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The Clash and their epic residency at Bond’s International Casino in Times Square, was that really 40 years ago this month? Yup, I was one of the lucky 30,000 or so who were there for one of the 17 nights. It would have been the same number of fans over only eight shows before the NY Fire Dept. reduced the capacity. Not the Clash’s fault it seems, they honored ticket holders by doubling the amount of shows when the overselling promoters were found out.
Oh, to be 23 years old again, am I right? Me and my two friends who had gotten tickets had the date changed because of this snafu. Our plans for a Saturday night gig and a neat New York City weekend were upended when the expanded schedule had our tickets transferred to the following Monday night. How we even found this out in the pre-Internet age is lost to history. All I recall now is scheming with my partner from work, tooling around in our van that we drove for the General Services dept. at Charlestown Savings Bank in Boston. He did me a solid by agreeing to speak to our manager on Monday morning and say that I was stuck in NY for some obscure reason and/or sick and would not be in until Tuesday.
The Clash at Bond’s, June 1981. From l to r: Paul Simonon, Joe Strumer, Mick Jones. Unseen: drummer Topper Headon
As usual, we had the van’s AM radio turned to WILD, the late lamented soul music station that broadcast out of Roxbury, the city’s predominant African-American neighborhood. Suddenly, the Clash’s “Magnificent Dance” came on, a rare record from a white act for that station. I excitedly told him that this was the group that was drawing me away for a punk-rock weekend in the Big Apple. I was a bit disappointed that this was the instrumental dance mix of ”The Magnificent Seven,” sans Joe Strummer’s witty white-guy rapping. But it struck a blow for the black-white-unite impulse that was floating around back then as musical elements of rock, funk, reggae and rap seemed to be in allegiance.
The weekend was a blast. Those who were there will remember the vital (and often tense) scene that held sway in front of Bond’s as lingering confusion over what tickets were for what day meant cops and crowds and media coverage almost every day. The famous Times Square NYPD sub-station was directly across the street. At one point, Mr. Strummer walked thru the crush to get to the venue’s front door, the closest I would come to meeting him.
Bond’s Casino was an iconic place with an interesting backstory. In the !930’s and 40s it was a large supper-club type establishment. Under the same name it was later a clothing store with its gargantuan signage being a Times Square landmark, the O in the word Bond often sporting a clock to go along with the miles of neon, garish statuary and news ticker. By 1981, it had converted back to a nightclub but that wouldn’t last for much longer.
The Bond’s building was quite an attraction in and of itself back in the day.
Inside the club on Clash night, I remember mostly the winding, undulating ramp that led to the concert room. I also recall hat the 1750 peeps in attendance did a fair job of filling the place, I couldn’t imagine double that number as the unscrupulous promoters wanted. I enjoyed the opening act (the legendary Slits) but also remember being pretty disappointed with the Clash’s performance that night. It seems a bit like false-memory syndrome now. This was the fifth out of six times I saw them and maybe it was the law of diminishing returns. The second time (at the Orpheum Theater in Boston with no less than Sam & Dave and the Undertones opening) was maybe the best concert ever in my personal history. I thought the guys were sort of defaulting to the dub-wise sounds of that era’s edition of the band, but the typical setlist from then doesn’t really bear it out. They opened with the blazing 1-2 punch of “London Calling” and “Safe European Home” while the Mick Jones-sung hit “Train in Vain” and the current rave single “This is Radio Clash” soon followed. But songs from the current triple-album (the eclectic and meandering “Sandinista!”) seemed to dominate the middle of the set. But I like “Sandinista” a lot more nowadays and a time-travel loop back to that gig would surely find me deliriously entertained.
Live at Bond’s, June 13, 1981
The Bond’s residency would find the Clash not only at “The Crossroads of the World” but at a career crossroads as well. They were reaching a bigger audience and not always in a way that suited some of them. Joe Strummer, God bless his soul, was incensed when some of the group’s adventurous choices for opening slots (notably Grandmaster Flash) were mercilessly booed. The group’s radical roots could only take them so far and the attracting of a more mainstream fan base did not necessarily bring the enlightenment they sought.
But that’s a story for another day. As for me, I went straight from Bond’s to Penn Station ten blocks south and caught the red eye train back to Boston. It reached Boston just in time to stumble into work Tuesday morning where I got the expected comeuppance from the boss man. So I stood there and took it and lived to rock another day.
A four-minute snippet of Don Lett’s “Clash on Broadway” footage
The closest thing to a documentary record of this event is the 20 minutes of Don Lett’s unfinished “Clash on Broadway” project. This is available on YouTube in three parts or as a bonus feature on the DVD of Lett’s exemplary Clash doc “Westway to the World.”
Rick Ouellette is the author of Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book icon above to find out more!
In 2006, original rock ‘n’ roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis released an album called Last Man Standing. Typically brash, the title has taken on a more poignant and literal meaning in the last fifteen years as many of the genre pioneers still around at the time (Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino) have passed on. But Jerry Lee kept pushing on, performing regularly until a minor stroke in 2019 slowed him down. Even though, there were still plans for the 85-year-old to record a new gospel album with T-Bone Burnett, but the start date was in March 2020 just as Covid-19 flipped the world on its head.
