“Live Series 2″ & the London Ambulance Station

November 28, 2008

Live series 2 cassette package
Live series 2 cassette package

 

To Londoners, The old Kent rd  has been for many years a byword for poverty; the cheapest, dismal brown coloured property on the monopoly board and in reality a grimy thoroughfare providing the boundary of two of the most neglected regions of London, Peckham and Bermondsey. Once the heartland of a solid white working class population the area was bombed close to complete destruction during the war and then rapidly rebuilt with monolithic high-rise housing estates which by the 1980s had begun to be abandoned and crumble.

In the cold winter of 1984 we – bourbonese qualk and crew – occupied the Ambulance station, an empty five story castle-like building on the Old Kent Road. Our ambition was to create a radical ‘cultural-political centre’ (though we would never have used that term) and a general base for our activities – performance space, recording studio and office for the Recloose organisation label –  in the middle of this piece of un-picturesque South East London. After lengthy renovation (removing 1 meter deep layers of dead pigeons, replacing piping, windows and tiles on the vertiginous roof) The top two stories were converted into artists studios, the middle storey our living quarters. The first floor was taken up as meeting space for anarchist groups, a free cafe and offices for the local squatters organisation, ‘S.N.O.W’ (who housed more people in 1985 than the local council). The ground floor was changed into a large performance space and bar as well as a recording studio, sculpture studios and print workshops.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the following years the Ambulance Station became  notorious as a venue for live music and a base for anarchist activities (especially during the ‘Stop the City’ anti-capitalist actions). The venue was open to all types of music and to all bands including, amongst many, many others; Pulp, Jesus And Mary Chain ( the notorious ‘riot’ concert*), June Brides, Felt, Conflict, Attrition, Royal Family And the Poor, Crass, Nocturnal Emissions, Scatter (early Stereo Mcs), Bourbonese Qualk** (many times), Primal Scream,The Boo Radleys, Butthole Surfers, The Swans, Test Department, TV personalities, Antisect, Mekons, Wedding Present and so-on.

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Image: Jesus and Mary Chain Ambulance Station poster, 1984.

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Image: TV Personalities/June Brides/Scatter 1985

 

bourbonese qualk 'class war' benefit gig c1984

bourbonese qualk

Image: bourbonese qualk ‘class war’ benefit gig circa 1984

 

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image: A typical evening scene: ‘Dirt’ at the Ambulance Stn 1985

Despite all of this, the increasing popularity of the venue was not met with universal approval. The neighbouring ‘Thomas a Becket’ pub run by east end gangsters – common-or-garden low level vicious thugs (years before the species was romanticised by ‘Lock Stock’ and ‘Mona lisa’) – unable to control our unlicensed trade in alcohol and other illicits, firebombed the building one night and attacked the crew on a regular basis (ironically, many of the new pressings of Muslimgauze’s ‘Buddhist On Fire’ stored in the Recloose offices were destroyed during this attack). The proximity of the building to the infamous Millwall football ground meant that we came under constant attack from groups of Nazi Skinheads who, driven to apoplexy by an anarchist outpost appearing in the middle of their territory, had vowed to destroy the building and kill everyone inside. Luckily the fortress-like design of the building meant that it was fairly easy to repulse attacks and the skinheads were never able to realise their threats.

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Image: Old Kent Rd looking south

The initial tolerance of the local police soon turned hostility especially after the ‘Stop the City’ riots. It became quite common on a sunday morning to be woken by the cops breaking their way in, lining everyone up in the yard, searching the building and carting random individuals off for a day or so’s questioning a their carter street HQ. In exchange for a few drinks, an alchoholic mole in the force gave us fair warning of raids and allowed us to feed the gullibe cops with ludicrous false information – we would greet their raids with a carnival atmosphere – everyone dressed as policemen, clowns or irritate them with elaborate games of ‘hide and seek’.

The Ambulance station project existed from 1984 until 1986. The running of the venue began to take up more and more of our time and cajoling the various political factions became increasingly wearing . In 1987 we decided to abandon the building to focus our energies on our own work. The building slid rapidly into decay, a haven for drug dealers and junkies until it’s final dereliction when the building was looted for salvage***.

