Guest Writer: John Williams ‘Baffling Smoke Signals’

John Williams has written books about murderers and cabaret singers, His long-forgotten first novel Faithless was set in the world of eighties Camden. He’s just finished writing a crime novel and continues to organise the Laugharne Weekend Festival – the sort of event at which former members of the Fall talk about their books. You’ve probably bumped into him somewhere along the way.

Baffling Smoke Signals

I moved to London in late September 1978. I was seventeen years old and I was sharing a flat in Kensington with my school friend James and his girlfriend Rosemary. They both worked for Barclays Bank and my first task was to find a job of my own. This took a month or so. I nearly got work in a bookshop off Kensington Church Street, right opposite Jimmy Page’s occult bookstore. Before I could start, though, I was offered an interview by Camden Libraries.

I duly got the job and began work in the Swiss Cottage branch. Swiss Cottage Library was a modernist building, still new and controversial in the neighbourhood. It was ridiculously overstaffed, there were something like sixty people working there. Doubtless that has been rationalised to five or six by now. Much of the time there was literally nothing to do. You could turn up brutally hung over – me and James liked to go to the pub, then come home and drink vodka and play loud music – and just crash out in the basement book rebinding zone (also home to the banned books cupboard – all Aleister Crowley and Victorian spanking). To make matters even easier this was also the winter of discontent. NUPE were on strike and it was NUPE workers who were in charge of turning the heating on in the library. None of us white collar NALGO members could be entrusted with such a delicate task, so each morning we would come in, the shop steward would check the temperature, and decide it was too cold for us to work, and we could sod off home.

As a result my lifestyle changed very little from the previous few months spent on the dole. It basically consisted of walking up to Kensington High Street, which had one of the country’s first branches of MacDonald’s, buying a burger, then getting the bus up to Rough Trade records in Ladbroke Grove, where I’d hang around listening to records and talking to the women behind the counter: Judith who was from Australia or Ana who was Portuguese and in a band called the Raincoats.


Of an evening we’d either go to the pub or if there was anything remotely interesting going on, a gig. I saw the Mekons, Throbbing Gristle, Pere Ubu, the Pop Group supported by Nico, the Members, The Fall, The Pop Group supported by Linton Kwesi Johnson, The Rezillos, The Undertones, lots of other stuff, I’m sure.


After three months or so Rosemary had had enough of me and James drinking vodka and going to gigs she had no interest in. Her sister had a house in Holloway with a free room and soon enough the pair of them moved out. I wasn’t too bothered, another school friend, Charles, was ready to move up to London and the pair of us found a flat in Clapham Junction. There was only one bedroom, so we took alternate weeks in the bedroom and on the sofa. Then our friend the actor Julian Firth turned up, he’d just got a part in a film called Scum, so he slept on the floor. Inspired by the mood of the times, and the fact we barely knew anyone in this sprawling city, Charles and me decided to start writing a fanzine. For a while, though, this was a more of an idea than something we actually did. .

Then we went to see a band called This Heat play at an Architecture College off Russell Square. There was a support act called The Office, a kind of performance piece in which the musicians played typewriters and so forth. Milling around waiting for the main band I spotted a tall feller with black punky hair, standing with a guy with blonde dreadlocks and a guy with a skinhead cut. I was pretty sure I recognised them from a photo in the NME, so I went up and inquired of the skinhead as to whether he was a member of Scritti Politti, creators of the fashionable single of the moment, Skank Bloc Bologna. Turned out he was indeed Nial, the bass player in said combo, and I told him I was doing a fanzine and we’d be interested in interviewing them. Fine, said the Nial feller, and gave us the address of their squat in Camden Town.

In the event it was Charles rather than me who went round there, to number one Carol Street for the first time. It must have been a Saturday I must have gone to see my parents. Whatever, when I got back to the flat Charles was full of stories about how Scritti Politti was not just a band but a kind of collective. Apart from the three musicians there was a guy who did visuals and there were some people called Bob and Barney who contributed ideas and there was a manager called Matt, and a journalist called Ian Penman, and they all lived in these different squats around Camden.

