Today in London’s theatrical history: Demolition Decorators go on trial for obstruction, 1978.

‘Today is the trial of four defendants – Jisimi, Tony Allan, Jonathan Graham and Alan Boyd. They were arrested and charged with causing an obstruction to the highway. Court Four at the Wells St. Magistrate’s Court is a fountain of wood panelling. The judge has a built-in desk raised above the rest. The scribe and secretary sit below him, silent and powerless, seemingly content with their lot. And there, in dark seats, are the Leicester Square Four, young eccentric and fearless challengers of the law. The judge is firm and fair with a sense of humour. He makes all this clear to the court by making fun of both the police and the defendants. The young, almost adolescent, policeman and woman are tense and alert in their starched uniforms. They have prepared well and corroborated their stories. A good defence, though, would have had them both in tears. Jisimi is out to upset. He plays with his proud hair, and tells the court how he dislikes NOT being talked about. Jonathan is a goat, he prances and prattles around. His confusion is obvious. Only Tony, I feel, is on top of the situation, and is able to challenge the prosecution. The prosecution proves to be cool and generous, but the judge wins the day by, not only, keeping the court under excellent control without being condescending, by being funny without being carefree, and fair without pretentions. At 4:30, he gave the defendants a five minute lecture, advising them very strongly to get a lawyer. The case continues on 15 May.’ (Paul K Lyons, Diary entry, 6th February).

The Demolition Decorators were a collective of musicians and comedians’ based in London 1977-81. They managed to amass 24 arrests for performing in the street, had a kamikaze suicide squad and squatted the main stage at the Bath Festival to hold a ‘people’s event’ complete with laundry service’.

The Decorators called themselves ‘incidentalists’, apparently because many of their performances comprised confrontations: ‘Audiences could not be neutral and many outdoor performances involved an appearance by the police. At one gig, some of the audience were so incensed, they firebombed the hall. Although very political, they were never fanatical or bitter. There was a mystical quality about them.’ The Decorators also claim to have ‘single-handedly‘ won buskers the right to play in the London Underground system (raises eyebrows).

Initially a street theatre group, they staged a number of impromptu ‘happenings’. Apparently they were banned from performing in the street in Covent Garden at one point for being ‘outrageously offensive.’ International Times (it) relates some street theatre that ended in arrests:

“CLOWNS CLOUTED

FOUR more street performers – two from Rough Theatre and two from Demolition Decorators were busted as they performed to an audience of several hundreds on the paved precinct of Leicester Square at the end of last month. They were part of an ad hoc buskers cabaret protesting about the arrest of two fellow-performers (members of Ashes) who were lifted on previous occasions. Three police squad cars and two black marias answered the call for help from two Bill-on-the-beat who had met with unanimous opposition when they tried to arrest the buskers’ MC and halt the entertainment. The other three were arrested in the fracas that followed (surprisingly well filmed by BBC2 News). About 150 people went to Bow Street nick where there was dancing, juggling, singing and storytelling in the street, all interspersed with constant chants demanding the release of the performers.

They were freed on bail charged with obstruction (three of the highway, one of an officer) and the fun continued until midnight when the police finally broke it up with no further arrests. The four appear at Bow Street al 2.00 p.m. of 5 September.

The previous week, when the Ashes’ performers appeared at Bow Street, police were faced with a demonstration of street entertainers outside including clowns, musicians and unicyclists and capped by a member of the Demolition Decorators surreally lying in a bath of rotting fruit who, when questioned, said, “I’m just the ordinary man in the bath.”

He was whisked away by friends before the police could discover a suitable offence.

Inside the court the Ashes case was remanded a further six weeks until 21 September due to lack of time.

Ashes, also charged with obstructing the free passage of the highway (the Leicester Square pedestrian precinct) were performing a story play for children when arrested and, like Rough Theatre and Demolition Decorators, would welcome your support at Bow Street and at the various guerrilla support gigs. Buskers are especially welcome. (Call BIT – 01-229 8219 any hour of the twenty-four for details.)

