Monday, February 18, 2013

ALICE IN WONDERLAND: Love, Peace and Bananas!

ALICE IN WONDERLAND: Love, Peace and Bananas!

In summer 1984, David Catlin-Birch and I were looking for places where our new band could play. Treatment had split up a year or so previously and the psychedelic madness had temporarily abated. Dave and I had heard about this new psychedelic nightclub in Soho called Alice In Wonderland so we went down to check it out. I vaguely knew the DJ down there from an earlier attempt at a psychedelic nightclub called The Clinic where Treatment had played alongside the likes of Mood Six and Miles Over Matter. The DJ called himself The Doctor (real name Clive) and he also had a band called Dr And The Medics who were a bit of a joke, albeit a good one. Anyway, this new club looked very retro - they were just playing 60s garage music along with The Doors etc - and there weren't many people there. It seemed like an attempt at a retro fashion thing, rather than a genuinely psychedelic experience. But we left our tape and collected a contact phone number and left. 

Fast-forward about three months and Treatment got together again to play a one-off gig at The Moonlight Club in West Hampstead. It was packed to the rafters with all the people who had been missing us while we were gone. Amongst the people I invited were Clive/Doctor and Christian who ran the club Alice In Wonderland. They turned up with their partners Wendi and Alex and seemed to be very impressed at how many people we had pulled and immediately offered Treatment a gig at Alice In Wonderland. I wanted to do it but the Treatment re-union was supposed to have been a one-time thing and so I had to convince the others it was worthwhile. Thus I went down the following week to have a look at the club again. What a transformation! It was packed with young people dressed up to the nines. The music was louder and more exciting and it was obvious that something was really happening here. It was a mixture of retro styles combining to make something new. 60s garage music, 60s psychedelia, 70s Glamrock, bubblegum pop mixed in with Punk and the dreaded Goth (which I always refused to take seriously). It was DRESSING UP time! It was fun. It felt like a party. What's more, and very gratifying, I was being treated like visiting royalty as a member and representative of a bona-fide psychedelic band with a bona-fide following. The Alice In Wonderland crowd was friendly and cool - a hard combination to pull off but they managed it. The look was part-hippie, part-Goth: lots of make up – for boys as well as girls, big hair (lots of back-combing), tight trousers, short skirts, brocade jackets, crushed purple velvet, pointy boots, black jade beads, silver trinkets. It was a definite style, and in the 80s - the decade that taste forgot - it was truly glamorous. Properly smitten, I reported back to the rest of the band who were rather more skeptical. (Actually, looking back, I think they were jealous that I had found this thing and not them). Dave was off touring with The Bootleg Beatles so he was out of the picture. I cajoled and persuaded and we did the gig and it was really good. Doctor/Clive gave us the hard sell to what had become a very identifiable Alice In Wonderland crowd; the gig was recorded on a portable 4-track machine and released as a live album on a small edition cassette that was sold at the club. Christian did a beautiful green art deco cover for it (him being an Art School kind of guy) that effectively cemented us as an "Alice band". I was pleased by this. I could see that this was a real happening thing and that we had lucked out by stumbling into the dead centre of it. I had no problems with Treatment being attached to the mast of Alice's. I liked Christian and Alex, I liked Clive and Wendi, they were smart and funny. 

Thus my partner Catherine and I became Alice regulars. Every Monday night around 10pm we would turn up and hang out. There were many things that made Alice’s special. Hanging strips of white toilet paper from the ceiling was a masterstroke – so simple but so memorable. There was Lemmy leaning on the bar, spinning yarns to anyone who wanted to listen. Or maybe it was Charlie Harper. Or Captain Sensible. Christian had an obsession for “The Magic Roundabout” and this would be regularly screened on the back wall of the club, along with old episodes of “The Monkees” and “Batman”. Every week there would be a different live band that would do a set around midnight. The bands were unlike any of the acts doing the rounds in the clubs at the time. There was The Herbs, led by Parsley, a tall ungainly fellow with a graveyard stare. He was obsessed with 60s TV, and children’s 60s TV in particular, and the band would play songs like “The Trumpton Rap” and versions of Gerry Anderson theme tunes alongside Parsley’s original songs. The feeling of childhood lost seemed to permeate all Parsley’s music, he was a real talent but it was hard to imagine him fitting in anywhere but at Alice’s – where he fit in perfectly.

