John Heathcote A Short History of Music in South London


South London has always been at the cutting edge of the capital's underground and cosmopolitan culture.

It's tradition of villainy was well established by medieval times, when Southwark and the South Bank were under the authority of the Bishop of Southwark, and crossing to the Southside was a favourite escape route from the City Constabulary. The tavern culture grew up around the docks, from Woolwich, to Greenwich and Deptford; from where the ships of the British Empire sailed out to plunder the world. Merchant ships arrived from around the globe giving their crews the chance to take in the local hospitality. The combination of exotic cosmopolitan and bohemian was probably well established by the time that Christopher Marlowe was murdered in a Deptford pub in the 17th Century.

After the war, South London's boundaries were extended into what had previously been countryside; as a means of housing all those from the East End and Docklands whose homes had been flattened by Nazi bombs. In the southside inner city many of the old back to backs were replaced with housing estates of blocks up to twenty stories high, connected by paths and walkways. Of course, instead of being replaced eventually by proper housing as promised originally, they were used to house the long term unemployed, 'problem' tenants, and immigrant families.

Most South London Councils imposed covert racist housing policies; separating black, poor white, and middle-class white into different areas with all the predictable consequences for policing and local economies. The need for workers to aid reconstruction caused the Government to encourage people from those countries which had previously been regarded as colonies of the Empire, such as the West Indies, and the Indian sub continent to take up their rights to British citizenship, and move here with their families. However, one of the legacies of Empire is that the natives of the "home country" have to be indoctrinated with some sort of feeling of superiority to foreigners, to justify the conquest of fellow human beings and the consequent destruction of their culture. This meant that when the first families arrived in London, they soon realised that they had to overcome the resentment and prejudice of their fellow citizens, despite the fact that many of the new arrivals had fought to protect this country in the recent World War.

This resulted in the Riots in Notting Hill in the 1950's, the area in North London, which like Brixton in South London, became the main concentration of the black communities until the 60's. The children of these immigrants were almost automatically condemned to the estates, along with their poor white counterparts. Ironically, it was this policy which undermined the efforts of the racist parties of the 70's. There is a unity in poverty which can defeat ignorance and defy hatred; which does not justify poverty, but gives it's victims a potential strength which is incomprehensible to those who have always lived amongst the comfortable.

One of the main focuses of the anarchistic punk "movement" of the 70's was through the Anti-Nazi League, which along with Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council (GLC), promoted many of the urban festivals and gigs. This gave bands who had previously only played to an "underground" audience the chance to play to thousands. South London's pub culture also gave rise to at least two mega-pub bands; Dire Straits, and Squeeze, (in the same way that the early Seventies produced Robert Palmer and Elkie Brooks from South London blues band Vinegar Joe, and the Sixties had produced Manfred Mann and The Rolling Stones).

Because of the availability at the time of cheap housing on the council estates and endless rows of squatted houses from whence the owners had long since fled to the suburbs, to escape the dereliction; areas such as New Cross and Deptford contained an intriguing mixture of culture and character. People attracted by the bright lights, who hadn't quite made it, or hadn't yet made it, or never would make it over the river to the pot of gold; and either didn't care, or cared too much to ever get there in one piece; all ended up in the squats, the shortlife, and on the estates.

In 1976 the movement which became known as punk started to emerge from the Teflon claustrophobia of 70's British culture, and was taken from the art schools and clubs of the West End and transformed into an urban anarchy which drew in both hippy survivors, squatters and disillusioned youth from the sink estates suburban tedium. Despite its short lifespan - PUNK defined an attitude and world view which still informs the underground.

PUNK, the 90's; the Future

Siouxie and the Banshees, 1977

In the 1976 the seminal punk rock fanzine Sniffin' Glue set the tone for the inner city Punk ethic, championing both the rough vitality of punk and the political danceability of reggae and dub. The cutting edge was exemplified by radical punk groups such as Alternative TV; along with the suburban art school punk of bands such as Siouxie and the Banshees from Bromley and X-Ray Spex from Brixton. South London has always been the poor sister of the northern side; it was traditionally a separate area of control. When punk arrived, many of these people suddenly found a focus for their artistic activity in different areas.

Alternative TV, 1977
Featuring Tyrone Thomas (bass) and Mark Perry, editor of Sniffin' Glue

Record labels, such as Miles Copeland and Mark Perry's Deptford Fun City/Step Forward featured a mixture of bands such as The Police (old hacks), Squeeze (souped up R&B pop) and Alternative TV (punk). The ideals of Sniffin' Glue provided the template for the populist deconstruction of Bullshit, and do it yourself Art. (Heres one chord, here's another, and there's a third. Now go out and form a band.) Alongside all this was the Sound System Dub Culture featured in Franco Rossi's film Babylon. Sound Systems such as Jah Shaka, Sir Coxsone, and Saxon Sound were all based around the Brixton/ Peckham area; and would often be found in the Moonshot Club or The Crypt, Deptford, pounding out the beat and the bassline well into the early hours of Sunday morning. Many of the youth who had checked the sound systems, but also grown up surrounded by the adrenaline rush, and attitude of punk went on to make the first ragga and jungle, which later mutated into what's known now as drum'n bass.

In the early Eighties these two cultures began to fuse in the wharehouse parties and at clubs like the Film Flam, where DJs such as Ori Birch and Jonathan Moore would play eclectic sounds cut up with rare groove, Funkadelic, DJ Chuck Chillout, Fela Kuti, Dillinger, you think of it . . . Some of the Film Flam DJs/organisers went on to set up Kiss FM (the original pirate later licensed) and work as part of the Coldcut crew.

By the end of the Eighties, the scene had become fragmented by a combination of Thatcherism and bad drugs, and apart from various alternative collectives (like the South London Music Collective and the Brixton Music Collective the 'underground' had been dispersed. However, in the early Nineties there was a fresh injection of energy into the area from many of the travelers who had been forced off the road by the draconian approach of the Tory regime to itinerant communities.

Many of the people now active in the underground culture of South London met through a squatted building in Peckham. Based in what had ironically been Welfare H.Q. for the area, the Dole House Crew put on some of the best parties of the early 90's, with bands such as Back to the Planet, Ruff Ruff and Ready (who later mutated into The Co Creators), the Seven Kevins, the Tottenham AK/47's, Arriba, and the Dave Howard Singers playing there. Downstairs, in the signing on office where the booths still lined the far wall, would be a selection of DJs playing everything from ambient dub to banging Techno, and upstairs would be the live area, followed at about 3 or 4 a.m. by dance floor DJ's. The venue acted as a catalyst for the many diverse elements of urban and traveling culture under threat from the Tory laws on everything from squatting to free assembly.

Flyer for a L.S. Diezal gig in Camberwell, 1992

After it was closed down by the bailiffs, the crew moved to a succession of new venues, most notably the Lady Flo's on Deptford Green, but none lasted as long as the Dole House. The new squatting laws combined with old licensing laws and the ever present repression of the local constabulary meant that by the end of the Nineties underground venues in South London had virtually disappeared. The Dole House Crew/Green Circus crew went on to put on the Fordham Park Free Festivals until 1996. The fusion of dub Techno and the pirate sounds of London's Southside have also been reflected in the music of such groups as Digidub, Audio Pancake, and LS Diesel.

John Heathcote is Co-editor of Flame.