Blackest Ever Black's London

Turnpin Lane, London
Turnpin Lane, London

"This melancholy London - I sometimes imagine that the souls of the lost are compelled to walk through its streets perpetually. One feels them passing like a whiff of air.” So wrote W.B. Yeats, and in that spirit we asked the Blackest Ever Black label (Raime, Regis, Tropic of Cancer) to guide us through some of the gloomier corners of London.

 

THE LAWN ROAD FLATS, NW3

The Isokon Building. Photo by flickr.com/people/soapbeard/

I've recently moved to within spitting distance - well, if you really project your spit - of the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, often referred to simply as the Isokon building. It opened in 1934, and represents a strange confluence of the yuppie and the avant-garde: a strikingly modernist block of apartments aimed at the inter-war era's emerging glut of free-spending young professionals.

Resembling, from the outside at least, a brutalist cruise ship, it contained in its original incarnation 22 single flats, four double flats, staff quarters, kitchens and garage. Like so many buildings of the time, it was a social as well as architectural experiment, as affirmed by the lofty rhetoric of its designer, Wells Coates. Talking up his vision of minimalist, transient home-making, he said: "We cannot burden ourselves with permanent tangible possessions as well as our real new possessions of freedom, travel, new experience - in short, what we call 'life'. For Coates, the people in Lawn Road Flats weren't tenants, they were "actors in a drama."

This proto-Ballardian building even had its own club, the Isobar, where Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson – among others - held court. Agatha Christie lived in one the flats, and the building became a hub of intellectual life in the years leading up to WWII; its governing spirit of inter-disciplinary conversation and collaboration was rooted in the Isokon company itself, which counted a bacteriologist and economist in its erudite board of directors. Inspired by Le Corbusier and Bauhaus, Isokon has a fair claim to being called the English equivalent of the latter: Bauhaus director Walter Gröpius left Germany to become Controller of Design for the company, and his former colleagues László Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer soon joined him in Hampstead, creating some iconic furniture pieces under the Isokon banner.

Had world events favoured him, Wells Coates might now be remembered as one of Britain's great creative visionaries. A founder member of MARS (Modern Architectural Research Group), and of the Unit One movement, which also numbered Moore and Nicholson and claimed to be interested in "the expression of a truly contemporary spirit", Coates hoped in time to develop prefabricated houses "that could be clipped onto the back of a lorry, taken to the countryside and brought back to town for Monday." Unfortunately, the Isokon company met its end in 1939, the outbreak of war cutting off its supply of plywood and, one presumes, young professionals. The Isokon building stands as a memorial for a European-influenced British modernism that never quite achieved full fruition; its situation within blandly leafy suburbia only adds to the pathos of that arrested development.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isokon_building

AIR STUDIOS AT LYNDHURST HALL, NW3

Lyndhurst Hall

Air Studios was opened by George Martin in central London in 1969, and many years later - 1991, I think - it moved up to Lyndhurst Hall in Hampstead. An even more recent development is the establishment of an in-house mastering studio, co-founded by one Matt Colton, an incredibly skilled, experienced and sensitive engineer who has cut every Blackest record to date, bar the first. "If he's good enough for George Michael, then he's good enough for me," Regis said when first recommending Matt's services to me. 

I'll never forget the first time I visited Lyndhurst Hall, on a rain-lashed, wind-swept and spirit-crushingly gloomy evening in October 2010 - from a distance it resembled a forbidding haunted house or lunatic asylum in some sub-Hammer shlock-fest. Rather fitting given the tense, troublesome gestation of Raime's 'If Anywhere was here he would know where were', the single we were gingerly taking there to get mastered.

Situated on a quiet residential street in Hampstead, the gothic grandeur of Lyndhurst Hall holds firm even on a clement day. Designed in 1880 by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect behind the Natural History Museum, it was originally a church and a missionary school (apparently the last church service given there was by Mick Jagger's father). For us, making and releasing music is synonymous with being solitary and bedroom-bound, hunched over a laptop with only one's own neuroses for company. As such our limited contact with this real life studio - and the sight of virtuoso cellists on fag-breaks, jobbing session guitarists nursing coffees in the canteen - is always reassuring. It's a reminder that we're not alone.

