typewriter, donated by his wife Sonia, on which (in underground legend at least) he typed ‘1984’. The first issues featured the usual suspects; Michael X, Alex Trocchi, Yoko Ono, Gustav Metzger, Timothy Leary, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, the black comedian Dick Gregory, and the McCarthy witch trials saboteur Harvey Matusow.

IT and Pink Floyd were inaugurated with an ‘all night rave’ at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse, also featuring Soft Machine and a West Indian steel band, then Hoppy and Joe Boyd launched the ‘Night Tripper’/UFO psychedelic nightclub, on Tottenham Court Road; to finance IT and as a larger venue for Pink Floyd to expand into from All Saints Hall. As well as being the first modern nightclub, UFO (‘Unlimited’ or ‘Underground Freak Out’) was a proper radical club. While Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Soft Machine, Arthur Brown and Procul Harum played, accompanied by experimental theatre, films and lightshows, plans were made for the underground press, the Arts Lab, legalising pot and, as Miles recalled, “various schemes for turning the Thames yellow and removing all the fences in Notting Hill.”

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