Letters From London

New Fidelities

Our perceptions age with the cities around us—old thoughts are razed, new theories go up, the subway seems less confusing. But what about that band we loved as teenagers? What happened to them?

As a teenager, a non-Londoner, and an innocent, a half-hour tube ride always meant a journey into the unknown. This was a part of traveling into the city that my grim-faced parents would warn me about as they drove me to the local train station, unwilling to discharge me into the violent capital without a half-hearted try at discouragement. That the urban experience might be the slightest bit dangerous was dismissed out of hand in the presence of adults. But in the train, deep below ground, location and direction unknown, even a small sub-section of teenage brain could begin to comprehend parental concerns.

It’s 1990. We are walking down an endless road in South London, away from a tube station that was empty and unfamiliar. It isn’t the end of the line, but traffic is sparse, the buildings set further back, the corners darker. The only reason for what we see as a bold foray outside familiar territory is the search for new experiences: musical experiences. Back in the Victorian and Georgian buildings of our country private school, we had gorged on elaborately-written reviews of unknown bands that hinged on words like ‘menace,’ ‘corrupt,’ ‘power,’ and ‘noise.’

Tonight’s attraction is Whitehouse, a legendary noise band that’s shown up after five years away from the London gig scene. In their absence, they have become myths and gods. Even today it’s said the current crop of British thrash-metal bands, or the new breed of alternative American rockers, can’t touch Whitehouse for aggression, unpredictability, and sheer sonic confrontation.

It’s not only the neighborhood that terrifies us.

God is the opening act, a mighty collective of saxophones, beards, double basses, and two drum kits that went on to support My Bloody Valentine the following year. Whitehouse is something different, although not necessarily something better. Using electronic instruments wired to the limits of their vintage circuitry, two men conjure up what can only be described as a maelstrom, frequencies designed for uneasy listening, at a volume that’s well past comfortable. Lyrics are hollered and screeched (I recall a song called ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’). Shirts are ripped. There may even be some spanking.

This is, in part, what we’re expecting. We clutch our cans of Red Stripe and stand on a bench against the side wall, conspicuous in our expensive navy overcoats, exchange worried smirks, and try to keep our middle-class voices down low. The air of menace is palpable, although our appreciation of the scant avant-garde glamour and fin-de-siècle decadence on show is limited by our incomplete education. The atmosphere doesn’t tip into violence, although at some point a hefty piece of electronica is nudged off its stand and blood is spilt in the front row, where the more enthusiastic are flailing about in shredded T-shirts. But the far reaches of the crowd keep their distance from both us and the stage, and we are spared a descent into Ballard-esque class retribution.

The gig was later described as the ‘sound of impending mental collapse’ by an imaginative Sounds journalist, and I suppose, despite the magazine’s customary hyperbole, that it was right. The pavement was still unfamiliar, the street even darker, the borders of our world brought a little bit closer by our ringing ears. Whitehouse wasn’t an encore kind of band, and the concert just fizzled out. The crowd filed out quietly, subdued by the mental strain of combining a tense atmosphere and pulverizing noise.


* * *

Thirteen years later, we’re off to see Whitehouse again. What’s changed? After nearly 13 years in the capital, I still don’t consider myself a Londoner—an exclusive membership that seems especially strict about whom it admits and why. Instead, I’m comfortable being part of the city’s transient population, buoyed by the critical capacity afforded by the sense distance. Despite being happily married and ‘settled down,’ my sense of flux—of being in an environment that constantly changes—has never really disappeared.

Tonight, I’m curious but jaded; I want to be thrilled, but don’t really expect to be. I know the Union Tavern is still there, on a now familiar road. I suppose I drive around here perhaps once a week, by car, taxi or bus. Though I’ve now lived at both ends of what was once alien territory, for all I knew back then the typical sodium-illuminated London street might have backed onto fields and forest.

This winter’s evening, Whitehouse is playing the Scala, a cinema-turned-nightclub a few hundred yards from King’s Cross station. This is North London, barely two miles from Leicester Square, the gaudy center that most visitors consider one of the capital’s focal points. Nonetheless, King’s Cross is still perpetually down at heel. There’s an open market for drugs and prostitutes, and the train station is magnet for runaways. King’s Cross offers rich pickings for the vultures of gentrification, but they have circled for years to no avail: Station redesigns were mooted and booted, victims of endless architectural plans and master plans. The area lacked commitment, until now.