Well-known for his riotous performances and for marrying his 13-year-old cousin in 1958, Lewis was one of rock music’s first controversy-courters and his career had many ups and downs. An up period came for him in 1973 when he added his name to the list of iconic blues and rock ‘n’ roll figures who had recorded albums in London that featured many of the top names of the British pop scene (Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King had preceded him there). Jerry Lee came away from it with a big double album and a hit single in “Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee.” After several years of performing for the country-and-western circuit, he re-established himself as one of the top figureheads in the game, a status he was not to surrender after the release of The Session… Recorded in London.
The album kicks off impressively with “Drinking Wine” and sets the template for much of what is to follow. It’s some great ol’ roadhouse boogie with Jerry leading the charge, singing enthusiastically of hedonistic pursuits and pounding away at his piano in that familiar staccato style. Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, the first of many hotshot guitarists to heed the star’s command to “Pick it, son,” gives some 70s firepower to a 50s-style solo. The promised “Great Guest Artists” roster continues with Irish blues-rock master Rory Gallagher (see photo below) on bottleneck guitar for the barroom jaunt “Music to the Man.” Others include the main rhythm section of then-Faces drummer Kenney Jones and Beatles bestie Klaus Voorman on bass, while organists include Gary Wright, Tony Ashton and Procol Harum’s Matthew Fisher—and there were a few extra players on most songs, some were Jerry Lee’s boys that were brought over. But it’s the six-string slingers (or as JLL calls them, “son”) that get the attention and include both Alvin and (unrelated) Albert Lee, Chas Hodges, Peter Frampton and future-Foreigner Mick Jones. Never mind that many of these “sons” were only 5-10 years younger. As Jon Landau put it in is contemporary review in Rolling Stone: “I have a feeling (Lewis) doesn’t care which son or how long he plays, just as long as the spotlight returns to where it belongs when the son is finished.”
Although only in his late thirties, Jerry Lee was on the cusp of his elder statesman years and reportedly felt somewhat ill-at-ease during the sessions. He had rarely recorded outside of Memphis or Nashville and was surrounded by long-haired whipper snappers. He was even said to have told his son Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr. (who appears on percussion here) that he thought he had maybe made a mistake. That may explain some of the “son” stuff and calling himself The Killer. The Brits were (of course) reverential in any regard and Lewis would look back more fondly on this event in an interview years later.
When these disparate elements come together the record can be great fun, with the accompanists’ amped-up backing giving Lewis a solid platform to hit his attitudinal sweet spot halfway between blasé and berserk. It’s a rush to hear Rory Gallagher and Peter Frampton trading solos as the man bulls his way thru “Johnny B. Goode” and to have pro’s pro Albert Lee move the crew full-steam-ahead on “Sea Cruise” as Captain Killer runs thru his paces of piano razzle-dazzle, esp. in those sweeping glissandos that flash by like Zorro’s sword. Brian Parrish (then with Yes spin-off group Badger) juices up a couple of blues numbers with some wily harmonica and the session dudes go country-rock on JLL’s decent readings of Credence Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.”
In other places, The Session does appear “overstuffed” (per the RS review) with, say, the wayward take on Berry’s “Memphis” or on an underwhelming version of “What’d I Say” that does not come within a country mile of the Ray Charles original. A certain boredom with some of these already Golden Oldies may have played a part, as could Jerry Lee’s drinking and pill-intake at the time, even though (by his own account) his admiring British sessioneers did not so much as a light a joint in studio.
It does come all together for the concluding “Rock & Roll Medley” as the Killer whiplashes thru four Little Richard classics before climaxing with his immortal “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Jerry Lee whoops it up like it’s 1957 and attacks his piano keys with karate-chop comping while Alvin Lee flies off into Woodstock guitar-hero land. It’s a satisfying ending to an imperfect album that is still a “great party record” (again, Landau’s words) and will be a fun vinyl time no matter which of the four sides you drop the needle on. In 1973 it was lifted into gold record status on the wings of the era’s revival interest in early rock ‘n’ roll. While The Session hit #37 on the pop charts, it pushed all the way to #4 on the country countdown, and Lewis would soon return to the C&W genre: “Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee” would be his last rock hit single. But the album did a lot to help cement his status in the pantheon of original rock ‘n’ roll greats, a status that will remain long after he is no longer the Last Man Standing.
In the realm of urban exploration, the general spirit of the thing is “the morbid the merrier” (as Curly Howard once put it after the Stooges had stumbled into a haunted house). The popular fascination with abandoned sites shows little sign of abating, a phenomenon I explored in my series called “The Pale Beyond” some years back (see links below). My own interest in this subject has now extended beyond my photography and occasional blog post to the realm of comic books. I am working on a graphic novel called “The Ministry of Dark Tourism” with artist Ian Miller. I will be posting the first chapter of this some time this spring.
