Suited and booted and ready for action, John Waters takes us on a night out in 1960s London.
Leo checked his reflection in the mirror for the tenth time. His suit was the business. Three ply mohair, bottle green in colour with four slanting pockets and a fourteen inch centre vent. It was immaculately cut and finished with hand stitching.
He had picked it up from Aubrey Morris at Highbury Corner earlier in the week. He had suffered four weeks of waiting including three fittings but it had been worth the wait. It was said that Chris Farlowe was a customer, along with several members of the Kray firm. Esteemed company indeed!
This bloody tie was driving him mad. The knot just would not sit right. His shirt was brand new, bought from Harry Fenton yesterday. Pale yellow with button down collar. Leo had spent ages ironing out all the packing creases. He insisted on ironing all his shirts as it was the only way to ensure they were right. His mother never ironed them to the high standard he required. The tie was undone once again. It was pale green with matching silkie for his top jacket pocket. Once again he pulled the small knot in his tie up to his collar, then loosened it slightly and undid the top shirt button. At last! It was just right. A final brush down of his jacket, a quick check of his hair parting and he headed for the front door.
His mother called after him: ‘Leo, will you be in tonight?’ She made the enquiry with the resigned knowledge that he wouldn’t be seen until Sunday. ‘I don’t know’ he replied. He heard his father from upstairs: ‘What bloody time did you get in last night?’ Leo knew that his father would be nursing a hangover so he did not retort as he would normally have done. He simply shut the door and headed off up the road.
Feeling the rumblings of hunger coming on he glanced at the clock high above the Archway tavern looking down at busy crossroads below. This was the centre of Leo’s universe. The Archway. His manor. He strutted up Holloway road aware that people would cross the road to avoid him. He was the guv’nor. He quickened his step and injected a little more menace into his demeanour. It was just approaching 12 so he headed into the Co-op for a sandwich.
The tea bar was situated opposite the record counter which made it a popular meeting place on a Saturday. A few of the chaps were in attendance. Johnny Hall was with them. He was the drummer with local band – The Equals. They were playing at the Tavern tonight so we agreed to put in an appearance. Johnny was full of talk about the band: ‘We’ve been signed up by President Records,’ he enthused. Singer Eddy Grant had written some numbers and they were going into the studios next week to record them. He reckoned they were going to make it in a big way. Leo laughed along with rest of the assembled audience. They had heard it all before so many times both from Johnny and from Rod Stewart, another local singer whose parents ran a paper shop up the road.
‘Listen mate, the only way anybody around here will become famous is by robbing a bank or stabbing someone to death.’
Leo strolled across to the record counter and spotted ‘This is Soul’ listed on the new releases. He asked the young girl behind the counter to play the disc over the speakers in its entirety as he might buy it. He knew full well she would dare not refuse. He laughed to himself as he knew there was no possibility of buying any records as he had pawned his record player some time ago. He made a mental note to redeem it on Monday.
Terry Woods and Mac had turned up. Leo had known them both since the age of five having progressed through schooling with both of them. He supposed they were the nearest thing to being best friends that he had. Mac was fine but he would not trust Terry as far as he could spit. As Terry felt the same way in return this made for an excellent working relationship as each watched the other like a hawk. After exchanging pleasantries, the three of them headed down the road to the ridiculously named Regal café. It was anything but regal. The ground floor consisted of the usual formica covered table and chairs serving the staple ‘greasy spoon’ delights. Downstairs, the basement had been kitted out with a jukebox, football table and a couple of pinball machines.
The basement was ideally suited as a meeting place and they had decided to use the café as a base camp. The owner was terrified of them and they had quickly taken advantage of the situation and used the area behind the counter as a hideaway for weapons and other items that needed to be kept away from prying eyes. They removed a duffle bag deposited some days ago and made their way down the stairs. The basement was empty which suited them. Terry emptied the contents of the bag onto a table. Out spilled hundreds of small envelopes. Each of the envelopes contained 10 dexadrine tablets. They took a hundred packets each and secreted them in various pockets putting the remainder back in the bag which they returned to its original position.
