London 40 years on: in search of my musical youth
Barry McKinley, author of A Ton of Malice: The Half-Life of an Irish Punk in London, goes in search of his old haunts
Barry McKinley: porrtrait of the artist as a young punk
Dublin airport, 7am. I forgot I was carrying a Swiss Army knife, a gift from my sons. The airport security guard holds the blade up to a plastic measuring device.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “it’s a centimetre too long.”
The knife is popped into a bin where it will no doubt be retrieved by airport staff later on, and possibly re-gifted.
“Happy birthday, honey.”
There will be no response from a woman who is tired of receiving half-bottles of perfume and sharp objects for all significant anniversaries.
I’m off to London to prepare for the publication of my memoir, A Ton of Malice – The half-life of an Irish punk in London, and along the way I’ll revisit some of the places mentioned in the book.
My first trip to London was 40 years ago and back then, nobody flew. For most of us, the journey to London started in Dún Laoghaire. Eight or nine hours of rough seas and filthy trains, maybe a little frisk and tickle by the North Wales police.
Fifty minutes after I take my seat on the plane, I’m in London Heathrow. I take the train to Paddington and the tube to Piccadilly. It’s not yet 11 in the morning and I wonder if Ward’s Irish House will be open.
Ward’s was a legendary basement pub. It had once been a public toilet connected to the Underground and the counter was always lined with hard men and rent boys. It was like drinking in a submarine that smelled of porter, pee and pine disinfectant. – Not only is it not open; it’s gone, subsumed by Ripley’s Believe it or not!
Never mind. Onwards. I’ll take a walk through the grime of Soho – except Soho is spotless. The touts in their Harrington jackets have vanished, as have most of the peep shows and the three-card-monte hucksters who plied their trade in the Berwick Street market. It was inevitable, I suppose. These days there’s more sex and gambling on the average iPhone than there is in all of London’s naughty quarter.
Up Wardour Street in search of the Vortex club, a punk pit that inspired the song A-Bomb in Wardour Street by The Jam. I’m disoriented, so I ask a man who is flying a small drone above his head, “do you know where the Vortex is?” “The vortex is everywhere,” he replies.
I head for Covent Garden and Neal Street. The Roxy was the venue where I saw The Damned or Slaughter and the Dogs, I don’t remember which; the night was too full of noise and narcotics.
A sign high up on a wall says: “THE ROXY. Legendary punk club. 1976 -1978” but the shop underneath is now an outlet for Speedo swimming trunks and I am embarrassed to be seen taking a picture of the place. If anybody asks, I’ll pretend to be German.
There is one last hope in the search for my musical youth. I catch a train to Islington; I checked on the web and The Hope And Anchor still exists and music is still played on the premises. Maybe I’ll catch a performance by one of the few remaining punk bands: The Buzzcocks, The UK Subs or The Exploited.
I enter at lunchtime to find a pair of hen parties in full swing. I approach the young barman and ask him what’s playing later on. He looks me up and down and says, “It’s your lucky day, mate, we have a Springsteen tribute band.”
It’s time to switch gear. Let’s forget the music scene and concentrate on other stuff. What about that Kennington squat I lived in? I hop a tube to the Oval and discover that the wrecking ball of progress got there before me. Lambeth Council demolished the entire street.
How about Chelsea? There has to be something on the King’s Road. The Man in the Moon pub, where I once saw Vivienne Westwood in torn black robes looking like Lady Macbeth after a motorcycle accident? Gone. American Classics where I bought my mohair jackets and shirts made out of parachute silk? Not only gone; replaced by an unholy trinity: a health store, a juice bar and an organic pharmacy.
Just when it seems like all is lost, irrevocably, I walk around the corner and discover a chunk of the past that hasn’t been erased: Number 430 on the King’s Road, Malcolm McLaren’s original shop. The foam letters that spelled out “SEX” are gone but the big clock that spins backwards is still there. This is, arguably, the place where the whole thing started. The establishment that gave the Sex Pistols their name and where Sid Vicious was a highly unlikely shop assistant.
I stop a passer-by and ask him to take a picture with my phone. “Huh,” he says, “that clock is going backwards.”
I know. And if I stand in this spot long enough, it just might wind back 40 years.
A Ton of Malice – The half-life of an Irish punk in London is published by Old Stret Publishing, at £12.99. Joseph O’Connor reviews it in The Irish Times on June 3rd, 2017