In the meantime, here are some related photographs of mine, mostly taken the last year during our Covid Year. Hope you like them, let me know if you’d like more info on any of them.
Chapel of the Holy Innocents, former Fernald School, Waltham MA
The Fernald School went from notorious exploiters of unwanted youth to caretakers of the state’s most severely disabled adults in the course of its long history. Closed in 2014 and currently off limits, the Fernald campus was the site of a Christmas lights drive-thru attraction in 2020, the former chapel lurking behind the Candy Land section.
Tewksbury Hospital tour, Tewksbury MA
My tour of historic Tewksbury Hospital was canceled in April of 2020 at the start of the pandemic, but the good folks at Silver Crescent Photography rescheduled it for October, and was so glad they did. The hospital, like many such institutions from the 19th century is spread over a large campus. Parts of it are still a working hospital and the main building also houses the Massachusetts Public Health Museum. Although it was an early innovator in special services for indigent and disabled people, Tewksbury did have its darker side as evidenced in the Violent Female Offenders Ward seen at the top of this article. The shuttered MacDonald Building (exterior shot above) was used in the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s “Castle Rock.” The Rice Building (the two shots below that) have also been used for horror film locations.
Sometimes you never know what you’ll see on one of these tours. Unexpected beauty (like sunlight illuminating a vintage school desk), unexpected utilizations (the basement of one building had been used as a state trooper training facility) and unexpected chills (the basement storage area of the Public Health Museum sported an old electroshock machine).
Danvers State Hospital Auxiliary Patient Cemetery, Middleton Colony, MA
The fabled Danvers State Hospital, the once-idealistic sanatorium whose fearsome Gothic exterior loomed over Danvers, Mass. for 130 years, was demolished (except for the façade of the main building) in 2007; it has been replaced by (ho-hum) condominiums. It’s two patient cemeteries, where grave markers only bear numbers, still remain and bear witness to the institutional callousness that marked its 20th century incarnation. One cemetery is in a hollow down the hill from the main site. The other, pictured above, is about a mile away and eluded me until a year or two ago. It’s surrounded by fields and farmland and has gained a memorial that lists the names of many of the unfortunate souls laid to rest there.
World War II Ammo Bunkers, Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge
There are more WW2 ruins in the America than you might expect, esp. along the two coasts. There are a couple of dozen giant ammunition storage bunkers in the woods of Massachusetts in what is now a wildlife refuge. The ammo was shipped here some 30+ miles from Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, to be out of range of German warships. Sadly, this bit of local history has a down side too. The military took this once-populated area by eminent domain, with only ten days notice for residents and ten-cents-on-the-dollar compensation for their property.
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The daily posts I put up for my Facebook group Rock Docs (check it out if interested) generally fall into a few different categories: birthday tributes, trailers for upcoming music documentaries and seasonal-themed series (I recently had a weeklong string of posts about Irish bands centered around St. Patrick’s Day). Another frequent category that can’t be avoided: obituary posts. Any rock music fan of a certain age who is on social media knows these well. Whenever one of our beloved stars dies, the online tributes, often very heartfelt, come pouring in and last for days if not weeks. This phenomenon probably peaked in early 2016, when David Bowie and Prince passed away within a few months of each other.
Of course, a lot of this can’t be helped: rock ‘n’ roll is a youth-centric artform that is now about 65 years old. While many of the baby-boomer stars of its Golden Age are in their Golden Years, rock has ceded its primacy in the pop-music pyramid since at least the late Nineties. A book like Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock was inevitable.
Freelance author and podcaster Steven Hyden has acquitted himself well on this subject. Twilight of the Gods is an accessible, witty and committed book. Part of its success may be that Hyden was born in 1977 and grew up in suburban Minnesota, a Gen X/Millennial bitten bad by the Classic Rock bug. He is no portentous, self-serious scribe a la Greil Marcus, but he gets it. By early middle school he was subsumed by rock “as an act of faith: albums as sacred texts, live concerts as quasi-religious rituals, and rock mythology as a means of self-discovery.” An avowed agnostic, Hyden admits that “if there is a God, I was sure I had found Him on side two of Abbey Road.”
Hope I die before I get old—or not. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend on the “Who Hits 50 Tour” in 2016
He first saw his favorite band (the Who) in 2002, so the timeline of his grand obsession was already leaning into advanced middle age. But by the end of the night, Hyden had found his musical Olympus as the Who rose to the occasion of past greatness. Or, more precisely, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey did that. Bassist John Entwistle had recently died (after a night of latter-day rock-star debauchery) and Keith Moon, the original wildman drummer, was already a quarter-century in the grave.
But to Hayden and countless other fans, what may matter above all is the (hoped for) immortality of the form itself. Bands like the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd not only have a considerable repertoire of recordings but are also steeped in rich mystique and all sorts of esoterica. Like many before him, Hyden enthusiastically partakes of both the canon of accepted masterwork albums and more obscure discoveries, reads the books and music mags and views all the important rock docs.
By 1988, when American TV viewers were treated to the legendary “Freedom Rock” commercial, the canonization of Sixties and Seventies youth music was in full swing.
