Monday, 28 July 2008

Steve Thomas: Big Biba and Other Stories

My friend Steve Thomas has an exhibition of his work coming up at the Chelsea Space in London (17 September – 18 October 2008). I’ve just written a press release for the show, which I’d like to share with you here:

‘Steve, I really dig your artwork, man’ – Mick Jagger, 1969

Male model, artist, designer, rock & roll manager, King’s Road rouĂ© and teller of tall tales… Steve Thomas is one of the few survivors of the 1960s who can still remember it all. He’s the man who designed the legendary Big Biba shop, who went on to work for years as Paul McCartney’s personal designer, who created the livery for Formula 1 teams (and for London buses to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee) and whose style helped define the restaurant and club environment of the 1980s.

In the ‘60s, having left Chelsea School of Art, he inhabited the fringes of the record industry, hyping hit singles for Peter Frampton’s first band, The Herd (who he had discovered) and designing record sleeves for acts including PJ Proby and the Rolling Stones.

Then in 1971 came his big break when Barbara Hulanicki invited him and his design partner, Tim Whitmore, to design the new Biba store: a seven-storey department store filled with own-brand products. The Sunday Times called the result ‘the most beautiful store in the world.’

Subsequent work included building a studio for the recording of ‘Mull of Kintyre’ and adventures in Mexico City, New York and Toronto (designing the revolving restaurant 1300 feet up the CN Tower). In the 1980s, as speed and dope gave way to cocaine hedonism, Steve became the architect for the hippest of showbiz hang-outs, among them the Restaurant in Dolphin Square, the Pheasantry and John Conteh’s bar JC’s, as well as the Roof Gardens Club in Miami.

And in an era of conspicuous affluence, Steve stumbled into designing some of the most legendary advertising and branding campaigns of recent decades, including Lucky Strikes, Levi’s, Esso and Pepsi Cola.

Still working, his 2007 shop-design for Parisian punks April 77 has been called a ‘Biba for the 21st century’.

This is the first time a retrospective of Steve’s work has been staged in London.

Friday, 25 July 2008


Yes, I know I’m getting a bit carried away with making You Tube trailers for my books, but here’s another one:

This one features vintage photos of Portmeirion Village, about which I wrote an essay in a book I edited a couple of years back. The place looks a bit different now (it’s in colour, apart from anything else), but it’s still as magical as ever it was.

I hadn’t been to Portmeirion before I was invited to edit the book (invited by Mark Eastment, then of Antique Collectors Club and now of the V&A, who gets a bit miffed if he doesn’t get a mention). But it only takes an evening there to understand entirely why people fall in love with the village. There really is no other place like it.

Happily, I've been working with Portmeirion again over the last few months, together with my partner, on a new book – Magic Gardens: The Underwater Art of Susan Williams-Ellis.

Susan, of course, was the daughter of Clough Williams-Ellis, the man who built Portmeirion, and in her own right was the founder of Portmeirion Potteries. In that capacity, she helped shape the style of the 1960s and went on to create the Botanic Garden range of tableware.

She also had a lifelong infatuation with the world underwater and spent thirty years painting what she saw. Which is the subject of the forthcoming book.

And no doubt there’ll be a new video along when that one comes out as well.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

PhotoIcon magazine

PhotoIcon – for those who missed the first six issues – is about as cool a photo magazine as there’s ever been.

To prove it, the new issue, just published, is devoted to the photograph in rock and roll. And alongside articles on the likes of Gered Mankowitz and Annie Leibovitz is a fabulous six-page spread on Harry Hammond.

I should, of course, declare an interest. I wrote the piece in question, and the images are from my forthcoming book, Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock (V&A Publishing, 2008).

But even so, it’s the kind of magazine you’re going to want to own. A snip at just £4-95.

Move It

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Move It, the debut single by Cliff Richard and the Drifters. A grateful nation offers its congratulations to him and the boys, and its thanks for realizing the concept of British rock and roll.

Move It wasn’t actually the first British rock and roll record (that honour belonged to Tony Crombie and his Rockets with Teach You to Rock nearly two years earlier). Nor even was it the first great one: a couple of months before Cliff, Marty Wilde had released his version of Endless Sleep, a track that was actually better than the Jody Reynolds original.

But Move It was the first classic rock and roll performance to originate here – a song written by the Drifters’ guitarist Ian Samwell, not a cover of an American record.

It was an epoch-making moment in popular culture. ‘An exciting number with throbbing beat,’ enthused the NME reviewer. ‘If you’re an addict of the big beat, then this is a “must” for your collection.’

