Monday, 27 June 2011

The Onlookers

This is supposed to be about bloody Brighton, but I guess I’m allowed to write about what I bloody well like. This is about a band from around the town I grew up in, Windsor, in the early 80s. I was just getting old enough to go to gigs when they folded, so I never got to see them live, but their first and only single remains a treasured possession. Simple, plain, then glorious. Like the Stone Roses' All Across the Sands, but in tune.
The Onlookers were the perfect mid-60s English combo with style, an abundance of talent and glorious harmony-dripping pop songs. But 15 years too late. Like The Prisoners soon after them, they were purists, staying ideal to that sound. They had a fanatical mod following, for a spell.  I was obsessed with watching The Prisoners live a few years later. I wasn't into the mod subculture, just the music.
The Onlookers were called mods, psychedelicists and various wavists in fanzines of the day.  They never made it through. Too nice for indie kids, not council estate enough, not led by a quotable egotist, perhaps, they were stuck on a retro thing in a futurist era. Somehow they could have been the Monkees, you almost see it when they played on a kids TV show House No. 73 with a young/old Sandi Toksveig. There’s the single You and I, an unreleased song, Chieftan, and a dreamy-psychedelic fragment in the bathroom, all on youtube.
All that remains otherwise is that rather splendid debut/farewell single, containing the wonderful Julia on the b-side, You and I, and Understand (which contains a steal from The Hollies' Bus Stop, but not on a Gallagher scale).  
The would-be follow up The Mystic Surrounds Me/Houseman made it onto a Slough bands compilation, Subway. There’s this stuff plus the band’s unreleased demos coming out on Detour Records, which may be a lost album. Some lost piece of genius like Subway Sect’s punk album, or The Ultimate Action or VU. 
The Onlookers were always described as a Slough band, probably because of the Slough compilation, though I suspect they have Windsor roots like me.  For a start, my old school mate Darren Daly told me this: Interesting fact No.47. Nicky Stone (lead singer) was the son of one of my mothers best friends. he was a few years older than me and when I was a kid he gave me all his old Action Men and accessories. I got the space capsule and a tank amongst other stuff.
Windsor has some claims to musical fame: St Etienne, Andy Weatherall, part of Republica.  The Onlookers stayed true to their name, then looked elsewhere in their lives.
Nick Stone has a unique voice, but it’s a sweet instrument, with only a touch of a Ray Davies twist. All of this is spun together with Dean Bruce’s harmonies and raga guitar solos, and unflashily brilliant bass playing from Mark Leech. Mark Bevis seems to find the perfect beat for things - just listen to the chorus of Julia. The songs are innocent and powerful, on the verge of experience. They still ring true.

Good archive of old cuttings at:

Good discussion at:

Darren Daly’s review for Langley College paper

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Save Our Starlings!

Flocking starlings are one of the most stunning sights in the natural world. And their free ariel display has been a feature of Brighton seafront for many years. 

But now their numbers are in decline and the spectacle around the shell of the West Pier is now smaller and less frequent than in years gone by.

While Brighton Bloody Council continues to entertain speculators’ dreams of observation towers, twisted skyscrapers and outsized ferris wheels along our seafront, they seem oblivious to the dwindling of a true natural wonder in our town.

My friend Lisa who runs a cafĂ© in town suggested that we should do more to encourage them back. This could be done by replacing some of the wood that burnt down a decade ago in a mysterious fire on the West Pier. Once thousands of starlings roosted on the derelict pier’s wooden structures.  Now only a steel skeleton of the pier remains – hardly a comfortable perch.

Installing perching beams would entail work on a dangerous structure, but need not be prohibitively expensive. It would not need to be safe for human visitors.

The West Pier Trust, which owns the wrecked pier, has given up on redeveloping it. Lottery funds evaporated, developers went bust, etc… But it makes sense to leave it be.  We have one serviceable tourist pier already.  The end-of-the-pier shows it was once home to are ancient history.

Instead, the trust wants to build a 150-metre high observation tower at the pier’s entrance. It’s as if someone looked at Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower and said lazily, “me too”.

Observation towers presuppose there is something remarkable to observe.  In Portsmouth, it’s the ships.  Up a Brighton tower, tourists could look out to sea - and see the horizon a little lower down than before; alternatively, they could do a 180 and look at Brighton itself, although that’s better done from any of the South Downs behind the town. It’s a town surrounded by hills – you don’t need to climb a spire to see it.