Sudden change isn’t always welcome in London. Some 40 years ago, barely a mile down the road, the misguided spirit of 1960s optimism tore down a colossal Doric arch outside Euston Station. Redeveloped as an everyday modernist block, flanked by stubby towers, the memory of the Euston Arch lives on as a classic example of bureaucratic shortsightedness. Around the same time, when enthusiasm for Victorian architectural exuberance had all but disappeared, a group of developers proposed the destruction of the St. Pancras Chambers, what was once the finest railway hotel in England. The building dodged the wreckers, but lay fallow for decades, the magnificent ceramic-tiled interior crumbling away.

‘Play ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’!’ my friend screamed, and Kurt Cobain, on stage to tune up, smiled and tried to oblige, hacking the chords for a few seconds before turning back to his amp.

Come 2021, St. Pancras will be one of the centerpieces of a new King’s Cross, the permanent home of London’s new Eurostar terminal. Paris and Brussels will suddenly be a few hours away, making the neighborhood an unlikely final destination for day-tripping Parisians. Investment is rushing in and the developers are back. Whole blocks are wreathed in Christo-like scaffolding, only the artist probably would never have approved the gaudy ‘lifestyle’ posters promising a new urban quarter, the very best of city living. The railway-works finish in 2007, and the builders are expected to hang around for another 14 years to finish it all off.

Just 300 yards from the station is the Scala, the location for tonight’s performance. Again, we’re revisiting the past. Some 13 years ago, the Scala was one of my regular haunts. The cinema’s Saturday all-nighters were legendary for a program that mixed European art porn and South American zombie films. For students, artists, dossers (a quaint English term for down-and-outs) and other lowlifes, the Scala offered a warm seat, cheap coffee, terrible sound quality, and a refuge from the streets.

It is a building with an unusual history. Way back in the 1980s, a group calling itself the International Primate Protection League turned it into a Primatarium, a kind of Rainforest Café without burgers. There weren’t even any monkeys—the screeches and howls played from recorded tapes. A movie theater took over once this bizarre initiative fizzled out, and chimpanzees in stereo were replaced by cinematic primates, like the gorilla from George Kuchar’s infamous Thundercrack! But in its quest for the avant-garde, the Scala over-reached one too many times. At the start of the 90s, someone organized a showing of A Clockwork Orange, banned in the U.K. on Stanley Kubrick’s command in May 1973, after his reclusive family feared attack. A court case was held, a fine issued, and in two months the theater was shut. There were dark whisperings of conspiracy—that the local council had encouraged the showing in the full knowledge that it might lead to the Scala’s demise, removing a pimple from the area’s spotty face.

It’s 2003. The Scala re-opened in 1999, after seven years of closure. A promoter, Sean McLusky, sourced grants, lobbied the council and eventually succeeded, dragging the venue back into the 21st century. It’s now what would fashionably be termed a multi-functional arts space, a nightclub-stroke venue that runs club nights, off-center bands and events. In the past decade, it’s barely registered on my radar. Tonight, however, three of us are back. Whitehouse is playing a rare live set, and we can feel a delicious mixture of anticipation and uncertainty.

Whitehouse is supported by Earth, a band founded by Dylan Carson, who enjoyed brief notoriety as the man who lent a shotgun to one of his best friends, Kurt Cobain. He has put on weight but still exudes the raw, trucker-hatted instability that was captured so well by Nick Broomfield’s documentary Kurt and Courtney. Carson’s mumbling, stoner mannerisms, and lank, greasy hair made him an unwitting star of the film, every inch the unrepentant addict. I think back to seeing Nirvana in London on its very first European tour. Stage divers seemed to pour from the speaker stacks, and I’d had to duck to avoid being kicked by oversailing pairs of Doc Martens, their oblivious owners propelling themselves into the heart of the crowd. ‘Play ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’!’ my friend screamed, and Kurt Cobain, on stage to tune up, smiled and tried to oblige, hacking the chords for a few seconds before turning back to his amp.

Earth takes the stage. It’s just Carson and his guitar and a drummer, stubbing out slow beats like a lazy heart. My mind wanders, as it often does at gigs, and now all I can think about is the day I came down to breakfast at my parents’ house and read about Cobain’s suicide. How weird it felt to lose someone directly connected—mainlined—into my adolescence and early adulthood. His fame, and posthumous adulation became a justification for a generation’s bad mood, the high profile event that solidified the eternal adolescent feelings of being adrift and misunderstood. For my own part, this early gig was a chance at an ‘I was there first’ card. I didn’t—and still don’t—own a copy of Nevermind, although I know the album practically note for note. It just didn’t seem an essential possession, despite the visceral thrill of the first few tracks, once the band was everywhere, on radio, TV, magazine covers.