There was Ring Of Roses, who everyone thought would be huge but who managed to piss away one the biggest UK record company advances of the 80s without releasing anything. They were built around the twin talents of singer James Vane and saxophonist Dan Carpenter, or Dan Spanner as he called himself – in honour of the eternal spanner in the works. James Vane had it all down: tall, thin, good-looking, perfect clothes, stage presence to burn and a voice to sing with. Unfortunately, he had a Jim Morrison complex and no one had managed to get through to him that Morrison had made it rich and famous BEFORE he started acting like a drunken arsehole. His finest moment came when Christian’s younger brother Julian, a classically trained musician, wrote out a series of arrangements of classic pop tunes for string quartet and lead vocal. Leading off with “Somehow I Know It’s My Fault” - Florence’s epic song of self-reproach from “Dougal And The Blue Cat” (that cinematic masterpiece from The Magic Roundabout team) - James found his voice and presence and talent all in one place and continued on through majestic versions of Arthur Brown’s “Fire”, David Bowie’s “When I Live My Dream” and, best of all, The Doors “Light My Fire”. That was about as good as it got. Meanwhile, Dan Spanner played the psychedelic ragamuffin. Apparently permanently spaced on LSD, he would play here, there and everywhere on his magical saxophone (so expertly he caused Christian to give up the instrument!) He was part of a duo with synthesizer player Paul Chousmer in a musical installation named after Brian Eno’s Another Green World which would later osmose into a band called Webcore that played the festival circuit for a couple of years. He also had a band called Spannerman. He spent many years touring with Archaos, the anarchic circus troupe. Dan always looked and acted like an extra from a Fellini movie. Eventually he went on to front his own jazz big band. I saw him for the first time in over 20 years last year. He's mellowed some. He's survived. He’s not tripping anymore.

There was The Perfect Disaster who sounded more like the Velvet Underground than any other band I’ve ever heard. I remember them once ending their set at Alice’s with a version of the Velvets’ “Run Run Run” that just ran and ran and ran. When I complimented their guitarist afterwards he just smiled and said he could have played it all night long and I believed him too.

There was The Surfin’ Lungs who I don’t remember anything about.

There was the execrable Jesus And Mary Chain - noisy obnoxious scagheads who went on to become huge for reasons I have never been able to understand. They only played once at Alice’s, after ten minutes or so Christian pulled the plug on them for being so useless.

Jayne County played a couple of times. I saw her terrify a gang of Goth girls with deadly hauteur alone. She seemed a little out of place but Christian loved her.

Nico tried to get a gig too, but she was too messed up. Instead, she took to harassing Christian to get drugs for her.

Later on, there was Zodiac Mindwarp and The Love Reaction who started out as a joke and managed to convince a gullible music press that they were the start of a new movement (grebo) when they were just a bunch of dumb ass rock’n’rollers whose greatest talents were dressing up as cartoon bikers and getting fucked (in all senses of the word). Truth was, in that benighted time of Flock Of Seagulls and Haircut 100 anything that showed any rock’n’roll attitude was going to stick out a mile. (It should be noted that during their brief moment of fame they did make one of the best music videos of the era – “Prime Mover”.)

But primarily, there was Doctor And The Medics, the Alice In Wonderland house band, who went from being a good natured joke to being a No.1 chart topping pop group in less than two years. Whenever they appeared at the club there would be a minor riot as everyone jostled for position to watch THEIR band do the honours. The Medics, as they were universally known, would do their songs like “The Goats Are Trying To Kill Me”, “The Smallness Of The Mustard Pot”, “The Druids Are Here”, “I Don’t Wanna Be Alone With You Tonight”, “Ride The Beetle” (which involved a dance routine that demanded that the audience throw themselves on the floor and wriggle upside down on their hands) and my favourite: “Love, Peace and Bananas”. In addition to Clive cajoling the audience on vocals, there were The Anadin Brothers on backing vocals and dance routines – who were actually two girls, Wendi (Clive’s partner) and Sue (later replaced by Collette). Wendi was responsible for the wigs and costumes, which grew more and more outrageous (and unwearable). The music was basic meat and potatoes fast rock but The Medics were fun and they worked very hard, touring and promoting themselves as loveable freaks. They were wonderfully irreverent. For example, they put out a hand pressed EP called “Live At Alice In Wonderland”, which was NOT live at Alice In Wonderland (or anywhere else) and for which the audience noise was lifted off a U2 record. By the time they finally made it to No.1 on the singles charts (with their cover of “Spirit In The Sky”) they had created a real groundswell of goodwill and a loyal fan base that saw them through the inevitable anti-climax and the jeers of the mainstream music media. It was great to see The Medics get to No.1 but really their finest moment had come with their previous single, the original song “The Miracle Of The Age”, produced by XTC’s Andy Partridge. Everything that was good about The Medics came together in one place with this record, including the brilliant cover design Christian produced for it that harked back to the lavish sleeve productions of the early 70s. It wasn’t cheap. Nothing was done on the cheap (except the toilet rolls). The bands all got £100 for a performance, regardless of how many people they had or hadn’t pulled, and that was good money in those days.   