In later years Cliff was to say of the ‘50s: ‘We British never really competed.’ But he was being unduly modest; Move It proved that a rock record made in a London studio was capable of rivalling anything coming out of America, setting the tone for the next decade’s domination of the genre by Britain.

The following year, 1959, demonstrated that the track wasn’t a mere flash-in-the-pan, with a handful of classic records: Cliff and the Drifters released Livin’ Lovin’ Doll, Mean Streak and Dynamite; Wilde hit new heights on his self-penned Bad Boy; Vince Taylor and the Playboys launched a cult reputation with Brand New Cadillac; and Billy Fury debuted with his own song Maybe Tomorrow, while Johnnie Kidd and the Pirates did the same with Please Don’t Touch.

The originator, however, wasn’t an instant success, and it wasn’t until October 1958 that Move It finally broke into the top five, peaking at #2.

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of that event, I’ve got a book coming out this October. Titled Halfway To Paradise: The Birth of British Rock, it’s being published by the V&A, and it’s centred on the fabulous photographs taken during the period by British showbiz legend, Harry Hammond.

For those who can’t wait for publication, the slide-show at the beginning of this blog entry shows some of the photos of Cliff used in the book.

While this one shows some of the other images from the book:

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Lies, Damned Lies and Webstats

My somewhat valedictory note about my website Trash Fiction yesterday reminded me that I did do a sort of blog-type thing for the site in 2003, though I never posted it. I think it was intended as an email newsletter. In any event, the only bit I can find is the following passage, which I reproduce for my own interest, if not yours.
I’d like to point out that I’m not as obsessive about webstats these days. Possibly because my current hosting company don’t provide such detailed information.

When I first started Trash Fiction, I had no idea why I was doing it, where it was going or why anyone would ever want to visit it. Two years down the line, and all that’s changed. Now I know why people visit it.

I know because of my addiction to the webstats helpfully provided by my hosting company. On a daily basis they tell me what it was that people entered in search engines in order to arrive at my site. And it turns out that the most common names are Fiona Richmond, Rudolph Hess and Mandy Rice Davies. Well they would be, wouldn’t they?

Nestling just behind this curious trinity are mini-skirts, teen teases and wrestlers (both female and professional). A little further down the charts, I find Tommy Steele and the late Arthur Mullard neck-and-neck with Joyce McKinney, she of manacled Mormon fame, whilst Oh! Calcutta and Nell in Bridewell are also doing good traffic.

In short, despite what I consider to be a pretty wide-ranging selection of books, many of them neglected and forgotten masterpieces of popular culture, what it really comes down to is sex. To be more specific, British sex. With a bit of light entertainment on the side.

And, of course, Herr Hess.

Except that there’s also Peter Tinniswood to give me hope that something a little more elevated is pulling in the punters. Actually he represents a fairly strong current, which seems to correlate to a Radio 4 audience. The visitors coming in for Tinniswood escalated enormously immediately following his death, and received a further boost when some of his work was repeated in tribute to him. Similarly a Radio 4 documentary on the Angry Brigade saw a short-lived wave of anarchists storming the Google barricades.

Presumably there are also explanations, of which I’m ignorant, for the other peaks. In January 2003, for example, more than a hundred people turned up in pursuit of Lindi St Clair (the absurdly endowed prostitute and former parliamentary candidate for the Correction Party), but in the following five months she received not a single visitor. Whatever it was that Ms St Clair did last January, I’m afraid I missed it.

Then there are the one-offs, the searches that have only ever worked on one occasion: ‘Billy Connolly’s incidental music’, ‘eternal nymphet’ and – a particular favourite for the more intrepid holiday-maker – ‘Satan World’.

But I suspect some of these entries are circular. The fact that someone once came in search of ‘alistair campbell porn forum’ intrigued me sufficiently to try it out myself, and I found myself visiting the weblog of someone ruminating on the fine distinction to be made between art and porn. (Mr Campbell’s early work, needless to say, fell into the latter camp.) The fact that I did so will register on the webstats of the person running that site and no doubt I too will go down as a one-off freak.

Mostly though, the charts are dominated by regulars: people or books who are at least mentioned in Trash Fiction, but who don’t get much of a look-in elsewhere. Which means essentially the minor figures of British culture as remembered by the over-forties. People like the great Kent Walton.

‘Have a good week … till next week.’ That was his catchphrase.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Trash Fiction Trashed

I think it’s time I admitted defeat.

Back in 2001 I started a website called Trash Fiction, which was dedicated to the contents of my bookshelves – mainly paperback originals from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. And very good it is too.

But I haven’t added anything to it for ages. Not since my own books started getting published at a regular rate. Come October, I’ll have had seven books out in the space of four years, and – what with that schedule and a day job – it’s left me very little time for writing other things.

