Category Archives: books

➤ A double act is born – Sulls & Elms, take a bow!

Chris Sullivan, Robert Elms, talk, Standard Hotel, London, history, nightlife, memories

Ribald and passionate: Sullivan and Elms capping each other’s stories with gusto

TWO LIFE-LONG PALS, both born raconteurs and clubland wags, sat on a pair of wonky stools this week in public and for an hour had an invited crowd roaring as helplessly as themselves as each capped the other’s stories. The subject was the ever-changing face of London and their faces were those of writer/artist Chris Sullivan (nominally a Welshman who revealed roots that led to a grandfather who’d been a bouncer at the capital’s Windmill Theatre), and BBC London broadcaster Robert Elms (a paid-up Cockney in all but the Bow Bells bit, whose mum was a clippie on the buses at age 15). Both are renowned for having shaped the style revolution of the Swinging Eighties. Now they had taken over a snug corner of the library lounge at the Standard Hotel in King’s Cross, a venue which prompted some ribald tales of their mis-spent teens.

Topics ranged from the East End to West End. There was much mention of food from the era before London became cuisine capital of the world: Elms remembered the early pizza parlours that served your American Hot with a whole baked potato and coleslaw all on one plate. “Which Italian ever had that?” he howled. From the audience, David Rosen recalled Blooms in Whitechapel as an essential kosher eaterie when its walls were blessed with photography by Bauhaus star Moholy-Nagy.

Chris Sullivan, Robert Elms, talk, Standard Hotel, London, history, nightlife, memories

A wrapt audience for Sullivan and Elms: familiar faces from their colourful circle of London friends

For half a century Soho had been the red-light district and as a result, Elms said, by the mid-70s civilised people had given up on the centre of town. Only a public outcry in 1973 protected the 19th-century neo-classical buildings of Covent Garden as the market prepared to relocate to Nine Elms. He added: “London was going to be knocked down after the market moved out and this generation of Londoners [the audience] saved it by our creativity.” It was for instance the place where the seminal New Romantics Blitz club-night opened in 1979, a year before the desolate central market reopened as a shopping centre.

The lack of affordable nightclubs for teenagers in 1979 also drove Bob and Chris to initiate their own pioneering ad hoc parties at the Mayhem print warehouse featuring snake-charmers and blue movies projected onto the ceiling as their “crash course for ravers”. These parties were free, Bob confessed, because they never dreamed they could charge people admission. Chris became so animated at this point he was falling off his stool with laughter.

Of Soho’s Wag club, the pivotal black music nightspot he ran for almost two decades, Sullivan reminded us: “London was a dodgy place. Coming into Soho was taking your life in your hands. The only reason we were able to take over the Wag was because it was a no-go area. About three months after it started, a prostitute got her throat cut outside the Pizza Express by her pimp. People forget it was dangerous. Back then you could be attacked in Soho for wearing the wrong clothes.” Consequently, Elms added: “That Blitz/Wag generation were pretty tough.”

Today the sentimental pair remain firm fans of “the greatest city on earth” but then, they both revel in making things happen wherever they go.

London, history, Durex, shop, Wardour Street,

Condoms by the gross: legendary Soho shop-front

❏ Throwaway revelation: The landmark 18-foot wide DUREX sign that graced a Wardour Street shopfront almost opposite the Wag, and had serviced the needs of timid schoolboys for generations, today belongs to Valentine Morby!

Chris Sullivan, Robert Elms, talk, Standard Hotel, London, history, nightlife, memories, books, publishing, rebels, Canongate, Unbound,

Their latest books 2019: Sullivan’s from Unbound, Elms’s from Canongate

➢ Chris Sullivan hopes this jaw-jaw event will continue with other old friends occupying the guest stool. Keep an eye on his social media

➢ Previously at Shapersofthe80s: Robert Elms the storyteller on why some stories are “too good to check”

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2019 ➤ The nerve of Neil Matthews! Offering bunny ears to those oh-so cool Eighties pop stars

Photography, book launch, exhibition, pop music, Neil Mackenzie Matthews, Jealous Gallery, Take That,

Take That in 1993: cheering to camera for a Smash Hits shoot by Neil Matthews

ANOTHER FAB BOOK OF PHOTOS capturing mainly the 80s pop scene came out this week and it’s a bit of curio. We who were there know how British music and fashion utterly transformed youth culture during the decade from 1980 onwards and among the 110+ new acts who dominated the sales charts in the first four years probably the majority achieved international fame and fortune. But Neil Mackenzie Matthews, in his beautifully printed 192-page book, titled Snap: Music Photography, also reminds us of the names of many acts we have forgotten and who had limited success.

