Friday, February 6, 2009

The Demolition Decorators

Thirty years ago today I attended the start of a trial against several members of a band of performers called the Demolition Decorators, and then wrote about the event in my diary. This seems, thus, a perfectly good excuse to revisit all my other diary entries in 1978 and 1979 concerning the DDs, as well as one five years later.

The Demolition Decorators say they were ‘an extraordinary collective of musicians and comedians’ based in London in the latter part of the 1970s. This retro-publicity can be found as part of the promotion for Don’t say baloney, a CD put together, in 2005, by Arif Usmani, one of the DD leaders, and available from various websites, including CD Baby. It also reveals that the DDs ‘chalked up 24 arrests for performing in the street, had a kamikaze suicide squad and squatted the main stage at the Bath Festival to hold a ‘people’s event’ complete with laundry service’.

The DDs called themselves ‘incidentalists’, it seems, because many performances comprised confrontations: ‘Audiences could not be neutral and many outdoor performances involved an appearance by the police. At one gig, some of the audience were so incensed, they firebombed the hall. Although very political, they were never fanatical or bitter. There was a mystical quality about them.’ They also claim to have ‘single-handedly‘ won buskers the right to play in the London Underground system.

A dozen names are listed on the credits of Don’t say baloney, but I’m certainly not one of them. My involvement with the DDs was fairly short-lived, and very non-committal. I think I found the whole thing vaguely amusing or entertaining, and failed to absorb how seriously others in the group felt about certain issues. In any case, although I did indulge in occasional and indulgent acts of performance art, they were without political focus. Moreover, I was much happier with a pen in my hand than with an audience in front of me.

Here are all the diary entries I made concerning the Demolition Decorators - they can also be found on my Pikle website. At the time, they and other alternative organisations were squatting in a Covent Garden building on Tower Street I think. The diary entries lead up to the fire, in December 1978, that started during a party and gutted the building, and to February 1979 - exactly 30 years ago - when I attended the trial of four DD members. There is also an entry from five years later, one that brings fresh enjoyment every time I read it! (BIT refers to the BIT Information Service, and IT to International Times - see Wikipedia for more information.)

2 October 1978
‘Tommy has his eyes wide open; his eyeballs roll around and up high as he tries to formulate exactly what he wants to say. George and Bill yawn. A frizzy black student expounds ideas on politics and theatre, and is supported by a hard-nosed, determined kid (from the slums?). They are here to ask for the services of the Demolition Decorators; they have patiently waited their turn on the agenda. I yawn. The Demolition Decorators’ cause for the month. We are to picket shops that sell South African goods. Yes, folks, every small tin of South African pilchards that you buy supports APARTHEID. This is what happened: these people found out their local health food shop was selling South African goods. The shop was informed that it might lose customers in future, but it didn’t listen. So they organised a small picket, and it succeeded almost immediately - all South African goods were removed from the shelves. So, now they want to organise a bigger picket, and they want the DDs to help.’

6 November 1978
‘Surely, a whole play, or a novel, could be written entitled ‘The rise and fall of the Demolition Decorators’. Another Monday meeting passed by. The group and its members are more interesting than the actual gigs they peform. Tonight, for example, we had a sharp-but-dulled-by-drugs couple from BIT who took up our time and space. They wanted to hold their tenth anniversary in our squat. The mob, our mob were patient with them. I find myself willing and practical but often defeated by the criss-cross mutterings that cut under and fly over me. I walk out into the street to collect some boxes. I am in bare feet. I return and crush them beneath my feet and feel the fire of my impatience. I tramp around avoiding eyes, the quick and supple. I catch the crossfires but have no effect on them.’

11 November 1978
‘Pete and Paul organised a gig last night, a Demolition Decorators gig. It was explosive. Beryl and the Peryls were booked to perform at 8:30, according to ‘Time Out’, but they didn’t start until 11 or finish till midnight. And the power blew, so the show’s finale only came with the help of everyone’s matches. Two bands and Ruff Theatre had also been due to play at the event, but the whole thing was a cock-up. Since this is the alternative scene, though, people are supposed to keep cool, not get mad. It was chaos - four bands and two and a half theatre groups hanging around all squabbling about the running order. Pete did keep his cool, and Paul calmly tried to organise the performers but they eventually took things into their own hands. Two of the DDs were chanting to some seventh heaven and calling it peace and prosperity.’

15 November 1978
‘The Demolition Decorators Monday meeting. Notes twang through the cold buildings from a solo electric guitar. The ex-coach seat that I sit upon is held upright by breeze blocks; others sit on bottle crates; a board covers a hole in the floor caused by the fire in the grate spreading too far. Mary wanders around, sober calm. She’s pretty tonight, hoping to do something, anything. There is a rumour that the police are going to raid us because of the wood fire, so Mary has been cleaning out the ashes. ‘Upstairs at Ronnies’ is scribbled on the wall with orange paint behind a makeshift counter. Next door Willy shows the visitors from BIT his cubbyhole, the IT office. Pages and articles and photos are still strewn across the table. The magazine was due at the printers on Friday, but one person’s perfection is cauterised by another’s ideals, and the pages get changed and cut, cut and changed. Meanwhile, revenue from advertising is awaited to pay the printing costs. Single notes still twang. A lady has been and gone with the electricity money, but a small donation from BIT has upped our finances slightly. It’s nine o’ clock, still no-one else has arrived, so the Monday meeting finally starts - and my gut rumbles.’