Perhaps it’s the end of the avant-garde, but it’s more likely that I can no longer see the avant-garde for the trees.

Another sign of my age: These days, I wear foam plugs in my ears at concerts (a habit resulting, I believe, from that aforementioned 1991 God/My Bloody Valentine tour). Earth’s noise makes my rib cage vibrate and my heart race. It’s not that great. Why do I still succumb voluntarily to this kind of thing? Trainee astronauts have a better time of it spinning round in their centrifuges, eyes popping and jowls flapping. There’s no moonshot at the end of this sonic endurance test.

Perhaps Whitehouse has the answer. What’s alarming is that they are camp. High and very noisy camp. Were they always like this? Was camp something I was capable of detecting 13 years ago? The lead singer, William Bennett, bears a startling resemblance to Buffy’s Anthony Head, while his white shirt makes me think of Martha Stewart’s minimalist pal John Pawson. He has a well-developed eyebrow that pops up above his sunglasses: It’s pure pantomime. The bitter invective of the songs isn’t cruel, but comic. We are grinning. His accomplice, Philip Best, who began the show as a menacing figure with a dark red shirt and a maniacal look, soon strips to the waist, scampers around like a children’s television presenter and beats his glistening, ample belly with the microphone. The lumpen electronics of old have been reduced to a few small black boxes. But I still marvel at their capacity for making a noise so thick it feels like paste.

Certain sounds, I remember once reading, can force an involuntary bowel evacuation. Time for a toilet break. I enter the bathroom and clumsily drop my full pint of Guinness on the floor of the cubicle. The liquid fizzes unappealingly up the walls. The bass sound is making the entire building shake—if I still had a drink, the top would be rippling like that glass of water in Jurassic Park I’ll wait here for a while—I don’t feel like I’m missing much. Somewhere along the line, I have become old.


* * *

A few months later my diagnosis is confirmed. I see a friend’s band play its first show. Having to watch acquaintances get up on stage makes me seethe with jealousy—I suspect this is a common malady among amateur musicians. More importantly, the audience seems rather young. And the event seems to be starting rather late. I’m no longer an invisible observer, indistinguishable from everyone else Instead, it seems as though my 30-something-ness is keenly felt by those around me. I think back to being young, really young, and how the older people who dotted the audience seemed awkward and out of place, lecherous, even. But now the people around me are practically children: They weren’t even teenagers when Kurt Cobain was scraping out his last chords! My indignant feelings are outranked and beaten by embarrassment.

Perhaps it’s the end of the avant-garde, but it’s more likely that I can no longer see the avant-garde for the trees. Growing old means an ever-increasing distance from contemporary culture. Imagine your tastes being dipped in slow-drying amber, a barrier that hardens with age, keeping your totems fixed and immobile around you. Happily, contemporary culture caters to people like us, with our resinous certainties and expectations, churning out a succession of box sets, re-mastered albums, nostalgia-themed television shows, and reunion tours. I’d wager that it also affects those who lived at the forefront, playing the music, those who sent the rest of us diving head-first into crowds of human cushions.

So while the city changes, we become more set in our ways, despite our protests to the contrary. London is constantly tearing itself apart with a capacity for reinvention that any musician would envy. Dumpsters—which we more elegantly know as ‘skips’—line the streets, bearing the trash of an endless cycle of commercial fit-outs. Plasterboard and outdated bathroom suites sit on street corners as new homeowners make their mark on the steep climb up the capital’s property ladder, a subject of constant fascination for anyone in their late 20s onwards.

At what point did I mentally shuffle musical innovation to the back of my mind and focus on real estate? Perhaps it’s because nostalgia is such a powerful emotion, especially when the flux of physical space—the city—makes memory all the more necessary to frame our image of a past disappearing behind shiny new buildings. Whereas Kurt Cobain succeeded in nixing his own personal susceptibility to nostalgia, most people, thankfully, lack the fatal combination of mental strength, physical weakness and self-determination that leads to suicide. Instead, they just settle down, lucky to be able to tame, not succumb to, their demons. And as the world changes, that which is constant becomes more and more reassuring. You can be sure that every once in a while your past will throw you a curveball, a thing that looms unexpectedly, but not unpleasantly, into view. And then the memories flood back, rushing past like the stale air blown ahead of an approaching underground train. For example—the Pixies, together again this summer? Of course, I’ll be down front. And I can’t wait.


TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell