Sunday, December 03, 2017

London Noir - My Love Affair with 60's Soho

                                                            'Absolute Beginners' Acrylic on Canvas - Higgins

                                                                               'The Profumo Affair'
In the early 1960's, Soho, London was often described as seamy, sordid and decadent, a polestar for sex shops and clip joints, a stone's throw from the gritty hub of London's most notorious underworld mobsters, notably East Enders, Reggie & Ronnie, the infamous Kray Twins, and South London's chilling Richardson Gang.  

                                                                                         Soho 1965 - Photo by Henry Grant

Soho was also a part of the city where Francis Bacon's godless, sardonic, 'sensation of the moment,' propensity spawned a scandalously bohemian subculture, where pubs ignored clocks, and burgeoning jazz and blues clubs sparked the careers of such iconic acts as the Yardbirds, Led Zepplin, The Who, and Davy 'Bowie' Jones; but these things were hardly unusual for a part of the city always known as a haven for nomads, intellectuals and those cut from a slightly different cloth.  Indeed Marx and Engels composed their Communist Manifesto in a room above Soho's Red Lion Pub.

                                                                             'Tainted Love' - Acrylic on Canvas - Higgins

Occupying part of London's West End, approximately a square mile in size, Soho loosely encompasses Charing Cross Rd. to the east, Regent to the west, Leicester Square to the south and Oxford Street to the north.  With a few exceptions, such as the market traders on Berwick Street, the Soho of today is a homogenised hodgepodge of luxury hotels, posh apartments, high-end bistros and tapas bars, a byproduct of gentrification's sticky fingers pushing the locals farther east and stripping the city of its charm; but I'm not overly interested in the Soho of today.  

My 'Summer of Love' sensibilities are firmly rooted in the 60's of both sides of the Atlantic; so it was not surprising I decided to accept a challenge from my UK collector, Pat, who earlier this year asked if I'd ever considered painting vintage 'London Noir,' which he described to me as 'similar to American Noir, only seedier and very, very noir.'  Intrigued by the creative possibilities, I knew it was essential I endeavour to restrict my research to a particular time period, so casting aside my aversion to limitations and psychedelic fascinations, I opted to venture farther back into the 60's, to the 'very, very noir' Soho that existed between the years 1959-1966, with Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, my starting point.

                                                                                                        Ronnie Scott

Working at a distance, with an arsenal of family and friends supplying me with photographs and tantalising tales of the infamous luminaries of the time, in addition to offering a few first-hand confessions of what it was like to live in Soho in the early 1960's, I embarked upon a truly eye-opening, if not riveting journey back in time, devouring the books of Colin MacInnes, Joe Orton's subversively hilarious plays, most notably, 'What The Butler Saw,' listening to music that rocked and jived and shook this former 'valley girl' to the core, and lapping up the designs of Ossie Clark and Mary Quant, as worn by Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Peggy Moffit and Veruschka, the images and styles that made such an impression on my work as a fashion illustrator.  

Leslie Hornby 'Twiggy'

                                                     Ossie Clark with Chrissie Shrimpton - Photo by David Bailey

                                                                                           Carnaby Street - 1966

                                                                     Playwright John Kingsley 'Joe' Orton

The first two paintings of my LONDON NOIR series, 'Absolute Beginners,' and 'Tainted Love,' are the results of these adventures.  'Absolute Beginners' was not inspired by The Jam.  Love IS in our hearts, but this painting is actually a nod to Colin MacInnes's coming-of-age novel of the same name, which is my favourite of his London Trilogy.  Set against a backdrop of Mod culture, during the summer of the Notting Hill race riots, reminiscent of Salinger's, 'Catcher in the Rye,' the book is a sensitive portrayal of a self-conscious adolescent coming to terms with the societal changes and resultant racism that blighted parts of London in the late 1950's.  I have taken artistic liberty in this piece, melding Carnaby and Wardour Streets.

                                                                                        Work in Progress - 'Absolute Beginners'

                                                                               The Jam - 'Absolute Beginners' (1981)

Departing from the idealism of youth, and venturing farther into the seamier side of 60's Soho is 'Tainted Love.' The composition was inspired by The Who's, 'Man With The Money,' with title homage a combination of Gloria Jones's '64 hit and author, Stewart Home's gripping exploration into 60's London counterculture…'Swinging London' being the predominant theme of both paintings.  

                                                            Work in Progress - 'Tainted Love' - July 2017

                                                                     'The Who' - Man With The Money

                                                                                      'Tainted Love' - Stewart Home

                                                                                   Gloria Jones and Marc Bolan

Soho in the late 50's and early 60's was the backdrop for an explosion of artistic expression. Edmond T. Greville's film, 'Beat Girl' (1959) starring Gillian Hills (Blowup & Clockwork Orange) and set in Soho, is perhaps one of the best examples of cinematic adolescent angst.  With its subplots of jealousy, emotional blackmail, debaucherous behaviour and general juvenile delinquency, it rivals 'Reefer Madness' in its melodramatic moral caution.  Also filmed against the setting of 60's Soho were 'Passport to Shame,' 'Expresso Bongo,' and the suspenseful crime noir, 'The Small World of Sammy Lee' - The haunting jazz-soaked soundtrack alone will transport you back in time. 