It has become a truism that soon after the Beat Route’s Friday club-night opened in Soho and Spandau Ballet entered the singles chart, both in November 1980, virtually every young guy you met in the club was “putting a band together”, usually managed by another young guy of his own age. For every 110 new-wave acts across the UK who won the standard one-album-and-two-singles deal from a grateful record industry which had lost its way, there were probably 1,000 more who didn’t – yet they too were a vital part of the great collaborative force that was helping to reshape entertainment and media in the Eighties.

At Thursday’s book launch in Shoreditch’s Jealous gallery, Neil described how his own good luck was in attending the same Islington school as the Spandau Ballet posse, Dame Alice Owen’s, and at the very moment he missed getting a first job at the BBC, Spandau invited him to St Tropez on their first foreign booking so he took a camera along and taught himself how to shoot.

Photography, Nick Heyward ,book launch, exhibition, pop music, Neil Mackenzie Matthews, Jealous Gallery,

Neil Matthews and Nick Heyward photo-bombed by Neal Whitmore of Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Just in shot at left, Heyward pictured in his woolly leggings period with Haircut One Hundred. (Photo by Shapersofthe80s)

Click any pic below to enlarge all in a slideshow

As luck had it, within months Tim Lott and Barry Cain’s chirpy new music magazine Flexipop decided its irreverent role was to prick the egos of their mates, the newly jumped-up pop stars, and Neil as its photographer was expected to rewrite the rules of the game. This appealed to his own wild ways and because he was invariably working against the clock, he injected a note of spontaneity into popstar shoots by inventing a box of larky props with which to confront his celebrity models and expect them to respond on camera. Result: pix of Toyah Willcox all smiles in floppy bunny ears, and Ian McCulloch contemptuously prodding the matching bunch of carrots after he declined to wear the bunny ears. There’s also Edwin Collins canoodling a rubber chicken and Jaz Coleman delivering a blunt message in a book to his rivals.

Impromptu set-ups catch Suggs at a fruit and veg stall on the street, Tim Burgess atop a packing case in Tesco’s, and Malcolm McLaren doing business on the phone. The book features several candid snaps following the rise of Spandau Ballet and the New Romantics including an exclusive of Steve Norman sporting speedos at home in the lounge between his fishtanks and Harry Dog. Neil offers very few live performance pix but the two best capture Little Richard bantering atop his piano and a fleeting glimpse of Nick Heyward closing his eyes in an Albert Hall performance.

Some of Neil’s best straight portraits take a traditional approach and yet clearly capture a shared moment of trust between subject and lensman: we see sexy candid shots of Madonna relaxed, of Betty Boo sultry in leopardskin and of Beyoncé Knowles as a very come-hither 17-year-old before she dropped the surname. For me the two cracking shots in this book show Take That snarling something worse than “Cheese!” at the camera (top), and Jay Aston of Bucks Fizz seated on the loo in her hotel (below). If that doesn’t testify to trust what does?

PS: Sorry, Neil, I have to reveal that I scooped you with the “first” kiss between Jon Moss and Boy George wearing Westwood a full year before Culture Club and your own shot where they both wear Sue Clowes.

Photography, book launch, exhibition, pop music, Neil Mackenzie Matthews, Jealous Gallery, Jay Aston

Jay Aston 1984: caught at her hotel by Neil Matthews

➢ Neil MacKenzie Matthews’ career went on to embrace fashion, international celebrity and advertising, but his book Snap: Music Photography (Red Planet, £30 in hardback) focusses essentially on the music scene

➢ Neil Mackenzie Matthews’ prints are visible online and for sale at the Jealous Gallery, 37 Curtain Road, EC2A 3PT

➢ View Neil’s wider portfolio at his own website

HEYWARD THE LEGEND BACK ON THE ROAD

Nick Heyward, live, Gibson Sunburst

Nick with his Gibson Sunburst 330, 1967

❏ One incidental pleasure at the gallery was to catch up with Nick Heyward for the first time since I snapped him with his sidekick Les as Wag club regulars a lifetime ago. Today he features in a daffy trio of Neil’s pix of Haircut One Hundred from 1982 and he’s as friendly and talkative as his ever-present smile suggests. He has been on the road this year with his UK Acoustic Tour, a series of intimate dates where audiences were treated to hits from his breezy and escapist seventh solo album, Woodland Echoes, plus others from his entire career. The album is a distinctly musical treat which Pop Matters reviewed as “a timeless, infectious gem”, adding: “He looks like that cool college professor all the students want to hang out with – and he seems to be at peace with his status as a 50-something indie pop legend”. More news at Nick’s own website .

