The Subtle Difference Between Justice And Contempt (Poll Tax Riot 1990)

Image result for poll tax banner25 years ago today, the 31st of March 1990, our crew gathered at Dave & Isobel’s for Saturday breakfast. Isobel is French so there was decent coffee & tasty bread, maybe croissants. They lived in a 10th floor of a tower block on an estate overlooking Kennington Park in South London which that day was one of the rallying points for a march to Trafalgar Square to demonstrate opposition to the Conservative Thatcher government’s plans to introduce the Community Charge. This Poll Tax was a badly planned, ill- judged, unfair & politically motivated attempt to re-organise local government taxation & funding. The Labour controlled councils of urban Britain had become a thorn in Thatcher’s side. Her individualism (“there is no such thing as society”) & her vindictiveness meant that, like the trade unions, this “enemy from within” should be firmly put in their place.

 

From our elevated viewpoint we could see the streams of people entering the park. This was going to be a big one. Through the past decade we had rocked against Racism & Sexism, shown our solidarity with the miners, our opposition to nuclear weapons, apartheid & to the Falklands War. My friends, like thousands of others, we’re no “whatever it is, I’m against it” Rent-a-Mob. We are politically conscious, concerned that governments which act in our name should be aware of opinions beyond the halls of the Houses of Parliament. It was time to join the throng below & add our voices to an argument that needed to be had.

 

 

There is always a good humour to these marches. At one for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament I had missed my friends, hooked up with another straggler & followed the Gay Liberation Front whose “Reagan is the cowboy. We are the Indians” whoops became a rallying cry for our section. This day the sheer size of the turnout was exhilarating. We headed off for the city centre knowing that this would be noticed. It was a slow stroll up to the Elephant & Castle then to Lambeth Bridge. Crossing the Thames we could see the head of  the march at the Houses of Parliament, the crowd got more dense & more vocal, the police presence more visible. On Millbank sheer weight of numbers meant that we came to a standstill.

 

Our part of the crowd made it to Whitehall, to Downing Street where Maggie lived, the belly of the beast. The black gates had been erected the year before, access restricted since 1982. An anti-terrorism measure perhaps (in 1991 the IRA had to launch their mortars from Horse Guards Parade), an ” erosion of the Englishman’s right to wander at will in Downing Street”, a symbol of the State we were in. There were thousands of us outside the gates & we were going nowhere, there was no room anyway, the road up to Trafalgar Square was rammed. Up the front there was a hubbub & a fol-de-rol, it was expected. Fuck this government & fuck their gates. Anyhow, I had been on this march for 4 hours, we were never going to make the rally & I needed a beer. Four of us split, the others stayed. We knew the score & would all meet up later at the Lemon Tree in Covent Garden for a Saturday night in the West End.

 

On the Embankment the marchers were avoiding the crush & able to stretch their legs. We headed for the Lyceum on the Strand, a Sam Smith’s pub, a good pint & Mickey’s local from work. We left Downing St at 2.55 p.m. there’s a clock, Big Ben, just over there. When the entrails of the day’s events were examined it was just minutes later that a mounted section of the Metropolitan Police charged down Whitehall in an effort to clear the crowd. I doubt that horses or riders discriminated between anarchists (the few) & concerned members of the public (the vast majority). There was no way to avoid this provocation. The police wanted people to go home & people didn’t want to. A peaceful, well-mannered, very British protest march was about to become something else.

 

 

We were in the pub when we heard the first stories of it going off just down the road. Smoke rose from Trafalgar Square while 400 yards away we enjoyed our drinks & planned to rejoin the crowds when we had drunk enough. When that time came we were denied entry to the square by the police cordon around it. This was our city, these cops knew nothing. Mitchell’s girlfriend was working at the Cambridge Theatre on “Les Mis”, we had to get into there to get her out of there. We both knew that the narrow alley at the side of the Lumiere cinema on St Martin’s Lane was likely to remain unguarded. It was…result…we were back on the march which had now become a riot.

 

We were met by a line of riot-suited & booted police who impolitely told us we could go no further. I replied that the UK was not yet a police state & we, helped by others, waded into them. Not a chance against truncheons & shields but it had to be done. We had only been in the area for a couple of minutes & we had already lost track of each other. It was just me & Aussie Pete now, the other two were big boys they could look after themselves. Up the Charing Cross Road we found that the city had been taken over by the demonstrators. The burning & looting was going on elsewhere, here the police had lost control & the crowd were having some fun with them. A chant of “No Poll Tax” would start on one corner, the Keystone cops charged the chanters who would evaporate before another group took up the mantra just 30 yards away. Repeat until your sides hurt from laughing.