                                                                                              'Beat Girl ' (1959)

                                                                     'The Small World of Sammy Lee'

The art world of 60's Soho arguably centred around two of London's most controversial characters and their volatile friendship - Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, two figurative painters, bonded if not obsessed by their admiration of each other's twisted talent, as well as a shared penchant for booze, gambling and pugnacity that spiralled their mutual respect into mockery and caustic contempt.  The culmination and subsequent deterioration of their dysfunctional relationship came as a result of Bacon's unwelcome triptych of Freud, which it seems posthumously gave Bacon the upper hand, when the works later sold for $142 million in 2013.   Many of their dramas were played out against the backdrop of Soho's Gargoyle Club, later infamously known as 'The Colony Room.' 
                                                                 Bacon & Freud - Photo by Harry Diamond

                                                                                       Freud's Portrait of Bacon (1952)

                                                                           'Three Studies of Lucian Freud' by Francis Bacon

                                                                               John Deakin, Bruce Bernard, Jeffrey Bernard

                                                                                         Muriel Belcher

Located on Dean Street, this private drinking club, with its garishly green walls and extended hours of operation, was owned by the temperamental Muriel Belcher, although Bacon shares founding member status. Muriel had a knack for profanity and cooking, in addition to cooking up controversy with her coterie of colourful creatures of the night including the aforementioned Bacon and Freud, alcoholic ex-Vogue and war photographer John Deakin, and doomed Welch poet, Dylan Thomas, each exploiting and reveling in their atmosphere of excess, intrigue and decadence.  The Colony Room served its final drink in 2008, but remained popular with artistic types until the end, with certain members of the YBA (Young British Artists) loosely comprised of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucus, sharing a particular fondness for the iconic watering hole. 

                                               Damian Hirst and Sarah Lucas at The Colony Room - photo - The Guardian

                                                                              Francis Bacon at The Colony Room

On the lighter side, if not a more female-friendly representation of 60's Soho's rich history, were the many coffee bars popular amongst British youth, including the uniquely decorated, Le Macabre, complete with its horror-themed ambiance and coffin shaped tables. Moka, which officially opened in the early 50's by Italian actress, Gina Lollabrigida, has the distinction of being singled out by acerbic American beat poet, William Burroughs for its 'outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy and poisonous cheesecake'. 2i's on Old Compton Street is where musician Marc Bolan (T-Rex) once worked as a waiter and was also featured in the movie, 'Expresso Bongo.' 

                                                                                   'Le Macabre Coffee House' 

                                                                            Marc Bolan - John's Children

Equally unique to Soho were its many 'hostess clubs,' with their champagne and showgirls veneer more often disguising the dark and sordid landscape of organised crime that flourished throughout the West End during that time period.  For those interested, one of the best and most authentic descriptions of life within these establishments and London subculture in general, can be found amongst the writings of South London's, Stewart Home.

                                             Christine Keeler - 1963 - Photo (Lewis Morley)

Perhaps one of the most infamous showgirls of that time period was Christine Keeler, the 19-year-old hostess/model whose brief ill-fated affair with a married government minister, John Profumo, and alleged simultaneous liaison with a Soviet naval attache caused a political scandal that not only resulted in the defeat of the Conservative Party, but Profumo's subsequent suicide by overdose, the details of which have since been dubbed, 'The Profumo Affair.'  Author Richard Davenport-Hines's 'An English Affair:  Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo,' is an enthralling account of the scandal and the sordid events leading up to it. 

Most people in the UK, and I'm guessing many in the US, are at least familiar with the name, Kray Twins, the two brothers who ruled London's criminal underworld through protection rackets and organised violence during the 50's and 60's.  Their stomping ground was mostly the East End with pubs like 'The Blind Beggar.'  Perhaps lesser known, but enjoying the distinction as the one man both brothers truly respected, was Billy Howard, a dominant figure on the club and gambling scenes, exercising his reign in a less publically flamboyant but equally terrifying manner. Peter Rachman was another shadowy Soho figure of the time, the Kensington landlord operating his West London empire that included large areas of Notting Hill and several nightclubs, overcharging and exploiting a good majority of the city's impoverished new West Indies population, and thereby overachieving his slumlord status. 

                                                                                   'Ronnie & Reggie' - The Kray twins

But lest you think 60's Soho's only claims to fame were crime and cravings, one of the truly historical gifts imparted by this era of bohemian intemperance came in the form of its music scene.  The soundtrack of this period is as remarkable for its diversity as it is permanently etched in our brains.  

                                                                 The Rolling Stones - Denmark Street (1964)

East of Soho Square, on the edge of London's West End, sits Denmark Street, now sadly losing its rough about the edges authenticity to gentrification; but in the early 60's, this area was a thriving music mecca known as London's Tin Pan Alley - it's name patterned after New York's music district.  Home to Melody Maker and NME, as well as Regent Sound Studios, Tin Pan Alley in the 1960's became the centre of London's music scene, its recording studios alternately housing such bands as The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and members of Led Zepplin.  

