London is overflowing with music history and the tricky part for the Daily Note, the Red Bull Music Academy’s daily music paper for the past five weeks, was whittling down contending stories to a manageable number. In total, Tim Burrows has put six hubs of our capital under the microscope, zooming in on the streets and buildings where it all happened. Today, he tours Newham, unsung Eastern borough of grit and grime. He details a history of mods, rockers, hippies and ravers and wonders if it’s game over for the wild, wild east.
The path goes on forever. Grey slabs form a smooth link through the future 2012 Olympic Park, providing a platform from which to watch the temporary sideshow of its construction. A huge mound of earth obscures all but the pyramid hood of that distant former planner’s dream, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf. Welcome to the Olympic Park, a sign says; in other words, bugger off. Others politely bark suggestions: “Be proud” and “Be Safe”. Safe from what? Over-attentive security guards, perhaps, who check you out, then order you in the direction of the small section of Marshgate Lane that has not been swallowed up by the site.
The industrial parts of east London have long been the scenes for raves. And they still are, more sparingly, in destinations such as Hackney Wick and Leyton. The acid house club Telepathy was held in warehouses within the Marshgate Lane industrial estate during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bob Morris – “Big Bob” to his friends – is a lifelong music fan and West Ham supporter. “Centre Force was our radio station,” he says. “It used to run from tower blocks around Stratford, and Telepathy was the club. They were the first proper warehouse parties we went to.” By 1988, Morris was buying import house records: “Frankie Knuckles stuff, because it was soulful again,” he says. Morris grew up steeped in the mythology of the mods of Forest Gate, such as the Small Faces, local heroes who down the years have become a kind of boy’s own soul fantasy. “A lot of the acid house vocalists were just regurgitating the old soul and rare groove artists that I listened to growing up,” he says. “But it felt new to us, and quite sophisticated.”
Telepathy took place on the other side of the Olympic fence, now plastered in computer-generated utopian visions. “A complete fantasy bodged up on Photoshop in some office in Hong Kong,” is how writer Iain Sinclair views it. “Those images don’t represent anything.” Sinclair has documented an abused east London for the past 40-odd years, and is the Olympic plan’s most compelling critic. He recently visited Athens, where the 2004 Olympics were held. “They’ve got two enormous urban parks there, the type promised here, and they are totally derelict and abandoned,” he says.
“They can’t afford to keep up the maintenance of these structures, because it costs a lot of money, so the actual Olympic parks themselves look like a kind of JG Ballard theme park. Huge deserted stadiums, strange cars parked in odd places, people lurking and feral dogs wandering about this landfill dump landscape.”
Centre Force built a permanent club, opposite the church and at the foot of the Bow Flyover, on Bow Road. “It was built in the shape of a pyramid. So cool, all blue neon,” says Morris. “It lasted about a year or two until it was closed down – the bouncers were serving up [drugs].” The club was also notorious for its connections to Inner City Firm, West Ham’s infamous hooligan crew. Morris couldn’t remember what the club was called or who DJed at it; nor could the friends he rang. The answer given was inevitable and wholly true: “If you can remember it you weren’t there.” Yet further digging into online accounts brought up the name Echoes, as well as the club’s main DJ – one Tony Wilson, not Manchester’s media-savvy Situationist Anthony H, but an East End hardcore legend who ran Adrenaline on Friday nights. Yet what happened to Wilson is a mystery. Online rumour – West Ham message board debates, Facebook reunion sites, all hang-outs for former ravers trying to piece together this misspent era – suggests he was last seen selling the Evening Standard to traffic by the Rotherhithe Tunnel.
Amnesia runs thick in these parts, like the sludgy River Lea which flows hidden beneath the Bow Flyover. Wholesale chemical guzzling in warehouses and clubs hasn’t helped. Yet, as one follows the road toward Stratford, it becomes apparent that here memory is not encouraged. To walk down Stratford High Street is to slog through dusty air, past building sites erecting infill architecture on top of former communities.
You’ll pass Stratford Rex, the venue known locally as the Rex since part of the old Borough Theatre building was converted into the Rex Cinema in 1934. After being home to nothing but pigeons for two decades, it was renovated in 1996, since when it’s largely been a music venue, albeit sporadically of late. “Stratford Rex was where I put in the groundwork before I got an album deal,” Dizzee Rascal told Time Out in 2007. “Before grime crossed over and everybody in the suburbs or Hoxton got into it, the Rex was really street with a proper council-estate buzz, everyone from the ghetto and that. There’s no fucking way I’d go there now!”
Grime had certainly crossed over by the time Lil Wayne visited the Rex in 2008, a show that saw the rapper finish his set early after the stage was repeatedly invaded by local MCs looking for beef. Fight after fight broke out. A plastic champagne flute landed on Wayne, then bottles rained down before the rapper was dragged off after 23 minutes by security fearing for his life.
Stratford has undergone all manner of attempted facelifts. Yet the latest signifies something new – a wholesale attack which will see E15 reshaped to fit the global commerce model, in the form of the £1.45 billion Westfield shopping mall project, Stratford City. “A kind of invasion technology,” says Sinclair. “Slapping this huge thing there and having a station and channel tunnel link just so they have got people coming to shop. It is all a big set-up really. Stratford is going to be a blasted landscape.”
The Railway Tavern on the edge of the Westfield zone on Angel Lane was once home to Asgard, a “progressive night complete with light shows”, as advertised in countercultural bible International Times. In 1970 it staged early prog groups like Mandrake Paddle Steamer, a small-time outfit signed to Parlophone, and the prog fusion band Curved Air. Remarkably, the pub survives, now serving pints and karaoke to yellow-jacketed construction workers.
Terry Murphy, father of a local boxing family, ran The Bridge House in Canning Town during the late 1970s, overseeing an intense crossover of musical styles. Indie-goth group Wasted Youth formed at the pub. Chas and Dave recorded an album there. Mod revivalists The Merton Parkas and Secret Affair performed on Monday nights to a packed room of second-wavers, and appeared on the venue’s Mods Mayday ’79 compilation.
Most significantly, it was at the Bridge House that a young Daniel Miller, then recording as The Normal, first set eyes on Depeche Mode, then a young Essex synth quartet. Immediately impressed, Miller asked the band to record for his fledgling Mute label. The result was naïf electronic double A-side Dreaming Of Me / Ice Machine.
Depeche Mode’s life would’ve been eased by the expansion of the A13, which connected Basildon to London. But the Bridge House was inconveniently situated in the way of a new flyover, falling to the wrecking ball in 2002. Visiting the void where it stood, debris whirls in circles as vans fly past, drivers staring hard en route to Docklands or the City.
Iron Maiden played the Bridge House, but it was the Ruskin Arms at High Street North, Forest Gate, where they really left their mark. Judas Priest followed them and the Ruskin became, as it was known, the “Home of Heavy Metal” before closing at the end of last year. The building is fenced, awaiting its conversion into flats ahead of 2012 and the Thames Gateway project.
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