 

The threat of violence against police & property was around as was the sound of breaking glass, but this was more about walking the way you want to walk in the streets of the country where you live. The Thatcher government had increasingly used the police as a political agency. The sight of cops waving overtime-bloated wage slips at striking miners became a sickening symbol of the divisions of 1980s Britain. Today they were outnumbered & the city belonged to us, bricking a BMW showroom was extreme but it seemed important to be there…Power to the Correct People !

 

 

Back at the Lemon Tree there was a celebratory atmosphere as we swapped war stories. Around midnight we walked down Whitehall, deserted except for the police vans. We walked up to those damned gates, still there, but the cops stayed in their vehicles. Maybe they’d made their day’s quota, maybe they were too tired. The next day Mitchell & I joined the tourists & sightseers to check the damage & watch the clean up. Again we wanted to show out, to walk where we wanted to. This was a very British riot. like those in Brixton & Toxteth in 1981 & the disturbances across the country in 2011, normal service was resumed as soon as possible. We don’t really want to be full time street fighters but we do like to make the point that when lines are being crossed we are not to be fucked about or action will be taken.

 

Of course the breast-beating & the condemnation of violence & lawlessness followed. What could not be ignored was the massive unpopularity of the Poll Tax & the size of the demonstration against it. The Tory Party, worried by opinion polls, made plans to challenge Thatcher’s leadership. All 3 of her opponents were against the  tax & her successor, John Major, abandoned it in his first speech as Prime Minister (Though 2 of my friends still did jail time for non-payment). I know, it’s a pity that she was stabbed in the back by her own party, that we never did get to parade her severed head on a stick around the nation. That day 25 years ago did mark the beginning of her end & I am glad that I was part of that mass protest against her & her shitty ways.

 

 

 

 

Captured By The Game (Sunday Football)

Hackney Marshes

Ashby Ville was my hometown’s Hackney Marshes, an open space on the edge of town big enough for 10, maybe 15 football pitches. We cycled down there on a Sunday to watch the games, often leaving the higher quality matches to catch one that had become more WWE than FIFA. We would dash back to someone’s house, anyone with an available radio, to catch  the Swinging Cymbal of  “Pick of the Pops” presented by Alan “Fluff” Freeman, the BBC’s unveiling of the new Top 20 hits. Music & Football…I was an uncomplicated boy with simple tastes.

My best mate Wink lived across the road from one of the well appointed playing fields of the local steelworks. Sack Dynamo (I have no idea !) played their home games there & we adopted them as our team. We went to every game that one season. They were a good side, midfield ace Ronnie Walker could have been a pro but a prison stretch hadn’t helped his prospects. When Sack won the Sunday League Cup, (a big deal) beating the toffs from a village pub, they called us over for the team photograph…with the cup ! We were in the paper with the cup !

I made my debut in the Sunday Leagues for Comet Wanderers Reserves. The Comet was Dad’s local & as I was getting the odd goal as a big, daft striker for my school team he volunteered me for the new side. From their kick-off I nicked the ball from an opponent’s feet, he swore at me & hacked at my shins, illegal since 1863 when the FA first codified their rules. Christ that hurt…this never happened in the under-15’s, welcome to the man’s game. I didn’t go near the guy for the next 89 minutes, a footballing lesson I kept in mind later when I became a big, daft defender.

 

 

We formed a Sunday team at work to play in the, I hope, ironically named Birmingham Monday League. Emplex F.C., was based at an unemployment benefit office, not as busy in those pre-Thatcher times, without the politicised agenda of 2015 but they knew who we were. “Come on lads, this lot are the dole !” was often the opposition’s team talk. My team mates were good guys, Jimmy was my character witness that time I got arrested at Wembley, Terry shared the cell with me, Sean gave me his Ramones & Jonathan Richman LPs when he left for a new life as a croupier in the Bahamas. We toured the neglected municipal pitches of Birmingham, hoping not just for a lukewarm post-game shower but that there would be a working light bulb in the windowless changing rooms. At a game in Small Heath an adjacent pitch was occupied by a wrestling tournament watched by about a 1,000 Asian men. The random loud cheering was a strange backdrop then, when they were all wrestled out, this crowd found the quickest way to the exit was straight across our pitch. It was a strange clash of cultures & the game had to stop. Me, I was glad of the breather .

