Anarchy Centre in Wapping remembered

Just found this review  of tape on site called

AL Puppy

V/A“In the Old Days! 1980–1982” Cassette (Distributed by BBP)
by Mike Clarke

As naive constructs go, anarchopunk probably takes the biscuit. Built on the idealistic shipwreck of original punk ethics (themselves largely mythical and half-baked), hindsight has it that Crass and their acolytes injected said leftovers with a fundamentalist zeal, then drove them once more onto the rocks of uniformity and cult-oblivion. Seen through the cartoon lens of prepackaged, learned stereotype, it actually depends on your level of critical objectivity or, if a participant yourself, the color of your own hindsight, whether rose-tinted or best-forgotten. For children of the 60s like myself, the 60s themselves were best-forgotten; after all, by the time I was old enough to enjoy them, they were over, and punk proved a final escape from the sepia-tinged sterility of the 1970s. And then, suddenly, punk itself was “over,” apparently, its initial promise bought up and commodified. The young kids of 1980–1981 had become victims of the same con: by the time they were old enough to catch the wave, the tide had gone out again. Sorry, Punk’s Dead, proclaimed the journalists, authorities in all beyond keeping themselves in a job. Ironically, the contempt displayed by the corporate music press/industry for “Last Year’s Youth” meant that anarchopunk thrived on its own, imposed margins.

By donating cash for a proposed Anarchy (here, “Autonomy”) Centre in 1981, Crass were making a truly grand gesture, a repudiation of all that the likes of The Clash promised, but failed miserably to deliver. That the whole venture ended in ignominious, apathetic failure is no statement on Crass, or anarchopunk per se, but it was typically human and typically of its time, inevitable and incorrigible to the last. By seeking to realise the utopian punk dream of 1977, or their own perception of such, those behind the Autonomy Centre were inevitably doomed to similar failure.

The Autonomy Centre was situated in a warehouse on Metropolitan Wharf in Wapping, a district of London’s East End docklands. Crass used the proceeds from their “Bloody Revolution” single to help set up what was to be London’s first anarchy centre. It lasted from summer 1981 to early 1982 and was characterised, as quoted in George Berger’s The Story Of Crass, by “an uneasy tension between old school anarchists and anarcho punks.”

Wapping, in those days, was a deadzone, a cross between Blade Runner and Stalingrad (after the battle). OK, I exaggerate: it was dominated by long, largely disused, wharves flanking the river and lined with derelict warehouses or storage depots. Gentrified—sorry, regenerated—in the late 1980s, it now has the Docklands Light Railway, its own small airport and a forest of glittering luxury flats, wherein Crass’s noble ten-grand donation might buy you a doorframe, if you could live cheek-by-jowl with yuppies and city-slickers that is. Anyway, New Years’ Eve 1981 promised a stellar line-up of The Mob/Apostles/ Null & Void/Flack/Blood And Roses and more. Entrance to the Autonomy Centre was facilitated by handy spray-painted/stencilled circled-A signs (what else?) on walls and pavements, which gave the evening the air of an urban treasure-hunt, the code of entry to a secretive, exclusive society, unknown to the desultory trickle of festive revellers braving the icy wind. Originally, six of us were due to make this trip, but most wisely pulled out, leaving just me and a local skinhead mate (whose mum had once refused me and my sister entry to their house,shouting from an upstairs window “You’re not coming in here looking like that!” I quite reasonably asked if she’d noticed her son’s choice of attire recently). Anyway, on arrival in not-so-sunny Wapping we found a pub, hoping for a few festive pints amid a throng of boisterous, friendly East Enders, only to enter a musty vault wherein two very young girls, either drunk or deficient in the mental-health department, were vainly trying to chat up a barman ossified in repose over his beer-pumps. At midnight, a booze-sodden old soak in a flat cap crashed through the doors, claimed a pint, sat opposite us and proceeded to hawk up a lifetime’s phlegm, discharging it squarely atop the end of a single cigarette me and my friend were just sharing and had placed in the ashtray before us. Happy New Year indeed. The girls giggled. Two of us, two of you, their eyes seemed to say, and we made swiftly for the door.

The Autonomy Centre had a library of turgid anarchist tomes. (I’d rather have seen The Dispossessed, or better still, say Atlas Shrugged, if only to provoke some debate—anything but the simpering decay of damp conformity on display.) When I flicked through one lofty polemic and pointed out that the (WWI-era, Russian, and very dead) author had been a noted antisemite, a bearded anarchist calmly took the book from my hand, replaced it on the shelf, and walked away with a kind of contemptuous flourish worthy of a disgruntled feline. Luckily, the gigs themselves were organized by people like Andy Martin of the Apostles and the Kill Your Pet Puppy (KYPP) Collective, so there was at least some prospect. Only these two crews had the vaguest idea of how to liven up such a turgid miasma of smug, ineffectual tedium: Andy Martin & co via no-bullshit action, KYPP by vivaciousness and a colourful verve. Without them, the Autonomy Centre would have lasted a night and I wouldn’t be writing this.

