Crowley on the King’s Road

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Another item from the Daily Mail, this time a book review from 13 January 2006. They seem to be equipped with a word processor that automatically inserts “Satantist” whenever it sees “Aleister”…

Satanist Aleister Crowley settled there to write Diary Of A Drug Fiend, unaware that 45 years later his portrait would be part of a montage, put together not far from his digs, for The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
13 January 2006



by Max Decharne


(Weidenfeld, Pounds 18.99)

LONDON’S legendary King’s Road is a road much travelled. Pop musician and social commentator Max Decharne has had the brilliant idea of knocking out a history of this milelong length of beaten pavements: the result is exhilarating, informative, chatty, and hip.

Long before Sixties trailblazers flocked to the King’s Road to pose and parade in a kaleidoscope of kinky boots, mini- skirts and velvet loons, this area was renowned as a mecca for artists and fashionable extroverts.

The name derives from its use as a private royal road, requested by Charles II to smooth a path between his Chelsea palace and Nell Gwyn’s house in Fulham. After the construction of the Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens, with lakes and a working model of Mount Etna, the area became a major attraction.

High society and hangers- on arrived for dancing, drinking, fireworks and heaps of hanky-panky among the shrubbery. Handel performed there, as did an eightyearold Mozart.

1830, the King’s Road was opened to the public; in 1845, its first pavements were laid, small houses sprang up, pubs and coffee houses opened, and the list of famous residents and visitors – Shelley, Turner, Ruskin, Brunel, Rossetti, Carlyle, Gaskell, Austen, Dickens, Poe, Swinburne, Wilde – is as long as your arm.

In 1848, Karl Marx arrived – to be evicted soon after for non-payment of rent. As Decharne points out, he wasn’t to know that in 1976, not far from his lodgings: ‘McLaren and Westwood’s Sex Emporium would be selling shirts emblazoned with his picture front and back.’ Decharne also suggests that Marx might have chortled to learn that in 1977 Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were also evicted by bailiffs in the same neck of the woods; or, there again, had Marx ever encountered the Sex Pistols’ ethos, he might well have banged his head against the wall.

Fast forward from Marx’s day to the early 1900s with George Bernard Shaw’s plays packing them in at the Court Theatre, and the Chelsea Arts Club Ball causing a furore. Artists in their studios, poets in their garrets and the King’s Road a lively local High Street lined with bootmakers, pork butchers, bakers, pawnbrokers, pie shops, false teeth manufacturers and tea rooms.

A new influx of writers and jazz musicians arrived, including an asylum-seeking Vladimir Nabokov.

As Decharne observes, imagine what this refugee from the Russian Revolution must have made of the 1919 pro-Bolshevik ‘Hands Off Russia!’ rally held near his house.

Satanist Aleister Crowley settled there to write Diary Of A Drug Fiend, unaware that 45 years later his portrait would be part of a montage, put together not far from his digs, for The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s-Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

Fast forward again to the postwar King’s Road. Decharne explodes the myth that London in the Fifties was a wasteland, ‘where everyone hung around in shapeless raincoats waiting for The Beatles to arrive so they could throw off the shackles and start having sex’.

In the King’s Road at least, after Blitz and deprivation, things were perking up, with new shops, clubs and bars.

The Royal Court Theatre opened with controversial kitchen sink dramas written by Angry Young Men (and women), skiffle groups twanged in cellars, folk singers warbled in coffee bars, teddy boys and girls paraded, beatniks and existentialists debated, rock ‘n’ roll arrived from America, art student Mary Quant opened a boutique called Bazaar, and, as Decharne whoops: ‘The Revolution starts here!’ And yes, we’re into the Sixties, swinging London and all that, initially hyped, indeed invented, by the American media.

The Rolling Stones were crammed into a squalid pad off the King’s Road.
The Beatles were invited to everyone’s party.

The entire area swarmed with pop singers, alternative magazines, groupies, models, photographers and film crews – not to mention local heartthrobs Michael Caine and Terence Stamp making the girls’ naked knees knock when they strolled into Alvaro’s.

Mini- skirts were a national scandal. Legs had never been so long or so exposed; nor had hair.

Men and women wore it below their shoulders. Everyone sported frilly blouses, Afghan jackets, beads, boots, bandanas and velvet garments that fell apart after one wearing.

On the King’s Road you might see the teenage Martin Amis, who remembers ‘mincing up and down in skintight velves and grimy silk scarves, and haunting a coffee bar called The Picasso’. You might even have caught Polanski’s wedding to Sharon Tate, where photographers outnumbered guests and Tate wore a cream taffeta mini-dress.

The air may have reeked of pot and patchouli, but as one disgruntled resident recalls, ‘the only impact this whole swinging London thing has on me is that I can’t get up the King’s Road on a Saturday to buy a piece of steak’.

cheerful ostentation, peace and satin hotpants gave way to sullen punk.

Tourist cameras loved the handful of sad gluesniffers with Mohican haircuts, bondage trousers and safety pins through their noses who hung out to be photographed for cash along the King’s Road. Punk came and went, and the party was over.

Decharne’s frantic, fact-packed book superbly captures all the buzz and lunatic frivolity of a street that has consistently been at the cutting edge of all that is new in theatre, fashion, art, music, and film.

He includes many good quotes, my favourite being from Sir Michael Caine’s mum, who, looking askance at a girl wearing a mini, remarked to her son: ‘If it’s not for sale, you shouldn’t put it in the window.’ Ah me, those were the days.

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