The result of this deep-diving is an often quirky book where the author explores all sorts of different tributaries on this long and winding musical river. Hyden tells of his great appreciation of both the rebel spirit of Bruce Springsteen’s wilder early albums and the more reflective tone of his later work (both men had complicated father/son relationships). He talks of how fans can keep the classic-rock experience fresh by embracing once-avoided “good bad albums” like the Stones’ Black and Blue and Neil Young’s Trans. And of course, no book about rock history would be complete without foray’s into the subjects of the occult (there is an excellent dissection of the Ozzy Osbourne song “Mr. Crowley”) and the old stand-by discussion of how awful the Eagles are (“They were cool like the captain of the high-school baseball team is cool… the kind of guys who will tape your ass cheeks together if you dare pass out early at the party”).
Not every section of The Twilight of the Gods works equally well. The “dad rock” chapter, while entertaining enough, goes on too long with its Wilco vs. Pearl Jam showdown. But Hyden mostly stays on point, often keenly so. Through the real-life example of his own divorced mother, he discerns a generational class of women who by the Eighties had moved on from the randy sex anthems of Aerosmith et al. Instead, they welcomed the embrace of goopy power ballads like “Open Arms” by Journey and “Keep on Loving You” by REO Speedwagon. But for good reason. Here, wised-up sensitive men were also looking for something more lasting. “These power ballads are about damaged people trying to make a go of love despite trying circumstances” and Hyden has the stats to mark this as a growing demographic.
Divorce Rock? Singers of this song type were often (and improbably) culled from glam metal bands.
As the author observes, eventually “you’ll see there is no beginning or end to music, only grooves that you can lock into until you find another groove.” But there is an end to the mortal coil and early on in the book he makes note of the rock notables who passed on while he was working on it: Chuck Berry, Gregg Allman, Leonard Cohen etc. Each of these deaths is mourned personally (online) often in ways that are inter-generational. In the the closing pages he notes, “The exaggerated arc of rock stardom creates a framework for understanding our own lives. Now classic rock is helping us understand, and accept, the inevitability of death.” Not the most pleasant thought, but I’m glad that Steven Hyden has tackled this thorny subject with such insight and panache.
Irish musicians have had a broad, if rather diffuse, impact on the history of pop music. The relative social and geographical isolation of the Emerald Isle until well into the Sixties may have had a lot do with that. Since then there has been a smattering of superstars (Van Morison, U2, Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy), notable genre artists (blues-rock master Rory Gallagher, indie-rock darlings the Cranberries) and iconoclastic greats like Sinead O’Connor and the Pogues’ Shane McGowan.
Originally released in 2000, the entertaining and encyclopedic “Out of Ireland” was a three-part program produced for Dublin-based RTE television and its 158 minutes should satisfy even the most ardent fan of Irish popular music. Director David Hefferman starts with an overview of the country’s lively but derivative show bands that dominated the music scene while rock ‘n’ roll came to the fore in the Fifties and early Sixties. But the influence of the Beatles and other British Invasion groups on the other side of the Irish Sea could not be denied, though the response at first came in fits and starts. Tellingly, it was from a wide range of emerging acts, from the gritty garage rock of Van Morrison and Them (whose “Gloria” would be a starter-kit tune for innumerable bands to follow) to the lightweight pop of Gilbert O’Sullivan and Dana, whose candy-coated “All Kinds of Everything” won the 1970 Eurovision song contest.
A ten-minute clip of “Out of Ireland,” covering the punk years.
There is a lot to get to here and Hefferman gets to a lot of it, even if things here feel a little puddle-deep at times. He does counterbalance this tendency by returning to major artists like Van and Rory and U2, at various points and stages of their careers. One interesting point that gets echoed at different junctures is that many Irish rockers reached back past the show bands to find inspiration (even if by osmosis) to the greater example of traditional Irish music, literature, and storytelling. Morrison’s observational/impressionistic lyrics on his landmark Astral Weeks LP echoed James Joyce’s ability to lend grandeur to the everyday. Thin Lizzy’s first hit was a rocked-up version of the traditional “Whiskey in the Jar.” The progressive folk band Horslips dressed up archetypal Celtic themes in glam-rock finery while the Pogues spoke (both wildly and poignantly) to the modern Irish diaspora. There’s a keen sense that Irish rock often finds that bittersweet, happy-sad symmetry so typical of Irish culture.
This video of Phil Lynott’s “Old Town” (featured and discussed in the film) shows both the charismatic and troubled side of the Thin Lizzy frontman, who died at age 36.
The film, aptly sub-titled “From a Whisper to a Scream”, does well to ground this thematic thread from the Erie as a lightly-populated backwater to dynamic player in the global pop scene with regularly placed commentary from creative consultant (and editor of Ireland’s music magazine, Hot Press) Niall Stokes. This is esp. advisable when you’ve got a rhetorical road race of musical personalities like the flinty Van the Man, the sharp but soft-spoken Sinead, and the road-hogging conceits of the notably self-regarding Bono and Bob Geldof, who continues to over-estimate the pre-Live Aid influence of his band the Boomtown Rats.
