You Say You Want a Revolution (Part II)

In the second of a special series of articles, cultural historian Dr Dave Allen looks back at Portsmouth in the late 1960s, a heady scene of hippies, hallucinogens and high quality music.

San Francisco, London and other hip centres of the western world celebrated their ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967 after which we are told, things began to turn sour. Portsmouth was close enough to London, attached not only by a reasonably quick rail/car journey but the mass media that spread the news of the hippies, the ‘underground’ and the ‘counter culture’.

But these phenomena took a little longer to reach the south coast in a fully-formed way, although we need to remind ourselves constantly that even in San Francisco this was not how the majority of people lived their lives. Nor was this the case in Portsmouth, but the counterculture had a notable impact on the teenage population.

While the Beatles released Sgt Pepper and San Franciscan hippies danced to their new bands in the streets, parks and ballrooms, during Portsmouth’s ‘Summer of ‘67’, the Guildhall offered jazz with a classical feel from the Jacques Loussier Trio, American folk singer Julie Felix and Acker Bilk’s outmoded trad jazz – but no rock or pop. Meanwhile the King’s Theatre had Englebert Humperdinck and Joan Regan for one week. Crooner Humperdinck’s ‘Release Me’ had famously kept the Beatles’ great British psychedelic masterpiece ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ off the singles number one spot.

On first glance then, late summer and autumn 1967 in Portsmouth appears to have been a dull time. But for a number of reasons, it wasn’t quite like that. Following the closure of the Birdcage Club, the really big acts stopped coming to town, but they would soon be back, and after a few months’ rest, the leading local promoter Rikki Farr would be as active as ever. Then there were the students.

In 1967, there was no university in Portsmouth, not even a polytechnic but there was a college of technology; mainly science and technology but it also offered a growing number of social science and history courses and the first stirrings of what would become one of the earliest cultural studies degrees in the country. There was also a very lively independent art college (Eldon) with its main course (Dip AD) in fine art and other regional diplomas in areas like graphics and fashion.

The grammar schools had their own sixth forms, while Highbury Technical College ran various courses: mixing day-release for the local apprentices who had usually left school at 15, full-time courses in skills like hairdressing and A-levels for those who wished to study in a more relaxed atmosphere. All these post-school institutions had begun to get involved in organising their own gigs on a regular basis through the 1960s and, in the next few years, the college circuit would become very active in the city.

For the slightly younger audiences, there were also lots of church and youth club venues for discos and live bands and this, added to the sudden disappearance of the bigger live scene, encouraged local musicians. There was something of an explosion in local groups at this time, although there had always been a busy local scene with dance and jazz bands, skiffle, rock and roll, beat, R&B and the like. Simon Dupree & the Big Sound were about to hit the UK Top Ten with the pseudo-psychedelic oriental sounding ‘Kites’. Locally, the example of the Beatles, Stones and others encouraged groups to take a more experimental approach and very soon the best of them would be writing their own material. The key venues, in addition to those mentioned included the Indigo Vat in Hampshire Terrace (now Scandals) and the Parlour on North End Junction. Others opened (and sometimes closed) over the next couple of years.

Even without lots of major gigs to go to for a few months there was a Southsea ‘scene’ which centred around certain pubs like the Palmerston (now Owens), the Osborne (Kingsleys), the Portland (One Eyed Dog) and the Cambridge Hotel (at the back of Debenhams) plus a number of coffee bars in Palmerston and Osborne Roads including the Manhattan, Le Bistro and Delmonico which had a dancing club upstairs. On Elm Grove there was the Esperanto (now Rosie’s).

These were places to hang out and some of the jukeboxes offered interesting contemporary choices. They were also places to find drugs – and the drugs had shifted from the ‘speed’ which had kept the mods awake all weekend, to the more mind-altering psychedelic options – cannabis of course, but also ‘acid’ (LSD). They were part of that transitional moment as some mods (and others) began to turn to the newer fashions, sounds and attitudes. One, known affectionately as ‘Mr Greedy’, recalls how in the summer of 1967, he spent a Saturday night in his suit at the Birdcage, watching the Jamaican ska star Prince Buster but then the following weekend was ‘tripping’ in Rowlands Castle – one of the favoured out-of-town locations for such activities.

