Walk 3: Music, Literature and Film
I read about Notting Hill long before I set foot in the neighbourhood, a well-thumbed paperback copy of Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners tucked into my duffel coat pocket at sixth-form college. Growing up in the rural wilderness of Herefordshire I dreamt about this bohemian enclave of London – I picked up mentions of Portobello Road market in Blur songs, tracked-down deleted Hawkwind and Quintessence albums and squinted through a poor-quality VHS copy of Performance, the seminal Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell film starring Mick Jagger. When I eventually moved to the capital it was the place I instantly headed for as I felt like I already knew it.
This walk will introduce you to some of the places connected with film, music and literature in the neighbourhood – from recording studios to film locations and under-ground newspapers. Though it looks spruced up and affluent today, this area really was the countercultural capital of the city for a good portion of the 1960s and 1970s. Music of all genres owed from these streets: from reggae; rock; punk; psychedelia; progressive rock; folk and dub. They say if you listen hard enough, like one of London’s lost rivers you can still hear these sounds bubbling away beneath the surface of the paving stones.
What better place to start than with the original rock’n’roll maverick, record producer Joe Meek, who had his very first home studio at 20 Arundel Gardens? Meek is best known as the man behind ‘Telstar’ – the number one worldwide smash hit released in December 1962 and famously Margaret Thatcher’s favourite record. Indeed, the honky-tonk piano used on that record was picked up on the Portobello Road market. Meek rented the ground floor at in 1957, and had you visited at that time you could have been forgiven for thinking you had stumbled on the lair of a mad scientist in an English B-movie – reel-to-reel tape machines, echo units, microphones and amplifiers filled every inch of the tiny one-bedroom flat, with a labyrinth of cables dangerously criss-crossing the floor. Today it is not uncommon for a musician or producer to have a home studio, but back in the 1950s it was unheard of. Meek was a trailblazer and this was the first of its kind in the neighbourhood. His tenure at Arundel Gardens was cut short when a record release party for his skiffle-produced tune ‘Sizzling Hot’ by Jimmy Miller and the Barbecues got a little out of hand with a reported 150 attendees. His long-suffering neighbours decided enough was enough and he received his marching orders soon afterwards.
Whilst rock’n’roll and skiffle dominated the air-waves of the late 1950s, the literary headlines were dominated by the so-called Angry Young Men – a loose-knit group of playwrights and novelists – and Notting Hill was home to some of its principal players. Walk on, up the slightly hilly incline to 24 Chepstow Villas. Today it may look like just another beautiful Notting Hill house, with its pristine white paint gleaming in the sunshine – home to the city’s most wealthy residents. But if we wind the clock back to the 1950s, we find a very different house and a very different set of inhabitants. This was a down-at-heel neighbourhood: many of the houses had fallen into ruin with the sash-window frames rotting, the white stucco crumbling, and the gardens an overgrown tangle. If you had visited this house in the 1950s or 1960s it would have likely been for a literary or arty gathering of some kind – for it was home to a revolving cast of writers, painters and actors.
Back then the house was divided up into eight high-ceilinged rooms with fireplaces, along with a somewhat damp basement where Dylan Thomas was rumoured to have lived for a spell. During this time the postman would have delivered mail addressed to cult writer and troubled junkie Alexander Trocchi; Scottish painters Colquhoun and MacBryde; Welsh novelist and journalist Bill Hopkins; novelist Cressida Lindsay; painters John Eyles and Roland Jarvis; actor Dudley Sutton and, for a brief moment in 1956 the most famous of the whole lot, Colin Wilson, whose debut book The Outsider had made him an overnight sensation. When the follow-up Religion and the Rebel was published a year later and received a critical drubbing, he decamped to the solitude of Cornwall, handing on his room to local aspiring author Laura Del-Rivo, who still lives in the area, now in her eighth decade. She has published several novels since then, including her first, The Furnished Room, which was turned into a film in 1963 and rechristened West Eleven. Starring Diana Dors and directed by Michael Winner, it is well worth tracking down as it was shot on location in and around Notting Hill and captures the seedy bohemian atmosphere in black and white.
Head back to Portobello Road and walk south to number 22, for it was here, in the winter of 1927, that a 24-year-old aspiring writer named Eric Blair, soon to become better known as George Orwell, lodged with a Mrs Craig after resigning his position as Chief Superintendent of The Indian Imperial Police in Burma. It was so cold he was forced to use a candle to warm his hands up before writing. Despite these trying conditions Eric wrote parts of Down and Out in Paris and London here and determined that he must become a writer. The rest, as they say, is history. We can safely assume that conditions inside number 22 have improved since then – the last time the property went on the market in 2014 it sold for £2.5 million.