The Cranberries’ lovely “Ode to My Family,” another video steeped in rich Irish ambience
Speaking of screaming, “Out of Ireland” also provides a good overview of the country’s contributions to the punk revolution, with segments on Belfast bangers like Stiff Little Fingers, the Undertones and the Blades (bands that really had something to yell about in that town during The Troubles) and Dublin’s Radiators from Space, whose guitarist, the late Philip Chevron, later joined the Pogues. There are also sidebars on important Irish-English performers of the era (Johnny Rotten, Elvis Costello, Boy George) and 80s bands that never broke out bigtime but are still plugging away, like the Saw Doctors and Hothouse Flowers.
Of course, U2 are still plugging away as well, and their international popularity does not seem to be waning anytime soon. A section towards the end of “Out of Ireland” makes the odd connection that the group’s gargantuan “Pop” and “Zoo TV” tours may be a more modern version of those old show bands (the stage show “Riverdance” is also edged into that category). I agree with that to an extent, but don’t see it necessarily as a compliment. But that’s put aside for Hefferman’s final point that although the lightly-populated island has put itself on the world music map it is no time for complacency. I think all can agree on that, even if it means overthrowing the “show bands” all over again.
If you like my music documentary posts, feel free to click on the book cover above right to check out a 30-page excerpt of my Rock Docs: A 50-Year Cinemtaic Journey and/or join my Facebook group simply called Rock Docs. Thanks, Rick Ouellette
A view from behind a John Nash-designed Regent Street archway, 2016 (All photos by author unless otherwise noted)
I have come here tonight to praise the former Regent Palace Hotel, just off Piccadilly Circus in London. At 1028 rooms, it was the world’s biggest hotel on completion in 1915. I did not know this tidy little fact when I stayed there for a week in May of 1976. This would have surprised me back then. The hotel had a rounded, impressive Edwardian façade but it didn’t seem especially large. That’s maybe because many of the rooms (like mine) were small and communal bathrooms were in the hall, which was the case until the place finally closed in 2006.
The white-washed ghost of the Regent Palace Hotel in 2016. Seemingly empty save for an Ugg store. Ugh.
So the Regent Palace was not much of a palace, but it did back up to rear of the Regent Street quadrant. That famously curved shopping street was laid out by John Nash, the master architect of Regency/Georgian England. His work also includes Buckingham Palace, the Brighton Royal Pavilion, and Marble Arch. The elegant sweep of Lower Regent Street led into Piccadilly Circus, anchoring London’s West End entertainment district, before taking a sharp turn and proceeding thru a stately institutional area to the The Mall, which of course leads to the Queen’s pad.
For 8 pounds a night, the Regent Palace Hotel was a place where “You enjoy all the amenities of a modern hotel, including telephone, radio and razor point.” (!!)
I’ve always had a thing about architecture and John Nash (1752-1835) is my favorite practitioner, except maybe for American Samuel McIntire, the Federalist architect/carver who’s greatest works were also done in the early 19th century. Sam’s not only a fellow countryman but lived and worked primarily in my hometown of Salem, Mass. Anyway, I cribbed the title for this post from the Simon & Garfunkel song “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.” After all, there just aren’t enough tribute songs to famous architects, I mean how much can you say in that format? Even S&G are pretty much reduced to saying how they and ol’ Frank would “harmonize ‘til dawn.” Sounds funny, but city-building can have its own musical richness and John Nash was a symphony-level composer. He found his fame as a patron of the Prince Regent (later King George IV) and his master plan started with a design for Regent’s Park (ringed by his terraces and great-houses) and proceeded south in a grand avenue procession down to Regent Street and the Circus. So very royal, yes, but it also gave London some of its greatest public spaces. But more on all that in a bit.
Ray Davies makes the rounds of Swinging London in this satirical Kinks Klassic from 1966.
I was 18 at the time of my first visit to the city that had so captured my boyhood imagination, mainly stirred by my steady diet of Kinks albums and Chares Dickens novels. This trip to England I had planned for some time, funded by my high-school job as a busboy and by a nice little fund put aside from my godfather that he gave me when I had turned the big 1-8. I had gone with my mom to a local travel agent (remember them?) and the guy, seeing that I was a bright young lad off on his own for the first time, suggested that the Regent Palace Hotel, a literal stone’s throw away from London’s version of Times Square, would be a good base camp. My mom was already nervous about me going but it was quickly a done deal.
Your humble blogger at age 18, captured by a street photographer near my hotel.
Piccadilly Circus in the post-war years became world-famous for its neon-lit nightlife and its giant advertising signs for films, shows and a bewildering array of consumer goods. But ten paces away from these bright lights and rushing traffic, and thru the corner entrance of the Regent Palace it was a different story. The hotel had a certain frumpy charm, it was like a character in a Graham Greene novel, with a certain faded elegance and a hint of intrigue. (I was certainly intrigued by the occasional hooker loitering at a staircase landing). The Circus came to be one of those great gathering places, both for Londoners and tourists, but ol’ John Nash was way ahead of the curve. Lower Regent Street (completed around 1825) featured a covered arcade that kept window shoppers out of the elements and maybe give a chance for sweethearts to have a tete-a-tete, reportedly a consideration in the planning.