The drug-taking was known about. In late 1966, the Portsmouth Evening News ran two consecutive exposés entitled ‘A City’s Sinister Secret’ and ‘Youth in Chains’ (5 & 6 December 1966) and their articles included a particular warning about heroin. With no apparent sense of irony, they proposed that a ‘Joint Plan’ was needed. Shortly after the publication, a city magistrate admitted ‘this drug menace has worried us considerably for the last few years’.

In the spring of 1967, the Evening News reported the city’s first prosecution for possession of LSD after a ‘tripping’ youth was arrested in hospital, having ‘stripped off his clothing and jumped through a first-floor window’. The city developed a strategy for addressing problems with drugs including pamphlets to be made available to all school pupils over the age of 12.

Drug taking was shown in a party scene in Antonioni’s newly released ‘swinging London’ movie, Blow Up, which the newspaper suggested was ‘a close but distorted look at the swinging scene’. The film was concerned principally with the fashion scene and one photographer (David Hemmings) – probably based loosely around David Bailey. Where fashion was concerned, if clothes were bought in Portsmouth, as opposed to trips to London, it was most likely to be Commercial Road which contained most of the boutiques – at least until Rikki Farr opened Apache on the corner of Marmion Road.

During the ‘Summer of Love’, local beat group Travis Raymar were renamed Tangerine Slyde and told the Evening News they hoped ‘to please with pure psychedelia’, including the possibility of an increasingly fashionable light show. Jimi Hendrix released his first album and influenced the Fruits of Love. The idea of peace and love was however on trial as the Evening News led its front page with ‘The Agony of Seeing Your Idols Jailed’ (30 June 1967) followed by ‘Rolling Stones’ Appeal Starts’ – a reference to the drugs trial of Jagger and Richards just up the A27 in Chichester.

The Beatles performed ‘All You Need is Love’ on the ‘Our World’ television satellite broadcast experiment at the end of June, and in the Evening News weekly pop column, ‘Spinner’ mentioned the British release of USA Elektra albums, advising us to watch out for Love and the Doors both from Los Angeles.

He also reported that soul band the Inspiration had re-formed as Coconut Mushroom with a repertoire based on the new West Coast bands. They planned to ‘present the city’s first home-grown attempt at a fully-fledged light show and psychedelic “happening” at the Parlour’. The photograph accompanying the piece showed the first version of the band who also appeared on one of the regular, popular Beat Cruises around the Solent where ‘their lights wouldn’t work … but their black, red & white face paint did’.

After a couple of quiet autumn months, an extraordinary bill at Portsmouth Guildhall on 22 November featured Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Pink Floyd, the Nice, the Move and Eire Apparent. Hendrix played for about 40 minutes and the others for less time in order to present two shows on the evening. The tour ended with a series of gigs in London as Hendrix became increasingly popular. Elsewhere, the Savoy presented The Alan Bown!, Marmalade and the Nite People while the Guildhall hosted a student dance with Arthur Brown. Spinner reported that he was “dazzling” but that some of his stage comments were ‘distasteful’.

Locally, the Bryan Hug Group had a song on the soundtrack of the movie Up the Junction. They re-named themselves Cherry Smash and released ‘Songs of Love’ on 29 December. There were ‘light shows and old time movies at Thorngate’s Thursday sessions’, while Tangerine Slyde were now heavily ‘west coast’ influenced and also featured go-go dancers. The Evening News printed a stage photograph of St Louis Checks’ singer Chris West in 1920s ‘gangster’ clothes as the film Bonnie & Clyde made a fashion impact. Harlem Soul Band became a six-piece, re-named Harlem Speakeasy with a short residency at the Brave New World starting on Christmas Eve.

