“Live Series 2″ & the London Ambulance Station
November 28, 2008
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.
Image: Jesus and Mary Chain Ambulance Station poster, 1984.
Image: TV Personalities/June Brides/Scatter 1985
Image: bourbonese qualk ‘class war’ benefit gig circa 1984
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.
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***.
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):
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.