I’ve been reading the Keith Richards’ autobiography (Life: Keith Richards). It’s good fun and at least two thirds of it make for an entertaining read. I pretty much lose interest in The Stones after about 1978 but that’s just me. Anyway much of the, er, action takes place in London, specifically Chelsea in the sixties and seventies.
That bohemian Rock star Chelsea of swinging London, groovy pads, trendy boutiques and fab gear is long gone now. In fact I would date its last gasp to the exact moment in the late 80s the Chelsea Drug Store, by then just a pub, closed and was replaced by McDonalds. After that all the chain stores moved into the Kings Road and it became pretty much like any other bland British high street. The enjoyably scruffy Gear Market was torn down to make way for Marks & Spencers and Starbucks opened their first UK branch there.
Thankfully aside from Keith’s book there are plenty of other insights into that world and it’s some of these I’ve unearthed for this post.
Anyway back to Keith. The Stones’ story begins in earnest with, by all accounts a stinking, fetid hovel on Edith grove – one of several roads that connect the far western stretch of the Kings Road and Fulham Road. In a pleasing parallel (literally) some 15 years later John Lydon was to buy an altogether grander house on neighbouring Gunter Grove, but that’s another story.
Keith went on to live at various times on Cheyne Walk (a few doors down from Mick Jagger) and just off the Kings Road on Old Church Street and in Glebe Place. It was at a flat on Old Church Street that he achieved his record breaking nine day, Merck fuelled (you’ll have to read the book) stint without sleeping. Well done Keith!
These days it’s a beautiful street with it’s rebuilt church and statue of Thomas More and oozes an air of impossible wealth. Many of the houses seem to have courtyards, or are set back from the road to accommodate fountains or perhaps a Ferrari. The Old Dairy, distinguished by a stone cows head protruding from the wall is particularly lovely.
From 1964 this was home to Sound Techniques studio where most of Island Records’ folkies, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Steeleye Span, Incredible String Band, The Pentangle, John Martyn, Beverley Martyn, Richard Thompson, Martin Carthy, Judy Collins, as well as Pink Floyd The Yardbirds and The Who were recorded. The studio left in the mid 70s when rent increases made it impossible to continue. There’s a good site www.soundtechniques.co.uk with a proper history and some pictures of desks, transistors etc. See also Joe Boyd’s, excellent, memoir White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s
Conveniently, directly opposite Sound Techniques was the Black Lion Pub, sadly now The Pig’s Ear – I hate novelty pub names don’t you? – replete with pictures of George Best and the like (though Best mostly drank in the nearby Phene Arms off neighbouring Oakley Street).
Another good book about old Chelsea is’s Max Decharne’s King’s Road: The Rise and Fall of the Hippest Street in the World. Decharne writes for Mojo magazine so his emphasis is on things musical, though he’s very strong on the history of the street’s boutiques, Mary Quant’s Bazaar, Granny Takes a Trip, Quorum etc as well as the various incarnations of No 430, Hung On You, Mr Freedom, Paradise Garage, Let It Rock, Sex, Seditionairies and Worlds End. He’s also very good on The Royal Court Theatre and the man most often associated with it: John Osbourne. Osbourne lived on the very lovely Woodfall St and named his production company after it (Woodfall Films). Apparently one evening in the fifties he caught Music Hall legend Max Miller at The nearby Chelsea Palace Theatre on the corner of Sydney Street, now Heals
(yes they tore down an elegant Edwardian music hall to build a shop and some flats). He then went home and wrote The Entertainer, (Later a film with Laurence Olivier, The Entertainer [DVD]) the story of a fading music hall star. Aside from Max, in its lifetime, you might also have seen the likes of George Robey, Gracie Fields, George Formby and any number of dodgy revues at the Palace. It was converted into a TV studio in 1963 and became home to sitcom The Army Game as well as concerts by Jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.
Covering much of the same ground but with more pictures is a beautiful coffee table book, Boutique London: A History: King’s Road to Carnaby Street which has as a sort of ground zero Mary Quant’s Bazaar (corner of Markham Square). Incredibly the woman most associated with mini skirts and mid 60s swinging London was up and trading in 1955.
I mentioned The Chelsea Drug Store earlier and how its depressing transformation from hip bar / café / shop / chemist, into McDonalds was symbolic of the changes in the area. For an idea of what it was like inside you need only watch A Clockwork Orange [DVD]  (for all its dystopian, future world setting a classic London film). Stanley Kubrick used its basement record store as the location for the Disk Bootick scene, providing a brilliant flashback to how record shops were in the 70s. To refresh your memory: our hero (?) Alex browses through records by the likes of Goggly Gogol, The Heaven 17 and Cyclops, whilst there racked centre stage is none other than the OST to 2001 A Space Odyssey which was of course Kubrick’s previous film. There’s loads more of this sort of stuff if you go to:
http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2006/04/13/alex-in-the-chelsea-drug-store/ a brilliant, if slightly obsessive decoding of every record and magazine featured in the record shop scene. Alex, of course, later comes to grief just down the road on the Chelsea Emabankment at the hands of some vengeful tramps and a bit of the old ultraviolence.