Getting a record cut is all about the music “becoming real”. Matt takes our digital files - be they by Raime, Regis, Tropic of Cancer, or whoever - and makes them three-dimensional. He, more than the artist, determines how a track's constituent sounds are going to occupy the space in a room, how they're going to attack and envelop - or recoil from - the listener. It's an almost visual discipline, the aim being to create the perfect stereo image. Then, on a more alchemical level, he creates something physical out of something hypothetical: you go into his studio with a WAV file and you come out holding a 12" lacquer.

http://www.airstudios.com

SECOND LAYER, N6

Second Layer Records

Their numbers have inevitably dwindled in the last twenty years, but London still has its fair share of estimable record stores. Honest Jon's in Ladbroke Grove rarely disappoints, but for me the most unique, unusual and important retailer of new stock is Second Layer. Situated on Archway Road, not five minutes from oppressively picturesque Highgate Village, this remarkable place is focussed on noise and experimental - better to say adventurous - music of all shapes and stripes. So it is that you'll find DJ Screw tapes and Chicago juke 12"s sharing shelf space with power electronics CD-Rs, new age synth LPs, free jazz fanzines and freak folk cassettes. Operated by the faintly terrifying but incredibly helpful, knowledgeable and generous Pete Johnstone (recently he was good enough to burn and post me a disc of Savage Republic outtakes and rarities after the band came up in conversation), a trip to Second Layer is always edifying and always tough on the wallet. It reminds me of how independent record stores felt before the internet came of age: curators and aggregators of occult knowledge and strange rituals, full of unfamiliar names and signs that the uninitiated simply can't decode. It's the kind of place you take leave of with a list of artists to explore scrawled on the back of your hand, hoping to return just a little bit better informed the next time.

I lived in London for a couple of years before a friend introduced me to Second Layer; given its slightly offbeat location, I don't get there anywhere near as often as I'd like. Whenever I do, I try to work in a sour stroll through nearby Highgate Cemetery - final resting place of, among others, George Eliot, Karl Marx, Malcolm McClaren, William Friese-Greene, Patrick Caulfield and Jeremy Beadle, and of course the onetime stomping ground of the Highgate Vampire.

http://www.secondlayer.co.uk

THE RISING SUN, EC1

The Rising Sun

The Rising Sun is located just off Smithfield Market, London’s historical home of religion, public execution and animal butchery, or as Ben Jonson put it – somewhat dramatically - in Bartholomew Fair, 'the Seate of the Beaste'.

There are some agreeable occult currents running through the streets in and around it. Austin Osman Spare was born in Smithfield, and it's in a bookstore on nearby Farringdon Road that William Wynn Westcott claimed to find the encrypted Rosicrucian document detailing the alchemical and mystical rituals which formed the basis of his Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn. Ten minutes away in nearby Clerkenwell Green you’ll find St James Church, in whose yard I had the one experience in my life which might justly be described as a supernatural visitation (this isn’t the place to go into it I’m afraid).

Situated on Cloth Fair, right next to the Priory Church of Saint Bartholomew and a stone’s throw from the Barbican, The Rising Sun is one of the few Smithfield pubs open at weekends, which is when I suggest you visit it – you’ll find it deathly peaceful, the perfect place to chew over the mistakes you’ve made in the previous working week and plot the amends you’ll make in the next. Beyond its monastic quiet, I’m not entirely sure why this place exerts such a hold over me; perhaps it has to do with the play of sunlight through its grubby windows, or maybe it’s because the beer is cheap. What I do know is that I was nursing a pint on its premises when a year-long fug suddenly hardened into the resolve that led to the formation of Blackest Ever Black. It’s too early to say whether or not I should be grateful for this.

http://fancyapint.com/Pub/london/rising-sun/176

SOHO ORIGINAL BOOKSTORE, WC2

Soho Original Bookstore

Since moving to north London, I now make my daily trip into Soho on the number 24 bus. I get off at Denmark St, and walk the few yards down to the Charing Cross Road, where the first thing I see is the opposing Soho Original Bookstore. Essentially a discount book shop, it has a fairly ham-fisted selection of art, photography, local history and erotica titles, but its music section is just incredible: a lovingly curated, frequently shifting and replenished stock of biography and photo-book titles, all more cheaply priced than the norm, and often obscure or at least hard to find. In just the past few weeks, I've picked up discounted copies of BowieStyle, Live At The Masque and The Teds. There's also a licensed sex shop in the basement, which is handy.

