Psychedelia In 80’S London: A Throwback
The perceived wisdom in pre-acid house London club history is that the 1970s belonged to disco, soul boys and suburban jazz funk, while the 80s were all about the Blitz, morphing into hip hop and jazz at The Wag, then the rare groove and warehouse scene before that trip to Ibiza and the influx of badly-pressed 12s from Chicago and Detroit changed everything…
But that’s an over-simplification of what was happening at scores of venues all over the capital. London was a true melting pot at the time, with venues such as Gossips, in Dean Street, proving a hub for different scenes on different nights. Sure, the aforementioned genres might have ruled the roost, but there was lots more besides, underground scenes that burst into life, either disappearing within weeks or months, developing into other scenes and styles, or, beyond that, blowing up and going mainstream (think how the Batcave, one Gossips night, spawned a million and one goths and associated music).
The psychedelic revival of the early 1980s is one of those scenes. It was born, in part, from the Weller and Jam-inspired mod revival of the late 1970s. In the quintessential mod way, it came about as devotees searched harder and deeper for records and looked beyond parkas, targets and Eton Rifles. In keeping with the mod ethos, much of the psychedelic revival was club-based, with ever-evolving playlists.
The sprawling nature of the scene is captured on the recently released Cherry Red Compilation, Another Splash Of Colour, a three CD set complete with extensive sleeve notes looking at the revival and its impact.
This writer was loosely involved in the fag end of much of this – as a devotee of the Scala cinema, I inadvertently came into it through psychedelic all-nighters at the Kings Cross repertory fleapit, hosted by the Alice In Wonderland club, the Gossips-based Tuesday nighter that was at the fulcrum of the scene. In between films such as The Monkees’ Head (a landmark post-Magical Mystery Tour entrant from the manufactured turned mature band), 70s acid-flashbacks-gone-bad horror tale Blue Sunshine (highly recommended if you’ve never seen it), LSD classics Psych Out and The Trip and more, there were DJs and a pre-Spirit In The Sky Doctor and the Medics, the Alice In Wonderland house band.
Heavily involved in this scene was Joe McNicholas, a record industry veteran who I’d met through work some years ago. Long conversations with him led me to discover his psychedelic leanings and his role in the nascent movement back in the day, both as a DJ and punter. As the box set, which expands on seminal early 80s psych compilation A Splash Of Colour, was coming out I spoke to Joe McNicholas about those days, when London, albeit briefly, swung again in a groovy kind of way.
“For me, it was an evolution of the mod revival,” he says, “there were lots of us, hanging around in Carnaby Street and Kensington Market, this is in 1980, I was about 14, living in Woolwich. The Jam and then the whole mod thing were the inspiration.”
They were, as he wryly notes, a bunch of “kids with parkas”, going to record and clothes shops, and then progressing to clubs such as the Notre Dame.
“I looked like a 14-year-old kid wearing a mohair tonic suit, but I thought I was 20,” McNicholas laughs, “we went out on Friday up to Leicester Square. Places like the Groovy Cellar opened up my ears to more than just mod.”
From there, it was a case of heading out the next day finding the records they’d heard the night before. “We started going record shopping every Saturday, up to Hanway Street, buying a lot of imports. There was an American and Australian garage psych revival at the time too, the Pebbles series of compilations, a compilation of 60s Texan punk; God, these records were astonishing.
“Within the space of six months, we went from being these small mods attending the Groovy Cellar, the Clinic, to something else. We used to hang out with Mike Jones and Craig Lindsay from [psych revivalists] The Playn Jayn, the Doctor, aka Clive and Christian [the two leading lights from Alice In Wonderland]. By the age of 15 or 16, I’d been exposed to the hallucinogenics of the time, we went from being amphetamine gazelles to paisley punks.”
He reminisces about the key bands of the time, most of whom are on the Another Splash Of Colour, and featured on the original compilation. ‘’The Playn Jayn, arguably the best live band at the time, it’s a shame they only had two albums”, adding “quite a few of the bands got signed to the majors”. As time went on, Alice In Wonderland, which also hosted live bands, become more of a focal point.
As he recalls: “I was one of the punters at Alice In Wonderland, people like the Damned/Naz Nomad And the Nightmares [the psychedelic alter-ego incarnation of the punk band] would be there and play live. You got your latest Sounds and NME, worked out what you were going to do next week, worked out who was appearing there. Woolwich Poly, The Tramshed, we saw many a good act there, bands like The Prisoners. You’d end up seeing bands, going to a club, maybe at the Scala afterwards to pass the rest of the night away. We were at the Scala film nights.