Doctor And The Medics had an alter ego named Bad Acid And The Spooks that I managed to blag my way into on one memorable night. This spectacle would usually include Roman Jugg, the guitarist from The Damned, and Christian and his brother Julian on saxophones. Bad Acid And The Spooks would play on special occasions (like when the band that had been booked failed to turn up) or, like on the night I played with them, on New Year’s Eve. I remember December 31st 1984 turning into January 1st 1985 as I played the opening chords of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and thinking that this just had to be a good omen for the year (it was). We also played The Rolling Stones “Get Off Of My Cloud”, Motorhead’s “Motorhead”, The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For My Man” and then they called a song I didn’t know: Hawkwind’s “Quark, Strangeness And Charm”. “I don’t know it!” I cried in panic. “It goes D, C and G,” said Roman, patiently. And so it did (and does).  

Just as memorable as the bands were the characters. There were Emma and Louise, two under age girls who had to be sneaked into the club every week and to whom Christian would give pocket money (he really did). They would be dressed to the nines in what was perceived to be 60s paraphernalia, with flowers painted on their faces. I remember once complimenting Louise on her Flower Child look. “I’m more of a fucking flower child than you’ll ever fucking be, sunshine”, she replied, and this comment, more than anything else, sums up the club. There was Nidge - tall, red haired, Shakespeare spouting speed freak who became my dear friend and who was full of love and life until he unforgivably died of a heroin overdose. There was Izzy, the son of a Tory peer, fastidious and easily offended, trying not to let his roots show too much, who had fallen out with Nidge over Liz. There was James Flea, known as Fleabag, there was Jonee Elwood with his long straight ginger hair and round glasses who played the drums with virtually all the Alice bands at one time or another. There was the formidable Anna, who introduced lust into the Garden of Eden, and her friends glamorous Richard and traitorous Ollie. There was androgynous Glen with his perfect explosion of blond hair. There was Ron, who had the misfortune to be actually gay in a gaggle of straights that liked to camp themselves stupid. And there was Alex, the literary academic, Christian’s partner and the undisputed Queen of the Scene, meticulously arranging the pecking order of coolness even as she read Victorian Gothic novels through her false eyelashes under the admission desk (I would sign in on the guest list as Renfield, or Richard III, and bring Galaxy chocolate bars to stay in her good graces). She ended up an English professor at London University. There was Ian Astbury, who was officially a rock star, even if he was a bit dim. There was Joe, Christian’s elder brother, perpetually lurking by the entrance, always in the same leather jacket, cackling like Sid James at the shenanigans of the punters.

I could go on, but perhaps at this point I should refer interested parties to Christian’s excellent book “A Pretty Smart Way To Catch a Lobster” which details the history of what happened and when far more accurately than I can.

In fact, Christian turned out to be a major entrepreneur. Despite being almost permanently drunk and tripping – and in addition to running the club, DJ-ing every week, co-managing the Medics and designing all the flyers and promo material - Christian realized that he had found himself at the helm of a genuine grassroots movement which was rapidly outgrowing the confines of a Soho nightclub. He and Alex began staging "Magical Mystery Trips" where they would hire buses to take loads of overdressed, tripping people to mystery locations (like Chislehurst caves, or a disused warehouse in Battersea, or a crumbling disused holiday camp in Clacton-On-Sea). There, bands would play (Treatment usually included), DJ's would spin records, light shows would illuminate and everybody would stagger about until the next day when, somehow, we would try to get home. Christian would organize ‘all-night psychedelic film festivals’, selling out The Scala cinema two nights in a row, where Treatment would play a live set, or The Medics, or Another Green World in between showings of beaten-up prints of “Performance”, or “Blue Sunshine”. There would be Alice In Wonderland picnics in Kew Gardens. Then there was a shop, a 70s style boutique called Planet Alice, in Portobello Road, which codified the Alice look into a brand. Finally, Christian over-reached himself by trying to start a sister Planet Alice shop in Los Angeles with Ringo Starr’s daughter Lee. Christian made the classic mistake of imagining that the children of rich rock stars were familiar with any kind of work ethic.

But that was much later. Back in the heyday of the club, I was having great fun. Christian was my buddy (and he still is), he knew and understood rock'n'roll even better than I, he was as cool as I am fundamentally uncool and we enjoyed hanging out. Treatment were regular performers at the club and, while our audience baiting tactics were sometimes a little misplaced for the occasion, we usually went down well, at least as long as Clive/The Doctor was there to gee up the audience on our behalf. All through 1985 and most of '86 I would dress up and go clubbing on a Monday night. I was always treated with friendship and I never once had to pay to get in. But, oh! The intrigues, the pecking orders, the jostling for position, the whose boyfriend fucked whose girlfriend (I was safely ensconced with Catherine so I could watch and chuckle at all of this from a safe distance)...

