It feels a little preemptive to write about this here but fuck it, as I half-assedly assess the zines and records around me for ‘writing-about’ potential I’m struck by the realisation I may only be unintentionally feeding into the age-old myth that everyone who writes for this magazine deliberately hypes the same bands (I sit here with the latest Merchandise and Sonskull records firmly front of mind, but with good reason as they both totally slay.) But as there is a previously-unrealised but potentially gamechanging project finally forcing its way into reality proper, I will leave the proselytising to other people and get on this thing.
Where to begin. A trip down memory lane (it’s a cul de sac.) For the last few years I’ve been doing a thing called Big Takeover. Locations for punk gigs in London were, when I began with BTO1 in 2009, for the most part caught between two stools. Stool A: the back room of a one of a few understanding pubs. Stool B: a bar owned and run by a youth media corporation trading in subcultural capital. Both were getting real tiresome, and I’d only been in the city a year. I had a full time job and a little spare cash, and had been asked to put on a gig. It was three years ago almost to this day. I sought out some ‘for-hire’ spaces and, having settled on one in an archway under London Bridge, set about convincing the guy that owned the place that everything would be cool. I made so many crucial errors putting that gig on that it makes me laugh now; from being not-quite-clear/aware about how noisy it would be (the mayor of the borough lived opposite the venue) to agreeing to give this sketchy fuck a £500 deposit at the last minute (!) and not thinking how the ‘white cube environment’ of the space was about to get completely, uh, punked. One mistake I definitely didn’t make was not promoting it enough. Those flyers were fucking everywhere. It was also a genuinely mixed bill of bands that didn’t always play together, so there was Logic Problem from North Carolina, a band I had never heard of but had been recommended by Nick from said Problem, called Black Time, as well as Mob Rules from Leeds, the brilliant Nowhere Fast from Liverpool, and my buds in Shitty Limits and Ironclad opened. These forces conspired to make nearly 200 people show up, which was way more than I had anticipated or could really cope with. (Average gig attendance would usually be 40 -50 on a good night.) Everyone was buzzing on the unusual space, it was warm, and the show was bring your own booze too, so when a cymbal stand got thrown into the crowd and it lodged in some French dudes head, I remember only the blood and the shouting and thinking I was going to pass out. I remember cops and ambulances arriving and somehow still being there at the end of the night (I would later find out they broke down and ended up hanging out!) I remember feeling dizzy and stressed but also feeling very, very much myself. Yes, it was crazy, yes there was blood, and I lost £500 in the shape of that deposit, but every band ruled so hard and the sensation of a huge gig of all different bands clashing and everyone having fun and negotiating spaces for themselves stuck in my mind. That summer I quit my job and went on tour with Logic Problem and Shitty Limits. The shows they played in the weirdest and most wonderful spaces across America blew my mind and I knew I had to try another Big Takeover on my return, and try not to bankrupt myself this time. I got involved with some of London’s squatted social centres (which would always get evicted before I’d had a chance to do more than one or two shows in their space, but brought many first-time squat visitors in to get their shiny sneakers dirty) and braved scary meetings with unfriendly anarchists suspicious of any music that wasn’t techno. I realised as the turnouts stayed into the hundreds, a lot for London, that excess door money should definitely get channelled off somewhere productive, from Calais Migrant Solidarity to Rape Crisis. After a year I bought a PA and after another fifteen gigs I’ve almost worked out the fuck you make it work, too. Punch played to 350 people in a squatted department store. The lowest form played their first show with Glam. Social Circkle played in a squatted office. Thou played in a fire station, Straightjacket Nation played in an aircraft hanger. Did a bunch of hardcore gigs in this huge squatted manor house in Hackney that was once home to prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (the lady on the five pound notes here.) I even did a free Big Takeover on the roof of the Hayward Gallery (a big-deal art space on the river.)
None of this is revelatory, of course. Just fun gigs done well, yeah, if I say so myself, but not always without difficulty, hell, not always without police presence, but done with heart and with the intention of creating temporary environments where seeing a punk band play would be a real blast, not a sterile night down the pub. Yeah, there was one show where I fucked up a bit and accidentally booked a crappy bar with a bag-searching bouncer (sorry No Slogan, sorry Canadian Rifle) and another show (not that sorry, Total Abuse) that didn’t even happen. There are London-specific issues that have both helped and hindered BTO. For example, this is a city where everyone is cramped in and almost noone has a car, so staging shows far away from residential areas is, on both counts, impossible. Also, our licensing laws mean that under 18s can technically get into pubs to watch shows (you don’t get ID’d apart from at the bar) so the all ages imperative has not been developed with too much vigour in the same way as it has been in the USA, meaning, on the one hand that teenagers can, if they want, go to gigs, but on the other that a ‘dry’ (no booze) gig in London would be a laughable impossibility, such is the dependency on alcohol for the live music ‘economy.’ One thing that struck me once I had my modus operandi for this project is how insanely difficult it was and continues to be to find a space which would let me put on loud bands that could be watched by people of all ages and without corporate sponsorship, to make money for a charity. How the word ‘punk’ made business-owners noses crumple and twist, how I would be condescended to and called an idealist for suggesting that we didn’t need bouncers because this was a self-policing community. I hated having to cheat on punk to make this shit happen, to reframe it as ‘experimental’, to feel like I was constantly apologising.
It’s been wild, it’s been fun, it’s brought me, exhausted, perilously close to that ring road circling Burn Out City. But while doing these shows was part of my journey to getting to this point, there are plenty of other switched on people who feel the same and are now ready to make something happen. There’s the DIY promoters plugging away in different spaces across the city, whether they’re putting on noise dudes, no wave or straight edge bands. There’s the crew that have made Scumfest, a huge annual benefit show, a huge success in many squatted spaces over the years. There are the label dudes getting records from across the world into bedrooms across the city. There are the radical bands who want a better place to play. Maybe you live in London and you do too. If so listen up, cus now it’s time to do something about it for reals, and crucially, together. It’s time to pull our socks up. Across the UK there are a small number of punk/radical-run autonomous spaces which are not squatted and thus have a less perilously unstable relationship to their surroundings. And they are the best. You’ll have heard of the 1 in 12 in Bradford, maybe the Cowley Club in Brighton, or more recently Wharf Chambers in Leeds. Many people before us have tried to get something up and running in London, and myself and a few trusted friends have spent a long time learning from their experiences, making contacts and reading up about what it might involve to create a DIY space for London. The wider context is important, too. The shrinking of public spaces across the UK continues apace, especially in London, from the criminalisation of squatting to the demolition of community space as this city is gearing up for the Olympics, framed as a public spectacle while both councils and private landlords simultaneously turf people out of their homes to make a quick profit from it. This is all the more reason to create a space that shows and meetings and events and performance can happen in that doesn’t discriminate on genre lines, that’s a genuinely safer space and that doesn’t fit into any gentrification narratives or exclude any part of the community. Imagine no bouncers, cheap and good beer, cool bands, workshops, films, space to make plans, rehearse and learn new stuff. Shut your eyes and think about it being down the road. Here’s to an atomic explosion of new possibility.
Yes, it will involve some social life-ruining levels of commitments for potentially quite a while. And yes, the costs will be huge, and there’s a lot we don’t know yet. But it is doable, and it’s time, and there’s nothing like a public broadcast to force us into movement. This is for everyone, and we need all the help we can get. If you can help spread the word about this through your networks, or offer in-kind support, advice, donations or if would like to know more about getting involved or organising a benefit show for the project, you can find everything you need to know about all that and more at this address: http://diyspaceforlondon.org
Yours in wild excitement and blind fear,