I would meet them all the following weekend, The Gang Of Four, the absolute new leather thing, were playing at the Nashville in West Kensington and the Scritti Politti crew would be in attendance. Apparently the two bands knew each other from art school in Leeds.


As it turned out the gig was absolutely mobbed. By the time we got there, there was absolutely no way anyone else was getting in, so we went to the pub instead. It was clear from the off that a collective Scritti Politti might be, but it was a collective with an absolute monarch in the shape of the singer Green. He was a tall Welsh bloke talking expansively about Lee Perry and Pere Ubu, who I knew something about, and Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, who I’d never heard of.

The following weekend I made it down to the Scritti Politti HQ. One Carol Street was at the end of a terrace of Victorian cottages just around the corner from Camden Town tube. The whole streets was squatted: a lot of hard core hippies and alternative circus performers. Looking back it was precisely the point at which the hippy alternative elided into the punk alternative, Back then it was all a revelation There was a front room that smelt of fags and was covered in records and big sound system style speakers. This was knocked though into a kitchen in which there was always a large pot of veggie stew on the go, which I had to muster up a series of excuses to avoid eating. Upstairs there were bedrooms and a practice room where Tom, the dreadlocked drummer, had a kit, largely made up of dustbin lids, and Green would patiently teach Nial the non-musician how to play the dub heavy bass lines that anchored their sound.

Apart from the three musicians, there several other people in the house. There was Matt the manager, a native north Londoner, talkative but watchful, less apparently convinced that the Scritti Politti massive needed endless new recruits. There was a bloke called Dennis who did something with films, and lived in the house as well. as did Lynne, a beautiful feminist who worked as a printer for the Communist Party and was Green’s girlfriend though that was obviously not how either of them would have put it,. Back then everyone went to elaborate – not to say socially confusing – lengths not to admit to going out with anyone.

As afternoon turned into evening more people showed up. There was Barney, another north Londoner, but more bad jokey and less edgy than Matt, there was a sardonic Glaswegian called Bob Scotland, which turned out to be his actual name. There was a bloke called Paul, who worked for Camden Libraries like me. There were three women who lived in a women only house next door. I stayed in the corner listening to the Lee Perry records, dodging the veggie stew and soaking in the atmosphere.

This was it. What I’d been looking for. A place where music – scratchy post-punk music – was everything. Where my obsession didn’t feel like an escape from an uncaring world but a communal project that would allow us to, yes, well, change the world.


At nine o’clock on the dot there was a mass exodus to the pub. The pub in question was called the Prince Alfred but known to us – and it really didn’t take long to feel, again for the first time, like I was one of an ‘us’ – as the Bright Pub. That was to distinguish it from the previous Scritti Politti local, from which they’d recently been banned for being too numerous and too off-putting to the regulars, which had been known as the Dark Pub. Along the way we knocked on the door of another squat and collected more members, so there would have be fifteen or so of us piling into the pub, and we sat down and drank and played pool and Green and Bob and Nial talked and I listened and tried to make sense of the politics of Scritti Politti.

They went, I think, something like this. The central theme was that what made you political as a musician was not your lyrics but your whole practice, it was more important that you pressed your own records, designed your own sleeves, went through independent distribution channels, and made wilfully impenetrable art statements, than you signed up to a major corporate record label and blathered on about how the government didn’t understand the kidz in traditional lumpen punk fashion.

That was the bit I understood anyway. After that we got into the muddy waters of cultural hegemony and how it might be challenged. I could pretty much get the idea of the first part of this – that what we were sold as ‘common sense’ wasn’t anything of the sort, that the things you needed to challenge were the things you took for granted. The problem came with how you were meant to go about challenging the givens of the western world armed only with a guitar you couldn’t quite figure out how to tune. Green certainly seemed to understand what needed to be done and so did the bloke who’d just turned up, Ian Penman, a skinny blonde boy barely older than me who was already writing for the NME, where I’d seen his name attached to pieces about The Fall and Scritti Politti and who apparently lived in the same squat as Bob and Barney, around the corner from Carol Street. Green and Penman started riffing on Barthes and Foucault and, most of all, someone called Jacques Derrida who was evidently was to philosophy as, well, Scritti Politti were to post-punk. The dernier cri as I would love to have said back then.


