Moving from Covent Garden to the Old Street Fire Station, the summer of 1979: musings by Bob Short concerning glue, the occult, Crass and the terror of the skinhead threat.

Out near (what seemed like) the wilds of Old Street, we moved into a new squat. The Fire Station on Tabernacle Street was a five story building enclosing a central courtyard. Most of the upper levels were coated in a snowy white covering of petrified pigeon droppings.

Downstairs was a very large basement where some amps were set up at one stage. This basement may have descended a further two or three floors but I can’t remember if I dreamt that labyrinth up or not. Life can get a little weird when you mix chemistry, trauma and rumour. I certainly remember a stairwell descending into the kind of darkness you’d do your level best to avoid in a horror movie. If it was real or not, who can say?

It wasn’t a completely punk squat; there were a variety of other miscreants to hang around with. The media may have told you that punks hated hippies but punks had a lot more in common with hippies than we did with the media.

On one of the first days I was there, a mad artist came running out into the courtyard; naked and with penis half erect. He threw his canvases into a massive pile and proceeded to set them alight. I believe his girlfriend had just told him his work was shit or something. He departed that evening and one can only imagine which bank he is working for now. There but for the grace of God go we all.

There was Steve on the ground floor running some kind of illegal car repair shop and Ray who took photos. There were a couple of would be metal monsters planning the return of the fifteen minute drum solo and there was Guy who seemed to planning on becoming Buddha at some point.

On the punk side, Tony, Brett, Dave and I were joined by Val and Mitch, Jessica, Lee, Lou and Ruthless. There was also this mad little Scottish kid whose entire raison d’etre seemed to be taking whisky bottles he had emptied, refilling them with his own urine and leaving them on the step in the vague hope that somebody might be stupid enough to drink it. Time has robbed history of his name but his deeds remain in our memories.

One dreary Saturday afternoon, we all decided to sniff glue which – in retrospect – seems an absurdly stupid thing to do. We had already dropped a television set off of the roof and watch it implode on the courtyard below. This had made a fairly impressive noise so we decided to dump a cooker from the fifth floor balcony. Its impact had made the entire building shudder. Even at the top of the building, I had felt the shock wave in my legs. Such excitement had demanded escalation and the freshly discovered pot of Evo-stick seemed to demand our attention.

The perceived experience of sniffing glue is rather different to the image the glue sniffer projects to the outside world. Walking past the drooling, collapsed form of the sniffer at play, one can only speculate on how a human could fall so low. A sniffer could never picture him or herself as that gurgling floor bound wreck. To sniff glue is to enter into the most vivid of dreams whilst maintaining a self delusion of consciousness.

One of the most interesting hallucinations glue can cause is a delusion of shared experience. As eyes remain open, the hallucinations tend to include physical surroundings including the people around you. You therefore become convinced they see what you see because, in the dream, they converse and interact with you.

I’ll be straight with you. There are a whole lot of ways to open the doors of perception. Solvent abuse is not an advisable course to take. There is too much medical evidence of brain damage, not to mention unpleasant fatalities and the fact it makes you smell really bad. I am lucky enough to be able to share my stupidity with you but, having been somewhere dangerous, it is necessary for me to report on what I have found there.

Drugs certainly did begin to blur the edges of reality. Even when sober, concepts drawn from this derangement of the senses found application in the straight world. For example, a vividly imagined telepathy made the concept of telepathy that tiny bit more plausible than it otherwise may have been.

Adding to this derangement of senses, I was hitting the occult text books pretty hard as well. I’d been brushing up on meditation techniques, astral projection and starting up a dream diary. One of the major effects this had was making my dream life incredibly vivid. With dreams becoming more real and reality becoming more dream like, the entire nature of reality was falling into question.

I woke up in the middle of the night imagining calamity in the floors below. Having heard what sounded like a German tank division coming through the front door, I got out of bed to see what was happening. There was a large crash behind me as part of the roof collapsed and fell on my bed. I doubt this would have killed me but it would have hurt like a bastard. This was a real event that appeared to go far beyond simple luck. The world was turning weird in ways no chemicals or their abuse could explain.

What was real was the violence of the Summer of 1979. Skinhead violence had moved on from being a mere extension of terrace violence and racist bashings into what amounted to a criminal lifestyle. Punks were pretty much considered fair game for street robbery because the police were never called in. As I had discovered two months earlier, even if you were hospitalised, the interviewing officers they were obliged to send out merely spent twenty minutes taking the piss out of you. Cash was skinhead’s immediate objective but unpainted or uncustomised leather jackets were easily resold. I even heard of boots being taken.

