Wish You Were There: The 14 Hour Technicolour Dream

If you think that all night raves started with acid house, then think again. As with most things countercultural, the 60s did it first and better.

This month marks 46 years since the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream, the beginning of the UK’s Summer of Love and a high water mark for British hippiedom.

Organised to raise funds for countercultural flagship mag International Times, the 14 Hour Technicolour dream was a ‘happening’ similar to the ‘Acid Tests’ and ‘Love-Ins’ that had been occurring in San Francisco for a couple of years.

For the princely sum of £1 (£15 today, although there would also be booking fees, postage fees, agent fees etc etc) you could see any number of off-the-wall performance artists and poets as well as leading lights of UK psychedelia including Soft Machine, The Move,  Tomorrow, John’s Children (pre-T Rex Marc Bolan) and the kings of the paisley underground, Pink Floyd.

Floyd had been playing similar ‘all-night raves’ for a year or so, and were in the vanguard of the new experimentation with LSD. In Crazy Diamond, one of several biographies of Floyd founder Syd Barrett, it is suggested that he/ they were among the very first regular users of the drug in the UK.

By the time of the Alexandra Palace gig its use was more widespread but still limited to a fairly small number of arty creative types. The music, if not the drug, would go mainstream in the next year or so and the fashions that it inspired would last well into the 1970s.

The footage (see bottom of post for clips from Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London, a documentary on the nascent psychedelic scene in London; and Man Alive, a BBC documentary about the event itself) shows how gloriously ramshackle the whole affair was – John Lennon, one of the most famous men in the world, apparently decided to go only that evening after seeing an item on the news about it. Out of his head on acid, he can been seen just wandering around the crowd.

Nowadays you would not be able to move for t-shirt vendors, drinks promotions and roped off areas for VIPs, even if you could get a ticket (see above).

Why do I wish I was there? Two reasons. Firstly, the optimism. The belief that people can change the world by being nice to each other (and taking mind bending substances) is so alien to our cynical age that I would have to witness it first hand to believe it. And secondly to witness this counterculture before it went sour, before they started ‘selling hippy wigs in Woolworths‘.

 

 

Forget Banksy. The Met Line 1985-90 was real UK graffiti

The home of UK graffiti, 1985-90

Graffiti is now so socially acceptable that there is a ‘family friendly’ annual graffiti festival, Meeting of Styles, in London. The artist Banksy, famed for his satirical stencil-based street art, has been the subject of a row between a local community and an art dealer. And the trendy Old Vic tunnel has been turned into a legal wall for art school hipsters to daub with pseudo-political commentaries.

All this, though it may be paint on a wall, is not graffiti. The best definition of graffiti comes from Jano, an original London writer – he called it ‘a contact sport for tough guys’. Banksy found this out recently when he encountered old school writer Robbo.

Real graffiti as he was talking about, barely exists any more. 25 years ago it was different. The Metropolitan Line in North London was the home of UK graffiti. A youth culture that flourished for a few years in the mid 1980s then disappeared.

The roots of graffiti in New York have been covered many places. In the UK it started to seep over around the same time as hip hop in the early 1980s. The first writers like Sir Beau, Kis 42, Set 3, Tilt and Coma started tagging and piecing trains and tracksides around 1985-86. Much of their work can be seen at the wonderful Rockingthecity.com.

These writers set the template for the Met Line style, which emphasised getting up quick and often, using angular bubble letters that were easily readable to those in the know. The Metropolitan line was the chosen line because it was long, overground and had yards in sleepy backwaters like Rickmansworth and Chorleywood, where clued-up kids from Wembley and Harrow could paint with impunity. The British Transport Police (BTP)’s  lack of understanding of the scene also allowed it to develop unhindered to start with.

Inspired by these pioneers, the scene really took off around 1988 and 1989. In this period you could not pass between 2 stations on the Met Line without seeing an explosion of  pieces by Cast, Mise, Shok, Rase, Steam, Dsyer and dozens of others. These guys and the original stylists had expanded the look – colours, characters and 3D now adorned many trackside pieces as artists sought to outdo each other with bigger, better, more outlandish artwork.

Around 1988 Pinner Wall (the stretch of trackside between Pinner and North Harrow) was covered with at least 30 pieces, an illegal technicolour gallery for fellow writers and commuters. Nowhere was safe – power substations, a driving school, bridges and stations themselves. A church on the outer stretch of the Met Line had a  piece by Kaes on it that also asked ‘forgive me father for I have sinned’.