Panorama of Nash’s Regent St. quadrant. (Photo by Benh Lieu Song via Wikipedia)
Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus
Society took over from their and certainly by the 1960’s it was (like Carnaby Street) a place to see and be seen. Many of the nightclubs of Swinging London, hosting future rock mega-bands like the Who and Pink Floyd, were in adjacent areas like Leicester Square and Soho. It was well past the prime of that golden era by the time I got there in ’76. The place was considered tawdry by many, with its illicit street dealings and dignified old buildings covered in advertising hoardings and movie marquees. But it was transformational for me, the spark that started a lifetime of sporadic European travel. So I went boldly where all men had gone before and sat myself on the steps of the Shaftsbury Memorial (see below) topped by the famous statue of Eros though it is actually his brother Anteros, the god of requited love. Either way, point well taken.
Piccadilly Circus, 1976
Across from the steps was the grand façade of the London Pavilion, where the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night and Yellow Submarine had had their world premieres. Currently, the theater’s 3-story high sign was boosting it’s first-run showing of Death Race 2000, the pedestrians-as-points cult film; a die-cut image of David Carradine as the black-masked driver loomed over the square. Instead, I opted for a walk down Coventry Street to the now-demolished Odeon West End to see The Man Who Fell to Earth, the futuristic mind-bender starring David Bowie. The bottom of the Odeon marquee, for all of Leicester Square to see, read “Kinky Sex”—The Evening Standard. Well, your average perv may have been disappointed to buy a ticket based on that alone, but I took up my seat in the balcony (smoking allowed) not unlike the girl in Bowie’s song “Life on Mars?” who’s “hooked to the silver screen.” After having my mind suitably blown, I walked past a Piccadilly pub where an hour later, a few of the Rolling Stones stopped by a drink. I read that the next day in the (wait for it) Evening Standard.
Jumping ahead nearly 45 years, I found out something that I had long suspected, a possible brush with rock and roll history that would have been more significant than catching a glimpse of a few Black and Blue-era Stones. The pre-Sid Vicious Sex Pistols were gigging in Central London the same month in the spring of ‘76 that I was first visited my fabled London. Mainly, they had a Tuesday night residency at the nearby 100 Club. Not that I necessarily would have known what to do with a Johnny Rotten back then (I was more of a Ray Davies and Ian Anderson kind of guy), but I did miss being present at the crossroads of rock history at a time when the band were not yet tabloid fodder. But ten months later the Pistols, now with Sid in tow, the group’s manager arranged a publicity-stunting signing of a contract with A&M Records, in front of the John Nash-designed Buckingham Palace. The competing symbolism was clear, even if the band didn’t release their groundbreaking, vitriolic anthem “God Save the Queen” until several weeks later. After that, they repaired to one of the lobby bars at the Regent Palace Hotel where they were over-served by the staff, according to (I believe) Jon Savage’s definitive book “England’s Dreaming.” Just think, only a gob’s throw away from where I sat in the RPH’s breakfast room, or the Carvery restaurant, whose sliced-roasts station, dessert cart and great big Imperial pints of lager were already legends in my own mind. The group’s drunken hijinks continued over at the A&M office, where their punkified misdemeanors had them booted off the label by week’s end. Twenty years would pass by the time I saw the re-formed Sex Pistols at an outdoor venue I the summer of 1996.
I would visit London alone again in 1994 and in 2016 with family. I was older and a bit wiser and able to take much better photographs, including those of John Nash’s greatest architectural hits (more in Part Two!). In ’94, I took a nostalgic stroll thru the Regent Palace lobby and out the side door. Also by then, the obstructing sign was down at the London Pavilion and it had been turned into a rock-themed wax museum; there were David Bowie and Mick Jagger effigies looking out imperiously from the revealed balconies. In 2016, the RPH was long-closed when I showed my son where I had stayed in another lifetime. The building, like many others in the Piccadilly/Regent Street area, had been scrubbed of their age-old London grime and white-washed to within an inch of their lives. The “people’s palace” hotel had only ghost of the memories of the lone travelers, wandering-eye businessmen and tour-group tag-a-longs that once issued forth the lobby into the whirlwind of London’s famous/infamous crossroads. But I’m still here to tell you my tale where the secret lives of buildings, people and pop culture intersect and will be back for more in Part Two.