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In 1985 we organised “New International Festival” a three day festival of ‘experimental’ music featuring groups associated with Recloose Organisation: Club Moral (Belgian Duo of Danny Devos and Anemie van Kirchoven specialising in noise, masochistic performance and audience antagonism – in this case an austere rendition of “Nazi’s of The Night”) , lol Coxhill (the Godfather of free improvisation and experimentation perplexed a mainly industrial audience with his trademark lengthy soprano saxophone solos), Bourbonese Qualk, Eyeless In Gaza, TASS ( solo performance by Thomas Scholz aka ‘Hartmann’ doing his bio-energetik endurance performance) Attrition (UK goth industrial pop), Current 93 ( supposed to Be Nurse With Wound but C93 showed up instead…), Royal Family and The Poor, Het Zweet, N.T.L. (a shambolic and very drunken electronic trio from Mainz) and several others. The recordings of these events were released as a cassette package “Live Series 2″ in 1985 which can be downloaded here (thanks to Tristan Koreya):

“Live Series 2″ Recloose Organisation LOOSE 009 1986

A1 Club Moral “Nazis Of The Night”

A2 Royal Family And The Poor “Untitled’

A3 Het Zweet ‘Repeat’

A4 Bourbonese Qualk ‘Beatup’

B1 Attrition ‘Untitled’

B2 N.T.L.* ‘Untitled’

B3 Royal Family And The Poor ‘Untitled’

B4 Lol Coxhill ‘Untitled’

B5 Bourbonese Qualk ‘Untitled’

B6 Fireside & Fury ‘Untitled’

* Their first gig in London, The Jesus and Mary Chain ‘riot’ was the average audience response at the Ambulance Station on a Saturday night.

** A 1985 ambulance station punk gig was disrupted by a mob of nazi skinheads who stabbed one of the guitarists in the chest. From 1985 onwards we (Bourbonese Qualk) performed ‘at home’ behind coils of barbed wire, armed with crowbars and baseball bats. What was thought of as an stylised ‘industrial’ affectation was infact a serious self defense measure.

*** The building is now used as an antiques showroom, the performance hall once witness to manic punk gigs now echoes to the suffle of, who knows, the very same audience, twenty years later selecting recycled doors and woodburning stoves for their East Dulwich semis…anarcho punks made good with well paid jobs in new media and PR.

22 Responses to ““Live Series 2″ & the London Ambulance Station”

  1. The June Brides played there 3 times – including the Mary Chain “riot” (for “riot” read a few journalists falling over the stage). I remember trying to get a pint in the Thomas a Becket and being refused. The landlord told me if he served me it would start trouble in there…not from me, of course, but from the friendly locals who would have tried to kill me :-)

    Happy days….

    What it does remind me of is the pleasure of playing with other bands. We played gigs like this in the early days with hard core punk bands, hippies,noise bands and more. So much more interesting than playing with yet another jangly pop band…

  2. I’ve lived pretty much my whole life on or near Watling Street – Bexleyheath for most of it, Bermondsey, New Cross…with only small breaks elsewhere. I’m not sure if Soho counts.
    I’ve always thought that the two sections either side of central London (the Old Kent Road, Edgware road/Kilburn High Road) are oddly similar in atmosphere and aspect, despite being manifestly at opposite ends of the economic scale. perhaps it’s the straight thing.

    the question is: at which end of the street will i die?

  3. Fascinating stuff. Pity that Canadians (at least in Toronto) are not as motivated to make something as wondrous. But then, our police are very aggressive and given authority to use brutal violence at will. Sounds like a great time and place. Seeing the historical value of your post, may I humbly suggest you post recordings on Archive.Org instead of megaupload?

    The posters are gorgeous and images of the space are great. I hope someone burned down the gangster and skinhead HQ’s for good measure.

  4. I saw a band called Wicked Kitchen Staff at the Ambulance Station on the Old Kent Road, featuring a German girl called Antje Klahn on sax. She’s back in Germany these days. I can’t remember for sure, but I’d guess I might also have been playing, with the Jasmine Minks or maybe the X Men.

    • Chas said

      http://www.flowersinthedustbin.co.uk/news/?p=507

      this link might interest you if you knew antje. She played in flowers for a while, so did I. Before her time we played at the ambulance station with flux and a truly awful band that I think became the sugarcubes – I was at the JAMC gig and they were shite! I left early to get a tube back to stokey and was surprised to hear i missed a riot – a lynching, now that would’ve made sense.