Tracksides were important but the biggest kick of all was piecing trains. Due to the difficulty of accessing the yards, the threat from BTP patrols and video cameras, not to mention the very real danger of death from electrocution (one famous writer, Rase, died when he was chased by BTP and fell on the live rail), train pieces were more highly valued than tracksides.

Window down, top to bottom or even whole train, a train piece travelled the length of the line, displaying to all who saw it the writers skill, dexterity and bravery. The fact that they were usually buffed or erased within a day or two and only added to the incomparable excitement of seeing a train piece pass you by as you sat at Harrow on the Hill.

The point is that graffiti was not just painting. It was a lifestyle – racking (stealing) paint to piece with; riding the lines smoking weed, drinking and taxing other kids; hanging out with your mates; avoiding the law, especially the hated BTP. Graffiti artists were usually streetwise and tough, on the whole the kind of kids your parents warned you about.  Despite this, they produced some of the most exciting art you ever saw under unbelievable circumstances.

Even so, many writers were not into art for arts sake, or to make any kind of point. They could design great colour schemes or fantastic outlines, or copy Vaughn Bode characters from comic books, and some went on to become graphic designers and incorporate graffiti style into their work.  But that was not why they were writers. The point of it all was adrenaline, living for kicks, a desire for notoriety amongst your peers. This combination of creativity and excitement make it just as important a part of British youth culture as the better-publicised mods or football casuals.

Like so many youth cults as quickly as it arrived, the graffiti scene disappeared. Improved trackside security, more regular buffing and anti-graffiti paint on the tracksides meant that the risks started to outweigh the rewards. But another trend had also taken over. Much like the ‘love on the terraces’ effect of raving on football violence, dancing in fields while on lots of drugs also took over the lives of many writers. Tough kids who had worn puffas and sportswear while breaking into train yards were now wearing acid tops and kickers, growing their hair and getting into dance music.

By the early 1990s the scene was pretty much over, to the extent that much of the expertise had been lost and the new generation were considerably worse graffiti artists than their predecessors. Thankfully a trend among writers was to photograph their own and others work, and much of this is archived at the wonderful rockingthecity.com. So forget the latest Banksy artwank and click on rockingthecity.com to check out the real thing.

The writer was not a graffiti artist but was friends or acquainted with a number of Met Line writers – Norty Stash Soak Kaes. This piece is based on memories of them and recollections of events 25 years ago.

Now and Then: The Brain

11 Wardour Street now:

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11 Wardour Street Then:

Brain 3Brain 5

Walking along Wardour Street yesterday I was struck by how many significant nightclubs and music venues once called this stretch of Soho home. Many of them have now disappeared in the inevitable but sad sanitisation of this vital sliver of the capital

One example is at number 11. Today there is an Oriental restaurant called Misato, while the basement housed a now-defunct karaoke club by the name of Sugar.

However, between 1989 and 1992 it was home to The Brain bar, gallery and nightclub. Part of a second wave of house clubs building on the success of pioneers such as Shoom and Future, it showcased DJs and acts such as Billy Nasty, Andrew Weatherall and A Guy Called Gerald who would go on to become familiar names. An innovation was encouraging live performance rather than just DJing, pre-empting the rise of the P.A.

The Brain was managed by Sean McLusky, a serial club owner and pop culture entrepreneur who first tasted fame as a member of early 80s new wave/ soul act JoBoxers, before going on to kickstart the regeneration of Kings Cross with the Scala and Shoreditch with nights at the 333. Alongside him was Mark ‘Wigan’ Williams, an artist responsible for the psychedelic interior.

At its peak it was what all the best nightclubs should be – intimate, cool and groundbreaking, which is a hard act to pull off. Some former colleagues of mine were regulars around 1990-91 and drew the envy of the younger me, too obviously under 18 to accompany them. What I remember was that all day Saturday the only thing they could talk about was the upcoming night out. It felt like they were part of a community, something more than just dancing to house music.

The experience was clearly a moving one for others as well – an effort to write an oral history of the club has been in the pipeline for a number of years, along with a blog.

Clubs like the Brain deserve to be remembered for the part they played in transforming London and its nightlife. I hope that this virtual blue plaque will go some way to helping.