Early on in career that spanned the years 1981-2011, Sonic Youth earned their spot as one of America’s quintessential modern rock bands and are almost the very definition of what became known as postpunk. Their three principal members, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo and bassist Kim Gordon, migrated to New York City and found their musical footing (and each other) as the mid to late-70s CBGB heyday was ending. They got their start in the noisy No Wave scene that followed and made their first recordings on a small label started by experimental composer Glen Branca, with whom both Moore and Ranaldo had played. Shirttails and a certain ironic detachment replaced the torn apparel and sneering attitudes of the early punk days. All three wrote and sang and the two guitarists were brash but studied sound architects while Gordon gave the group undeniable sex appeal. Sonic Youth remained fiercely independent even after their aggressive sound was tempered with the more conventional pop attributes that theoretically meant a larger fan base. They stuck with smaller indie labels right through to this, their fifth full-length album. Daydream Nation is the magnum opus of both their own career and of the downtown scene that spawned them. It is widely considered the band’s conceptual peak even though there would be many fruitful years to follow.
The impressive breadth of this double disc derives from a combination of a group writing spree and encouragement to commit to vinyl (and to cassette and CD, the late 1980s being the transitional era of formats) the extended noise rock jams and feedback frenzies that were long part of their live show. From its hand-to-mouth beginnings, SY could now book three weeks of studio time in advance, co-producing with noted hip-hop engineer Nick Sansano. Daydream Nation opens with the seven-minute anthem “Teenage Riot,” its most well-known number and a favorite of college radio back in the day. After eighty seconds of free-floating guitar notes and Gordon whispering sweet nothings to the listener, it kicks into gear with a relentless forward motion that carries all the way to the finish line. “Teenage Riot” is a call-to-arms directed at bored young people that in one way harkens back to the totemic songs of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers albeit with an updated snarky attitude (“You come running in on platform shoes/With Marshall stacks to at least just give us a clue”) and the attenuated values of a seen-it-all age (“It’s getting kind of quiet in my city’s head/Takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed”). Typical of the band’s singing, Thurston Moore delivers all this with a voice that rarely exceeds conversational volume—but when it comes to the instrumental work it’s a different kettle of fish. Halfway through the next number, “Silver Rocket,” there is a sudden eruption of overamplified six-string carnage before the determined full trot from drummer Steve Shelley’s snare kit pulls the tune back from the chaos.
Sonic Youth 1988. “You WILL like our ‘overamplified six-string carnage,'” insists Thurston Moore.
The rest of the album pretty much follows the same pattern. Razor’s edge punk riffing holds sway on a collection of mosh-worthy rockers that are often punctuated by atonal outbursts or gentler ambient passages, often as the prelude or postscript to a song. Many of feature the alternative tunings and effects favored by Moore and Ranaldo and beloved by guitar geeks not beholden to the blues-based model. There are several worthy additions to the Kim Gordon catalog of sultry/tough come-ons (in real life she and Moore had been married for four years), most notably on “Kissability” and “’Cross the Breeze”. Suffice to say when she sings, “Let’s go walking on the water/come all the way, please” it will sound as much of a challenge as an invitation.
Lee Ranaldo contributes three tracks including album highlight “Hey Joni”, a cock-eyed tribute to band fave Joni Mitchell. Although Ranaldo’s abstracted lyrics are a bit hard to get the measure of (“The time in the trees, we broke that vice/We took some steps and now we can’t think twice”) the intrigue over its subject’s transformation from Woodstock-era songbird to brittle iconoclast shows the SY’s keen sense of pop history. As if to underline it, there are also a couple of double-album gambits: a brief bit of musique concrete called “Providence” (Moore’s piano recorded on a Walkmen overlaid by a deadpan voice mail left by ex-Minutemen Mike Watt) and the closing 14-minute “Trilogy.” But no prog pretensions here when a three-parter means a patented Thurston Moore night-on-the-tiles raver, more dissonance and a Kim Gordon ditty called “Eliminator Jr.” Then Daydream Nation ends in mid-squall, as if no further concession to its own gravitas was needed.
Kim Gordon center stage as SY play CBGB in 1988.
The acclaim greeted DN may not have exactly resulted in sales that would warrant chart placement, but the increased stature of the band eased the move to David Geffen’s DCG label for the 1990 follow-up Goo. That yielded the signature smash “Kool Thing” whose alluring video was an MTV staple. Through the 90s the cult status of Sonic Youth grew from its base of late baby boomers (like themselves) to include many of the kids who hit their twenties just in time for the grunge scene. Daydream Nation started appearing on numerous all-time best-of lists as the group stuck to its guns like true believers of the rock continuum. As middle age approached, Moore and Gordon repaired from lower Manhattan to the calmer (but still hip) hinterlands of Northampton, Mass. By 2002, their daughter appeared on the cover of late-career highlight Murray Street. Although the couple (along with Sonic Youth) split up in 2011, the various members have kept their irons in the fire with other bands, solo records and (in the case of Kim Gordon) a high-profile memoir. Daydream Nation will likely continue to be a noise-rock touchstone as long as there are teenagers who need to riot.