On 25 August Twelve Clowns, mobilised by Demolition Decorators were arrested in Leicester Square while walking along singing “We all live in a Free Society” to the tune of “Yellow Submarine”. They continued to sing as they were obstructed by Agents of the Crown who hustled them away to the vans which had been lying in wait for some time. The police had been informed beforehand by the entertainers that there would be a performance and there was a verbal understanding that there would be no trouble (i.e., arrests) which just goes to show how few people you can trust nowadays. There are now a total of 18 entertainers being prosecuted. All are pleading not guilty. Donations for the Defence Fund welcome.

Demolition Decorators plan more guerilla theatre in the near future in their Campaign for Fun.” (it, Vol 4 issue 11. 1978.)

In 1978-9, the collective and other alternative organisations (including international times) were squatting in a building at 13-14 James Street, Covent Garden, where they held what have become legendary parties/performances. “They would decorate the rooms, the themes changing with every show. They would then invite performers, poets and musicians to come by and do their thing. There’d be no charge to the public, but there’d be a bar, and any profit made from the alcohol would go towards the following fortnight’s show. ‘Fortnight?’ I asked. ‘We’ll need two weeks to redecorate,’ Lester explained. ‘Once a week, we’ll be knocking ourselves out. Any longer and people will start to drift away.’ “

“The first party put on was a chaotic affair. The rooms of the squat were filled with people talking, getting stoned, dancing or making out. Music blared from various stereo systems, while down in the basement, bands played, ranging from free-form jazz to nose-bleeding thrash. Occasionally a room would be occupied by a guy reciting poetry from a battered notebook. None of it was of any quality, but it was delivered with passion, the spittle flying from the poet’s lips forcing onlookers to stay pressed against the walls… raucous, shambolic, and bursting with energy…
By the time the third party took place, we were beginning to get a better handle on things. The success of the first two events had attracted more people to the group, which resulted in more performers and more props and equipment.”

Collective meetings could be as interesting an varied as the performances:

‘Surely, a whole play, or a novel, could be written entitled ‘The rise and fall of the Demolition Decorators’. Another Monday meeting passed by. The group and its members are more interesting than the actual gigs they perform. Tonight, for example, we had a sharp-but-dulled-by-drugs couple from BIT who took up our time and space. They wanted to hold their tenth anniversary in our squat. The mob, our mob were patient with them. I find myself willing and practical but often defeated by the criss-cross mutterings that cut under and fly over me. I walk out into the street to collect some boxes. I am in bare feet. I return and crush them beneath my feet and feel the fire of my impatience. I tramp around avoiding eyes, the quick and supple. I catch the crossfires but have no effect on them.’ (Paul K Lyons)

And performances themselves often descended into chaos:
‘Pete and Paul organised a gig last night, a Demolition Decorators gig. It was explosive. Beryl and the Peryls were booked to perform at 8:30, according to ‘Time Out’, but they didn’t start until 11 or finish till midnight. And the power blew, so the show’s finale only came with the help of everyone’s matches. Two bands and Ruff Theatre had also been due to play at the event, but the whole thing was a cock-up. Since this is the alternative scene, though, people are supposed to keep cool, not get mad. It was chaos – four bands and two and a half theatre groups hanging around all squabbling about the running order. Pete did keep his cool, and Paul calmly tried to organise the performers but they eventually took things into their own hands. Two of the DDs were chanting to some seventh heaven and calling it peace and prosperity.’

In December 1978, a fire that started during a party gutted the building:

‘Poor old IT was gutted; poor old BIT was definitely unlucky. They invited guests from everywhere, and from anywhere they came. A 10th anniversary and all that. How many bands were to come? 9 or 10, 20 or 30. It was all friends and grooves, smokers and abortion campaigners, squatters and the rest. What a shame. Poor old IT, its thousand files, its million prints, its two typewriters, its five cabinets, its three desks – who was to blame after all? Those two friends, the best of friends, too keen, too overworked, who let the paint dry, and the wallpaper dry, and then catch fire, with flames licking up the wall, up the wall, out the window, the side of the house. I hear Paul went squeak at 2am and saved a life or two, but neither an office nor a bed was saved…’