And Trash Fiction has been the main casualty.

I’ve also – and not necessarily in an attractive way – started to get very possessive about the books I’m reading. The stuff I write tends to draw quite heavily on popular culture, and I find myself hoarding away books that aren’t very well remembered, so that I can use them in my own work. I’m not sure if this is egomania or paranoia. Or indeed if the two are separable.

But I do think it’s time to accept that Trash Fiction probably won’t get updated again for a while. I shall keep it online, with the intention of returning to it when I find that I’ve run out of publishers prepared to work with me. But it’ll effectively be in suspended animation, kept going only by the life support system of the Internet.

I’ll be sorry to (sort of) leave it behind. It’s provided me with some very fine experiences over the years. I was contacted by some of the authors featured on the site and by other enthusiasts for the byways of British literature. I got a feature in the pages of Mojo magazine. I even got myself quoted in the blurb for a US reprint of James Robert Barker’s classic rock and roll novel Fuel-Injected Dreams. It was fun.

And I received lots of odd emails. The one I treasure most came from a man in Michigan who wrote to me asking if I could pass a message on to Muhammad Ali. ‘I am wanting,’ the message ran, ‘to ask him to be our special speaker for a Christmas Party that we are giving for the Blank County Foster Children.’ Obviously a worthwhile cause (though since Mr Ali is a devout Muslim, his celebrations of Christmas may be somewhat muted), but it does leave one wondering why an American thinks that a person running a site in North London about second-hand paperbacks would have a direct line of access to the former heavyweight champion of the world.

And the answer apparently is that I have a page on Jack Olsen’s 1967 biography (titled Cassius Clay, incidentally). Even so, it seems extraordinary that a web-search on Muhammad Ali would have brought someone to my site. I just tried Google and there are over 3.4 million results. Even the name Cassius Clay produces over 300,000 references.

I was also once contacted by a young man who was booked in to get his first-ever tattoo. Who – he wanted to know – are the best artists to go to? How does someone just starting down this path know what he’s letting himself in for? Is World of Tattoos (the establishment he was planning to patronize) a reputable studio?

And his reason for asking these questions of me was that I had a review of George Burchett’s 1958 book Memoirs of a Tattooist on my site. Sadly, that doesn’t make me much of an expert on the subject. It’s on the same page, incidentally, as Sheila Cousins’ 1953 classic To Beg I Am Ashamed: The Autobiography of a Prostitute.

But I can’t help you on that front either, I’m afraid.

Monday, 14 July 2008

The Bombing of Biba

I’m not quite sure what the correct etiquette/pose is supposed to be about getting reviews of one’s books. I have a suspicion that one is supposed to claim that one doesn’t read the things, but presumably we all do and, for those of us who aren’t household names (and never likely to be), they’re surely a source of deep joy.

Certainly they are for me. Someone I’ve never met has been paid to read my book and write about it. From the thousands of books that could have been chosen, they’ve chosen mine. Cool.

It helps, of course, if the comments that get printed are positive and – so far – things have been going pretty well for my latest book, Crisis? What Crisis? There have been the expected comments about things that I left out (inevitable in an attempt to discuss the whole of 1970s Britain in a single volume), but mostly it’s been encouraging.

In another world, since publication, I’ve also been posting extracts from the book on my website from time to time. And coincidentally I added a piece about the Angry Brigade’s bombing of the fashion legend, Biba, last week – just as Francis Beckett (a fine writer, by the way) was pointing out in a review in the Guardian that:

‘The author once wrote a book about the clothes store Biba, and Biba pops up in this account far more frequently than its influence justifies.’

Well, maybe he’s right. After all, he adds that my ‘wide-ranging selection of fact … is eclectic, not to say eccentric.’ Which is certainly true. I have hobby-horses that I like to ride. And I really like Biba: its story seems to me to encapsulate so much about the early-1970s.

Anyway this is the most significant passage about Biba – the story of how it was bombed by the Angry Brigade, and the curious fact that the anarchist terrorist group involved went on to inspire a trouser named the Angry Pants.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

A Very Strange Woman

My most recent book - Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s - is published by Aurum Press. Aurum has its own blog, where you might sometimes see my scribblings. But since I'd like to keep my stuff together, I'm re-posting this piece that I wrote on 29 May 2008, following the BBC drama about Mary Whitehouse...

I had the pleasure of Mary Whitehouse once.

Back in the late-1970s she came to my school to lecture us about the evils of the modern world, the moral pitfalls that we, as tender teenagers, should take care to avoid.