Turn and walk on north down Portobello Road and you will begin to see the antique shops that dominate this part of the street. It was here that Otley, the 1968 Dick Clement directed film, was set and shot. A Swinging London spy caper, it failed to do well at the box office, but it is worth the price of admission for its opening sequence. It shows lead actor Tom Courtenay striding down this stretch of Portobello Road on a bright, sunny day. The street looks remarkably similar as Courtenay, playing the central character of Otley, a hapless, down-on-his-luck antiques dealer, waves a friendly greeting to the shopkeepers and stall-holders. It would take a far more famous film, shot some thirty years later, that also uses Portobello market as its backdrop, to make the street internationally famous.
Notting Hill, starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, remains the calling card for the neighbourhood with fans coming from all over the world to track down the ‘shop from the movie’ and have their photo taken outside the fabled Blue Door. If you continue to walk down Portobello and turn left on to Blenheim Crescent you will find The Notting Hill Bookshop at number 13 – this is the site of the former Travel Bookshop, the independent bookshop that director Richard Curtis used as the inspiration for the fictional Travel Book Company in the film. I worked at this shop for a number of years until rent and rates rises, along with online competition from Amazon, made it untenable – thankfully it remains a bookshop and still has the same interior and shop fittings so you can step inside and have your own Hugh or Julia moment.
The Blue Door is one street further north at 280 Westbourne Park Road. This front door is by far the most iconic and famous in the neighbourhood (perhaps even London) for it was here that William Thacker, the bumbling bookseller played by Hugh Grant, lived, and it is the location for the famous scene where Rhys Ifans, playing Thacker’s housemate Spike, poses in his fetching grey Y-fronts for the world’s media. The house was chosen as the location because it was, at the time of the film’s production, Richard Curtis’s home. The original Blue Door was sold off for charity, but the current residents have kept the door blue, so it makes for the ideal photo opportunity. Double back to Mike’s Café at number 12 Blenheim Crescent for a coffee or a bite to eat before the next section of our walk. Mike’s has been serving hearty fry-ups since 1962 and was featured on the cover of Traffic’s 1971 album Welcome to the Canteen. Still a popular haunt for locals and tourists alike, Mike’s holds out against the rising tide of gentrification. Here you are just as likely to see a market stall trader as a hedge fund manager.
Walk on, crossing Portobello Road, heading west from the junction with Blenheim Crescent, and you will find legendary independent record shop Rough Trade Records at 130 Talbot Road. Rough Trade was founded in 1976 and originally opened around the corner at 202 Kensington Park Road. It could not have timed its arrival at a more perfect cultural moment – 1976 was the year that punk broke and Rough Trade soon became a key outpost in the punk revolution. It acted as a community hub where gig posters could be Xeroxed, fanzines cut up and glued together, posters could be displayed and flyers could be handed out. Most importantly it offered a space for like-minded music freaks to meet and bond. Founded by a young corkscrew-curled Cambridge graduate named Geoff Travis, the shop soon evolved, spawning a distribution network and record label of the same name. Travis became more interested in the label side of things, and the staff bought the shop from him and moved around the corner to their current location in 1983. Rough Trade the label went on to sign a raft of seminal bands from The Smiths in the 1980s to the Libertines and the Strokes in the new millennium. They remain rooted in the neighbourhood with their offices located a few streets away at 66 Golborne Road. The shop too has flourished with branches in East London and New York.
Leaving Rough Trade, we head further west down Talbot Road to All Saints Church. Constructed in the 1850s in the Victorian Gothic Revival Style, it dominates the square. Until the 1970s directly next to the church stood a small hall of the most unassuming kind. In its place today stands a rather dull-looking brick building that is used as an old people’s home, but it is worth pausing for a moment because this site can lay claim to being one of the most important in London’s countercultural history. It was here on September 30th 1966, that Pink Floyd started a run of gigs that saw them transform from an R&B covers band (with the occasional original number) into fully fledged psychedelic pioneers.
