With the twenty-first century’s second decade stretching before us, a controversial new government making its presence felt and the halcyon days of Britart and Britpop an increasingly hazy memory, we felt a root and branch look at contemporary creative Britain was in order. Just who, or what, is making Blighty mighty right now?
James Johnston by Harry Pye
Few would deny that to be born British is to win the lottery of life. These Islands are, of course, jam-packed with fine fellows each blessed with a sense of fair play and the Dunkirk spirit. To single out just one person has been hard, but I’ve opted for Mr James Johnston.
I first became aware of James in the late ’80s. His band, Gallon Drunk, were all the rage then and they were being featured heavily in the pop magazines that I read religiously at the time such as NME and Melody Maker. Journalists heaped praise on their unique blend of Memphis soul, primal rockabilly and “high energy swamp rock”. John Peel was a big Gallon Drunk fan and declared that there was no other band like them. But probably their biggest champion was Morrissey who not only took them on a big tour of America but also insisted they were added to the bill of Madstock in 1992.
I think Gallon Drunk’s most recent CD, The Rotten Mile (Fred Records, 2007), is their best yet. The LP’s closing track, a sincere, intimate, beautiful ballad called ‘The Shadow Of Your Smile’, really moved me. ‘Give Me Back What’s Mine’ just rocks and makes me bounce round the room. James and two other members of Gallon Drunk often perform with Lydia Lunch in a band called Big Sexy Noise. I saw this band play live late last year and it was simply thrilling. Lunch sang her version of my favourite Lou Reed song, ‘Kill Your Sons’, and it was just mind-blowing.
There are several reasons I want to big up James. I respect the fact that as a musician and as a songwriter he’s still prepared to wear his heart on his sleeve and has the courage to fail. He’s also willing to leave his ego at the door and join other bands such as The Bad Seeds or Faust and be a catalyst for their exciting progression. He has a generosity of spirit that is quite rare.
Maybe part of the reason I’m a fan is because I’m a Londoner and Gallon Drunk are a London band who write songs about their seedy love of the place. On YouTube a fan recently left a comment about Gallon Drunk which I agree with one hundred per cent. They said, “I’ve seen this band so many times and they have never let me down.” Like too many other great musicians of the past, James and his chums have had to endure all sorts of stresses and money worries. But despite these knocks and setbacks they still managed to carry on and go out there and be wonderful. They never let me down. It’s for this reason that James is an inspiration to me and I wish him the best of British luck for the future.
Steve Lowe by Sebastian Sharples
I think the work and spirit of all Steve Lowe and his team does at his space the L-13 is fantastic and such a nice change to most commercial galleries. And anyone who can make a success of Billy Childish deserves a medal.
Wilton’s Music Hall by Patricia Cullen
It was a Monday evening and I was heading to Whitechapel to see The Bonfire Band. Turning down Grace Alley, it felt like I had stepped back in time, to a bygone era of stage and variety shows, with the melodies of honky tonk piano in the air. Retaining its original pub entrance, Wiltons’ Music Hall is a striking, living example of what the old music halls looked like. Its shabby architecture would seem more at home in a city like Berlin than London.
Nonetheless, this building is laden with British history. The oldest standing Grand Music Hall in the world, the building,originally known as the Prince of Denmark, was bought by John Wilton in 1850. Wilton died in 1880 and in the following years it was taken over by the East End Mission of the Methodist Church. During the General Strike, the building was used to serve 2000 meals daily to London dockers. In the mid 1930s it was usedas a safe refuge for locals who united to stop Oswald Mosley and his fascists at the Battle of Cable Street. The following decade it acted as a shelter during the Blitz. As it was damaged throughout its history by fires and had several ongoing restoration problems, a campaign to save Wilton’s ran throughout the ’70s and ’80s, fronted by Peter Sellers, Spike Mulligan and Roy Hudd. This campaign included a performance by Sellers called ‘Wilton’s – The Handsomest Hall in Town.’ You couldn’t really get more typically British, could you?
Many a famous face has performed in London’s best kept secret, including Champagne Charlie and Fiona Shaw to name but two. Today, numerous events occur at Wilton’s theatre, including magic shows, concerts and exhibitions. It was also one of the locations for the Woody Allen movie, Cassandra’s Dream filmed in London in 2006. The Mahogany Bar at the front is open most
days and is magical; the dim lighting makes the place look like it’s lit by gas. Now owned and maintained by the Wilton Music Hall Institute, with Prince Charles becoming a recent patron, restoration is still an issue – two donation buckets are prominently positioned in the bar to help raise money for building.
With the Bonfire band playing inside the Mahogany Bar and the large wooden shutters wide open, the crowd sat outside, soaking up the ambience. There certainly aren’t many places left like this and I hope that, just as famous celebrities got together to support Wilton’s in the past, people will continue to get behind this fantastic gem of British cultural history. Even though Wilton’s has been added to the World’s Monument Watch List, it will not survive much longer without widespread support. The loss of this artistic jewel would be appalling. If nothing else, Wilton’s and is most certainly worth a visit by anyone who finds themselves in and around East London.
Christopher Shannon by James Doidge
The AW 10 show from Christopher Shannon is so strong. Shannon’s work is filled with muli-layered
references to subjects that are traditionally British, but not in a twee historic way. It’s very now. His
collection makes me think of Adrian Henri, Tom Wood, Jeremy Deller, Kevin Cummins, Neville Gabie, Nigel Shafran, David Robinson, Elaine Constantine, Chris Killip, Paul Graham, Alasdair McLellan, Stephen Gill, Blackout Crew, Mike Skinner and Merz. Direct and modern and Britain now.