As the swinging ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s, changes were afoot in Britain. Charlotte Richardson Andrews explores how the Roundhouse became a hotbed for twentieth century rock icons such as David Bowie, Elton John and Patti Smith.
Top Of The Pops had replaced its rival and predecessor, Ready Steady Go!, the first UK TV show to unite white and black musicians on screen; women’s libbers, civil rights activists and striking miners were on the march; and the flower power dreamers of the Free Love movement were sobering up in the wake of Altamont, Charles Manson and Cold War paranoia.
Rock, the electric lifeblood of the tune-in-drop-out generation, had matured into a commercially savvy industry. Youth culture was evolving too – in sound and style. Carnaby velvets, paisley prints and tie-dye cottons were morphing into Oxford bags, platform shoes and safari jackets studded with CND badges. And on Feb 22 ’73 – six years after pipe-puffing PM Harold Wilson had decriminalised homosexuality – glam rock’s camp, androgynous reign began, when a young Mick Ronson would join David Bowie on stage at the Roundhouse for the first time, dressed to the nines and billed as The Hype.
It was an Implosion gig – a series of Sunday shows run by DJ Jeff Dexter – that hosted this pivotal event. The idea for Implosion, formed after wild Roundhouse all-nighters featuring The Who and The Doors, was a club night tailored “totally for the people” rather than profit, says Dexter. Implosion shows were all-ages, but mainly attracted “teenage freaks who wanted to dance their nuts off for the afternoon and sweat themselves into a delirium”. The door charge for these rock bacchanals ranged from a thrifty 7s 6d to 15 bob (shillings) on special occasions – one of which saw the brass-parping Salvation Army band – pitched up outside the Roundhouse every Sunday – invited in to join a December bill topped by Elton John. Profits from the night were promptly distributed among the local working-class elderly community, to pay for Christmas dinners.
Late ‘60s Camden, immortalized in iconic black comedy Withnail and I, made for grey, squalid digs, riddled with fly tipping and bordered by council estate towns teeming with football hooligans. Rural chancers who’d relocated to the Big Smoke were warned away, redirected instead to the bright lights of central London. Change came in the early ‘70s, when developers transformed Camden Lock’s neglected industrial timber yard into a bustling, multi-cultural market place – a counter-cultural hub awash with craft stalls, budget fashionistas, canal hustlers, local luvvies, street musicians and Pentax-clicking tourists.
Regenerated but still relatively cheap, Camden’s anti-establishment credibility flourished, its live music circuit rapidly gaining a global reputation. Dingwalls Music Hall, with its unique Victorian architecture and famed long bar, opened its doors in ‘73; Led Zeppelin rehearsed across the road at Electric Ballroom; and Madness – in their early Camden Invaders guise – would blag their way on to the Dublin Castle’s stage, having convincing the promoter they were a jazz outfit.
At the center of it all was the Roundhouse, a rock scene ‘people’s palace’ where Melody Maker subscribers could watch John Peel-endorsed unknowns share smoke-fogged stages with the likes of Jeff Beck, Soft Machine, Can, Nico (of Velvet Underground fame) and Fairport Convention. “Every major name, every band, wanted to play here,” remembers Dexter. But major or minor, every Implosion act received the same flat rate payment of £25. The few notable exceptions to this rule included Pink Floyd – who launched their Atom Heart Mother album at the venue – and the Rolling Stones, who played the final blazing shows of their last UK tour there before flying off to France.
The Stones were off, but a new generation of homegrown agitators were coming of age in the wings. Implosion nights were a breeding ground for future Punk Britannia icons: Mick Jones (The Clash), Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex) and The Damned front man Captain Sensible, who’d travel up to the Roundhouse from Croydon on the number 68 bus for what he remembers fondly as a “great education in rock and roll”. The venue, pre-renovation, was a maze of dancing bodies and “dingy corners, where anything goes; people having bunk-ups and all sorts. It was a bit of an eye opener for a 13-year-old.” On one memorable night, an anonymous wind-up merchant spiked the communal wine trough with LSD, resulting in a massive, collective trip for 2,000 unwitting revelers.
High or sober, Roundhouse gig-goers were a part of history, witnessing music’s future greats in all their nascent, creative infancy such as The Pink Fairies and Patti Smith. The month after their Roundhouse debut, Bowie and co would return to play the weeklong Atomic Sunrise Festival – a collaboration between Implosion and The Living Theatre. Also on the bill were Brummie metal pioneers Black Sabbath, a pre-Phil Collins Genesis and feted space-rock noodlers Hawkwind, who’d recorded their Silver Machine single at the venue the preceding month.
Disco, punk, 2 Tone, and New Wave would follow, but not before the ‘70s Roundhouse generation had paved their indelible way.