Was it a coincidence that punk fashion went totally post apocalyptic at this time until pants became little more than layers of shredded rags from a variety of tattered garments worn one atop another until skin was (mostly) covered? Whilst no High Street fashion chain leaped upon this latest street fashion, at least no-one would try to steal them from you in the street.

Skinheads would “storm” small grocery stores; entering a premises and taking what they wanted from shelves through speed and numbers. Asian shop keepers were especially targeted for the obvious political motives.

Graffiti was, by accident or design, a potent terror weapon in their hands. The more skinhead graffiti you saw, the more likely it was that you would run into a group of these bald headed freaks. Were the COD (Cash on Delivery) Skins an unstoppable army or two guys with a lot of spray cans? As the paranoia grew, who could really say?

British Movement Skinheads began specifically targeting Crass gigs at around this time. The audience, as opposed to the band, seemed to be the target of choice. At the Waterloo Community Centre, a group of around twenty to thirty skinheads entered the hall and drove a wedge through the crowd until they reached the point where the crowd became to thick to push forward. At this point, they turned and started throwing punches, quickly clearing the back of the venue. There had been a fairly large crowd in the Community Centre: probably around four of five hundred people. In the space of under a minute, the skinheads had bought the number down to about a hundred.

Once again, the skinheads turned towards the stage and laying into the audience at the front of the stage. If the objective had been to take the stage, destroy equipment and bend the band over the busted speaker cabinets, they could have easily achieved their goal and had their way with them. It wasn’t as if the audience were fighting back. There was too much shock and panic to organise any kind of legitimate resistance.

Meanwhile, the band were threatening to go of stage if we didn’t stop fighting. There was the usual tired rhetoric about “us all being on the same side.” This was no doubt true in text book terms and Ghandi should have been proud. However, non violent resistance is ultimately only effective against an enemy with a conscience albeit a deeply concealed one. Passive resistance on the part of the Jews would only have strengthened Hitler’s resolve.

Why would the skinheads target the audience instead of the band? In the eighties, right wing skinheads certainly physically targeted left wing skinhead bands like the Redskins. Perhaps one reason they were singled out was that the Redskins, in the eyes of the Nazis, represented an abhorrent mutation of their “culture” that required immediate termination.

“The Eagle Club”, a bare room in a Soho basement that tried to pass itself off as a night club. Later on, many of the same characters from both skinhead and punk camps who had been at Waterloo were in attendance. There was no trouble at all. One did, however, get the distinct feeling that the skinheads were in recruitment mode.

It worked as well. Up until this point, there had been very few punks who had seriously believed in a system of social organisation based on equality and the removal of all power structures. Anarchy had merely meant getting pissed and destroying what ever shit wasn’t nailed down.

Even the Clash’s left wing agenda was more of a marketing illusion than a serious exercise in insurrection. The polemics of Messrs Jones and Strummer are a Boys Own version of Red Army Faction propaganda. Besides, there are far more references to drugs in their lyrics than there are to revolution.

The Clash defended “White Riot” and said it wasn’t a racist song. It wasn’t racist in the overt sense of the charges levelled against it. However, when they sang “Black People got a lot of problems but they’re not afraid to throw a brick” they just continued to propagate the myths of the noble, virile savage so beloved by the sexually repressed.

The influence of politics on a lot of the early punks was largely overstated. Obviously, there were many exceptions who proved this rule but punk had exploded with little more than a dress code. It had scooped up many people who had merely signed up because they had just bought a copy of the Strangler’s great revolutionary opus: “Peaches”. By mid Seventy Seven, it almost seemed like everybody and their pet dog had become punks (at least on the odd weekend).

This had not led to any real rise in political consciousness (at least not in a radical left wing sense). The Jam’s Paul Weller had told us he would vote Tory. He and many like him did. Chelsea (the band, not the team and not the Borough) had at least gone so far as to suggest we had “The Right to Work.” What some of us wanted was, however, a little more radical. We would have preferred the right not to work but none of the major political parties would frame that into policy. They wouldn’t even make it a non-core promise.

Whilst I am obviously trying to be humorous, my humour hides a seriousness. The State would like you to believe that Welfare Benefits are gift from on high that you should, in some way, be indebted for. Whilst there is a kind of mutual obligation involved it is not the kind of contract they would have you sign.. The laws of the State protect property and, if you have no property, you are fundamentally left on the outside looking in.