This was where things got confusing. Where I started to nod and smile and pretend. As I pretended that I understood Scritti’s songs though I could barely make out the lyrics of their debut let alone comprehend their myriad references. I wonder now if I was being bullshitted, whether there was really nothing there but the fakeries of a 24 year old art student with a head full of half-digested French philosophy. So I listen back to Skank Bloc and, now as then, all I can really make out is the sort of chorus:

Twenty number six and she hasn’t an answer 

No one wants to listen and there’s no one wants to know 

Someone’s got a question that she doesn’t want to see.

And now as then, I think there’s something real there, that what Green was doing, what he succeeded in doing, was writing a song that pointed to the notion that there was more to learn, more to discover, that what we were served up with in the guise of political punk. The banalities of dole queue rock were not enough. So there.

So back in time we drank and talked and at last orders Green ordered two pints for himself and we all did the same and managed not to leave the pub till nearly midnight and then we went back to Carol Street and listened to more Lee Perry and eventually it was time to sleep, and I was told I could come round to Bob and Barney and Ian’s squat and crash there, and so I did.

And when I woke up in the morning it was to the sound of two people I’d never seen before fucking in a sleeping bag on the other side ofa thankfully fairly large room. It was the closest I’d so far come to this activity and as I did my best to remain apparently asleep, I wondered if it was always this fast, this aggressive and this blessedly short.

Charles and myself started work on our fanzine in earnest. We arranged to do an interview with the Scritti Politti posse a weekend or two hence. We went into Rough Trade and asked Ana if we could do an interview with the Raincoats. She said yes and gave us her address and a time to meet. We were up and running

The Scritti Politti interview took place in a pub called The York & Albany between Camden Town and Regents Park. It closed down a year to two later. Lay derelict for two decades and has more recently been refurbed by Gordon Ramsay.


Reading over the interview (which we presented in transcript form so no sinister journalistic manipulation could creep in and because it was much easier) now, it fills me with wonder as just how smart I was and how adrift from any kind of bearings.

Take for instance this exchange following Green’s assertion of interest in building up alternative networks outside the traditional music industry

Jon: How do you see that alternative being better than what you’ve already got? Well, it’s not going to affect the fact that music is made…why do you see that it’s better that music should be completely made by oneself…pressed by you, with the sleeve you drew yourself etc. etc. why is that better than that it should be perfectly pressed, with a flash sleeve all through W.E.A.

Green: Because it provides something to work on, I mean you are really challenging nothing and creating nothing if you just walk into a record company office and hand it all over to them and let them call all the stops.

Jon: Creating nothing?

Green: You’re making no new moves…you are not providing yourself with any problems, it would be very dull. Apart from that you have essential, I should imagine, objections to the likes of Warner Brothers controlling fucking great lumps of your culture and your life and that’s thoroughly permeating and offensive in beat music.

Jon: Yeah, I see that of course, but I don’t quite see why the fact that there are more problems involved in doing it oneself is necessarily valuable.


Leaving aside the irony obvious to anyone familiar with the subsequent career of Green Gartside (that’s to say that within a couple of years he’d have entirely taken on board my devil’s advocacy), reading this over makes me want to weep. How smart I was and how absolutely clueless about anything that mattered, anything that might have made me happy.

We finished the fanzine. It contained interviews with Scritti Politti and the Raincoats, a piece written by a band from Sunderland called Soubrette Perverse who had written to Scritti Politti. As far as I’m aware they never did anything at all, I’m pretty sure we never heard a note of their music, but that wasn’t the point was it? They agreed with everything we believed, so they were in. There’s a peculiar editorial written by me, rambling thoughts on what was going on in the music scene – apparently the Mekons were too much of a rock group at a recent live show, while the Fall were still mighty. Mostly I wanted people to be like me and take their musical recreation seriously: ‘there are new ways of having fun’, I finish up by saying, all too well aware that I was missing out on the old ones.

The next problem was how to get it printed. First thought I had was that my father had a photocopier in his office. Excellent. I bought 5000 sheets from a stationers on the Edgware Road, staggered to Paddington carting this half ton of paper, and took the train down to Cardiff for the weekend, before discovering that the photocopier in question couldn’t handle photos.

