As someone who’s been seeking out underground rock music for over 25 years, punk rock really fucked me up. Specifically, the punk rock dogma I internalized by reading the English music weekly New Musical Express religiously between 1983-85. Punk rock in England was largely over in these years, unless you were talking about groups like Crass or Discharge, which the NME almost never did. It was more likely to cover the “hardcore” scene coming out of America, by which it meant Black Flag and Husker Du but also Swans (?) and Sonic Youth (?!). Still, in dozens of articles about the Fall, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Cabaret Voltaire, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and so on, the punk rock commandments passed down to the post-punk generation came through loud and clear:

  • punk rock destroys bloated rock dinosaurs and pop stars
  • guitar solos and ten-minute overtures are for public school toffs
  • punk rockers hate long-haired hippies and their music
  • 50s rock’n’roll and 60s R&B are the only old music worth paying attention to
  • no 70s music before punk rock is any good—reggae excepted

Not that these statements weren’t true in many regards, but the burning-bridges aesthetic that places the Sex Pistols at Year One for music of any worth (i.e., music that the NME wrote about) erased any sense of historical context or cultural precedent for punk rock for me. Over the last 10-15 years, I’ve filled in the blanks with music criticism, music history, and the tidal wave of reissued albums featuring the bands and sounds that came before punk. Periodicals like Mojo and Arthur have also contributed valiantly, as have prolific archivists like Julian Cope (who has tirelessly and breathlessly documented the underground in Germany, Japan, even Denmark). Nevertheless, I still get a shock whenever I discover bygone scenes with fully developed aesthetics that are underground in the way that punk rock is, but which aren’t “punk rock.”

Currently I’m fascinated with the west London neighborhood of Ladbroke Grove. Its countercultural cachet today comes largely via its association with the Portobello Road Market, which runs on the parallel street, and the annual Notting Hill Carnival. But in the late 60s and 70s Ladbroke Grove was the main enclave for Britain’s drug-gobbling freaks (please, don’t call us hippies).  The comparison to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury has been made more than once, but the imminent explosion of punk rock all around London, particularly west London, casts the cultural impact of Ladbroke Grove in a more radical light.  The neighborhood was the base for countercultural journals like International Times and Oz, and even a UK chapter of White Panther Party. Needless to say, bands from Ladbroke grove waved the freak flag particularly high.

Probably the first freak band was the Deviants, who symbolized a new radical faction in London’s psychedelic underground. Their 1967 debut Ptooff was a key album, a jarring, in-your-face break with the village-green whimsy of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and other, more prominent psychedelic groups from Britain. “For those who were ready to live in squats, fight policemen and radically alter their lives, music was important more for its message than its artistic qualities,” recounted Joe Boyd in White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s. “Leading the radical faction was Mick Farren,” the Deviants’ frontman and today a prolific writer/journalist.

The Pretty Things started a couple years earlier as one of the many UK bands inspired by the blues (the “uglier cousins of the Rolling Stones,” the press called them) before developing a more epic, psychedelic style. Critical consensus deems their 1968 album S.F. Sorrow the band’s classic; on this album, they enlisted Twink, drummer from the hard-hitting R&B band Tomorrow, who then joined…

the Pink Fairies. A self-styled British counterpart to the MC5, the Fairies played a grizzled boogie that hasn’t aged very well but has its undeniable charms. They were one of Ladbroke Grove’s cherished “community bands” or “people’s bands,” playing free concerts in the street or outside major rock festivals like Glastonbury. Larry Wallis, their last frontman, went on to join the first version of Motörhead with Lemmy, after he was kicked out of…

Hawkwind. The other “people’s band,” Hawkwind are undoubtedly the most famous group to come from Ladbroke Grove. They were fluent in a number of post-60s psychedelic styles, from free-form freakouts to the-snot-has-caked-upon-my-pants acoustic odes to elves-and-warlords sci-fi/fantasy tales (particularly when writers Michael Moorcock and Robert Calvert joined the band). It’s their driving, droning proto-metal, however, that has secured Hawkwind’s legend, providing the template (and the titular song) for Lemmy’s next band Motörhead as well.


I’d be the first to admit my cluelessness on the subject, which is why Rich Deakin’s Keep it Together! Cosmic Boogie with the Deviants and the Pink Fairies is at the top of my reading list, but it seems the influence of the Ladbroke Grove underground on punk rock has only recently been acknowledged. Punk’s exclusion of long-haired hippies from the domain of radical cultural and political revolt is still tenacious, informing the aesthetic common sense of music thrill-seekers from my generation.  Has it taken punk rock’s final transformation into just another lifestyle brand to end its monopoly on rock’n’roll transgression and let other voices and communities from the underground be heard again?