I’ve said it was not really the dullest time – the genie had been out of the bottle for a few years, and magic was afoot. Mention of Harlem Speakeasy brings me to conclude this part of the story with an account of my experiences at the time, in an attempt to add some flesh to the bones of what is often a fairly generalised, if interesting history.

In the summer of 1967 I was approaching the end of my first year in the sixth form of a local grammar school, but while I nursed some ambitions to study fine art, it was all a bit vague. I left school that summer and took off with a pal to hitch to the west country where we spent a few weeks sleeping on beaches and in seafront shelters. It all felt rather ‘cool’ as for the first time there was no one around telling me to get a haircut or what I should be doing. I came back in early August and then travelled with another pal to Windsor to attend the Sunday evening of the London area’s “7th National Jazz-Pop – Ballads & Blues Festival” which had run from Friday to Sunday, organised by the National Jazz Federation and Soho’s Marquee Club, sponsored by London’s Evening News.

The first of these annual festivals had been held in Richmond, and from 1963 onwards, the balance between British jazz and Blues had shifted gradually towards the latter. Now moved to Windsor, there wasn’t much in the way of ballads while the pop was increasingly part of the psychedelic revolution. In 1967 acts booked included Pink Floyd (who didn’t show because Syd was misbehaving), Cream, the Nice, the Small Faces, Donovan, and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown; while the blues acts included John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, Chicken Shack, future Woodstock stars Ten Years After, and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. It was my first proper festival but when people try to tell you that Monterey Pop (just two months earlier) was the first, remind them about this series – and perhaps the jazz and folk festivals on both sides of the Atlantic at Newport and Beaulieu throughout the decade. There were festivals in America and England throughout the 1960s.

That Windsor trip was on Sunday 14 August 1967, also the day that the Labour Government’s legislation came into force outlawing the pirate radio stations, including Radio London which featured John Peel’s Perfumed Garden show. The last of these, a particularly long one, was broadcast on that final day and while I missed it, being in Windsor, I have a CD copy of it which indicates clearly the kinds of new sounds we were beginning to hear in the UK – even in Portsmouth.

The Beatles’ new album was there of course and also from the UK, Pink Floyd, Donovan, the Incredible String Band and Traffic. From Haight-Ashbury we heard Country Joe & the Fish, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, and from elsewhere in the USA, the Velvet Underground, the Misunderstood, Tim Buckley, Captain Beefheart, the Mothers of Invention and Bob Dylan. The popular story is that Sgt Pepper revolutionized our 1960s, but many of us listened regularly to John Peel and the ‘loveable mop tops’ album was simply one among many – and not necessarily anyone’s favourite. A few weeks after the unpopular legislation on 30 September, the BBC launched Radio One and John Peel reappeared with similar choices on a show called Top Gear. You didn’t need to be in London to hear the latest sounds.

Nonetheless, there were days out in London to check out fashions, music and the latest work in the art galleries. At some point around Christmas, we spent a night at Covent Garden’s Middle Earth Club, the hippie successor to UFO which closed in October. By the autumn I had signed on for one year to complete my A levels in the far more relaxed atmosphere of Highbury Technical College, where I worked with one of those rare great teachers Doug Everitt in the art room. Years later Doug moved to the Eldon and around the same time I was also doing a part-time course with him at the art college and it was there that I first begun to understand and be excited by the possibilities in abstraction. I also spotted a coach trip to Hammersmith which I joined, seeing some of the great visiting American blues artists (Little Walter, Son House, Skip James, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Bukka White). I was increasingly interested in the world of blues and soul and I had made some tentative steps to performing as a singer and harmonica player.

At Highbury I met the aforementioned local band Harlem Speakeasy. Most of them were old school pals of mine and I had played a bit of music with some in recent years, so when they invited me to join the band I was delighted. It was to be the start of an extraordinary adventure – a brief roller-coaster that simply changed the entire course of my life; but that tale is for next time. For now, as San Francisco was marking the ‘Death of Hippie’ with a formal ceremony around my 18th birthday, it was really just beginning for me.

Picture courtesy of Dave Allen.

Read Part I of this series here.