3 December 1978
‘Poor old IT was gutted; poor old BIT was definitely unlucky. They invited guests from everywhere, and from anywhere they came. A 10th anniversary and all that. How many bands were to come? 9 or 10, 20 or 30. It was all friends and grooves, smokers and abortion campaigners, squatters and the rest. What a shame. Poor old IT, its thousand files, its million prints, its two typewriters, its five cabinets, its three desks - who was to blame after all? Those two friends, the best of friends, too keen, too overworked, who let the paint dry, and the wallpaper dry, and then catch fire, with flames licking up the wall, up the wall, out the window, the side of the house. I hear Paul went squeak at 2am and saved a life or two, but neither an office nor a bed was saved. Malcolm stumbled in with lips that almost hold a smile. He has soft hairs on his face, a twitch in his eye, and finds a flick of the eyeball when he needs attention, and then a slight twisting of the head down and to the side before he lifts it and takes it into the direction he will speak. And he uses such gentle speech, such insistent gentleness. He talks of plans for a coffee bar. He is keen. He has ideas. But the time comes to talk of something else. Arif proposes tubal theatre. Sara jumps with glee, with her bright and ebullient cheeks, her shiny ponytails. Conversation somehow returns to the coffee bar. Duncan is an old timer - is it his eyebrows I remember? Is he osteoporotic? He certainly isn’t very tall and tends to crouch, chin tucked well into shoulders, almost tortosic (i.e. like a tortoise). He is very quiet, and can only talk in paragraphs. He’s an antique book runner, i.e. he goes to jumble sales and sells to the trade. He is not far removed from a tramp - but then are any of us I wonder. When he is asked to speak, he talks not of policies or future gigs or special nights but of his kinship with the squatters. He is too old. I interrupt to say we really don’t want to listen to such well-rehearsed trite but am beaten down, brow-beaten down by the rest who are enthroned on benches of respect for the holy papa. In any case, the conversation reverts to coffee bars.’

6 February 1979
‘Today is the trial of four defendants - Jisimi, Tony Allan, Jonathan Graham and Alan Boyd. They were arrested and charged with causing an obstruction to the highway. Court Four at the Wells St. Magistrate’s Court is a fountain of wood panelling. The judge has a built-in desk raised above the rest. The scribe and secretary sit below him, silent and powerless, seemingly content with their lot. And there, in dark seats, are the Leicester Square Four, young eccentric and fearless challengers of the law. The judge is firm and fair with a sense of humour. He makes all this clear to the court by making fun of both the police and the defendants. The young, almost adolescent, policeman and woman are tense and alert in their starched uniforms. They have prepared well and corroborated their stories. A good defence, though, would have had them both in tears. Jisimi is out to upset. He plays with his proud hair, and tells the court how he dislikes NOT being talked about. Jonathan is a goat, he prances and prattles around. His confusion is obvious. Only Tony, I feel, is on top of the situation, and is able to challenge the prosecution. The prosecution proves to be cool and generous, but the judge wins the day by, not only, keeping the court under excellent control without being condescending, by being funny without being carefree, and fair without pretentions. At 4:30, he gave the defendants a five minute lecture, advising them very strongly to get a lawyer. The case continues on 15 May.’

10 August 1984
‘I was at R’s last night, talking to a girl called Sara about my clownish past. She mentioned a house full of parties in Covent Garden, five or six years ago, so I tried the name ‘Demolition Decorators’ on her. She recognised it immediately. She said she had thought we were all magic, being only 14 at the time. I told her about the evening I mimed and clowned building of a room with rubble and rubbish, oblivious to the party going on around me, and she actually and vividly remembered me and my act. Amazing. What is more - I have to say this to someone - I remember that I impressed myself that Friday evening. It was an improvisation lasting a couple of hours and I really acted, really built a room and really possessed it, despite the party. But I felt at the time nobody had appreciated my invention, my playing, my art. And when Sara remembered me, it was as though I’d been waiting all these years for the applause I felt I deserved.’


Unknown said...

Nice to read your recollections of James St and the DDs. We rehearsed in the room below the IT office that caught fire. Alan Boyd of the Leicester Square Four was actually our singer, Norm Boyd. A time I remember fondly, Pete, Paul, Mike Wigg, Arif 'Your Average Man in the Bath' Usmani et al...

andy P.

Unknown said...

Just a quick add-on to my previous contribution. Simon Fellowes gives a nice description on the times on his page:

I remember the party nights well, especially as we were on the bill: that maze and the dark brooding atmosphere as things started to spiral and us running down the road to steal barrels of beer from outside the back door of the Rock Garden - the better to fuel the thirsty audience...

(recently found two posters from those nights - if anyone bothers to subscribe to the distinctly unrevolutionary Facebook, I've just posted them on:

Keep on rockin'!