  5. Julian Gilbert said

    I remember it well. Do you remember you and I were arrested by Carter Street police for collecting firewood in the grounds of a nearby derelict warehouse? They were trying to intimidate us when they discovered we were ‘the people’ from the Ambulance Station.
    Can’t remember the outcome of the case. Suspended sentences I think?

  6. crab said

    Hi Julian,
    you sure it was ‘collecting firewood’? sounds very Hansel & Gretel, very rural…

    anyroad; mail me, it’s been a few decades: crab [at]lateral.net

    cheers,

    crab

  7. there’s 1 em and 2 esses in Nocturnal Emissions
    …your friendly spell checker…
    have a rockin’ new year

  8. I mean 3 esses of course.

    • crab said

      ego-surfing is perhaps understandable considering your key role in contemporary music and culture, but ego surfing+spell checking is verging on the unhealthy…

  9. Sea Wanton said

    “…N.T.L. (a shambolic and very drunken electronic trio from Mainz) and several…”

    hello simon. yes you are right:
    the singer has been fired after that! this had been the worst gig in my life, unfortunately – I / we have to apologize subsequently (though me and some guys are are still around as ‘Non Toxique Lost’, producing creative electronic stuff again and again – where will the journey go? until the end of the world…).

    • Sea Wanton said

      in addition: the published song (on the compilation) is named “Ich kann – ich will” (which translates to: “I can – I will”).
      best wishes from Berlin.

  10. Alan Rider said

    Hi Simon

    Having attended many of the Ambulance Station gigs, especially the New International Series, it was a blast from the past to read your description and reminded me of the very real danger involved in going there! not to mention the fantastic spirit of the times. I was in the Station on the night of the fire bomb attack too – I think (things were a little hazy in those days!)

    Alan (Adventures in Reality)

  11. [...] in the days of the ambulance station we were able to manually remotely control the traffic light signals on the Old Kent Rd – [...]

  12. David said

    Hi Simon,

    Just found your blog today. Many thanks for the rare treats. I’ve been a fan of BQ since the first LPs came out…in fact, anything on the Recloose label was a must buy for me in those days. Being in “fly over country” in the US, I was lucky enough to have an independent record store nearby that was adventurous enough to carry such records.

    My profound thanks for much sonic pleasure over the years. Any chance of CD reissues of those early works? I would eagerly buy them (I have all the ones that did come out on CD). Possibly James Nice at LTM might consider it?

    Thanks again,

    David.

  13. Nick Hydra said

    I used to go there a lot as I lived a short bus ride away, I remember seeing Kukl (later The Sugarcubes) supporting Flux of Pink Indians, taking some acid and losing everyone I was with.

    By the way yhat picture is NOT Dirt, it’s Antisect, they’re just playing in front of Dirt’s banner.

  14. Been meaning to write about this for a while at Transpontine – I had no idea that BQ were involved in it [incidentally I am a friend of Christoph from Praxis]. I came down from Luton (where I was then living) a couple of times to gigs there with local anarcho-punk band Karma Sutra. Best band I saw there was No Defences, also Chumba played there didn’t they? Think I saw Conflict and State Hate too.

  15. Steve Scutt said

    Wow. I never knew this place ever existed until now…and I live on Southampton way, just down from the OKR.
    Played a couple of times at the 121 center (Bar SATE) though which I loved( as Defacato.) Great atmosphere. I remember going through Brixton market about 2 hours before opening to beg and scavenge old veg for the curries we used to make… Excellent times.

  16. Steve Scutt said

    P.S Bourbonese Qualk will live FOREVER.

  17. Hello,

    I am currently researching the Ambulance Station on Old Kent Road as part of an article for my blog (http://www.guteluft.blogspot.com/) and would love some responses from anyone interested. If you have anything you think would be of interest or relevance such as stories, memories, facts/info, then please feel free to e-mail me at:
    co801dm@gold.ac.uk

    Thanks,
    Dale

  18. [...] Departure ‘Bim 80’ 1981 Live Series 2 ‘Untitled’ [...]

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