Alumni Interview: 1980s Music Scene

Alumni Interview: 1980s Music Scene

Sophie Harris speaks to past UCL student Rebecca Knowles about the mid-80’s music scene…

Venues around UCL have a sterling reputation for hosting unforgettable bands. Innovative music has germinated right on the university’s doorstep – its proximity to Camden, the birthplace of various avant-garde darlings such as The Sex Pistols, means that live music has always been easily accessible for university students. Rebecca Knowles attended UCL in the mid-80s, and as a self-confessed music enthusiast, regularly haunted these venues during their peak. We’ve taken the oppurtunity to ask her a few questions about the ’80’s music scene, Ricky Gervais, and of the various venues she frequented as a student. This includes ULU, which appears to have been much cooler back then…

What type of music did you listen to as a student here?

My love of the Factory bands and in particular Manchester punk-funkateers A Certain Ratio (check out Shack Up) led to me seeing them many times; I am sure a couple of these gigs were at ULU. (I would describe their lugubrious but toe-tapping style as borrowing equally heavily from Joy Division and Parliament/Funkadelic, filtered through drizzle!)

Any others?

Being a feminist (and having the DMs and dungarees!) I did appreciate bands with women in them and was a fan of the Raincoats and the Marine Girls, seeing them both at ULU.  I liked their “do it yourself” ethos, also to be seen with singer/songwriter types like Everything But The Girl (in their early days), the Marxist Robert Wyatt and also the amazing guitarist Vini Reilly of the Durrutti Column, who did wondrous things with loops and effect pedals but sadly really cannot sing.  These were bedsit or living room musicians for a lo-fi generation, in the days before everyone could be a recording artist armed only with a MacBook.

Who else did you see live when studying at UCL?

I went to see tons of bands when I was at college and the following year had a brief sojourn working for Rough Trade (the label not the shop) at the time The Smiths’ album “The Queen is Dead” came out, just doing minimum wage bits and bobs but going to see music for free most nights of the week. The record label and the distribution depot was in Kings Cross.  Amongst many, I can remember seeing Primal Scream at ULU during that time but the prize for the most ear-bleedingly loud gig I ever witnessed was Sonic Youth at Subterranea under the Westway.  That amount of noise confined within so much concrete made it a truly visceral experience!  I had a friend from home who studied at the Courtauld Institute and lived on Ladbroke Grove but that W11 scene was a completely different entity to Camden.  Portobello Rd was still pretty grungy and even dangerous down the W11 end, and the soundtrack was generally oriented towards heavy dub/Studio One style reggae, despite the presence of the indie stalwarts of the Rough Trade shop.

Any particular venues spring to mind?

The indie labels such as Rough Trade, but also Factory, Cherry Red, Postcard, 4AD and Creation used to regularly put their bands on at ULU, but Dingwalls was also a constant thread as a venue (I seem to remember on Sundays?) as was the Hawley’s Arms opposite Camden Lock. There was a flirtation with jazz in the mainstream in the early ’80s (Paul Weller went all jazz with the Style Council after the break up of The Jam) but the club thing was much more underground, with jazz dance nights at the Electric Ballroom on Camden High St and a tiny basement club at, I think, 288 Euston Road.  Another place I used to go to club nights and to see bands was the Camden Palace (now Koko) near Mornington Crescent.  Earlier on in the 80’s this was associated with the New Romantic/synth type of bands. The legendary WAG club in Soho became quite a thing at university with the “Wild Turkey Society” (named after the bourbon) putting on a weekly slot in the UCL union.  I suppose this was the early incarnation of what became the Rare Groove scene slightly later on in the 80’s, and the first revival of interest in Northern Soul.  Having recently watched the Elaine Constantine film with my husband, he said he could certainly identify a lot of my dance moves!

Awesome. I guess Camden was pretty popular in that era too?

There were Camden related scenes that passed me by including Rockabilly/Psychobilly and the whole anarchist/Crass/The Pop Group/Test Department type of stuff.  Too hard-line both politically and in terms of the sounds for me.  Mind you I think that in somebody like Amy Winehouse, a classic Camdenite, you can identify a Rockabilly/50s Americana look with a smidgin of Two Tone or mod from her little Fred Perry shirts, all merged with her undoubted Jazz and Rare Groove/Soul musical influences plus a heavy dose of hard-drinking North London attitude. Later on when I moved back to London in 1988 we used to go to a fantastic Rare Groove night at the Town and Country club in Kentish Town (now the Forum), with a female DJ called Wendy May.  I saw loads of bands there too over the years, including New Order, but also amazing people like Gil Scott Heron and a lot of the musicians who worked with James Brown.

Is there anything significantly different about the music scene in London now compared to when you were a student?

What I think was different when I came to London was that music was so much more tied up with politics than it is these days.  If you were on the left, it was Rock Against Racism, then supporting the striking miners and even Red Wedge.  We were worried about being nuked and supported the Greenham women.  Plenty of people lived in squats, even in leafy Bloomsbury and others got hard to let council flats for tiny rents from the GLC. We boycotted South African fruit because we wanted to free Nelson Mandela (I still struggle with buying South African granny Smith’s apples and never buy South African wine!) but supported African music – one of the best gigs I ever saw was the exiled Hugh Masekela at a UCL Foundation Ball.

How did this impact your clothes and style?

We liked the alternative business models of indie record labels and the recycling ethos of second-hand clothes from Camden Lock or Flip in Covent Garden.  We didn’t like things that were commercial or mainstream.  We never went to see bands in stadia – it was years before I even went to the Hammersmith Odeon although we would go to the Hammersmith Palais (in true Clash style).  Even the Body Shop, now a worldwide business, operated on a minuscule scale from a stall in Camden Lock and it felt like a proper ethical statement to buy your carrot moisturiser there!  The devil was in the detail as you lovingly curated your look/hairstyle as well as your vinyl and your choice of live entertainment.  In the days before social media and the internet this took time and energy but individualism were celebrated far more than it seems to be now and the whole point was that nothing was quite so throwaway.

Didn’t Ricky Gervais do something with music while at UCL?

Ricky Gervais who was ENTs officer at UCL in the early/mid-80s having had some minor success as half of a New Romantic duo called Seona Dancing.  Google it and check out the quiffs!  It is pretty derivative of “Let’s Dance”-era Bowie, but to be fair, that Bowie/Roxy Music thing was big back then in the early days of synths and boys wearing eyeliner.

Sophie Harris