They had a stroke of luck when a local villain called John Moriarty received word that his drum was about to be turned over by the boys in blue. He had appeared in the Regal wearing a large overcoat which he opened to reveal a pair of stockings tied together and down either side of his neck. Each of the feet were filled with tablets. ‘Bloody Hell! You look like you’ve been diggin’ a tunnel under the wire.’ The remark drew a few laughs from Terry and Mac but Moriarty was not amused.
‘I need to get shot of this lot quick,’ he stated. ‘How much money have you got?’. A quick check of their combined pockets revealed £19 plus a few coppers. This was not enough to satisfy Moriarty who wanted at least £35. They haggled for some time and eventually it was agreed that they would dispose of the stash passing on 20% of the returns to Moriarty. The trio were delighted with their purchase reckoning they stood to make at least £125 even at knock down prices.
The Archway Tavern was filling rapidly that evening when Leo arrived. He knew where to find the crew and headed straight for the bar. Terry and Mac were there along with a dozen or so others. They were all ‘suited and booted’ and ready to rumble. A Charlie Rich song came to mind. How did it go? ‘…fast talking, slow walking, good looking Mohair Sam.’ He fought his way to the bar and ordered a light and bitter then made his way over to join the others. Mac and Terry were talking to Big Roy. Roy was immaculate as always. He stood about six feet two and had the kind of boyish good looks that many a film star would kill for. The amazing thing about Roy was that whatever he wore he looked as though he had just stepped out of John Colliers window. You could dress Roy in a Donkey jacket and boilersuit and he would still look the business! He was wearing a sports jacket, Fred Perry and Levis. It wasn’t necessary to look at what he was wearing on his feet. Roy lived in his desert boots. He had taken to dying them different colours and had a different pair for every day of the week! To top it all Roy could DANCE. They could all shake a leg to some extent but Roy was the real deal. Obviously this stood him in great stead when it came to pulling the birds. Leo reflected that life just wasn’t fair at times.
The Equals had started up now and were knocking out ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ over in the corner. Leo nodded over to Eddie, John and the rest of the lads. He listened for a moment and had to admit that they were really quite good. An animated discussion was in full flow by now. Half the company wanted to head down to the East End pubs to try and score with some talent then maybe head on up to the Regency or some other drinking club. The other contingent favoured going ‘up west’. There was no question where Terry, Mac and Leo were headed and Big Roy was of the same frame of mind along with Haggis (a token Scot that had made his home locally). Eventually the battle lines were drawn and we split up to head for our various destinations. The five of us hailed a cab and after some ‘argy bargy’ the cabbie decided it wasn’t worth the aggro to decline their and they headed off.
As often as not the tube was their preferred mode of transport but Mac and Leo had turned in good profit that week. They had been working on Oxford St with Little Stevie. He was knocking out cheap Pop art earrings and cufflinks outside Debenhams. They would all meet up in a café in Brewer St where the guv’nor would arrive in his van, deal out the goods to the sellers who were on commission.. They in turn would employ look outs which is where they came in. The sellers put them on a wage with a bonus depending on how well they did. It was easy work just keeping an eye out for the old bill. If Stevie got caught it only meant a five bob fine, although it would put an end to their career as lookouts!
The cabbie was instructed to drop them at the bottom of Wardour St. They exited the taxi looking like God’s gift. They were arrogant, loud and brash. They commanded begrudging respect if only through fear. They believed they were the ‘in crowd’ and nobody messed with them! Big Roy and Haggis headed up the road for La Discoteque whilst Leo and the others deposited their wares behind a pile of bricks on an adjacent building site. The old bill had always tended to laugh at the kids popping pills in the past but lately the press and public pressure had changed their outlook and weekend raids were becoming commonplace. A large paddywagon would pull up outside the designated club and the police would crash the doors mob handed. There would be no escape for those inside as there was only one way in and out. Punters would be lined up in their respective sexes and searched. Invariably the floor would be awash with bombers, purple hearts, dexys and God knows what else! A few unlucky individuals would be hauled of to West End Central to await their parents wrath in the morning. The raids were merely a nuisance for the majority the only real losers being the dealers who would lose the stock they were carrying and the club owners who were getting a bad name.