The more conventional if completely essential Foyles is just next door, but can't hold a candle to the SOB in terms of throwing up complete surprises that improve the bookshelf and derange the mind without breaking the bank. Half the images that adorn the Blackest website and records are sourced from books I picked up here.

The second-hand bookshops of Charing Cross Road are, like most good things in life, heading for extinction. The most sorely missed as far as I'm concerned is Murder One, partly because I never got the chance to spend much time browsing in it - being a bookstore dedicated to crime, it could well have played a major role in the life of Blackest Ever Black had it held onto its premises a little bit longer. I should add that it still operates as an online mailorder business, but of course that's not quite the same. Henry Pordes and Quinto still reward regular visits - my last visit to the former saw me pick up copies of Jack Sergeant's Deathtripping: Underground Trash Cinema, a budget Sarah Moon monograph and two “classic” volumes of vintage smut from The Olympia Press: Edward Dumoulin's The Cult Of Pain and Lord Drialys's The Beautiful Flagellants of Chicago, Boston and New York. Both scarcely readable and not in the least bit arousing, like all the best erotica.

However, my favourite bookshop in the area never existed in the first place: the one owned by Robinson, the elusive anti-hero at the heart of Chris Petit's 1993 novel of the same name. Soho has been beautifully invoked and evoked in fiction over the years - Derek Raymond, Anthony Frewin, Gerald Kersh and Nicholas Royle all deserve a mention here - but never so hauntingly and stirringly as in Petit's Robinson. Heavily indebted to Ballard, it's narrated by a directionless film editor who falls under the spell of the mercurial, morally ambiguous and increasingly drug-crazed Robinson. Set largely in the pubs of Soho, it's full of squalid pornography, scrappy violence and high-faluting existential crisis, but for all the drama and incident, fundamentally it's just about Soho life as Francis Bacon summarised it: "Going from bar to bar and drinking and that sort of thing." I read Robinson when I first moved to London and for me it's done more than any other book or artwork to invest the city with mystery and significance.

http://www.sohobooks.co.uk/

THE ATLANTIS BOOKSHOP, WC1

The Atlantis Bookshop

The Atlantis Bookshop is London’s longest-running occult bookseller, having first opened its doors in 1922.

Modern-day occultists are of course fairly laughable, but I’m charmed by, and nostalgic for, the credulousness of previous generations – profoundly intelligent people like Yeats and Arthur Machen (both of whom joined the Golden Dawn) seeking eternal and absolute knowledge in exotic formulations scarcely more ridiculous than the ingrown Christian teachings they were revolting against. 

Inevitably Atlantis’s stock, though well-chosen, is still full of piffle; suspect scholarship and demonstrably stupid new age philosophy abounds. Nonetheless I’ve picked up some beauties here in the past: including something called The Melancholy Android, about the persistence of the golem myth in the machine age, and a lovely second-hand copy of The Golden Bough which I’ve dipped into, oh, once since buying it some three years ago.

In Bloomsbury, and in nearby Fitzrovia, you can retrace the steps and eye up the dwelling-places of countless occult icons and institutions, if you’re so inclined: Aleister Crowley, Nicholas Hawksmoor, The Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society, Walter Sickert, Algernon Blackwood, The Ghost Club. I’ve lived in London a long time and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

http://www.theatlantisbookshop.com

LORELEI, W1

Lorelei

Lorelei is a haven, and a throwback. In spite of - or because of - its 60s style formica tables, its outhouse toilet, its crudely painted mural of a blonde mermaid baring her comically large, pendulous breasts, this BYO pizza restaurant is one of the most comfortable and unplundered establishments in Soho. It’s equally suited to a party, a conspiratorial one-to-one, or a plaintive solitary meal. It's run by a couple - a sullen old European man and his inscrutable Filipino wife – and they work together brusquely and almost wordlessly. Sitting down to dine there, you feel like you're intruding in their living room, which I suppose you are.

