❉ James Collingwood turns on and drops out with the freak scene.
This new four-hour, three-disc compilation from Cherry Red casts its psychedelic third eye over the fertile “freak scene” that was thriving in the (pre-gentrification) Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill and Holland Park areas of London in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. A run down, slightly dangerous area of London at the time, its low rents and mix of hippie drop-outs, acid casualties and a recently-arrived immigrant community meant the Ladbroke Grove area was a thriving counter-cultural hub and was the centre of the English underground press and hippie scene. With its squats and communes, free festivals, alternative newspapers International Times and Friends/Frendz, and a thriving drug culture the area resembled a West London Haight Ashbury but with a seedy, sinister underbelly. Think Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance (filmed in Powis Square) or Jenny Fabian and Johnny Byrne’s book Groupie to get a flavour.
The main bands of the scene all feature here; Hawkwind, Quintessence, The Pink Fairies, Trees the Third Ear Band, Family, early Motörhead and many more. Listening to the music and reading the informative 48-page booklet it’s fascinating how much cross-fertilisation occurred between these bands. Often living and rehearsing in the same spaces, members would come and go, form splinter groups or create complete new combinations. This also seemed to create a pollination of music styles reflected across these three discs, encompassing psych, afro beat, acid folk and space rock.
Keith West’s Tomorrow offer sweet psychedelia with their track Hallucinations as do former mod band The Action whose I’m A Stranger is vaguely reminiscent of The Move. There’s also two songs from Hawkwind (of course), including the early single Hurry on Sundown (when they were named Hawkwind Zoo) which sounds like a deranged version of the Byrds.
It’s also fascinating to hear Noir, described here as the “first black prog rock band” and more experimental stuff from the likes of Ron Geesin, Ginger Johnson, Rosemary, the Misunderstood with the nightmarish My Mind, and The Third Ear Band whose Very Fine Far Away sounds like an acid-drenched Radiophonic Workshop! Meanwhile, on the softer end of the sonic spectrum, Quiver, who included future Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas and (as Sutherland Brothers & Quiver) originally recorded Sailing, later a monster hit for Rod Stewart, contribute more conventional, The Band-influenced soft rock.
It sounds a cliché, but everything seems to be in the mix here and you can hear clear origins of prog rock, pub rock and punk both in the styles and in the personnel. There’s a key connection to punk with the catchy 101ers track Silent Telephone sung by Joe Strummer, and members of many of the bands featured would work with David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Yes, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury, and – in the case of Roxy Music and Tyrannosaurus Rex – have glittering careers of their own.
Speaking of these two bands, Roxy’s 1971 demo version of 2HB is riveting and sounds different to the album version whilst Tyrannosaurus Rex are in their Incredible String band phase with 1967’s Rings Of Fortune, where you hear Bolan ask for “a bit of Jefferson Airplane” at the beginning!
A surprising inclusion is two geographically-specific tracks (Notting Hill Eviction Blues and Ladbroke Grove Blues) from Guyanese-born Ram John Holder, who later found fame playing ‘Porkpie’ in Channel Four’s hit ’80s sitcom Desmond’s.
The booklet evocatively describes the colourful characters on the scene some of whom would go on to do other things. Sam Hutt was the scene’s doctor and later found fame as ’80s alternative cabaret act Hank Wangford. Carol Grimes was a later organizer of the Notting Hill Carnival whilst Martin Stone of the Action, The Pink Fairies and Mighty Baby became a book dealer and later featured in the Chris Petit Channel 4 documentary The Cardinal and the Corpse.
Barney Bubbles, future Stiff boss Dave Robinson and Michael Moorcock are also part of the cultural cross-fertilisation and the Moorcock track Kings of Speed featured on the album is surprisingly good.
The key figure in the whole scene though seems to be Mick Farren. Writer with the underground press, singer and political agitator with the Deviants and later NME author of the prophetic 1976 article The Titanic Sails At Dawn, he threads this compilation like a cultural Zelig. Fittingly this compilation ends with the disconcerting track Deviation Street which gives the set its name and points towards a possibly dystopian present and future.
❉ Various Artists – “Deviation Street: High Times In Ladbroke Grove 1967-1975” (Grapefruit CRSEGBOX123) 3CD Clamshell Box Set is released 24 February 2023 by Cherry Red Group, RRP £23.99. Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.
❉ James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre. His Twitter is @JamesCollingwo1