interview with John Hellier, the original Mod around town talks to LTW

There from the birth of Mod culture in ’60s London, we talk to the original Mod around town John Hellier about his work writing, promoting and staging the successful memorial shows for The Small Faces, Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane. In our in-depth interview we also get to hear John’s own story of growing up in the capital with the records, gigs and clothes of a youth culture and music scene which is as popular today as when it broke out.

LTW: Hi John, firstly can you give me a brief on the many projects and work you’re involved in – authoring books on Marriott and others, writing and working with Weller, the TV work and of course staging and promoting the  popular Mod balls and conventions – there’s  so much…?

John: It’s a matter of having many fingers in many different pies. Wapping Wharf in 2013 incorporates a Record Company (Wapping Wharf Records) which is run in conjunction with the Steve Marriott estate which consists of his widow, Toni and her legal partner Chris France. It’s a collectors label with the intention of bringing the world lots of Steve Marriott rarities, much of it previously unreleased material. Steve had his own studio, Clear Sounds in Moreton in Essex, and spent all of his spare time in there hence there’s lots and lots of tapes full of absolute gems, some of it unfinished but hey, this is a collectors label and even unfinished tracks are a treasure to Steve’s hordes of fans worldwide.

LTW: So, when were the ‘Wapping Wharf’ companies established and how do they work?

John: Wapping Wharf is a publishing company. Initially this side of the business was solely to self publish the Darlings Of Wapping Wharf Launderette E1 glossy fanzines but we’re incorporating that now with other Mod/’60s titles, the first of which are planned for later this year.

The fanzine is quite possibly the best selling magazine of its type in the country. I only do two a year but it has a print run of 5,000 and is sold and read on every continent in the world. Whoever could have imagined that when the first magazine was published in 1993 with a print run of just 100. I distribute around 50% of those through my own large fan database and the remainder are distributed worldwide through Cargo Distribution.

Wapping Wharf Promotions; quality rather than quantity is what this is all about. I only stage two events a year, an annual Small Faces Convention and an annual Christmas Mod Ball.

The conventions go back as far as 1997 and are now very much part of the London music calendar. The early shows were staged at the Ruskin Arms in East London. This was the birthplace of the Small Faces, the place where they used to rehearse and the place where they played there first (unpaid) gigs. Within a few years we were attracting fans from as far away as Australia and the USA. Incredible!!

By 2005 the annual event had outgrown the venue and the decision was made to take it to the West End and treble the size of the venue. Since then several different venues have been used and we’re currently staging the show at the 229 Venue in Great Portland Street. Since those 1997 beginnings many fine bands have played the convention along with many very special guests. None more so than Professor Stanley Unwin,  who in the year 2000 at the age of 88 brought the house down with his own unique sense of humour and language.

Other guests have included PP Arnold, Jimmy Winston, Chris Farlowe and  various members of Humble Pie alongside many more.

LTW: The Steve Marriott conventions and other memorial shows have been a massive hit over the years… 

The two BIG concerts though have been the one-off memorial shows for Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane. These are the pinnacle for Wapping Wharf and the pinnacle for me personally. On 20th April 2001, exactly ten years to the day after Steve’s tragic demise, we staged a show for him at the London Astoria.

It was sold out three weeks in advance. Such was the respect that Steve had amongst his fellow musicians getting a star studded cast together was surprisingly easy. Paul Weller was the first guy to be asked and he had no hesitation whatsoever in getting involved. Paul was very paramount in helping me pick the cast.

We got Kenney and Mac (obviously) and an all star house band was assembled around drummer Zak Starkey. Originally we had Roger Daltry lined up to perform but just two days before the gig he phoned to say that he couldn’t make it. He was filming in Canada and couldn’t get back in time.

I told Paul and within ten minutes he had lined Noel Gallagher lined up as a replacement. For me though the coup of the night was putting the strongest possible Marriott-less Humble Pie line up together. Three originals Peter Frampton, Greg Ridley and Jerry Shirley plus Frampton’s successor Clem Clempson. They were just awesome.

A DVD and 3 CD audio set have since been released entitled “One More Time For The Ol’ Tosser”. Steve’s Mum didn’t like the title but it was very Steve, eh?

We broke the bar takings record that night and that record stood right until the day they demolished the building nine years later. Steve would have loved that!

LTW: There were also the Ronnie Lane shows which have included people like Mick Jones and Pete Townsend playing The Royal Albert Hall?

Because of the success of the Steve Marriott show thoughts turned to something similar for Ronnie only this time it would be even bigger and better.