“In some ways The Demolition Decorators and their ilk were the last hurrah of vanishing city. Their roots were fixed in the 60’s – the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the 14-hour Technicolor Dream. It felt symbolic that the area of Covent Garden where they were based was also changing. Local citizens had successfully fought off a plan to prevent a concrete highway from running through their neighbourhood, but the market was still about to be transformed into an arts and crafts theme park whether anyone wanted it or not.” (Simon Fellowes)

The Decorators also performed at Glastonbury Festival in 1979, when it was, er, more alternative and less of a playground for annoying rich twats than it is today…

 

According to poet Tony Hegley: “We were at Glastonbury in 1979 and we came across a group called the Demolition Decorators, who were doing an anti-media piece which we thought was absolutely hilarious. They were a rock band / comedy performance band. We thought they were absolutely brilliant. Max Coles was the comic in the crew and he was just sitting in front of a TV set with a 30-foot carpet, looking at it.

“I think he was making a point about people watching too much TV. On the third day, I think the TV set was smashed to bits with people running around holding pieces of flaming ember that had been the TV set, screaming Coronation Street! Crossroads! – which we thought was a great idea.

Hegley also describes a Demolition Decorators gig, which gives some idea of the practice of the group at the time: “I booked them into a really rough club in East London and said: Look, If they don’t like you, they’ll probably kill you and it’s only £15 total for the group.They discussed it, then immediately phoned me back to say Yes and I could not believe how well that gig went.

“They went around asking the audience what they wanted and gave the audience what they wanted, but in their own particular way.

– What would you like to see?

– Well, that bird. Is she, like, yer singer?

– Yes.

– I wanna fuck ‘er.

– Right… What’s your name?

– Bill.

– Right, Bill would like to fuck Jan… And what about you?

– I’m a deeply religious man. Could you do a religious song for me? Something like I Believe.

– Right.

“They got the whole list of what everyone wanted and most of them were I wanna fuck the lead singer.

“So they erected a tent, banging it into the middle of the floor, causing quite a lot of damage. The singer, Jan, took all of her clothes off, got into the tent and said: Right. I’m in the tent. Is it Bill who wants to fuck me? Come over here and get in the tent and I’m ready for you.

“So Bill walks over towards the tent and Jan says: Hold on just a minute. I’ve taken all my clothes off. Are you going to take yours off? You’ve seen what you’re going to get. I want to see what I’m going to get. I want you to get your clothes off before you get into the tent.

“Of course, the man went a deep shade of crimson and ran away.

“Somebody else said: I’ll fuck ‘er.

“So she said the same thing to him. And Max, who was their comic, said: Look, I’ve got to be honest with you: she’s actually his girlfriend (pointing to the groups’ artistic and musical director Arif) and I’ve always wanted to fuck her. This is my golden opportunity and I’m not prepared to let it go now.

“So he took his clothes off and got into the tent.

“The audience was going: Do you think he’s fucking her?

From inside the tent, Jan says: If anybody else wants to get in, we’ve got plenty of room here, so you can get in and find out for yourself, can’t you?

Another one of the women in the group said: Oh, I think they’re quite attractive, so I think I’ll have a go.

So we have two women in there with their comic, Max.

“He then says: I can’t handle both of them! I need help! Would a man come in and help me out? They’re insatiable! Please! Please!

“No-one got in the tent, of course. So that really had put the audience down a peg or two.

“It was a brilliant success. We ended up with East End dockers, people from the East London Gay Liberation Front, all sorts, all holding hands in a big circle singing Happy Days Are Here Again and that was all down to the – I felt – genius of the Demolition Decorators. They had broken down the barriers of everything I loathe. There was no racism. No homophobia. If the world could be like this – big heavies holding gay people’s hands, some people with no clothes on, black people, white people all holding hands singing Happy Days Are Here Again.”

 

Some sources and other accounts:

The Demolition Decorators’ act in 1979: provocation and nudity at a London pub

Paul K Lyons diary

Under Demolition

Demolition Decorators at Glastonbury 1979.

Ten rapidly deteriorating cassettes containing 13 hours of Decorators material were discovered almost 25 years later. They were recorded in a wide range of locations – theatres, pubs, universities, rehearsal rooms, bedrooms, demonstrations and street festivals. The material has been loving restored and edited. and released on the internet as an album Don’t Say Baloney in 2005.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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