Next we went into Rough Trade and persuaded Ana to let us use the photocopier they had there. We managed to print 20 copies before the photocopier blew up and a thoroughly pissed off Geoff Travis told us to get out of his office.

This was a start and we went round to Carol Street to give the Scrits their copies of the magazine and explain our predicament. Lynne said we should have asked her before, she could print it for us on the Communist Party’s printing press, where she worked, and it would cost us nothing.

And so it came to pass. Lynne stayed late at work for a week and printed up a thousand copies.


After Hours 1 (dragged) blog

Read the full ‘After Hours’ fanzine here:

After Hours 1

We took them round to all the punk rock record shops. They took copies, sold them and asked for more. Ian Penman reviewed it favourably in the NME. We went to gigs and people started coming up to us, angling to appear in our fanzine. As did a number of girls I worked with in the library, who’d barely spoken a word to me before, but were now only to eager to tell me that actually they wrote poems, and maybe I would like to put them in my magazine? Why I didn’t exploit this obvious opportunity I now find it hard to imagine, but if I think back all I can remember is feeling acutely embarrassed for them. They wrote poems! They wanted me to put them in my rigorous post punk manifesto fanzine! Oh dear. Best to stammer and look away. Wait for them to turn away.

After Hours 1 (dragged) copy

I decided to pack the job in. I had a longstanding plan to do some travelling with another school friend. We would take the Magic Bus to Athens in May. Sometime in March we were evicted from the flat. The owners wanted it back sooner than expected. By way of compensation the letting agents put me and Charles up for a week in a b&b in Victoria. We started work on the second edition of After Hours. We moved into James’s girlfriend’s feminist sister’s place in Holloway. She wasn’t too happy about it.

After Hours 1 (dragged) 1 copy

After we’d been there a couple of days we went off to Portobello Road to interview the Fall. We came back late and drunk and the next day I was sick: the strains of being seventeen and sort of homeless and hungover and lost starting to tell. I had some kind of a flu and I remember lying there such and the feminist sister – this very scary woman who must have been all of twenty six or something – looking at me with a mixture of pity and anger, I wasn’t supposed to be there, she wasn’t supposed to give a shit about me, but there I was, so pathetic that she had to do the decent thing and make sure I was all right.

I recovered, moved on, spent a few days staying with a friend of my aunts, then a few more days on the floors of 1 Carol Street or 55 Bayham Street. I still wasn’t too well. The drinking and the not eating didn’t help. One night I went to the pub with the Scritti crew and felt terrible, couldn’t drink any more, knew I needed to lie down. No one seemed sympathetic this was not a culture in which weakness was appreciated. We were apprentice Nietzschean supermen one and all. It was only Nial the bass player who appreciated that I really wasn’t at all well and took me back to Carol Street, gave me his room to sleep in and went to stay with friends nearby. It was an act of kindness all the more striking for its rarity. I remember lying there, near delirious, staring at his books of political philosophy, those writers who wished for ideas to aspire to the rigour of science, and I felt weak and stupid and out of my depth.

AH2 Cover

Another few days and I was feeling better and it was my last day at work. A Saturday. I went to the pub at lunchtime and again at five thirty, drank a few pints with a workmate, took the bus to Camden, went to the pub there and drank more, went to the Electric Ballroom to see the Raincoats and Kleenex, drank more and more, behaved like an idiot. Towards the end of the evening I realised I’d drunk sixteen pints of beer. I was still seventeen years old. I crashed on the floor of Bayham Street that night. In the morning I saw Bob Scotland and apologised for behaving like a drunken kid the night before. He looked at me with barely disguised contempt, as much for the bourgeois sin of apologising as for how I’d behaved. I decided it was time to go back home.


Read the full ‘After Hours 2’ fanzine here:

After Hours Two

And that’s what I did, more or less. I hitched back to Cardiff to see my parents and while I was there I dropped in to see another band who’d written to Scriti Politti, asking for advice on pressing their own single. I interviewed them for the next issue of the fanzine and a couple of weeks later I moved in started sleeping on their living room floor. A little while later I got a flat of my own in Cardiff.