Going back even further you can see the pub, The White Hart, that later became the Chelsea Drug Store in Joseph Losey’s 1963 film The Servant [DVD] (1963). Mr Tony (James Fox) lives on the impossibly elegant Royal Avenue and The White Hart serves as his local. How odd that two wildly different and in their own way disturbing films were shot in different incarnations of the same building – and now it’s McDonalds. Something to mull over with an Egg McMuffin I suppose.
Happily, also featured in The Servant is Thomas Crappers’ (stop sniggering at the back) large sanitaryware showroom directly opposite, now a branch of Laura Ashley. That’s right your one-stop shop for lavatory bowls, bidets and, no doubt U bends and ball cocks is now a repository for all things floral. Crappers’ left in the late sixties driven out no doubt by the influx of beautiful people and trendy young things. Or maybe just rent increases.
Max Decharne’s book touches on two other locations on the Kings Road that are equally representative of its profound change. The infamous Roebuck on the corner of Beaufort Street was by all accounts a very druggy, rock n roll pub throughout the 70s, though it’s now a fairly upmarket bar calling itself the Beaufort Rooms. It was here that the crowd from Malcolm Mclaren’s shop used to drink where John Lydon met the rest of the Sex Pistols for the first time and where West London villain and actor John Bindon could often be found. Bindon was friends with Led Zeppelin’s Peter Grant and was subsequently whisked off on a Led Zep US tour as “Security” only to have it end in bloody but probably predictable carnage. Allegedly George Melly and Peter O’Toole were also Roebuck habitués. My guess is that the Roebuck, in a way represented a sort of last outpost . If you were someone who, er enjoyed an alternative lifestyle in the 70s you probably couldn’t go much further west without risking a kicking from the Stamford Bridge / Worlds End Estate hordes. There’s very little written about the Roebuck and I couldn’t find any pictures though you do get glimpses in Dracula Ad 1972 [DVD] (Hammer Horror Chelsea based 70s Horror film starring Christopher Lee). For a proper insight, here’s a great 1996 article by Paul Du Noyer from The Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/one-kings-road-summer-1310190.html.
The other important Chelsea landmark, now a very upmarket looking Pizza Express (if that’s possible), was the Pheasantry.
This grand Georgian mansion, at one time a private members club and restaurant had attracted the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Dylan Thomas, Augustus John, Francis Bacon and Sigmund Freud in its heyday. By the mid 60s though it had become an essential counter culture hang-out with a club in the basement and oddly, flats above. Notable residents included Germaine Greer (who wrote The Female Eunuch there), Eric Clapton and OZ magazine’s Martin Sharp, while Hawkwind seemed to play there on a regular basis.
So there you are, a slightly rambling journey through Chelsea and the Kings Road of old. Apart from those I’ve already touched on there are plenty more Books and films out there.
Malcolm McClaren’s various ventures at 430 Kings Road, incongruously located next door to the Chelsea Conservative club, are particularly well documented in assorted punk memoirs notably:
John Lydon – Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs
Jah Wobble – Memoirs of a Geezer: Music, Mayhem, Life
Glen Matlock – I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol
In the same vein (no pun intended) NME’s Nick Kent’s book Apathy for the Devil is a well written account of 70s life much of it spent hanging out in Chelsea. There’s also a fairly decent-looking compilation album, put together by by ex Ant Marco Pirroni, Sex : Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die featuring tunes from the Sex jukebox.
Sadly, McClaren died from Mesothelioma in 2010. At his death he was convinced it was ripping the shop apart to transform it from Sex to Seditionairies that exposed him to the asbestos that was to prove fatal. RIP.
Other than that Robert Aldrich’s 1968 film with Beryl Reid and Susannah York, The Killing of Sister George [DVD] features scenes shot in the lesbian Gateways Club on Bramerton Street. The entrance is still there, a door in an otherwise featureless wall. The club lasted an incredible fifty five years from 1930 to 1985.
I mentioned John Bindon earlier and I’ll probably come back to him another time. Undoubtedly a face around Chelsea in the 70s, his unique world of villainy and hanging about with rock stars, assorted luvvies and members of the Royal Family is captured in Bindon: Fighter, Gangster, Actor, Lover – the True Story of John Bindon, a Modern Legend.
Finally, Ian Fleming lived at various addresses in Chelsea and in James Bond’s London: A Reference Guide to Locations we learn that James Bond probably lived on Wellington Square, the most exclusive and beautiful of the squares off the Kings Road. Pleasingly it’s also directly opposite the Markham Arms (now a branch of Santander) allegedly the-one time haunt of double agents Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt.
Oh and off the top of my head some things we’ve lost: The Roebuck / The Dome, The Markham Arms, The Six Bells – now Henry J Beans, The Man In The Moon, The Chelsea Drug Store, The Gear Market, The Chelsea Kitchen – 1960s dishes at 1960s prices, Fiorucci – with it’s roller skating ramps, Steinberg & Tolkein -Theatrical costumiers, Picasso – A proper fifties neon cafe, Johnsons, Antiquarius – antiques market and home to Acme Atrractions, and Beaufort Market
If you’ve any memories or pictures of the Kings Road, particularly The Roebuck or Beaufort Market, I’d love to hear from you.