No Sleep Till Kennington Oval: Pub Rock Revisited

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I’ve recently spent time writing sleeve-notes for a Balham Alligators box set. That’s exactly the kind of thing washed-up hacks like me have to do when they reach a certain age. I was researching “pub rock” when I stumbled on something surprising. It now seems accepted that the Pub Rock scene collapsed following the Punk Explosion of 1976-77. It is said that the old dinosaurs were flattened by the New Wave comet, and that clubs like The Marquee, 100 Club, Roxy, and Dingwalls took over. I was surprised, because my recollection of what happened is totally different.

Will Birch’s extensive and well-written reference book, No Sleep Till Canvey Island: The Great Pub Rock Revolution is great as far as it goes, but he ends in 1977 with most of the main players in the game signing to Stiff Records and touring on the Stiff’s Greatest Stiffs Live tour. Birch’s contention is that the exponents of Pub Rock were promoted within the Rock mainstream and moved from playing the Hope & Anchor is Islington to the College circuit and larger venues like the Rainbow and Hammersmith Odeon.

robey_1982 The Sir George Robey in 1982, when it still had Music Hall memorabilia on the walls.

As someone who was involved as a music promoter and agent, I know that this isn’t the whole story by any means. Many older venues, such as the Nashville, Kensington and Pegasus, did close or transform into restaurants or family pubs, some victims of their own success, others just badly managed. Their place was immediately taken by dozens of new pub venues. Some of them were already putting on Irish music and so had the infrastructure (stages, lights, and often PA systems) ready to go.

Off the top of my head, I can recall great nights at The Bull & Gate in Kentish Town; The Cricketers at Kennington Oval; The Robey at Finsbury Park; Bridge House, Canning Town; Hare & Hounds, Upper Street; Half Moon, Putney; The Weavers at Newington Green; and… so many more. My memory is hazy. Like the man said, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.”

Between not writing my novel and trying to be a manager and agent, from 1984 to 1990 I organised and booked live music for the Cricketers, at Kennington Oval, London SE11. I took over from a teacher called Joe Pearson, who’d been responsible for a series of prestige gigs – Dr John, Richard Thompson, Paul Brady – at the Half Moon, Putney. Before that, he’d promoted at the White Lion, opposite Putney Bridge (which became a Slug & Lettuce, and a Walkabout; now it’s a derelict Wahoo Sports bar). Joe replaced Gordon Hunt at the Cricketers. Gordon went on to become Sade’s guitarist and musical arranger.

I’d also promoted shows in Putney. Three promoters dominated Putney’s music scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s: myself, Joe Pearson, and an older Scotsman called Bill Knox. Bill had worked in London’s Denmark Street (aka Tin Pan Alley) back in the 1950s and ’60s, and had been quite a mover and shaker in the Folk and Jazz worlds of the time. This included the time Bob Dylan and Paul Simon had been in London, playing tiny folk clubs. Bill had a mountain of great stories he’d tell over a cider at the Duke’s Head – the only pub in Putney with no background music. Sadly, most of his stories were either unprintable or undecipherable.

The second wave of Pub Rock had much in common with the American Wild West. Venues would sprout up and disappear all the time, and audience members were very often part of individual and very distinct tribes: Skinheads, Punks, Mods, Teddy Boys (yes, really!), Psychobillies, Folkies and more. I particularly remember a night at the White Lion when Anarchist Punk band Conflict were attacked by BNP thugs with pickaxes as they unloaded their gear. It was a Thursday, and the attackers were beaten off with the help of Irish workmen drinking in the public bar.

Then there was the Friday in 1982 or ’83 when the police closed down the White Lion for good, after a line of bizarrely dressed Rock ‘n’ Rollers queued almost the entire length of Putney High Street and brought traffic to a standstill. Over a thousand people were waiting to get into a venue that couldn’t hold many more than 300, and would probably have been licensed for 200, if it ever had a licence, which it turned out, it hadn’t!

Back to The Cricketers. After “crashing” there at weekends, I was eventually given a couple of rooms above the pub, which became my home and business address for six years. It was a surreal world. Ostensibly, the pub’s landlord was Roy, who operated clubs and restaurants in town. We hardly ever saw him, and the business was run by the locally-born Ken and his wife, Sheila. Ken is one of life’s gentlemen; he would come out with sayings like “You can’t educate a mug”, which is so true I still quote it nearly every day.

pearly_coupleKenny’s dad, also called Ken, was a local character who used to occasionally wobble up on his push-bike after a day’s drinking, demanding money and free drinks. After a few pints, he’d turn on anyone within spitting distance and give them an earful. Luckily, no one could understand what he was saying, what with his South London accent, rhyming slang, and slurred words.

