I’ve recently spent time writing sleeve-notes for a Balham Alligators box set. That’s exactly the kind of thing washed-up old hacks like me have to do when they reach a certain age. I was researching “pub rock” when I stumbled on something surprising.
It’s seemingly now accepted that the Pub Rock scene collapsed following the Punk Explosion of 1976-77. Legend has it that the old dinosaurs were flattened by the New Wave comet, and that clubs like The Marquee, 100 Club, Roxy, and Dingwalls took over. My recollection of what really happened is totally different.
No Sleep Till Canvey Island: The Great Pub Rock Revolution
Will Birch’s extensive reference book, No Sleep Till Canvey Island: The Great Pub Rock Revolution is great as far as it goes. But it 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 Pub Rock heroes were promoted within the Rock mainstream. That they moved from playing the Hope & Anchor to the college circuit and larger venues like the Rainbow and Hammersmith Odeon.
As someone who was heavily involved as a music promoter and agent, I know that this isn’t the whole story. Many older venues, such as the Nashville, Kensington, and Pegasus, did close or transform into restaurants or family pubs.
Some were victims of their own success, others just badly managed. Their place was immediately taken by dozens of new pub venues. Some of them had already been putting on Irish music and so had the infrastructure (stages, lights, and often PA systems) ready to go.
Pub Rock 2.0
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. So many more. My memory is hazy. Like the man said, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.” The same goes for the 1970s and ’80s.
Between not writing my novel and trying to be a music 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 Joe Pearson, a teacher who’d been responsible for a series of prestige gigs at the Half Moon, Putney. Joe replaced Gordon Hunt at the Cricketers. Gordon went on to become Sade’s guitarist and musical arranger.
Pub Rock 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. Apparently, he’d been quite a mover and shaker in the Folk and Jazz worlds of the time.
Bob Dylan and Paul Simon had been in London at the time, playing tiny folk clubs. Bill had a mountain of great stories he’d tell over a cider at the Duke’s Head. It was the only pub in Putney with no background music and so local people engaged in the music business flocked there. Sadly, most of Bill’s stories were either unprintable or undecipherable.
Second Wave of Pub Rock
The second wave of Pub Rock had much in common with the American Wild West. Venues would sprout up and disappear all the time. At the time, audiences often comprised individual and very distinct tribes. You’d get 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 was 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 labourers drinking in the public bar.
Then there was the Friday in 1982 or ’83 when the police closed down the White Lion for good. A line of bizarrely dressed Rock ‘n’ Rollers had 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 didn’t!
The Cricketers, Kennington Oval, London SE11 5LG
Back to The Cricketers. After “crashing” in an upstairs room at weekends, I was eventually given a couple of rooms above the pub. This became my home and business address for six years. Looking back, it was a surreal little 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 natural gentlemen. He would say things like “You can’t educate a mug”, which is so true I still quote it nearly every day.
Kenny’s dad, also called Ken, was a local character who used to occasionally wobble up on his push-bike after a day’s drinking. He’d demand 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 most of the time. What with his South London accent, rhyming slang, and slurred words.
Then there was ‘Ronnie’. His real name was John but everybody knew him as Ronnie. No one knew why. A natural barman who (when sober) could serve four or five people at once and keep them entertained with his Liverpudlian wit. His “party trick” was to confront someone. It didn’t matter if it was a customer, a band member, the postman, whatever. He’d look them in the eye and say, straight-faced, something along the lines of (expletives deleted): “You are an absolute total idiot. No one likes you and I can’t believe you still keep coming round here.”
The victim would invariably start to crumple, which would make Ronnie double up with laughter. Then he’d 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 in the first place.
Every Saturday Ronnie and his mate, Moody, would dress up in their best suits and head off to the footie. Somehow, they’d 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 6 pm, full of free champagne, canapes, and juicy footballing gossip.
Kenny’s past was somewhat chequered. He’d been a senior member of the gang who’d sold fake perfume on Oxford Street in the 1970s. He had a collection of “unusual” friends, who’d sometimes arrive at the pub.