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➤ Sullivan’s manifesto for the Rebel Rebel life

Club-host and artist Chris Sullivan: as he renders himself sporting Dennis-the-Menace T-shirt in NYC 1981 and as he is today in Portobello Road

NOT MANY PEOPLE KNOW that Chris Sullivan – mischievous Welsh frontman of Soho’s Wag Club which he founded in 1982 – switched from the fashion course at St Martin’s to pursue painting instead. Despite his instinctive sense of style, he says today: “I was great at the design and fashion drawings, but not very good at actually making things, stuff like sewing and pattern cutting. So I moved over to fine art. At the time I kept on being in the newspapers, and the college didn’t care what I did, just happy another St Martin’s student was getting press. It was good for their PR.”

It also positioned him as a pivotal influence on the whole British youthquake that transformed London nightlife, music and fashion in the Eighties, while his own mantra of “One look lasts a day” has propelled him through such guises as flaneur, deejay, journalist, nightclub host, pop star, northern soul dancer, style commentator, entrepreneur and fashion designer. A terrific route-map to the Sullivan cosmos occupies 12 pages of the April issue of GQ magazine, blessed with a photo-portrait by David Bailey.

Click any pic below to enlarge all in a slideshow

This month Sullivan publishes his third book, an anthology of “people and things that broke the mould” titled Rebel Rebel: How Mavericks Made the Modern World. What he dubs a “paperback manifesto” is an excuse to celebrate his own outsider approach to life: never having a proper job and always staying one step ahead of the pack. The book was launched in 2015 as a crowd-funded project through Unbound Books and for reasons unknown it seemed to take four years either to raise the cash or finish the writing, at which point Sullivan says there was still no money set aside for photographs of the 34 subjects he was profiling (some new essays, some vintage). “So I said I’ll paint or draw them, all these people like Rod Steiger, Fela Kuti, Louise Brooks, Orson Welles, Anita Pallenberg, David Bowie. . .”

In the mix are criminals (Brilliant Chang), musicians (Lemmy), actors (Robert Mitchum), artists (Egon Schiele, Jackson Pollock), directors (Martin Scorsese), photographers (Robert Capa), as well as iconic topics such as film noir, Berlin in the Twenties, Levis, the pork pie hat, the Zoot Suit and the white T-Shirt.

“Because I was so worried as the deadline loomed,” Sullivan says, “I did 35 illustrations for the book, really quickly b-b-boom! Then a friend Barnsley saw one of a zoot suit I wasn’t using for a chapter on outsider clothing, and he snapped it up. Before I knew it someone else was asking could they have one, then I did another one as a commission and stuck that up online and since then I’ve had more than 10 commissions to do these paintings.” Some of the results are here for all to see, inspired by time spent in New York back in the day.

As for the book’s other 400-odd pages, they read like Sullivan in his element. Vigorous prose and serious research substantiate his invitation to “an exceptional party” of cultural giants. Take Capa for instance, who “captured a world and it was Capa’s world”, according to John Steinbeck. Sullivan empathises: “He seems like a chap with whom you’d want to hang out, chew that fat and then go on a humongous bender – a man who was charismatic, brave, egalitarian and funny.” It’s intense stuff that exonerates malcontents and free-thinkers. Ultimately, wag as a tag is not the last word.

David Bowie, books, Unbound, Chris Sullivan, illustration

David Bowie: Sullivan’s illustration of the Thin White Duke for his Rebel book

➢ Read the odd taster from Sullivan’s book Rebel Rebel at Unbound

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➤ Elms the storyteller on why some stories are ‘too good to check’

Dalston, books, London, talks, Robert Elms, London Made Us, 5x15, slums, Canongate,

Robert Elms with fire in his belly: Talking last night in a 5×15 event at EartH (Evolutionary Arts Hackney). (Photo: Shapersofthe80s)

SENTIMENTAL AS EVER, onetime Blitz Kid now broadcaster Robert Elms – the professional cockney not born within the sound of Bow Bells – marshalled his gorblimey vowels and glottal stops at a 5×15-minute live talk last night in Hackney, in trendy east London, to argue for a return to the down-at-heel west London he was born into 59 years ago. He invoked postwar bomb-sites as instructive playgrounds, the punk explosion as his most life-enhancing event, the squats in disused houses with freezing outside WCs that characterised his upbringing in Notting Hill and still more squats for fostering the creativity of his teenaged peers who dreamed up the New Romantics movement. . . He poured scorn on the developers who have transformed sectors of London into swish modernity and urged the need for new slums to teach flaky young millennials the facts of life.