You don’t need an observation tower to watch starlings paint the sky either, but at least it would give tourists something incredible to gaze at from their raised glass bubble.

What I propose is that we investigate making minimal alterations to the West Pier to encourage the starlings back.  This is going to be a tough sell in Brighton, which has never quite got over its reputation as a town that’s helping police with their enquiries in a kiss-me-quick hat.

But let’s be optimistic. The property bubble is well and truly over, so all those extra luxury flats aren’t going to happen now.

We have elected the country’s first Green MP, Caroline Lucas.  It’s time we lived up to our new image by doing something for wildlife.

Incidentally, some fascinating research on birds’ flocking behaviour can be found here:

Thursday, 7 April 2011


It looks like a dinosaur devouring a building. The hydraulic crane’s steel jaws are pecking away at the vast former nurses’ residence in the hospital behind our road. Its sharp, angular outline has dominated the view up the hill for decades; soon there will be a toothy gap between the houses.  Since the plan was announced a few years back, I have imagined a wrecking ball or dynamite. This slow grazing by steel diplodocus has me baffled.  My neighbour, whose father used to be a demolition man, says she used to help him salvage bricks as buildings were slowly dismantled. Are bricks now so cheap that we don’t recycle them?
The site will become a car park. The planned development of blocks of flats has been put on ice as the property mania subsides, and housing association grants are slashed.
Still the destruction goes ahead. My neighbour has a theory as to why. Some of the local kids have been breaking into this semi-derelict ex-warehouse of angels. Letting fireworks off, that sort of thing. It is so labyrinthine that the police can never find the culprits when they arrive. The graffiti they have left on the walls of a fifth floor flat is now visible as the building’s secret insides are laid bare. I never knew this world existed until now.
They won’t touch the main hospital because it is listed. A former workhouse, it was also a hospital for  Indian soldiers who fought for the British in the fields of France during WW1. At least, they sent the lower castes to the workhouse. The wounded officers were billeted in the Pavilion. It has the same angles as the nurses block, but they will never mechanically devour a building with a clock tower.
I will miss the Victorian monstrosity that was the nurses’ home, however. If you looked towards moonrise and Jupiter, it had a ghostly presence in the east. I always thought I saw lights on, human life, but these were tricks, echoes.
It was part of that feeling that you were on the edge of civilisation – where the rows of houses suddenly ended with fields that just go on. I’m romanticising a little here. Brighton racecourse buffers the countryside. But the badgers and the foxes don’t seem to mind that too much. I hope they aren’t spooked by the prehistoric roar of modernity, modernising.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

24 Our Party People

Of course it’s all coloured by the fact that I am falling hopelessly in love with someone, but last night’s reggae party at my neighbour’s house was the best yet for me. Proper sound systems, decks, curry and homemade cocktails in the kitchen….

So this is a few words in praise of my Bloody Brighton, the one with its roots in the anarchist bookshops and cafes of the 80s, the hippy diaspora and the working class local politics of the estates.

“You actually know all your neighbours!” one girl exclaims to me. Most of my neighbours are with me on the dance floor, along with many others drawn in through friendships and the new social media networks.

 This is Emma’s house. The other side is Amy, who also hosts great parties, American Amy, who lives in a caravan in the first Amy’s drive and Tallulah from the same end of the close. Its crammed with writers, thinkers, community activists, and the kind of party lovers I used to know from the Section 47 raves in London. My kind of people.

“I live in Notting Hill,” the girl continues. “No-one knows anyone. At night it’s dead – all private clubs.”

A few years ago, some Sunday filth-sheet did an expose of this estate, trying desperately to make it sound like a cross between Beruit and LA Watts. “Yeh, you gotta carry a blade round here for protection,” some hoody sniffs to the encouraging scratch of the journalist’s pen. Total bullshit of course. We had a few problems with bored youf a few years back. People here got organised and something got done. We have a community centre and youth activities now.  The rather aggressive lad with learning difficulties who used to kick a ball up and down the street all day now has a job on the bins. He looks proper made up, I’m told.

In Notting Hill the solution would be to lock them out.

Actually, that’s unfair. This kind of community spirit, part bohemian, part working class self help, exists in abundance across London. I saw it in Camden when I used to write about that area. Follow the basslines into the house parties, the dimly lit community halls, the surreal protests and the sheer joy of being alive and not thinking that life is happening elsewhere, behind a locked gate.