One of the worlds most prestigious venues The Royal Albert Hall was booked and in April 2004, after a full year of planning, we done it again.

The venue was sold out (5,500 seats). The show was called One For The Road and a host of rock ‘n’ roll superstars paid homage to the great man.

Paul Weller (once again) was a God send and between us we attracted such names as Ronnie Wood and Pete Townshend (and Paul himself obviously).

Ronnie Lane’s close buddy and band cohort Charlie Hart re-formed Ronnie’s Slim Chance for the night with many of Ronnie’s fine musicians in attendance including the legendary Henry McCullough. Many others contributed their services that night including Ocean Colour Scene, Glen Matlock, Midge Ure, Sam Brown, Mick Jones and Kenney Jones. Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney couldn’t make it but sent faxed messages of support that I read from the stage.

Compering that show in front of a rammed Royal Albert Hall will always remain with me as a major highlight of my entire life. At the end of the evening we got a standing ovation and I couldn’t help pinching my arm to make sure it wasn’t a dream!

To top everything we also managed to raise a very healthy five figure sum for Ronnie’s children who had recently been made homeless due to an house fire.

The three hour concert was recorded and filmed but due to politics still remains unreleased. One day perhaps!

The Christmas Mod Balls, which are held in the 100 Club in Oxford Street, are always fun and always sell out. It’s one big Christmas Party! Christmas decorations, free sausage rolls and mince pies and top drawer “Mod” acts such as Geno Washington, Steve Cradock and Secret Affair.

LTW:  So how did your writing career initially take off?

The writing began back in the ’80s with freelance work for most of the music monthlies, such as Record Collector, Mojo and Uncut.

The influence was simply my love for music. It’s been my whole life. I’d always liked writing going back as far as school days and I suppose English was my best subject.

Even today I’ll always insist on full punctuation when I’m sending a text. I never abbreviate anything and always use full stops and commas, much to the amusement of my kids!

LTW: You started writing publications in the mid ’90s with your first Small Faces book and you’ve co-authored with people like Paolo Hewitt and Paul Weller himself. Is it more fun when you co-author and what plans for books and biographies do you have?

The reason that I’ve always co-authored is simply because there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all myself. Because of many fingers in many pies the books would never get finished!

Most of the authors I’ve worked with are exactly that, 100% authors with no (or very little) sidelines.

I’m currently researching for a Ronnie Lane biography and have also been working on a Pete Meadon book.

LTW: From a personal point of interest I’d like to ask you about music journalism today; if TV killed the radio star then the internet has done the same to the print press hasn’t it? The golden age of the music press is now history wouldn’t you say?

Yeah, of course you are right. You are spot on, in fact, but the internet and social networking does have lots of plus points. It brings like minded souls from all over the world together and that is good for our scene.

I’ve recently been in touch with Mod groups from such places as Mexico City, Argentina and Vietnam would you believe. That would have been impossible even five years ago!

 

LTW: So, going back to your life as a young mod then John, when it all originated, when did you first get involved in the Mod scene?

Around 1963. I was 14 and still at school. Most school mates of mine, both male and female, were starting to dig both the Beatles and Stones.

Their first albums were full of great songs but they were, in the main, covers of obscure American records. I’d go out of my way to seek out the originals and when I did I was amazed at the quality of the unknown versions. While everybody in the school seemed to be digging the Fab Four’s versions of Twist And Shout and Money I’d be playing the Isley Brothers and Barrett Strong versions!

My first musical heroes were Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. By the time I’d picked up on them they already had very strong back catalogues.

LTW: Was it known as Mod then? If not, how was it referred to?

By the time I got into it we were Mods, previously the movement was referred to as Modernists.

Back in ’63 I never consciously said to myself “I wanna be a Mod”. It was something that I just drifted into without much thought.

We had a few really fab clothes shops in Romford, my local town, such as Brent and Collins (who were later bought out by Take Six) and they would stock pretty much everything that Carnaby Street catered for anyway. The mainstream Mods and Rockers rivalry thing started with the tabloids and the fighting on the beaches stories of ’64.

Myself and my local mates were very proud to be called Mods but we would disassociate ourselves with the street level guys on scooters that were just out for a punch up. We saw ourselves as a bit above that – pure snobbery!

LTW: What part did Modern Jazz play in the germination of the Mod scene?

I think it played a large part in the very early days of the movement which was from 1958 onwards  particularly in London. I came into it five years later so had missed that boat really. By then it was American Soul/R&B music that ruled but always with a sprinkling of Blues.

