one king's road summer

In the blazing summer of 1976, the hippie died, New Wave was born, and one London street became the centre of everything. Paul du Noyer remembers a revolution

Paul Du Noyer
Saturday 17 August 1996 23:02

Mooching along the King's Road in the summer of 1976, past the shop called Sex at number 430, my eye was caught by a tatty, pencil-written announcement. Someone calling himself Sid Vicious was looking for people to form a band with him. "No flares," read the stern message. "No cripples."

Sid's wish soon came true, when his friends the Sex Pistols brought him in to replace their sacked bass player Glen Matlock. Glen himself had once been a Saturday boy at Sex, where Malcolm McLaren would spot the band's members from the juvenile riff-raff that the emporium, which he ran with his partner Vivienne Westwood, attracted. Their lives, like those of so many others, were transformed in the feverish hot-house that the King's Road became in that extraordinary summer, two decades ago.

Styles collided violently that season. The King's Road traded on its fading reputation as swinging London's trendiest thoroughfare, and the more glamorous merchants of the hippie era still reigned. But suddenly there were upstarts at large. Glen Matlock watched the dying days of the old regime: ''The fashion trend was for Oxford bags. The mainstream look was Chelsea Girl and Lord John. The King's Road was peppered with shops who'd do watered down versions of the Rock Star look, loon pants and star tops, tulip lapels, stack heels, horrendous stuff. Then there was the sub-Roxy Music look, Alkasura and Antony Price and the 'real' rock star stuff from Granny Takes A Trip, which was kind of cool."

There was revolution in the air, and the weather helped, too: 1976 had a longer, hotter summer than anyone could remember. If you sought respite from the sun, there was no shadier place in the whole King's Road than the Roebuck pub. Truant schoolgirls mingled with drug dealers in the place where McLaren had introduced his new discovery, Johnny Rotten, to the other three Sex Pistols. Andrew, a local teenager at the time, looks back: "You'd get Phil Lynott, Johnny Lydon [aka Rotten] and Sid Vicious upstairs in the Roebuck's pool room. They'd sit in the corner not drawing attention to themselves, looking wary. Lydon was very shy and Sid was really f---ed up. They would be studiously ignored, because it was uncool to recognise them. It was incredibly druggy upstairs. You could even buy smack over the counter, along with a pint of Guinness."

Another Chelsea resident recalls walking past the Roebuck just as the police arrived: "Out of the windows there came this enormous cascade of drugs, hurriedly thrown into the street. Andrew remembers it well: ''The raids were hysterical, 40 or 50 policemen from Chelsea nick descending on the pub and lining people up. The place was run by this huge bloke, called Fat Jack, with one eye and a bald head. The funny thing is that, years later, the Roebuck became a Dome Cafe. Inside, you'd see all the same people who used to do drugs in the pub, but now they weren't on drugs any more."

The King's Road begins in some splendour - Belgravia, Sloane Square, Peter Jones, the Duke of York's barracks - but it finishes with a council estate in a district called World's End, where the Sex shop was. For the punks who colonised it, World's End had a deliciously apocalyptic ring. But the real casualties were the hippy shops. Gone was Gandalf's Garden where "you could sit on cushions and drink tea for whatever price you wanted". The Biba-like Alkasura sold threads to Marc Bolan and Rod Stewart, but they were cavaliers in a new age of roundheads. The shop belongs now to Osborne & Little, interior designers.

Better adapted to the future were Johnson's and the upmarket designer Antony Price, who had a retro look so sharp it seemed ultra- modern. And there were plenty of bearded tourists to support the cowboy boot and cheesecloth shops. Out of Jean Junction you'd hear Capital Radio playing the laid back sounds of The Eagles, setting the punks' teeth on edge.

In the arcades of the antique trade, sleepy stallholders whiled away the dawdling hours with cigarettes, cups of tea and listless gossip across the corridors. But they'd eye stray punks with deep unease, and count the silver teaspoons afterwards. Acme Attractions was a pioneering new wave stall, founded by John Krivine and Steph Rainer in the basement of the Antiquarius Antiques Market. Tensions were evident, as Rainer recalls: ''The basement went mad. Before we knew it we had complaints from the people upstairs about the thugs coming in. The entrance to us was by a pipe shop. On Saturday mornings the queue came out on the street and the guy from the pipe shop wouldn't have any of it, but there was nothing he could do. It become a shrine, almost. People got married there ...