Bob, once an amiable young man, has matured into an Angry Old Man yet the fire in his belly aimed to persuade us that deep-down he actually loves this contradictory city. An interview he gave to last month’s GQ signals the flavour of his new book, London Made Us: A Memoir of a Shape-Shifting City (from Canongate Books):

“What I certainly wasn’t hoping to do was out-Peter-Ackroyd Peter Ackroyd,” laughed Elms [referring to our capital city’s most distinguished historian]. What he did do – “because I’m not a proper historian and this is not a textbook” – was focus on the stories that seem too slight, or too fanciful, for the grander almanacs. “Some of them might not bear taking apart. My theory with all the stories in the book is: they’re too good to check” . . . Other sections are filled with incidents that are unique to Elms after decades living around London, from Burnt Oak to Holborn to Camden. There’s the incident when money rains from the sky near the soon-to-be British Library, or the story of the monkey jazz band in Notting Dale, “a troupe of 13 simian swingers to entertain the happy flappers” who escaped their captivity, some of them ending up as far away as Rugby…/ Continued at GQ online

Last night’s event was all about plugging new books. In Bob’s case it provided an excellent incentive to attend his next performance, much longer than 15 minutes on April 2.

➢ An Evening with Robert Elms at Waterstone’s in
Tottenham Court Road

➢ Nostalgic protest against the sanitisation of London – review by Nicholas Lezard in the Evening Standard

➢ Elms isn’t afraid of nostalgia in this part memoir, part cultural history. Is he pining for his youth? asks Fiona Sturges in the Guardian review

➢ Elms has written about one of London’s most successful,
and most forgotten, mass murderers
: Interview with David Levesley from the March issue of GQ

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➤ My own Rondo moment immortalised by Sullivan, the grand Wag of Soho

portrait painting,

Immortalised on canvas: Chris Sullivan’s portrait of the face behind Shapersofthe80s

ONE OF THE BRAVEST things I’ve ever done – apart from disagree with a newspaper editor – was to pose for my portrait, as mine is the kind of family who can’t boast even one ancestor committed to oil on canvas. So when Eighties uber-Wag Chris Sullivan offered to paint me in the style of one of his Latin band Blue Rondo’s wittily cubistic 12-inch record sleeves, I jumped at the chance to look like any of those cool guys on Me And Mr Sanchez in 1981.

So here I am [up top] and the result is strangely hypnotic, if not actually cubistic – “More vorticist than anything else,” says Chris, though we agreed perhaps closer to the audacious David Bomberg’s later work and that suits me down to ground, a rebel 20th-century style that veers towards abstract and also hints at dynamism. Chris posted the portrait at Facebook and amazing numbers of people said he’d caught the eyes very well, and going by this photo that he took when he handed the canvas over to me last week, I am bound to agree!

Blue Rondo à la Turk, Chris Sullivan, artwork, sleeve,

The Sullivan style on a Blue Rondo sleeve from 1981, itself a convincing echo of Picasso’s Tres Musicos of 1921

How it came about was through his new book Rebel Rebel which comes out in May (after a gestation lasting about four years!). He invited friends to crowd-fund the project through Unbound Books and when I saw that the prize offered for the topmost pledge was a Rondo-esque portrait, I snapped it up (never forget Sullivan switched from fashion onto the fine-art course while at St Martin’s and turned out a lot of visual material right through the 1990s, quite apart from designing the dreamworld interior of his Wag Club in Soho).

We discussed all this and more when he asked me onto his Soho Radio show last month for nearly an hour and a half. Somewhere between Bowie’s TVC15 and Was Not Was’s Wheel Me Out, I dared to ask whether the approaching deadline for his book being published and finishing this portrait had provided a trigger for his recent return to painting and drawing. We’ve seen a sudden outpouring of witty caricatures of his friends in a mix of paint and pencil and ink flying around on the web. He almost agreed, saying: “It certainly got my chops together, put it that way. . . I’m not trying to be Rothko or Caravaggio, but I’ve always been a big fan of George Grosz and even Picasso did some caricatures.”

My A3-sized portrait is much more fully worked up in acrylic and crayon on canvas than Sullivan’s fun drawings on paper and even though he started chortling sarcastically when I said I’d wanted him to paint me not out of vanity but for love of Rondo, the fact is I’m chuffed to bits to own an image that makes a substantial statement about his talent. It certainly raises an eyebrow when friends come visiting.

JAWING on ART AT SOHO RADIO (@55 MINS)

Chris Sullivan, Sullivan’s Suits, Soho Radio, interview, DJ,

Chris Sullivan: spinning the discs on his show Sullivan’s Suits at Soho Radio while interviewing me on January 30. (Photo by Shapersofthe80s)


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➢ Previously at Shapers of the 80s: Sullivan the wag changes hats at the touch of his paintbrush

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