Tag Archives: Wag club

➤ 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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➤ 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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➤ 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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➤ Sullivan the wag changes hats at the touch of his paintbrush

Chris Sullivan, Swinging Eighties, Carioca, Blue Rondo a la Turk, Wag Club

Carioca then and now: left, the cover for Chris Sullivan’s band’s 1982 single Carioca and, right, his new upfront reworking for 2019

Chris Sullivan,Leah Seresin, caricature,

Leah Seresin and mum Deirdre, newly painted by Sullivan

WHO IS CHRIS SULLIVAN THIS WEEK? That all-round creative dynamo who drove much of the Swinging Eighties and ran the influential Wag club for 19 years epitomised that New Romantic era by declaring “One look lasts a day”. Suddenly he is enjoying another creative spurt. Fans will have noticed a series of bold and comic painted caricatures of his friends appearing on Facebook this month. As affectionate portraits they speak for themselves. But then last week he posted one called Carioca, inspired directly by the 12-inch single sleeve for his band Blue Rondo a la Turk. It was included in their album Chewing The Fat which dates from 1982.

Fans will also recall that Sullivan as vocalist not only put the band together as a septet of crazy soul-jazz-Latin musicians on a 0-to-10 sliding scale of eccentricity – where all of them scored at least an 11 – that won them a £500k contract with Virgin. He also painted every one of their vinyl record sleeves in his own playful version of cubism. So here above we can now compare his restrained vamp Carioca from 1982 with her current rather more in-your-face madame for 2019. So what’s this all about, Chris?

Bear in mind Sullivan was one of that gang of St Martin’s heroes who put London clubs such as the Blitz, Beat Route and the Wag on the map from 1980 on, and had studied first on the college’s fashion course, then switched to fine art. I am off to Soho to find out and will be reporting back. . .

Chris Sullivan,caricature, Soho, beats, art,

Sullivan caricatures: A pair of what the painter calls Beat Peeps from Eighties New York

STEPPING OUT TO CARIOCA ON
THE ITV SHOW RAZZMATAZZ 1982

➢ Elsewhere at Shapers of the 80s:
Yours truly writes the first magazine feature about Blue Rondo a la Turk as they created a new buzz with Latin sounds and an extreme suited dude look – from New Sounds New Styles in August 1981

➢ Razzmatazz, the weekly pop show beamed out to 6 million ITV viewers from Tyne Tees TV in Newcastle

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1983 ➤ When The Face led the cultural agenda

art schools, The Face, magazine, fashion, style, music, nightclubbing, cuttings, subcultures, analysis, history, Swinging 80s, London

London,Chris Sullivan, Dirt Box, Mud Club,Wag club,Dencil williams, Phil Gray , Ollie O’Donnell,White Trash,Philip Sallon,Nightlife, Rob Milton, The Face,Swinging 80s, clubbing

The Face No 39, July 1983 © Nick Logan/The Face Archive

◼ 1983 PROVED TUMULTUOUS for British youth culture. By December, London’s leading club deejay Jay Strongman declared “This was the year of Go For It”, after 17 new British pop groups lorded it in the US top 40 chart that autumn, while our spirited fashionistas were making waves around the world, with Princess Diana playing ambassador for the classic designers, and Boy George pushing the wilder extremes of street style. Among major features I wrote for The Face was February’s cover story The Making of Club Culture, and in the Evening Standard Posing with a purpose at the Camden Palace, a centre spread on the runaway megaclub hosted by Strange and Egan.

Nightlife was a burgeoning story as black beats took over dancefloors everywhere and Manchester’s tearaway megaclub was the Hacienda, despite the oppressive clean-up being imposed by the city’s infamous Chief Constable. Clubbers from across the nation swarmed in to create a grand coalition of all the cults – “your complete i-D line-up, minus the Worlds End spendthrifts”. In my January report for The Face one inmate bemoaned Hacienda music as  “too funk-based” though another, a flat-top lad called Johnny Maher, revealed his secret, despite having launched some new indie rock band minutes earlier. “I schlepp to funk,” he said.

The Face, journalism, RCA, government, cuts, costs, education, fine art, painting, printmaking, film-making, music schools, fashion, Henry Moore,

© Nick Logan/The Face Archive

In July The Face published a major piece of reportage, Art on the Run, prompted by numerous friends in fine-art education, and billed it as a “shock report” on the Conservative government’s debilitating squeeze on the art schools. Ironically in the same issue my regular Nightlife column identified the four hottest clubland teams as a Who’s Who in the New London Weekend: “Not since the Swinging Sixties had London nightlife reverberated to such a boom.” These clubs were the unofficial job centres that kept a generation in freelance employment and introduced the verb to vop into the language (derivation: “What are you up to these days?” – “Oh, a Variety Of Projects”). Some of that effort was fuelling the rise of computer games which in the June issue Virgin assured me was “the new pop industry”!

 Oliver Peyton , Brighton, nightclubs, The Can, The Face, reviews

Brighton hotspot 1983: Ian, Oliver Peyton and Kate hosting The Can (Photo Shapersofthe80s)

My Nightlife column in The Face’s October issue featured Brighton’s trendiest hotspot (seconds before the very word trendy passed its sell-by outside the Greater London stockade). The Can was presided over by a young Oliver Peyton with Andy Hale as the deejay breaking funk there. Years later Oliver thanked me for this exposure and said he would never have come up to London and started opening restaurants without The Face’s prompt! (One of the few people who have ever thanked me for writing about them! Cheers, Oliver.)

Jay Strongman , DJ, The Face, magazine, interview

Jay Strongman in 1983: ruling London’s three hottest turntables

By this fertile year’s end I had FIVE indicative pieces of reportage published in the December issue of The Face including a detailed rundown on the new dance music by club deejay Jay Strongman, plus news of the imminent Westwood/ McLaren break-up which I’d scented from body language backstage at their Paris runway show.

The launch of the first London Fashion Week that same October confirmed that British street style was being feted in the international spotlight, yet it begged the question how on earth had this suddenly come about? Click through to our inside page to read the feature investigation that set out to answer such questions, by asking decision-makers in the industry to identify the best of Britain’s young designer talent under the headline Eight for ’84. . .

The Face, magazine, fashion, style, music, Eight for 1984, cuttings, subcultures, analysis, history, Swinging 80s, London

From The Face No 44, Dec 1983 © Nick Logan/The Face Archive

First published in the Evening Standard, Nov 4, 1983

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