Few rock and roll Christmas stories are as heartwarming as the Sex Pistols’ tale of how they spent December 25th, 1977. You may well ask, huh? But look at the situation facing the England’s most notorious punk band at the end of that epochal year. Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee was celebrated that summer, with the one notable exception of the band’s blistering protest song, which took its title from the royal anthem. The Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” lambasted a “fascist regime” and an outdated monarchy that lorded over a population that needed a serious wake-up call. They had connected with a significant portion of the nation’s youth and the single is widely believed to have denied the #1 spot in the UK by industry chart-rigging at the very height of the festivities in June. Johnny Rotten and the crew had also spent the better part of a year earning their reputation as cultural enemy #1 in the eyes of Britain’s establishment.
The year wound down with a planned Sex Pistols tour, but local authorities saw to it that 27 gigs were cancelled, leaving the group in a bus that had a destination sign accurately reading “Nowhere.” That’s where we are at the start of Julien Temple’s thoroughly engaging 2013 documentary look-back. The one-hour film actually kicks off with an extended montage of hokey holiday B-roll of British holiday miscellany that shades into the darker side of that particular season: the country’s economic woes and desultory labor strikes.
Huddersfield from the hill.
It was then that the “Christmas miracle” mentioned in that montage’s ironic narration happens. The Pistols, disillusioned and all but destined to spend December 25th tooling around the rainy motorways in their Nowhere coach, got a call from the firemen’s union in the hardscrabble West Yorkshire town of Huddersfield. The firemen, who were stuck on wages of 170 pounds a week, had been on the picket line for nine weeks. They asked the band if they would be interested in doing a charity gig for the worker’s children on Christmas Day. Would they?
Here’s the complete film. Enjoy!
“Christmas With the Sex Pistols” (aka “Never Mind the Baubles”) is an object lesson in the random acts of kindness that can make our world a little better when tolerance and understanding win the day. The band’s anarchic outrageousness may have been necessary to shake up the country’s moribund state of mind, a process that would go on to reenergize Britain’s culture for the better. But it came at a price, esp. at the hands of the country’s tabloid press, led by the likes of Rupert Murdoch and his ilk. “Anything we did was transferred into a lie,” John Lydon (then Johnny Rotten) says in the film’s contemporary band interviews. “They just wanted to smear us,” he continues, “but you can’t beat the truth.” And the truth of that Christmas afternoon was that the Sex Pistols were accepted as (and presented themselves as) nothing more than good-natured benefactors, throwing an unpretentious Yuletide party for the kids (most of them grade-schoolers) with gifts and band memorabilia for all, a luncheon and a huge cake (more of that later).
Temple smartly compliments this angle by having the three surviving Pistols from this line-up (Lydon, Steve Jones and Paul Cook) relate their own childhood recollections of the Yuletide. The relatively stable home environments of Lydon and Cook contrast sharply with the backstory of Jones, whose sour holiday memories and it’s “fucking ‘orrible” TV specials are related to his abusive “shit family” (refer to his memoir Lonely Boy for details), only partially relieved by escaping to the house of his childhood friend, Cook. Of course, John Simon Ritchie (aka Sid Vicious) is not here to tell his tale but Lydon recalls that Sid, keen on coming across as a punk tough guy, needed a “serious talking to” before the party. He reminded Sid that that kind of posturing wouldn’t work with children. Jez Scott, who was about 15 and is the only kid there interviewed here as an adult, remembers that “Sid was brilliant.” He had ended up with two Sex Pistols soccer-style scarves and Mr. Vicious politely asked Jez if he could have one as the memorabilia were not meant for band members.
Sid and kids, with girlfriend Nancy Spungen, his partner in doom, looking on.
Jez also remembered that the Pistols delivered their usual furious set, even including their anti-abortion tirade “Bodies.” But the children, being “natural anarchists,” loved them and enthusiastically started a cake fight with the ample leftovers of the featured dessert. Johnny Rotten, as the lead singer, was apt to lean over the front of the bandstand or wander into the audience. So he soon had his head covered in frosting, much to his own delight. “It had all gotten a little too serious” by then, he recalls of the atmosphere surrounding the group. Both band members and a couple of greying guys who walked nine miles to see the night show, talk of the fleeting days of “punk unity” and the good vibes that permeated this gig. Near the end of this piece, Temple treats the true-blue Pistols fan to a chunk of great footage from the evening “adult” show. These performance clips are of particular interest as it was the band’s last UK show in their original run. Their chaotic U.S. tour soon followed and ended with the group’s bitter break-up a mere three weeks later.
That story could (and has) filled many a magazine article and book chapter. What Temple’s shrewdly charming film does is sprinkle a little holiday magic on the band’s inglorious ending. There were many factors that contributed to that; the group’s youthful inexperience, the tabloid nonsense and an older generation’s stark intolerance, not to mention the cynical machinations of the Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren. It’s a loving holiday card sent to the town of Huddersfield and a fine record of a notable moment of grace for a beleaguered rock legend in the making. With all the hype scraped away, it’s simply a tale of people doing a good deed where needed, when only a lump of coal was expected.
If you like my music documentary posts, feel free to click on the book cover above right to check out a 30-page excerpt of my Rock Docs: A 50-Year Cinemtaic Journey and/or join my Facebook group simply called Rock Docs. Thanks, Rick Ouellette