A visit to Lorelei is always hugely satisfying, then, whatever you think of the workaday pizza on offer, but inevitably it prompts the melancholic question: what else is really left of the old Soho, the supposedly vibrant and violent bohemia that made it famous? The bars, the restaurants, the pubs, the clubs, the cafes, the brothels, the flophouses - nothing extant in Soho today lives up to its colourful, exhaustively documented and paeaned past. Is there anywhere left in W1 where pimps, spivs, gangsters, painters, poets, tarts, rentboys, dealers and dipsomaniacs can revel together in (dis)harmony?

The French House and Bar Italia are still there, though I can't say I spend much time in either. Mainly it’s just ghosts now: squint and you might see a young Quentin Crisp and his fellow cash-strapped pretty boys making an espresso last four hours in some Greek Street hovel before heading to the public loo on Broadwick Street for some slick-legging; cock your ear and you might hear wine-glasses grazing the coffin-shaped tables of the old beatnik haunt Le Macabre, or cat 'o nine tails and holly-brushes lashing skin in the skeleton room of Theresa Berkeley's eighteenth century S&M parlour, The White House. Then of course there's The Colony Club, The Marquee, Ronan O'Rohilly's, The Scene, The 2i's, Les Cousins (where Davy Graham and Bert Jansch cut their teeth) - all long, long gone. You might walk past the old site of seminal goth spot The Batcave and even The Ghetto, which used to host electroclash knees-up Nag Nag Nag, and shed a rueful tear for the altogether more sincere and naive youth cults of yesteryear.

I suppose you can still glimpse some of the old Soho - and it is just a glimpse - in Trisha's, a "secret" subterranean drinking den named after the madam of the former brothel on the premises. It's open to all who can find it - via an unmarked door at the north end of Greek Street - but for all its homespun, low-ceilinged charm it doesn't feel to me like the centre of anything interesting. Through no real fault of its own, it’s more Mark Ronson than Jeffrey Bernard.  

POLAND STREET, W1

Poland Street

Poland Street, by contrast, feels like the centre of something, though I'm not entirely sure what. Literally speaking, it connects Oxford Street to Broadwick Street, with Great Marlboro St and D'Arblay St cutting across. I spend much of my idle time smoking on a shaded stoop with a view up D'Arblay St, with all the human traffic of Poland St crossing past me left to right, right to left. I contend that there’s no better people-watching post in the whole of London. Drunks, junkies, celebrities, monks, mystics, builders, businesspeople, strugglers and stragglers, the wealthy and the weary, the cruelly stricken and the rudely healthy: they all pass through here.

These criss-crossed streets offer a few worthwhile distractions: record stores (Phonica, Blackmarket and, until fairly recently, Uptown), Sir Tom Baker the tailor, a few serviceable pubs, but for me its chief interest is as a thoroughfare. It's a rope ladder hanging from the stultifying hubbub of Oxford Street directly down into Soho, which still retains some relative promise – however frequently unfulfilled - of mystery, possibility, occluded pleasures and dangers.

Romanticism certainly flourished here. William Blake was born at 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) on November 28, 1757, and it was here that he claimed he saw the face of God pressed against a window; he subsequently lived at Poland St, while his patron Thomas Butt could be found at Great Marlborough Street. De Quincey procured his first batch of opium from a chemist at the junction with Oxford Street after falling into a deep and dark depression (a long story involving a 15-year-old prostitute named Ann). Percy Shelley descended upon Poland St after he got chucked out of Oxford; he was simply attracted to the name, which he said reminded him of Thaddeus of Warsaw and freedom. "We must stay in Poland St forever," he told his roommate Thomas Hogg, shortly before leaving for Edinburgh. 

But in terms of impact on the arts, all of the above pales and wrinkles when considered next to the fact that Philip Morris opened his first cigarette factory on Great Marlborough Street (the location is what gave the Marlboro brand its name).

 


 

Blackest Ever Black

Blackest Ever Black

Blackest Ever Black was founded by Kiran Sande in London, 2010, with a mind to recovering some of the lost - or at least dormant - violence and romance in electronic music. Strongly influenced by the marginal heroes of 70s and 80s goth, industrial, post-punk and synth wave, but with deep roots in techno, jungle and British soundsystem culture, its goal from the off has been to combine the pensive with the visceral, the futuristic with the atavistic. To date the label has released 12" EPs from Raime, Tropic of Cancer and Regis.

blackesteverblack.blogspot.com

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