It was a time for dressing up and staying out late: one’s mid-20s. The heyday was probably the end of ‘84/ beginning of ’85. After that it just started to get too damn crowded. The fashion media had caught on and it became fashionable. Thus the club was deluged with rich and famous wasters. Hey-ho… It was a time for drinking too much and ingesting too much and being irresponsible. Central to it all, as always with me, was the music. I always longed to DJ at Alice’s and, on one quietish night, Christian did deign to allot me an early slot. I guess I must have blown it as I never got asked again but, oh what fun it was to play things like Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” next to Curved Air’s “Back Street Luv”, Syd’s Floyd back to back with T.Rex. Christian had found and made explicit a connection between 60s psychedelia and 70s Glamrock (his first and most abiding love), between 60s garage rock and 70s punk and this, when saddled with appropriate noises from the 80s (Siouxsie and The Banshees “Christine”, The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary”) proved to be the defining flavour of the club, what made it different to everything else around at the time. But it sparked changes too. I vividly remember one night Christian put on Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days”, and the floor filled up with dancers. I wandered over to the DJ booth. “You realize what you’re doing, don’t you?” I asked. “Yep!” said Christian, with a grin. Zeppelin had been total outcasts to hip society since the days of Punk. It was strictly not done to admit to liking them. In one move, the DJ booth at Alice In Wonderland had erased all that and suddenly you heard them everywhere, bands copied them, they became cool again virtually overnight.

In time, the ugly 80s found out what it was that we were doing and put a stop to it but for a couple of years there, we partied and acted like there was no Thatcher, no bad haircuts or bad pop. There were copycat clubs that grew up, inevitably, when the original got so crowded. The Sugar Lump was more a gossip and bitching cellar, a place for those cast out of the Alice’s inner circle to bemoan their fate. The Crypt was for the pot heads (ironically run by two ex-policemen), Club Dog more for the performers (which grew into the hugely successful Megadog), The Pigeon Toed Orange Peel failed to live up to its wonderful name. None of the copycats had the flavour of the original. At its best, Alice In Wonderland was a real family celebration and a celebration that I am very glad to have been part of. So to all the old Alicians left standing, with our beautiful back-combed hair thinning and falling out and our satin and tat threads that no longer fit our bulging bodies, I raise a toast and say: “Love, Peace and Bananas! Because I’m more of a fucking flower child than you’ll ever fucking be, sunshine!”


Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, these are some of the records I definitely remember hearing being played at Alice In Wonderland. The list is very 60s-centric because those were my favourites, and many of them I was hearing for the first time. There were three or four regular DJ’s, Doctor/Clive and Christian among them. The other three just played the records but when Clive got on the decks he would do a whole routine through a primitive echo box, complete with cartoon American accent - like the Wolfman Jack of Plumstead…

Highway 61 – Bob Dylan
Surfing On Heroin – The Hollywood Killers
She’s A Rainbow – The Rolling Stones
Sympathy For The Devil – The Rolling Stones
L A Woman – The Doors
Break On Through – The Doors
20th Century Boy – T.Rex
Venus – Shocking Blue
Roadrunner – Jonathan Richman
Back Street Luv – Curved Air
I Must Be Mad – The Craig
Are You Gonna Be There? (At The Love In) – The Chocolate Watch Band
Let’s Take A Trip – Kim Fowley
Lucifer Sam – Pink Floyd
Sugar Sugar – The Archies
Paranoid – Black Sabbath
I Can Only Give You Everything – MC5
Devil Gate Drive – Suzi Quatro
All The Way From Memphis – Mott The Hoople
Loose – The Stooges
I Wanna Be Your Dog – The Stooges
Raw Power – The Stooges
Rebel Rebel – David Bowie
Motorhead – Motorhead
Silver Machine – Hawkwind
Quark, Strangeness And Charm – Hawkwind
Virginia Plain – Roxy Music
Waiting For The Man – The Velvet Underground
Foggy Notion – The Velvet Underground
Reputation – Shy Limbs
This Wheels On Fire – Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and The Trinity
Security – Thane Russell + Three
Floatin’ – The Vamp
You’re Too Much – The Eyes
Grounded – The Syn
Reflections Of Charles Brown – Rupert’s People
I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night – The Electric Prunes
You’re Gonna Miss Me – 13th Floor Elevators
99th Floor - ??
Fire – Crazy World Of Arthur Brown
Christine – Siouxsie and The Banshees
She Sells Sanctuary – The Cult
Dancing Days – Led Zeppelin
Blockbuster – The Sweet
Hush – Deep Purple
Voodoo Chile – Jimi Hendrix
All Along The Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
Day Tripper – The Beatles
Doncha Know – Treatment
Diddy Wah Diddy – Captain Beefheart

Any more for any more?

No comments:

Post a Comment