They had taken enough stock to keep them busy for a couple of hours – their first port of call was the Flamingo. They paid their entrance fee and descended the stairs into the basement The club was busy. Resident band Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames were in full flight on the small stage. There was a small bar where soft drinks could be purchased.Leo caught the barman’s eye. ‘Three cokes Rik,’ he shouted. ‘Coming up mate’, Rik winked as he replied. He brought over three bottles with straws and Leo passed over some cash. He carried the bottles across to the others being careful not spill any of the precious contents. Rik and his brother had been managing the club for some time and had a nice little scam going adding shots of rum to cokes for certain customers.
Mac spoke up: ‘I had a word with Tommy on the door and he will take 100 packets.’ That was excellent news. No doubt he would sell them in the club at double the price. Mac went off to complete the deal whilst they watched a group of girls gyrating on the dancefloor. On Mac’s return they popped a few pills and headed back down Wardour St; Leo decide to get some more supplies and headed on towards the building site. As he bent down to retrieve some more envelopes he heard a sound behind him. Leo turned to see two shadowy figures bearing down on him, The first with his arm raised about to bring a short length of scaffold tube down on his head. He spun to one side narrowly missing his assailant’s blow. Rising to his feet with remarkable agility he brought his outstretched arm up in a sweeping circle. The brick in his hand scythed through the air stopping with a sickening thud as it made contact with his attackers face. He dropped like a stone. His eyebrow had been laid open to the bone and his mouth was a bloody gash revealing a gap where several teeth had been dislodged. The second assailant stared at Leo for a second then turned to run only to be met by a volley of punches from Terry and Mac. He was unconscious before he hit the floor. A few well aimed kicks made sure that he would not trouble them for a while.
‘Come on,’ said Terry, ‘let’s get out of here.’ They pocketed the remainder of the envelopes and headed for the street. ‘Just a minute,’ said Leo. He walked over to the two unconscious forms and reached into his top pocket. He withdrew a cut throat razor. The blade had been taped up leaving just a half an inch showing. This ensured that any damage inflicted would be severe enough to scar but would not go deep enough to be life threatening . He brought his arm down twice in a slashing motion opening up two large gashes across the buttocks of the two hapless figures. Leo preferred this to cutting a face as the wound would take several weeks to heal and every time they bent over or tried to sit the stitches would burst open. ‘Right, let’s get out of here.’
They headed back up to La Discoteque. At the entrance to the club they saw a figure kneeling in the gutter. It was Camden Pete who was a well known face. He had deposited a pool of stinking vomit into the gutter and was picking tablets out of the sticky morass and putting them back in his mouth. ‘Pete,’ Leo shouted. Pete looked up at Leo with glazed eyes. He grabbed Leo’s jacket and mumbled something incoherently. He was completely stoned. ‘Aw just leave him,’ shouted Terry. Leo shook off Pete’s hand and absentmindedly brushed his jacket where contact had been made. They ascended the stairs and pressed some coins into the doorman’s hand. They had sussed some time ago that entry could be gained in this manner at half the price and made full use of the opportunity.
The door opened releasing a hot fug of fetid air and cigarette smoke. The sound system was pumping out the Phil Upchurch Combo’s ‘You Can’t Sit Down. They looked at each other and burst into laughter at the irony of the situation in view of what had just happened. The place was heaving with sweating bodies jostling for space on the dance floor. Big Roy was on the floor dancing looking like he had scored with a real tasty bit of skirt. Haggis was sitting in a corner totally stoned. He was opening and clenching his fists and muttering away to himself oblivious to all around him They soon parted with the rest of their gear , consuming a few more themselves along the way. Once the last business had been completed, Leo moved on to the floor and lost himself in the music. Jnr Walker-Shotgun, Eddie Floyd – Things Get Better, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Four Tops… the night wore on.
6am Sunday morning saw groups of bedraggled mods wandering around aimlessly waiting for the tubes to start. Leo headed down to the Strand and an all night café called El Passant. The place was full of miserable looking individuals most of whom were on comedowns. Looking the worse for wear they sat shivering nursing headaches caused by a combination of the drugs and too many decibels. Leo had the advantage of being able to pop a pill from time to time to assist in a slow recovery. He looked around him at the collection of pathetic creatures. They would be back at their menial little jobs on Monday morning serving behind counters, delivering messages and running around offices making tea. He smiled as he caressed the wad of money in his pocket.
‘What a bunch of losers.’