I asked her a question, in fact. Asked her about how absurd it was that the blasphemy laws protected a minority faith in a secular society. (This in the context of the prosecution she was mounting of Gay News magazine for blasphemous libel.) She didn’t answer, of course – she was too seasoned for the likes of me to get even to first base.

But two things stayed with me from her speech.

First, her obsession with communism. She argued that the Soviet Union was attempting to undermine capitalism, democracy and Christianity (which were apparently interchangeable constructs) through the medium of pornography.

And second, her belief that her campaign to clean the filth out of society had been successful. She cited as evidence for this the absence of satire on television, perhaps failing to notice that by that stage the Sex Pistols meant a great deal more to most of us than That Was The Week That Was. She was, I thought, too busy celebrating past conflicts to recognize that the country had changed, and that all the changes were, from her point of view, surely for the worse.

Amanda Coe’s play, Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, on BBC2 last night, was equally stuck in the mud of an old battlefield. Centred on Whitehouse’s struggle to get a hearing from the BBC – and from her sworn enemy Hugh Carleton Greene, the then director-general – it was set entirely in the 1960s. And, as her friend Bill Deedes once pointed out, ‘The 1960s were rough times for people with the message Mrs Whitehouse sought to deliver.’

The Whitehouse we saw was thus an essentially impotent figure. Played by Julie Walters in a manner that was less Mary Whitehouse than it was, er, Julie Walters, she was seen as a thorn in the flesh of the BBC, but little more than a thorn. Perfectly true of the times, of course, but she became much more significant.

The play followed her from her days as concerned Christian parent into the birth of her more familiar incarnation as a self-publicizing complainer about pretty much anything and everything: Dr Who, Pinky and Perky, the lyrics of the Beatles’ ‘I Am the Walrus’ (not for its clear drug-fuelled consciousness, but for the use of the word ‘knickers’). And then it stopped. Which was a shame, because that’s just when she became really interesting.

Amidst all the headline-grabbing stuff in the early-1970s about Chuck Berry’s ding-a-ling, Whitehouse had a much more political agenda. The mass membership of her National Viewers and Listeners Association (VALA) was primarily motivated by a distaste for what was perceived to be obscenity, but she had no hesitation in using the platform this gave her to intervene in matters of party politics. For her, as for Roy Jenkins on the opposite side of the fence, permissiveness and liberalism skipped hand-in-hand.

Amd she didn't approve.

So when Panorama had the nerve to ask some difficult questions of Northern Ireland prime minister, Brian Faulkner, she demanded to know ‘where the sympathies of the BBC lie in relation to Northern Ireland’. And during the three-day week in January 1974, called by Tory prime minister Ted Heath in response to an overtime ban by the National Union of Miners, she denounced the corporation for being ‘committed to polarisation of public sentiment in favour of the miners.’

There was just a hint of this in Filth, as Whitehouse complained about the BBC’s ‘propaganda for the left that verges on communism’. But mostly the play presented her as a single-issue campaigner. ‘Dearie me,’ she said, ‘we’re not political.’

And that simply wasn’t true. She’d first met her husband, Ernest (played brilliantly here by Alun Armstrong) in the 1930s when they were both members of the evangelical Oxford Group, later known as Moral Re-Armament. And although the Oxford Group was primarily and overtly religious, it had a strong political, as well, as moral, compass. Its founder, Frank Buchman, was so committed to the cause of anti-communism that he was even seduced by the ideological allure of fascism: ‘I thank Heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler,’ he enthused in 1936.

The Whitehouses shared Buchman’s passionate opposition to the Soviet Union as a godless, evil force in the world. Ernest Whitehouse believed that the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament prophesied the (temporary) triumph of communism, and his wife had no hesitation in seeing reds both under and in the bed: ‘They’ve infiltrated the trade unions,’ she argued. ‘Why does anyone still believe they haven’t infiltrated broadcasting?’

As VALA continued into the political turmoil of the 1970s, these attitudes – present from the outset – came ever more to the fore, helping to build the social coalition that would ultimately see the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Whitehouse’s ability to win battles remained dubious at best, and the campaigns against sex and swearing on television were ultimately doomed to failure. But she did live to see a new right-wing consensus built in this green and pleasant land. And she even lived to see the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe.

Which brings me back to that claim of hers that’s been baffling me for nearly thirty years now. Was she really saying that porn was fuelled by Moscow gold? Did she really believe that the controlling interest in capitalism’s most profitable industry was held by the Soviet Union, at a time when that country was not exactly renowned for its ability to foster enterprise? And if so, who’s funding it now, when the Internet is being deluged with porn from the democratic nations of the former Soviet bloc?

What a very strange woman she was.