"Malcolm McLaren was into dwarves and people with one leg. We were much more geezers, fitting fashion for the kids who wanted to parade up and down the King's Road."

In 1977 Acme moved upstairs, becoming the Boy shop. Down the road its rivals, Sex, could boast Chrissie Hynde as an assistant, and Adam Ant as a patron, but Boy had its own scene too, launching the career of Billy Idol. Meanwhile in Beaufort Market, there was a stall of plastic kitsch run by one Poly Styrene, who formed X-Ray Spex.

Within a year the punk fashion had gone overground, and became as conformist as anything it had tried to overthrow. "I don't want to go to Chelsea," spat Elvis Costello. And Paul Weller, then with struggling Surrey mods, The Jam, was sceptical of what he saw. "I liked the attitude of punk,'' he says, ''but I also thought a lot of it was fake. We all saved up about pounds 20 to go to McLaren's shop and we went in to buy some mohair jumpers. We found we couldn't afford anything. We thought, this is bull ... it was quite elitist, cliquey and art school. They were mostly middle class kids with rich parents, and they'd run away to join the circus. For Jon Savage, author of England's Dreaming, it was a time of "sun, sex, sulphate and swastikas". The political climate was stale, and extremism had a brief season of chic appeal. Sex sold cut-up shirts with pictures of Karl Marx and Third Reich insignia. Down the King's Road were posters promoting David Bowie's spooky movie The Man Who Fell To Earth, there was a fad for felt-tipping tiny swastikas on Bowie's cheekbone. Siouxsie, of the Banshees, danced at Pistols' shows wearing a Nazi armband. ''The attitude," says one veteran ''was to be totally un-liberal, a reaction against the liberalism of the Sixties and the hippies. Hence the Nazi armbands and taking speed.''

Meanwhile on the sun-baked pavements the brilliant parade went on as usual. Queues of exquisite mutants flocked in fishnets and PVC to see The Rocky Horror Show. On a trip to London Val O'Farrell, from Leeds, was startled: ''Before the play began these weird people with blue make-up, what we'd now know as punks, just appeared from nowhere. They were climbing up the scaffolding and slithering into the seats next to us. It turned out they were part of the show.''

Nowadays, old-timers rue the gentrification of the King's Road. The social mix of snob-and-yob was part of its chemistry, and a big reason why punk rock happened there. Next door to Sex was the Chelsea Conservative Club, which is still there, although Sex vanished years ago. ''It's a nouveau riche kids' street now," thinks Andrew. It's completely dead. Basically it revolved around drugs, that was its motor. Drugs seemed exciting then, because the bad side hadn't begun to kick in." As he notes, glumly, much of the King's Road has succumbed to faux-French bistro chains and the dull retail empires who dominate every high street in the land.

Malcolm McLaren wrote recently: "For a few years in the Seventies, the King's Road became the centre of the universe ... 430 King's Road was us placing the black spot in the palm of the culture we wanted to see trampled into the ground." Alas it was usually the punks themselves who got trampled. Teddy boy marauders, old but still ''tasty" enough for a ruck, drifted up to Chelsea for a spot of punk-bashing.

The King's Road summer of punk changed everything for me. I didn't apply for a job with Sid Vicious, but the New Musical Express advertised for ''hip young gunslingers" and took me on, after Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill. First, though, I had to go home and get married in Bootle. I gazed longingly at the Karl Marx shirts in Sex, but courage failed, sanity prevailed, and I walked back to Take Six for a cheap grey suit.

Recently the Sex Pistols re-formed, with Glen Matlock, of course, because Sid Vicious is dead. I suppose the King's Road is where Sid's ghost would spend most of its time. Especially, one imagines, when it's summer in the city and sunshine gleams on silver studs and warm black leather.

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