Some lived very well but had no visible source of income. Others ran secondhand shops, greengrocers and one had a chain of tanning salons. I’ve recognised one or two since on Donal McIntyre type programmes. They were always very friendly 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 me booking the right bands. In fact, the Cricketers only opened from 8-11pm, and on Sunday lunchtime.
These free entry lunches were hugely popular. Kenny “the governor” would provide free jacket potatoes, liberally laced with salt to encourage libation. Hundreds of music-lovers would turn up to eat, drink and watch bands like Zoot and the Roots, Alias Ron Kavana, and Little Sister. They’d get two sets until licensing laws demanded an end to the fun at 2.30pm prompt.
Folk On Pub Rock
For a small venue (capacity 200), the Cricketers boxed well above its weight. I kept up the Putney connection. Several folk-based artists lived there and singer/songwriters such as Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, Ralph McTell and Roy Harper would regularly play for me. I’d been an early champion of The Pogues. 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 pub in Finsbury Park.
They were called Pogue Mahone (“kiss my ass” in Gaelic) back then, and the venue sold out from week one. They were walking out with hundreds of pounds in door-money every Tuesday. I saw myself as the band’s manager, but it seems they never thought the same way. A proper manager from Dublin called Frank Murray got the job instead. As a parting gift, The Pogues played a week of gigs for me at the Cricketers. Every night we got very drunk and earned stacks of money. Not a word of my early involvement made it into any account of the band’s history. It was as if I never existed.
Who Played at The Cricketers?
Despite perceived wisdom, the 1980s were a lively time for the British music industry. The Cricketers was only one of dozens of music pubs that continued to thrive. It was a couple of miles over Lambeth Bridge from the centre of town. This meant record company A&R men (no women back then), and music paper reviewers could get there without too much bother. As a result, new bands liked to “showcase” there, and more established acts knew they could persuade reviewers to drop in.
T-Pau played a residency there when they were starting out. South London had thriving local ska and “billy” movements, and Rough Trade records used us a showcase venue for many acts. International performers 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, The Scientists, and Birthday Party would often end up at the dodgy end of SE11.
London Base for Frank Sidebottom
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.
Jim Driver: Agent for the Stars
Aside from my work as a “Pub Rock legend”, I’d been the agent for many acts including Desmond Dekker, Wilko Johnson, and The Groundhogs, and manager of Geno Washington. All of them would 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 and had only played for 30 minutes. More importantly, they’d (rather ineptly) tried to steal a bottle of whiskey from behind the bar. He’d slung them out on their ears.
What eventually killed the Cricketers and many other pub rock venues was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s insane Beer Orders. This was a new rule meant 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.
The main impact of the BO was to transform pub owners from breweries with a vested interest in keeping pubs open in order to sell their beer, to property developers. The business of property involves putting up rents and selling off prime properties. This strategy becomes more profitable than trying to sell pints to music lovers.
Black Eagle Brewery
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 gone by the morning of October 1st.
Low-Rent Sons of Anarchy Try Pub Rock
The new occupants were a gang of bikers from the South Coast (think low-rent Sons of Anarchy). Their first act was to throw out all the fixtures and fittings. Then they painted everything black.
It didn’t take them long to work out they were paying way too much rent. Apart from anything else, no one was coming to watch the new breed of biker bands they were putting on. One of the major stumbling blocks to attracting ordinary customers was that a gang of smelly fat blokes in leathers can appear quite intimidating to people who don’t follow their creed.
Eventually, the bikers got in touch with me and gave me some money to help them book some of the bands I used to put on. But it was no good. People just weren’t coming in the same numbers. Most of the acts didn’t like the new atmosphere, so they gave up. Was this finally the end of pub rock in SE11?
After I’d gone, I heard a rumour 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. They vacated the premises in a midnight flit.
“The Rats” (as they liked to be known) were followed by a retired policeman from Jamaica. The poor man 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. Then came a four year period as a Portuguese restaurant that could only afford to pay £1 a year rent. By this time, Inntrepreneur had realised the Cricketers was more a liability than an asset. Eventually, it was sold for development and has been boarded up for nearly 20 years. See the main photograph, taken by me in March 2014.
And so to bed…
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.
There’s an update (thanks for letting me know):
I don’t know what Ronnie would make of it…