Then there was Ronnie, a natural barman who (when sober) could serve four or five people at the same time and keep them entertained with his Liverpudlian wit. His “party trick” was to confront someone – customer, band member, postman, whatever – and say, straight-faced, something along the lines of (expletives deleted): “I think you’re a total idiot. No one likes you and I can’t believe you still keep coming round here.” The victim would invariably start to break down, which would make Ronnie double up with laughter and say: “Only joking – I had you going there, didn’t I?” Great relief all round. Trouble is, people who knew Ronnie knew he’d really meant what he’d said.

Every Saturday Ronnie and his mate, Moody, would dress up in their best suits and talk themselves all the way into the Directors’ Box at whatever football match they fancied seeing. Preferably Liverpool (Ronnie’s team) or Chelsea (Moody’s). They hardly ever failed and would return at 6pm, full of free champagne,canapes and juicy football gossip.

Kenny’s past was somewhat chequered. He’d been a senior member of the gang that sold fake perfume on Oxford Street in the 1970s. He had a collection of “unusual” friends, who’d sometimes drink at the pub. Some lived very well but had no visible source of income, others ran secondhand shops, greengrocers and one a chain of tanning salons. I’ve recognised one or two since then on Donal McIntyre type programmes. They were always very sociable to me and I’m sure they treated old ladies admirably.

The annual Test Match held at the adjacent Oval Cricket Ground was big business for the pub, but aside from these three or four days each year, and occasional major cricketing and Australian Rules Footie fixtures, trade was entirely reliant on my booking the right bands. In fact, the Cricketers only opened from 8-11pm, and for Sunday lunch. These free entry lunches were hugely popular. Kenny “the governor” would provide free jacket potatoes (liberally laced with salt to encourage libation) and hundreds would turn up to eat, drink and watch bands like Zoot and the Roots, Alias Ron Kavana, and Little Sister perform until licensing laws demanded an end to the fun at 2.30pm prompt.

These fresh-faced young people were called The PoguesIn 1983, these fresh-faced young Londoners were called The Pogues

For a small venue (capacity 200), the Cricketers boxed well above its weight. Several folk-based artists lived in Putney and singer/songwriters such as Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, Ralph McTell and Roy Harper played for me fairly regularly. I’d been an early champion of The Pogues and their first major gigging success had been a series of Tuesday night gigs I’d put on in the spring and summer of 1983 at the Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park. They were called Pogue Mahone (“kiss my ass” in Gaelic) back then, and the venue sold out from week one. The band was walking out with hundreds of pounds in door money every Tuesday. I had aspirations to be their manager, but they wisely chose Frank Murray instead. As a parting gift, they played a week of gigs for me at the Cricketers. Every night we got very drunk, and earned stacks of money. None of this made it into any account of the band’s history.

It was a lively time for the British music industry. The Cricketers was only a mile or so over Lambeth Bridge from the centre of town, so it was easy to attract record company A&R men (no women back then), and music paper reviewers. As a result, new bands liked to “showcase” there, and more established acts knew they could persuade reviewers to drop in. When they were starting out, T-Pau played a residency there. Touring acts such as Flaco Jiminez, Guy Clark, The Bhundu Boys, Townes Van Zandt, Terry Allen, Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, Steve Earle, Laurel Aitken, Giant Sand, Redgum, and Birthday Party, would often end up at the dodgy end of SE11.

frank_sidebottom_sievey

Frank Sidebottom was a Cricketers regular. Guardian columnist and broadcaster Jon Ronson recounts how he was recruited to join Frank’s Oh Blimey Big Band:

In 1987 I was 20 and the student union entertainments officer for the Polytechnic of Central London. One day I was sitting in the office when the telephone rang. I picked it up.

“So Frank’s playing tonight and our keyboard player can’t make it and so we’re going to have to cancel unless you know any keyboard players,” said a frantic voice.

I cleared my throat. “I play keyboards,” I said.

“Well you’re in!” the man shouted.

“But I don’t know any of your songs,” I said.

“Wait a minute,” the man said.