                                                                      Marc Bolan - John's Children

Mod subculture is another Soho phenomenon with roots in the Soho jazz clubs of the late 50's, but the smartly tailored suits and winklepicker boots, the Vespa's, the amphetamines and the music - ska, and rhythm and blues at clubs like The Marquee, where the Rolling Stones played their first live gig in 1962, The Flamingo and La Discotheque, both unwitting participants in the scandalous Profumo Affair, the Bag O'Nails where Hendrix played his first gig, and rumored to have been where Paul McCartney met Linda Eastman, may now be just a chapter in London's past, like the art, the crime, the scandals and the grime, but the fabric of that particular time that exemplified Soho has already left a lasting impression on modern culture...

one that continues to astonish, enthrall and inspire, and one which will undoubtedly always remain...

a hard act to follow.  

                                                                                      East London's 'Small Faces'

                                                                    West London's Pete Townshend (1964)

Soho Today:

With the support of several of its most vocal members, including actors Rupert Everett, Benedict Cumberbatch and musician Pete Townshend, "Save Soho" was created by musician Tim Arnold and writer/comedian, Stephen Fry, in response to the December 2014 forced closure of a beloved Soho landmark, Madam Jojo's. Advocating inclusion rather than exclusion, the group seeks to protect the areas' small entertainment venues, shops and bars from gentrification. The purpose of their petition, signed by more than 9000 people, was to protest the city's decision favouring 'identikit high-end boutiques' over 'once proud centres of subculture.'  The group and its supporters are still thriving, and rumours are a 'bigger and better' Jojo's may soon reopen in the same location and under the same name.

                                                                                      'Madam Jojo's'
To learn more, check out: Save Soho 

A special thank you to my collector, Pat and to Lucy Johnson & Sean Hocking (without whom I would have been musically all the poorer) for their 'boots on the ground' enthusiasm, anecdotes and introductions to such figures as Colin MacInnes, Joe Orton, Paul Gilroy, Pauline Boty, Sebastian Horsley, et al.  I am in artistic collaboration with Lucy on the cover of her next noir novel and awaiting news about an enticing new musical based on the life of our mutual connection, Stewart Home.  Other than that, London Noir is still a work in progress, with more to follow. -Gina, 12th August 2017

                                                                Prince Buster - One Step Beyond (1965)

My project soundtrack:

Alex Harvey - I Ain't Worried Baby
Alexis Korner Blues Inc. - Little Baby
Bert Jansch - Soho
Brian Auger Trinity - Kiko
Brooker T and MG's - Green Onions
Cilla Black - Anyone Who Had A Heart
Cyril Davies - Chicago Calling
David Bowie - Can't Help Thinking About Me
David Bowie - Do Anything You Say
Davy Jones (David Bowie) - You've Got a Habit of Leaving
Donnie Elbert - Little Piece of Leather
Donovan - Belated Forgiveness Plea
Donovan - Isle of Sadness
Don Rendell and Ian Carr Quintet - Shades of Blue
Dusty Springfield - I Only Want To Be With you
Eddie Floyd - Things Get Better
Eric Burden - I'm Crying
Fontella Bass - Rescue Me
Gloria Jones - Tainted Love
Graham Bond Quartet - Untitled Abbey Road Blues
Homer Banks - A Lot Of Love
Ian Whitcomb - You Really Turn Me On
Jeff Curtis and the Flames - Route 66
Jimmy James and the Vagabonds - Two For One
John's Children - Smashed Blocked
Junoir Walker - Shotgun
Kinks - Till The End Of The Day
Lulu - I'll Come Running
Marianne Faithful - Come and Stay With Me
Mark Leeman 5 - Going To Bluesville
Mickie Most - Heartbeat
Pink Floyd - Lucy Leave
Pretty Things - Rosalyn
Prince Buster - One Step Beyond
Robert Plant - Laughin' Cryin' Laughin'
Row Boat  - Me and My Baby
Skatalites - Guns of Navarone
Small Faces - All or Nothing
Spencer Davis Group - Somebody Help Me
Syd's Crowd - Road Runner
Syd's Crowd -  Things are good babe
Syd Barrett - I'm A King Bee
The Anglos  - Incense
The Animals - Bright Lights Big City
The Animals - It's My Life
The Beatles - It's Only Love
The Beat Merchants - Pretty Face
The Count Five - Psychotic Reaction
The Hollies - I'm alive
The Kinks - The World Keeps Going Round
Them - Mystic Eyes
The Maytals - Treat Me Bad
The Nashville Teens - Tobacco Road
The Paramounts - You've Got What I Want
The Rolling Stones - Empty Heart
The Rolling Stones - Tell Me
The Searchers - Needles and Pins
The Who  - Man with the money
The Yardbirds - Evil Hearted You
The Zombies - Don't Go Away
Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders - Road Runner

                                                              'She Said She'd Always Been A Dancer'

 'Now, you can think what you like about the art of jazz – quite frankly, I don’t really care what you think, because jazz is a thing so wonderful that if anybody doesn’t rave about it, all you can feel for them is pity: not that I’m making out I really understand it all – I mean, certain LPs leave me speechless.'