 

Emplex assembled, of course, in a pub. For some it could be the last call for alcohol on a long Saturday night/Sunday morning but Sunday Leaguers soon learn that  the body count is more important than the condition of those bodies. Having only 10 players show out was bad enough but when 15 guys turned up expecting a game it was awkward. It was the same for many teams, people will go elsewhere if they don’t get to play so a full 11 in the same place at the same time is a good start. Playing with 9 men & trailing 9-0  we retreated to our goal determined not to lose by double figures. The final whistle was greeted as a small triumph, you’ve seen “Zulu” haven’t you. These were good times. After my only hat-trick, 3 goals, 1 game, I was walking sideways through doors until Wednesday because my grin was so wide.

 

 

In London my, let’s call it a, “lifestyle” was incompatible with being upright on a Sunday morning never mind running about  for 90 minutes. If I was awake there were 2 pick-up games where I could meet friends & get my blood flowing. In beautiful Greenwich Park, the flat bit between Observatory Hill & the National Maritime Museum, the guys even brought their own collapsible goal posts. On Clapham Common we used the more traditional jumpers. Kick-off time at both was flexible but full-time was at exactly 1 o’clock. Back then the pubs closed on Sunday between 2 p.m & 7 p.m, all-day opening has changed the routine of Sunday football. Man, these are intended to be sporting memories but in most cases they seem to involve time spent on licensed premises.

 

I became the coach of the “Old Fallopians” women’s football team for a while after I hung up my boots. My friend Sue was one of their big daft central defenders & she knew that I, at least, talked a good game. The “Tubes” gathered in Brixton, South London, on Thursday nights & I ordered 18 women about for a couple of hours, yeah…that’ll work. Surprisingly I was a purist, insisting that an accurate pass to a team-mate is the football skill that matters so you can put those bloody cones away. After a couple of defeats I asked them to consider the long ball to Natasha up front & instructed the full backs that I expected them to kick the opposition’s fancy Danielle wingers into next week. This game is all about results Gary !

 

The Tubes were a great bunch who loved to play the game. I was their fan on the touchline really, we thought tactics were a breath mint. I was never going to be one of the full-kit manager wankers behaving as if it was a Champions League match, this was fun. I heard a lot of dumb crap from men doubting the ability of “girls”, asking if I went into the changing room. I have always had female friends who went to football & had no problems with them playing. The rituals of the Sunday game were just the same, a head count & hoping there were 11 players, some of them the worse for wear, friends getting together to enjoy themselves, if & when they find the ground. Still Jose Mourinho probably has never had a player hold their breast & say “Ooh, I got one right on the nipple today !”

 

I have a dodgy knee now & get out of breath running for a bus (so I don’t). There’s a football pitch at the edge of my estate, speckled with dog crap & with an unfeasibly steep slope. I can take my morning coffee & watch the Sunday game played by all shapes & sizes, varied talents & a wide age range. I still wait for the ball to come over the fence so that I can do a little trick before a pinpoint flick back to a waiting player. Football…It’s too late to stop now !

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neither Far Out Nor In Deep (Captain Beefheart)

Somewhere around here I have a dusty, krusty kassette recording of legendary DJ John Peel’s first broadcast for the BBC’s new music station Radio One in October 1967. It will not get played again, I should really file it in the rubbish bin. It’s a little bit of British musical history though innit ? That Summer I had tried to listen to Peel’s pirate radio show, “The Perfumed Garden” but it started at midnight, I was under the bed sheets & the rest of the house was asleep. “Top Gear” a magazine programme for the new music, aired on a Sunday afternoon. Hopefully I would stay awake for longer than 30 minutes.

The playlist for that first legal show (titled “Top Gear” !)  seems a little staid now because we have known the music for over 40 years. Swinging London is represented by Pink Floyd & psych-rockers Tomorrow, Haight-Ashbury supplies Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish. However, in September 1967 there was a new LP from a new artist. “Safe As Milk” by Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band still dazzles, still thrills after all the passing time & John Peel’s radio show was the only place this young provincial teenager was going to get to hear it.

 

 

 

The kid I sat next to at school could play guitar just like ringing a bell (two-time BBC Radio 2 Folk Artist of the Year…that good). He was mastering that slide “bottleneck” style & we were sucking up all the downhome acoustic blues we could beg steal & borrow. We loved that good electric stuff from Chicago too. The jagged, acid logic of “Safe As Milk”, surging, strutting, psychedelic blues sounded like perfect sense as a distillation of  that great past & then a leap forward into some other-worldly, future music. The Merry Pranksters travelled on a bus going to “Further”. Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, helped by guitar prodigy Ry Cooder, were already there, Blues Brothers from another planet.This clip, from January 1968, on the beach at Cannes is just…well, that’s how they did it…amazing yeah ?