These gigs had been organised by their new managers Peter Jenner and Andrew King. Jenner and King were both the sons of vicars and knew that a church hall was a cheap and easy venue to hire – and this one was right in the middle of the most happening part of London. Perhaps it was not exactly the kind of venue the band had in mind when they signed up with them a month earlier but it paid off. By all accounts the hall housed a pretty basic set-up – at capacity it could fit 250 to 300 people, it had a high ceiling and polished wooden floor with a small raised platform at one end acting as the makeshift stage. But the surroundings didn’t matter, the gigs were a success from the off, with queues around the block. It was during these gigs that they began to incorporate a light show into their act with the projection of wild colours onto the band as they performed, mixing with the music to mind-bending effect. One regular attendee was the so-called ‘psychedelic schoolgirl’ Emily Young. Young lived in nearby Kensington and was so entranced by the band that she came to as many gigs as she could. She would whirl around and dance, inspiring the Floyd’s leader Syd Barrett to name their second single, released in the spring of 1967, ‘See Emily Play’.
The importance of these gigs was not just due to their place in the evolution of Pink Floyd but as stepping stones in the London countercultural scene. When the run of gigs ended in December a club night called the UFO was begun in a venue off Tottenham Court Road as a direct result of these gigs. It would become the hippest place to play and be seen over the next ten months, hosting Jimi Hendrix, The Soft Machine and of course Pink Floyd.
Keep walking westwards to Powis Square, surely one of the most storied of local rock’n’roll locations in the neighbourhood. Starting in the corner at number 25 Powis Square, which was the home of Turner, the recluse rockstar in Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s legendary film Performance. Though now regarded as a cult classic and a mainstay of film schools around the world, it was almost permanently shelved by Warner Brothers. The film merges London’s ultra-violent gangster underworld with drug fuelled rock’n’roll, creating a psychological thriller that is at times deeply unsettling. Filmed during the turbulent summer of 1968 as students and workers took to the barricades in Paris and London, the atmosphere on set was no less dramatic. News of drug-taking, mind games and paranoia both on and off camera leaked out, as Mick Jagger cavorted with Keith Richards’s girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg.
A furious Keith reportedly sat outside in his Bentley, waiting to whisk her off set at the end of each day’s filming. James Fox, who played the gangster hiding out at Chas’s bohemian lair, became so immersed in the role that he had a nervous breakdown after the film was finished and did not make another movie for ten years. The finished cut was so violent and disturbing Warner Brothers did not know what to do with it. Eventually a heavily edited version was released in 1970.
Although the interiors of the film were shot in an apartment in Knightsbridge (due to 25 Powis Square being too small to accommodate the cameras and lighting) the film is firmly rooted in the seedy, druggy Notting Hill of the time. In an uncanny footnote to the story, Mick Jagger’s bandmate and founder of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones, had lived at number 18 Powis Square in July 1962 and was, by 1968, beginning to resemble the troubled character of Turner himself. It would not be long before he drowned in mysterious circumstances after taking a midnight swim in the pool of his Sussex home, on a hot July night in 1969.
Walk on to 8–10 Basing Street, where until recently you would have found one of the most famous recording studios in London. Island Records bought the old church in 1969 and opened it as a recording studio in January 1970. The list of classic and huge-selling albums that were recorded here is eye watering, including The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Bob Marley, Black Sabbath and Mott the Hoople. In 1975 the studio changed its name to Basing Street Studios until the early 1980s, when it was acquired by Trevor Horn and ZTT Records and rechristened Sarm West. In 1984 the worldwide Band Aid supergroup smash ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was recorded in studio one, and a parade of stars stopped by to lay down their vocals. Sadly, like many studios of this era, the building itself was deemed to be worth more as luxury flats than as a recording facility and so it closed its doors in 2014.
Wild haired and beautiful Bolan had matured from the pill-popping mod of his John’s Children’s days to become the epitome of The Hippie
Walk on to All Saints Road, which was the unlikely setting for a dose of Beatlemania in 1964 when the Fab Four stopped by to film a sequence for a Hard Day’s Night featuring Ringo running away from a group of screaming girls, taking refuge in a junk shop at number 20. The shop has long since changed use but if you stop and listen very hard, some say you can still hear the screams of the fans as they chase the loveable mop-top.
Stroll on to Portobello Road and turn north towards the Westway flyover which you will see in all its concrete glory overhead. Stop underneath the flyover today and you will see shops and cafés, but back in the early 1970s when the road was only recently built, this no-man’s-land was just being developed. During that time, it became a popular staging ground for gigs, and one of the most frequent and popular bands to play was Hawkwind. They would set up on a makeshift stage and play for free to the local community. If any band could lay claim to being the ‘house band’ of Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill it would be them.
