The desolate landscape that bred punk, as shot by music critic Jon Savage, will be displayed next week.
Cultural critic, broadcaster and journalist Jon Savage’s book England’s Dreaming, is, of course, one of the greatest books on punk ever written. It’s also one of the best books about music and place generally, and, along with Goodbye To London, is as fantastic a portrait of London’s desolate 70s landscape as exists.
During 1977, the great man took it upon himself to photograph the uninhabited space around North Kensington. Now one of the capitals most well-heeled postcodes, this patch above Notting Hill was the scene of post-post-Victorian urban desolation, brutalist experiments in town-planning and, not un-co-incidentally, seat of punk’s first explosion. Now, many years after the first rolls of film were shot, London bookseller Maggs will be displaying this incredible document of a pivotal point in London history, from the 22nd March – 19th April. More information at Maggs.com, and Jon’s exhibition notes below.
These photos were taken on an old Pentax during January 1977: their purpose was to serve as an image bank for the second issue of the fanzine London’s Outrage. The location was the square of North Kensington that lies between Holland Park Road, the Shepherd’s Bush spur, Westbourne Park Road and the Harrow Road.
The bulk of the images come from the streets around Latimer Road and Lancaster Road: the district called Notting Dale. Here, as in other inner London areas like W9 (the Chippenham) and WC2 (Covent Garden), the tide of industry and humanity had temporarily receded. Slum housing stock had been demolished, but there was no reconstruction: squatting communities like Frestonia (based in Notting Dale’s Freston Road) occupied the remaining buildings. Not yet the clichés of punk iconography, large tower blocks loomed like primitive monsters above the rubble and the corrugated iron. I was guided to this area after seeing the Clash and the Sex Pistols. I was very taken with the Clash, partly because their North Kensington manor was so close to mine. Songs like “How Can I Understand The Flies” and “London’s Burning” reflected their environment with precision and passion. London was very poor in the late seventies. The Clash and the Sex Pistols – the guttersnipes and the flowers in the dustbin – spoke of the human cost. This focus on the forgotten parts of the city was part of the social realism that would soon swallow punk. There was, however, something futuristic in this desolate landscape. The landscape that had been cleared to allow the Westway’s serpentine path opened up a gap that allowed imaginative and physical space. By 1976, the ideas contained in J.G.Ballard’s “Crash” and “High Rise” were like spores in the wind.
Like the dub reggae that saturated parts of West London, early Clash songs like ‘How Can I Understand The Flies’, with their instrumental drop-out, incorporated these gaps into their very fabric. The hyper-speed velocity of the Clash’s early live shows were, in part, an indication of the energy that came from seeing London’s dereliction as an opportunity: the forgotten city as playground. These areas are unrecognisable today. There are dwellings, theme pubs, smart media offices, cars, a new leisure centre. This regeneration is better, surely, than the blasted landscape of 30 years ago. But there was a kind of freedom in London’s spaces: before it became trapped in mass media definitions and music industry marketing, Punk offered a way of envisioning the metropolis anew, of redrawing its mental and physical map, that is now impossible.