My project Carnaby Echoes launches on 5 September, with a series of short films, an exhibition, mobile phone app and plaques marking out the buildings included in the project.
When I was asked to think about a project drawing on the musical history of Carnaby (Carnaby Street itself plus the 12 streets that surround it), I thought about what it meant for a place to be so strongly associated with a time, in the way Carnaby Street has been with the 1960s. Often when I have mentioned the project to people, they have answered by talking about 'that time' as if it only existed then.
I wanted to discover more about the place, over a broader time period, so as I identified addresses that connected to music, I also tried to make connections with people who remembered something about these venues and to identify individual memories. Many of my projects focus on alternative versions of the same memory, rather than the collective or official, and allow more prominence to stories that may have been seen as less important.
Carnaby is famous for its fashion boutiques, and in the 1960s many of those shops became well known for the pop stars that frequented them. But as I began my research I found that as well as these well-documented retail outlets there had been some other incredible focal points for different types of music. More than one person, when describing the place they remembered, said it was 'the place', or 'the hub'. Leslie Thompson, whose oral history interview I licensed for the project from the British Library, described the Nest Club on Kingly Street as 'The Spot' for jazz in the 1930s.
I began recording people talking about some of the places from their own first-hand experience, and this led me to explore the buildings as they are now, using film to show the spaces they were speaking about. I invited people to come back to the places they remembered, some of them returning for the first time in years.
I've met some fascinating people during the project, including Boy George, who was charming and generous with his time, and John Gunnell, who ran the Bag O' Nails in the 1960s with his brother Rik and who is one of the best and funniest storytellers I have ever met. I heard about the Batcave, a Goth night at Foubert's Club in the 1980s, about Sue Clowes' clothes that helped launch the look of Culture Club, and Deal Real record shop, that had Friday night open mic nights a decade ago. These are just a few of the stories I discovered.
One of the highlights of the project was the Roaring Twenties nightclub, located at 50 Carnaby Street in the 1960s. In fact this building - now a Ben Sherman shop - has an amazing history, having been the Florence Mills Social Parlour in the 1930s, run by Marcus Garvey's ex-wife Amy Ashwood Garvey as a meeting place for black intellectuals and political activists. After a six month visit from Club Eleven in 1950, it became the Sunset Club, playing calypso, and then in 1961 the Roaring Twenties, later called Columbo's.
Photo of Count Suckle, c. 1970, courtesy Wilbert Campbell
The first DJ at the Roaring Twenties was Count Suckle, who had stowed away on a boat from Jamaica in 1954 along with Duke Vin (who died in 2012). These two men became pioneers of sound systems in the UK, and have been credited with bringing ska reggae to London. The Roaring Twenties initially played R&B, but as ska became more popular in Jamaica, it was one of the first places where you would hear it in London. Later in the 1960s the legendary sound system operator Lloyd Coxsone played there.
With the help of a friend who had known Duke Vin, I tracked down some of the people who were involved with the club. First I recorded a fantastic interview with the musician Tony Washington, a regular there, who told how important it was for people who had just arrived in London from the Caribbean.
Then I called Lloyd Coxsone and said I would love to film him playing in the same building again, and he immediately understood why we should do this, so I asked Ben Sherman for permission to use the space for an evening. Lloyd brought his team with him, as well as some people who used to go to the club regularly, and set up a small sound system in the basement where he used to play 40 years earlier. They had planned a playlist, and Lloyd told the story of the club over the top of the music. At one point he said "as I'm playing this music I can see the building becoming extra bright, like the building is smiling." It was moments like these that showed me Lloyd and I had a similar understanding of how intertwined places and architecture are with memory and history.
After hearing about the significance of the Roaring Twenties from Lloyd and Tony, I knew I must speak to Count Suckle, the original DJ, and managed to get his phone number through my friend. He is quite elderly now and couldn't hear me all that well, but after some persuasion he allowed us to record an interview. He told us how in the early '60s, The Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Who came to the club, and how a 17-year-old Mick Jagger would borrow the records that Suckle ordered by post from a shop in Tennessee, rehearse them and bring them back. He was also the first person who told me about the drugs and prostitution in the club; however I didn't hear any stories of violence taking place there.
There are many people who went to the club who remember it well, and my sense is that it helped to make Carnaby Street part of 'Swinging London', yet despite this it wasn't included in the mainstream media reports of the time, as the press preferred to focus on the predominantly white pop stars. But to many people, as Count Suckle said, "it was the club, it was the only club, in the Sixties."
I always found it incredible that you could walk past buildings with such amazing histories and not see or hear a trace of them; I hope that this project will allow some of those stories and voices to be audible for people exploring Carnaby.
Carnaby Echoes was commissioned by Shaftesbury PLC and curated by Futurecity.
The website, app and films launch in September, along with specially designed plaques marking Lucy's chosen buildings. A limited edition booklet will be available from the exhibition including an introduction by Miranda Sawyer.
Carnaby Echoes Exhibition:
20 Foubert's Place,
5 Sept - 20 Oct 2013
Mon - Sat, 10am - 7pm
Sun, 12 - 6pm
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