Continue on Portobello Road and walk north, looking out for 307 Portobello, the former HQ of Frendz magazine, one of the key publications of the underground press of the 1970s. Frendz started life in December 1969. Originally entitled Frendz of Rolling Stone, it relaunched in 1970 simply as Frendz, and alongside Oz Magazine and the International Times was at the forefront of the alternative print revolution, both in terms of the subject matter it tackled and the graphic design it pioneered. Frendz featured the early work of photographer Pennie Smith, who went on to become one of the most respected rock photographers of the late twentieth century, taking iconic shots of everyone – Led Zeppelin, U2 and the Stone Roses, to name just a few. At Frendz she would often be paired with journalist Nick Kent, one of the most influential, and hard-living, rock critics of the 1970s.
Walk on to Ladbroke Grove and the Elgin Pub at number 96, another neighbourhood institution and important in the story of local legends The Clash, who drank and played here. It was at the Elgin in 1975, that Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash band The 101ers were offered a weekly residency that led to a nine-month stay. The Clash formed when their nascent manager Bernie Rhodes introduced guitarist Mick Jones to singer Joe Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon in the spring of 1976. By the autumn they had a record deal with CBS. One of their most enduring singles ‘White Riot’ was inspired by the 1976 carnival riot. As a band they wore their West London credentials resolutely on their sleeves, never forgetting where they came from. To mark the release of their landmark London Calling album in 1979 they played two free Christmas Day gigs under the Westway at Acklam Hall, now demolished, as a thank you to their loyal local following.
Walk south down Ladbroke Grove and make a right on to Blenheim Crescent. Stop at number 57 and look up at the attic windows, for it was here in 1968 that Marc Bolan strummed an acoustic guitar composing ‘Ride A White Swan’ and bonding with original Tyrannosaurus Rex bongo player Steve ‘Peregrine’ Took. Wild-haired and beautiful, Bolan had matured from the pill-popping mod of his John’s Children’s days to become the epitome of The Hippie, quoting Shelley and Tolkien as he took another drag on that ever-present joint.
Reports differ as to the exact chain of events that unfolded that night, but it seems he ingested a large quantity of sleeping pills which he mixed with red wine
Staying on Blenheim Crescent, walk east towards Portobello Road, crossing Ladbroke Grove, and a few yards on, you will find the entrance to Codrington Mews. Like a secret street it peels off to the right. Mews like these are dotted all over the neighbourhood, dating from a time when horses required stabling, before the motorcar came along and changed everything. Set back from the road and often displaying their original stable doors, they are quiet pockets of calm amongst the hubbub of the city. If you walk down Codrington Mews you will come across a large black-and-white mural on the walls of 1 and 1a depicting the landmarks of London being swept away by a tidal wave. It is A London Scene by the artist Stanley Donwood, and was commissioned by Richard Russell to cover the front of the HQ of XL Recordings – the label he founded in 1989. XL has been one of the few successful record labels to emerge in the post-digital world, generating huge sales with the likes of Adele, The White Stripes and Radiohead.
For the last stop on this walk, we head back to Ladbroke Grove and southwards to 22 Lansdowne Crescent, an address that has become a site of pilgrimage for those wishing to pay their respects to guitar hero Jimi Hendrix who died here in the early hours of Sept 18th 1970. At the time the building housed the Samarkand Hotel where Jimi had checked in on the 17th, reportedly in good spirits, accompanied by his on/off girlfriend Monika Dannemann. The pair had sat in the garden of the hotel drinking tea and laughing and, later, popped out to do some shopping in the hip Kensington Market just up the road. Jimi bought some shoes and a leather jacket, running into his old flame Kathy Etchingham – the last time they would meet.
Reports differ as to the exact chain of events that unfolded that night, but it seems he ingested a large quantity of sleeping pills which he mixed with red wine, resulting in his choking on his own vomit some time in the early hours of the morning. At first it was thought he had committed suicide, since one of the first people on the scene, the Animals’ lead singer Eric Burdon, had found a note beside his bed with the words ‘The story of life’ scribbled on it. Since then, this has been attributed to a song lyric he was working on before he died. Interestingly this is not the only address in the neighbourhood that Hendrix is associated with – in 1967 he stayed at 167 Westbourne Grove, a house that was at the time painted purple, reportedly inspiring his single ‘Purple Haze’.
Julian Mash’s Notting Hill: A Walking Guide is published by Notting Hill Editions. Order here
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