I’d like to finish with some great anecdotes, but there weren’t any: half the bands didn’t show up and most of those that did were unlistenable or forgettable. The beer went flat, then ran out. I eventually dozed off in a comfy chair, until my pal jabbed me awake at 7.30am with a pool-cue and, bleary-eyed, we got the first tube home. I do recall him saying “That’s the last fucking New Year’s Eve you drag me out of the pub.” He’s probably still there (I went another couple of times and it was much better, to be fair).

Listening to this tape reminds me of a time (1980) when the original punks had died off/sold out, but before the whole anarcho scene became labelled and codified. The bands are poorly recorded and largely formative in their delivery. “Conjure up” is probably the right phrase, because it reminds me of autumnal, leafy Stoke Newington streets, dimly-lit and musty squats, the oppressive aroma of printers’ ink at Kentish Town’s Interaction. It evokes a brief period in time, one that I remember neither negatively nor positively, but merely as it was. Whilst basic and often inept, the bands herein are far from three-chord caricatures, the lyrics already somewhat inspired by Crass but not yet in thrall to what became a standard. Admittedly, a gig at the Autonomy Centre was a long way from Gen X at the Vortex, the Damned at the Marquee, the Clash at the Music Machine, but it was similarly a lot better than a 6 identikit leather/bristles “Real Punk” Sunday night extravaganza at the Lyceum. Also, for all the rhetoric about “black-clad anarcho hordes,” bands such as Rubella Ballet, Part 1, Rudimentary Peni, Blood & Roses, The Mob, Cold War, Committee, Omega Tribe, Apostles, Hagar The Womb, and Flowers In The Dustbin may have shared lyrical/political/social sentiments and stages with Crass, but they were vastly more diverse in everything from dress-sense to musical style than pop history pigeonholes them as. The other important thing to remember is that these bands formed an alternative network, away from the standard London music circuit of the Marquee/Nashville/Lyceum/Music Machine/Roundhouse/Dingwalls, preferring instead cheaply hired halls and youth clubs without need of bouncers and self-aggrandizing promoters. There was no internet and no text-messaging, merely a small line in the general-listings at the back of Sounds, perhaps a flier in Rough Trade or Kensington Market if you were lucky, then a quick look at the London A-Z, 4–6 bands for 50p/£1, a long walk from the nearest tube station, cans of beer from the local offy, always someone selling their latest fanzine from a plastic bag, then more often than not a long walk home after the last train.

This tape was recorded “live” (ostensibly) at the Autonomy Centre by Rich G (aka Scarecrow of the Scum Collective) and compiled by Andy Martin. I picked it up from Big Banana Products last year. Perhaps it’s a reissue (like many BBP listings) of an old title, or maybe a recent compilation from newly discovered archives.

  1. Nic
    December 19, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    I managed to go to (what I beleieve was) the very last concert at the Autonomy Centre (as I was staying over in Walthamstow with my cousins) in February 1982 , and saw The S-Haters, The Committed, and a couple of otherbands, along with meeting Andy Martin (Apostles) for the first time…

    I was a somewhat naive 13 year old at the time, and thought that this would be a ‘momentous’ occasion…but in reality it was actually quite depressing: the space itself was fucked (it seemed as if everything which could theoretically be broken had been broken), everyone seemed to have nicked all the literature, and nobody there (beyond people like Andy Martin) seemed to give a shit…
    One of life’s small awakenings…

    But I want this tape now! hehehe…

  2. Jay Vee
    Jay Vee
    October 23, 2008 at 11:44 am


    3 things we had in common in 1982 it seems Nic – both naive, 13 and had cousins living in Walthamstow…

  3. DEV
    December 25, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    Greetings Puppies and Friends – hope you are well and enjoying the festive season. It maybe a bit of a corny link, but, the ANABOLLIC STEROIDS who played at the Anarchy Centre back in 1981 will be playing at 12 Bar Club in Denmark St, London WC1 on Saturday 29th December.

  4. Rob
    March 2, 2013 at 4:12 am

    Nic – I too was at the S-Haters/Committed gig at the Autonomy Centre. Far better was Youth In Asia and the amazing Blood & Roses show which in my memory occurred a few weeks later – on the other side of the room,

  5. Nic
    March 3, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    Yes, sounds like a better bet Rob!

    By the way, I used to write to you back in the early 80’s for copies of Zero fanzine: turned me on to a lot of good music…

  6. Rob
    March 6, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks Nic – its nice to know something good came from it!

  7. Chris L
    Chris L
    March 10, 2013 at 2:15 am

    For those who have the time & inclination to hunt for it there is a full tracklisting and scan of the original cover to this tape somewhere on Discogs.

    I can’t for the life of me remember how I found it but I did post a link to the Discogs entry here at the time.

    Should also be noted that, given his unique and instantly recognisable writing style, it would appear a large chunk of that piece, “by Mike Clarke”, above was in fact penned by Andy Martin.

  8. Paul
    July 27, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    I went to my first gig there.. Crass, D.I.R.T and possibly Rubella Ballet..

    I seem to remember climbing though a fence to get on the grounds.. I was with others and just followed them blindly..

    Lots of TV’s and screens inside showing black and white war and vivisection footage..

    I was quite scared

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