“There were a lot of notable gigs, like the Playn Jayn at the Marquee, In two amazing nights they recorded their first album. The club nights were always entertaining, like the time we got into a fist fight with the Damned.
We all ended up getting ejected from the club. It was just a bit of pushing and shoving really.”
Although that was a minor altercation, the early 80s was a violent, tribal era, with the threat of getting turned over always at the back of your mind when you went out. As he says: “It wasn’t as violent as the mod scene. You’ve got to remember, in the early 80s, Thatcherism was at its height, you’d end up in fights quite a bit.”
McNicholas ended up slowly moving into playing records out and about. “In 1984, it was full on at Gossips, there were also events at places like the Orpington Civic, the Ilford Palais, mod all-dayers. ‘’I’d done a bit of DJing on the side in clubs’’. And when the opportunity came to DJ in a church in Deptford, at a nightclub called The Crypt, in 1984, he jumped at the chance. “I was playing my favourite records every Friday night of the year, playing 60s punk, a lot of garage bands, a lot of American imports, classic albums. The Cult, Sisters of Mercy and contemporary things. We were playing everything from amphetamine punk through to tripped out psychedelia and all shades in between.
“We put on bands, we were booking them, I’ve still got an attic full of demo tapes, a lot of the bands are on the compilation [both the Splash Of Colour released at the time and the Cherry Red Another Slash Of Colour] There were people like the TV Personalities, the Magic Mushroom Band who were regulars at the club.”
There was little of the trouble that was still found elsewhere: “We had two policemen on the door,” McNicholas smiles. “What the scene did do was break down barriers, we attracted an eclectic audience. Paisley punks, mods, greasers, hippies, Goths, Alice In Wonderland types… Everyone was there for a love of the music.”
McNicholas was working at Woolwich unemployment benefit office (“where Boy George used to sign on”): “I ended up getting sacked about 12 months into it, mostly for not turning up for work’’. We were all living for the night and the weekends.”
He ended up getting a job at Our Price in Holborn, at a time when all stores could order according to staff’s tastes. Soon it was stocking new and old psychedelic stuff as part of its offering. “I was exposed to all these brilliant labels, Bam Caruso had just launched, that was really important to me. I started getting lots of promos sent to me too, bands and their managers would pop in and say hello in the shop..
“I was spending £50 a week on records, you used to have to hunt them down, going to Vinyl Solution, Plastic Passion, the odd Megastore trip. We had to go every week. It was a huge status thing to be the first to get hold of something like a Chesterfield Kings album or the Nomads new album. There was a bit of elitism, but we’d all tape the new tracks we got for each other. Your compilation tape was crucial.”
By the mid 80s, it was waning. The formation of Creation took some of the psychedelic wannabes off on a tangent, while Doctor and the Medics cover of Spirit In The Sky secured one-hit wonder status and effectively ended their music major label career. “A lot of people got into their careers,” says McNicholas, “there wasn’t the time to go out every night and get smashed.”
And now, looking back?
“It did move incredibly quickly,” he recalls, “it felt like a really long time, but it all happened within a two year period. It went from being an elite movement into something much more mainstream.
“We didn’t really see it at the time, there was just a need to consume new music, that’s all it was. The booklet [in Another Splash Of Colour] encapsulates everything I thought was important at that time.”
As Joe McNicholas concludes: “Looking back at the 80s, it was a grim period in the UK overall.
But it inspired an amazing music scene across the board, it continued to evolve, music of all genres. And the psychedelic sound morphed into the kind of sound where the psych scene is today. Look at a group like The Black Angels, their sound is stunning, you can feel all the influences. Their sound is a combination of all those scenes from the 80s and 90s.”
Joe McNicholas’ Top 20 From The Crypt, Deptford
1. Magic Potion – The Open Mind
2. Black Mass – Jason Crest
3. 99th Floor – Moving Sidewalks
4. Temple of Love – Sisters of Mercy
5. Suzy Creamcheese – Teddy & his Patches.
6. Cuttin Grass – Caretakers of Deception
7. The End – The Doors
8. See Emily Play – Pink Floyd
9. She Sells Sanctuary – The Cult
10. Action Woman – The Litter
11. Ward 81 – The Fuzztones
12. Elongations – Plasticland
13. Hallucinations – Tomorrow
14. Ogden’s Nutgone Flake – The Small faces
15. Bold as Love – Jimi Hendrix
16. Grounded – The Syn
17. Venus in Furs -The Velvet Underground
18. Fathers name is Dad – The Fire
19. Red Sky at Night – The Accent
20. Gong with the Luminous Nose – Fleur de Lys