 

John Peel did his work well. People knew about this music & the subsequent records. In 1969 Pye Records released the debut on Marble Arch, their budget imprint with no rhyme or reason behind a schedule of the weird, the wonderful & the what the f… ! The labyrinthine licensing of the Captain’s US label meant another chance to buy “Safe As Milk”, this time for a bargain 99 pence, when Polydor inherited the rights. The record found a place in many young collectors’ small stack of vinyl & regular exposure to its zig-zag wanderings & abba zabba zooms generated a devoted fanbase, including myself, willing to follow this group along whatever yellow brick roads they chose.

 

 

Captain Beefheart (Don van Vliet) struck a rich vein of creativity & in 1968/9 was given free range by Frank Zappa’s new label Straight. The autocratic Captain holed the band up in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles for 8 months. Stories of his artistic & emotional domination are strange & legendary. When they were studio-ready they created “Trout Mask Replica”, a double LP, a magnum opus, which explored, expanded & experimented with the limits of rock & roll. The surreal poetry, awkward, scratchy rhythms & sheer strangeness of “Trout Mask…”, like the best modern Art, arouses strong, divided opinions. There are those who regard it as a highpoint of Western civilisation while others hear a willfully weird, noisy mess. Books have been written about its recording & its legacy. Critic Robert Christgau wrote, ” great played at high volume when you’re feeling shitty, because you’ll never feel as shitty as this record” (he liked it). “Trout Mask…” is no longer my favourite record by Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band but if you like the noises from the clips here then approach it with care & check it out. It really is an unusual, unique, fast & bulbous piece of work.

 

 

In 1973 the band  were with Warner Brothers & released “Clear Spot”, a monster of a record. The LP is co-produced by Ted Templeman, a man with an ear for a more commercial sound.  This Magic Band, Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad, guitar), Rockette Morton (Mark Boston, bass/guitar), Roy Estrada (bass) & Ed Marimba (Art Tripp, drums), were a natural force, relentless, rhythmic, hitting that long leaning note & making it float. A perfect foil to the vocalist’s stream of unconsciousness, tough on “Crazy Little Thing”, surprisingly, effectively tender on “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, still crazy on “Big Eyed Beans From Venus”. “Clear Spot” is the most accessible of all Beefheart’s recordings &, for this reason, is probably his most popular. It still sounds great 40 year on. “Too Much Time” is surely the hit single that got away. There are verses, a chorus, even a soulful horn section. The Captain could play it straight, he preferred to take the road less travelled.

 

 

A packed hall at my university waited eagerly & patiently to see the hottest band around play a gig in support of “Clear Spot”.We waited some more before being told that the venue’s power supply couldn’t handle their PA & the gig was cancelled. As my friend Mitchell said about another disappointment, “it can’t be good for you to go from that happy to this pissed off in so quick a time !”. It would be a couple of years before Captain Beefheart & myself were in the same building again, this time one with adequate electrics. What a concert it was, convention subverted by trombonist Bruce Fowler replacing a bass guitarist, Tripp’s drum solo becoming a tap dance up & down the stairs behind the stage of the Birmingham Town Hall. At the centre of the ferocious, angular stomp the one & only Captain imposed himself on the evening, barking & growling out his poetry with a slightly crazed, definitely arch glint in his eyes. The appeal of this music is not its strangeness, not that it’s avant-garde. The rhythms may carom crazily but have a primal rock & roll/Blues heart, Don van Vliet is an artist, one of the best when at his best & his sense of humour is just as important. If you are guilty of taking him too seriously then you are guilty. What a concert it was.

 

Back in 1974 “Zigzag”, a UK music fanzine that acquired national distribution purely because of its damn good taste, asked its readers which LPs they played the most. This Top 10 includes 3 records by Captain Beefheart.

  1.  Forever Changes – Love
  2.  Trout Mask Replica – Capt Beefheart
  3.  Notorious Byrd Brothers – Byrds
  4.  Moondance – Van Morrison
  5.  American Beauty – Grateful Dead
  6.  Clear Spot – Capt Beefheart
  7.  Hot Rats – Zappa
  8.  Safe As Milk – Capt Beefheart
  9.  Liege & Lief – Fairport Convention
  10.  Electric Ladyland – Hendrix

If you weren’t around at the time this is fine introduction to rock music from the late 1960s/early 1970s. There’s plenty to calm the turbulence of a daily blast of “Trout Mask…”  but if you really need to get your motor running then let a little Beefheart into your day.