Both Western Capitalist governments and the former Communists can exist only by limiting lifestyle choices. The flexibility of Capitalism has ensured its longevity. Piercings, tattoos and alternate lifestyles might shock parents (who should know better) but it is all good for the country if the cash keeps turning over.

Welfare Benefits are the price of doing business. They are there to stop the great unwashed from rising up and tearing the whole playhouse down. You don’t believe me? Why did the so-called race riots that hit Britain in the early eighties follow staff lock outs at Social Security offices so synchronously?

Crass certainly had a political stance and an ability to express these ideas through lyrics and artwork. Strangely, Margaret Thatcher could have also held them up as an example of her brand of Capitalism in action. I would like to think that they were in some way aware of this irony.

But Crass were not alone in developing a new ideology through their art. Killing Joke’s “War Dance” shared both the rage and a visual sense of design. Discharge were also beginning to replicate the sound of an industrial drilling tool being gang raped by Motorhead. Love them or loathe them (I’m a long term loather), they were clearly doing something.

Then there was UK Decay who must have been doing something because I’ve read about how much influence they had on me. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually get to hear them until we did a couple of supports years later. I’m not saying they weren’t great because they were. It’s just I didn’t get the chance to hear them. It was wonderful being around in a time when you couldn’t keep up with everything.

A movement creates a band wagon and, after a while, the wagon is abandoned. The people who stick around are generally those who have found something in that form that they can build on. When a scene comes to an end, it is generally painted as a time when there is nothing left but the dregs. Alternately, you can look at it as a levelled field and see the opportunity to plant seeds.

For those without an ideological connection to a notion of what punk could be, a quick change of clothing ultimately meant very little. If the price of not getting the crap beaten out of you was a shaved head and a Fred Perry shirt, there were a couple of barbers and merchants near Petticoat Lane who had finally come out of economic recession.

By creating a campaign of terror more easily joined than avoided, the political right was, consciously or unconsciously, recruiting in the same way it did on football terraces. I obviously suspect the former because, even though I believe Fascist ideology to be morally bankrupt, I do not believe that necessarily means its practitioners are congenital idiots. The assault on the Waterloo Community Centre gig had been too well orchestrated to suggest any notion of random attack. Besides, as Sigmund Freud would have told you, if there is one thing an anally obsessed Nazi loves, it is organisation.

This violence escalated over the summer. The first rumours began to filter through of attacks on a punk squat in Camden. The story that was going around was that they had busted through the door and beaten everyone up. Then they had individually dragged each occupant into a room and sodomised them with a broom stick..

Now, I don’t actually know anyone who was there and I don’t know the address where this allegedly happened but, given the climate of fear, fact and rumour became indistinguishable. However, I have no reason to doubt the truth of this story because of what happened at Derby Lodge in Kings’ Cross.

  1. Val
    November 19, 2007 at 11:15 pm

    I remember one night at Old Street, sitting knitting one of my punk-rock holey jumpers in the ‘living’ room, when two skinheads climbed in through the (first floor) window, clearly with agro on their minds. Obviously expecting a heathen, punk horde, or at least some stealable equipment, they were competely taken aback to find just me, knitting. I ended up teaching them both how to knit! Very bizarre night. I think they became regular visitors after that…

  2. thom
    March 28, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    I was in the squats in Waterloo and Lambeth in ’79 – ’80 around Frazier St and Lambeth Walk – Ruthless was there then (if its the same person). It was mad, sometimes violent sometimes euphoric, with too much glue and speed and too many moggies. I remember one Xmas when we all got together and cooked a big xmas dinner – punks, skins and hippies – and drank a couple of bottles of whisky. Things suddenly felt full of potential . . .

  3. tom / womble
    tom / womble
    August 5, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    i was one of the singers in rubella ballet in summer 1979, i was at the waterloo gig that crass did and me and three friends went over to the eagle club afterwards, i think a lot of people did that night. that was quite a summer – tom x

  4. lou mc grew
    lou mc grew
    January 2, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    Happy Birthday Puppies. Happy New Year and lots of love to you all from Lou McGrew XXXXXXXX

  5. Tony Puppy
    Tony Puppy • Post Author •
    January 2, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    Cheers Lou, I’ll pass on your kind words to Kilty MacGuire.

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