I heard muffled voices. He came back to the phone. “Can you play C, F and G?” he said.

The man on the phone said I should meet them at the soundcheck at 5pm. He added that his name was Mike, and Frank Sidebottom’s real name was Chris. Then he hung up.

When I got to the bar it was empty except for a few men fiddling with equipment.

I was one of those fiddling men and the venue was The Cricketers. I could go on to reveal how Frank (or rather Chris) “slept with” a fetching young woman I was trying to romance, but I won’t. Nor how I felt when I discovered that Mike The Manager had also “slept with” her — and with her 16 year old sister.

I’d been agent for Desmond Dekker and manager of Geno Washington and they’d come and play for me, as would Georgie Fame and George Melly, when I could afford them. Manchester’s Happy Mondays made their first ever London gig in front of  30 people, most of them A&R on the guest-list. It must have been 1987 or possibly 1988. It’s hard to say because the event has been erased from the band’s history. I wasn’t there at the time – it was a rare night off – but next morning I was ticked off by Kenny because they’d been far too loud, had only played for 30 minutes, and had (rather ineptly) tried to steal a bottle of whiskey from behind the bar. He’d slung them out on their ears.

Captains of Industry (featuring Wreckless Eric) at Cricketers in 1985.Captains of Industry (featuring Wreckless Eric) at Cricketers in 1985.

What eventually killed the Cricketers and many other pub venues was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s insane Beer Orders, which was said to be a measure to decrease the power of the Big Brewers. It certainly did that: one of the biggest, Whitbread, stopped brewing altogether and turned into a pizza and cheap lodgings company. Its main impact was to transform pub owners from companies with a vested interest in keeping pubs open in order to sell the product they created (booze), to property developers, who quickly saw that putting rents up and selling off prime properties was more profitable than trying to sell pints to music lovers.

The Cricketers was owned by Trumans Brewery – part of Grand Metropolitan, a huge conglomerate that included Watney’s and various whiskey and gin companies – and the beer came from the then magnificent Black Eagle Brewery in Brick Lane. The Beer Orders meant Grand-Met had to set up a new company to run their pubs and this was given the ominous name Inntrepreneur. They demanded a rent increase of something like 200% which, for a venue that could only open 25 hours a week, was impossible to meet. We had a final week of gigs in September 1990 and were slung out on October 1st.

The new occupants were a gang of bikers from the South Coast (think less organised Sons of Anarchy), who immediately threw out all the fixtures and fittings and painted everything black. They soon realised they were paying far too much rent. One of their major stumbling blocks was that a gang of smelly fat blokes in leathers can appear quite intimidating to people who don’t follow their creed. I heard something about a bogus insurance claim in which a petrol bomb was supposed to have done a 90 degree turn after being thrown through a window, and they vacated the premises in a midnight flit.

“The Rats” (as they liked to be known) were followed by a retired policeman from Jamaica who thought he was buying into a piece of cricketing history. He lost his entire life savings in less than a year and was plunged into debt. After him followed a four year period as a Portuguese restaurant that could only afford to pay £1 a year rent. By this Inntrepreneur had realised the Cricketers was more a liability than an asset. Eventually it was sold for development and has been boarded up for a decade or more (see main photograph, taken by me in March 2014).

I found a video on YouTube of Diesel Park West, a regular act at the Cricketers during my 1980s tenure. I was amazed to see the video features photographs taken at the Cricketers (from 0:27 to 2:06). I’d totally forgotten about the great jazz players mural, which was painted on board (I wonder what happened to that?!) and the Hovis sign. Ah, memories…

There’s an update (thanks for letting me know):

I don’t know what Ronnie would make of it…

{ 2 comments }

Bill Pearmain May 14, 2014 at 9:40 pm

I agree I was there at a few thank you, but I am a North London boy spent a lot of time in the Hope with my mate Wayne on the mixing desk then on to Dingwells and most times couldn’t get home from Sarf of the river in time to get back to reality, loved the Robey did you do Whirley Gig? But what about http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/legends-of-the-bridge-house-the-venue-everyone-loved-769508.html

Richard West May 20, 2014 at 12:18 pm

The Happy Mondays played the Cricketers on July 22nd 1986. The support band were The Rhubarb Tarts, and I have it down that approx 20 people were in the audience. I don’t have any other details to hand, as that is from a list of gigs that I went to.

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