Every couple of weeks though, I would hitch back up to London because I wanted to be involved in the latest Scritti posse project, the Camden Compilation. This would be an album featuring cuts from all the Scritti Politti acolytes: the band themselves, Bob and Barney’s new group, Stepping Talk, Ian Penman’s Methodishca Tune, a group called the Different ‘i’s from over Willesden way, Lynne’s group the Nutty Clusters, Charles’s new group, The Janet & Johns, formed with another South Walian, Hywel, my putative new group, Puritan Guitars, etc, etc.

Every couple of weeks there would be a meeting, generally in the communal living room in Bayham Street, and we would debate the ethics and the practicalities of making this album. All the chaps would do their best to be more post-politicised than each other. Every now and then an outsider would be brought along and it would become clear that this was barely about music any more but rather about political theory as one-upmanship, I particularly treasure the memory of a young Australian with blue hair called Jim Thirlwell turning up. I guess we all thought he was some kind of Bowie-ite idiot for having blue hair, but you could see the absolute disbelief in his eyes as we all chopsed on about countering the cultural hegemony. Feller practically ran out of the room the first chance he got.

That was pretty much the point at which it all started to fall apart; when it became clear that the compilation was no more than a chimera. My new friends in Cardiff had managed to produce a Cardiff compilation with a minimum of fuss and absolutely no meetings to discus the underlying ideology.. One day Hywel suggested that the Janet and Johns contribution to the Camden album might be a cover of the Rolling Stones It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It).When the lower orders start to make jokes you know the ruling oligarchy are either in trouble or no longer paying attention.

And so it proved. The compilation fell by the wayside because Scritti Politti – or rather Green Gartside and Matthew Kaye – were no longer all that interested. The Scrits were touring with The Gang Of Four, playing bigger gigs. I came up to see them play at the Electric Ballroom at the end of the tour.
I arrived early in the day – I always did. If you wanted to hitch up to London from Cardiff, you had to be on the road by 6.30 to get a ride with a lorry driver. I did a little shopping, dropped my bag off at Carol Street and went over to see a friend. When I got back to the squat it was weirdly empty. The band were all off sound-checking so I sat down and had a cup of tea with Lynne ‘I knew you were here,’ she said pointing at the carrier bag I’d dropped off earlier, containing a Smokey Robison and the Miracles lp and a Desperate Bicycles single. Yes, by my records did you know me back then.

The band came back from their sound check. Everyone was tired and anxious, At the heart of it was Green. Something was wrong, he wasn’t well. He went upstairs with Lynne, I went to the pub. We went to the gig. The internet tells me the Raincoats and the Mekons were playing as well. Anyway the gig seemed to go off fine but afterwards all the talk in the upstairs bar was that Green had been suffering from something called panic attacks, and he’d taken speed and beta blockers to deal with them, and he was really not in a good way at all.

Looking back now, quite why he thought speed was the way to handle a panic attack I can’t begin to imagine, but then this Green fellow, the guru of the Camden town post-punk squatlands, was no more than twenty-five years old and it was becoming clear that he didn’t really know what he was doing. And if that was the case, then where did that leave us, his acolytes?

The day after the gig I went back to Cardiff. Some time soon after I heard that Green was in Wales too. His mental health had not recovered from the Gang of Four gigs and his parents had come and taken him back to Wales. They owned a cottage in a village outside Newport and he was living there. Soon I began visiting him there, taking walks in the country, bringing records for him to listen to. I still went up to London saw my friends Charles and Hywel, but they were living in different places, different squats, now. One Carol Street was no longer a focal point. We all had to face the truth that Scritti Politti had never been a collective had always been a court, and without the King, the former courtiers had no option but to get on with their own lives.

In later years Green would become a pop star, Bob a top-ranking Oxford Botanist, Barney a top-ranked poker player (really, I’m not making this shit up), Nial is a residential social worker, Charles runs the Haiti Support Group, I’m a writer.

Some of us went to college before Carol Street; some, like me, afterwards; some never did. But all of us got educated there, not just in ideology but also in the ways of the world.

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