LTW: What were the earliest clothes that you had that you considered to be Mod?

In ‘63/’64 I was wearing white Levis, desert boots (only tan ones), hooped crew necks, tailor made tonic mohair trousers from Leslie Andrews in Romford – you’d go in there every week and pay half a crown (12 and a half pence) off of the bill – and for a very short period, even a French beret!

LTW: Which clubs or dance halls did you first frequent within the scene?

My first clubs/dance halls were local, places such as the Wykeham Hall in Romford market place, the Willow Rooms also in Romford (Steve Marriott’s Moments would play there), Ilford Palais and the Nimbus in nearby Hornchurch.

My London exploits started around late ’64/early ’65 and it was mainly the Marquee and Scene Club both in Soho. There was another fab Mod venue called the Lotus Rooms in the East End that was a favourite of mine

LTW: What type of music/records did you listen to in the beginning?

Bo Diddley was my main man but all the original versions of England’s top tunes people like The Coasters, Arthur Alexander, Booker T, Ray Charles, early Motown acts such as the Contours and Junior Walker. The list goes on and on and these are still, half a century on, the people I like to listen to nowadays.

LTW: How/when did Mod evolve/change during the years you were involved?

Well, up until the Who we never listened or liked anything that was wasn’t American. From late ’64 we realised how good a lot of the home grown talent was. Artists such as Georgie Fame, Zoot Money, Chris Farlowe, Rod the Mod, Chris Farlowe were not only great live acts, they were making great records as well, albeit mostly cover versions.

LTW: Who were the Faces within your everyday Mod world?

In my everyday world it would have to be local unknown bands (or groups as they were called back then) such as Scrooge and the Misers and the Chasers. I’d look up to and admire them although most people outside of the London borough of Havering would probably not even have heard of them.

LTW: Did you have a scooter? When did they become popular with Mods?

I was never a scooter boy, always preferred four wheels and as soon as I passed my driving test I bought a Mini. For me and many others the four wheeled equivalent! Scooters were there right from the late ’50s beginnings.

I’ve seen a marvelous photo of scooters lined up outside the Two I’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street in 1959. Musically, artists such as Marty Wilde and Adam Faith were playing that venue back then so perhaps, only perhaps, they were the first British Mod icons!

LTW: What other terms or sub-styles were there within Mod?

Terms, as in sayings/descriptions were ones that have stood the test of time for example “faces or tickets” always referred to those that led the way and every area had at least one of those.

Sub-styles musically were many… obviously Modern Jazz, the fast growing contingent of Caribbean Mods were digging early forms of reggae and had their own Mod Central at the Roaring Twenties club in Carnaby Street and by the mid ’60s young guys were skipping the original influences and learning from new British bands such as the Action, Birds and of course, the Small Faces.

LTW: Were you involved in any of the seaside events so loved by the media?

No, definitely no! There were two kinds of Mod. One was very street level and was one was a definite step up from that.

The guys that I mixed with would not contemplate messing their clothes up or indeed the hair by even kicking a tin can in the street let alone fighting on the beaches of wherever. We were peacocks! We wouldn’t even sit down in an empty railway carriage for fear of messing with the crease of the trouser!

LTW: Did you go to the Scene Club/Flamingo/Marquee/Tiles?

Yeah, three of those. I never actually went to the Flamingo. Don’t know why, it never used to open until nearly midnight. I wish I had and nearly fifty years on I regret that.

All the others were very cool, the Marquee being my favourite. Did you know they didn’t have a back stage toilet in there so punters would quite often find themselves peeing next door to somebody famous!!

LTW: How many Mods were in attendance normally?
At those particular venues not many, a few hundred at any one time. The biggest Mod venue from around late ’66 was the Uppercut Club in Forest Gate, East London which would take up to a couple of thousand people.

LTW: Who did what, and on which days, at the Scene Club?

Really can’t remember the timetable. I remember Guy Stevens the DJ and he would play lots of fairly obscure American records, two that stick in my mind being Pills by Bo Diddley (quite apt) and Happy Being Fat by Dee Irwin. I remember live bands, the Animals in particular, and I remember a big Radio Caroline connection as the club and radio station were both owned by the same guy.

LTW: Can you recall what clothes/shoes came in/went out, and when?

The clothes scene changed rapidly. Early on winkle pickers, then chisel toes which were a pointed toe with the end abruptly cut off. After that toes became very rounded off. I remember patent shoes being very popular, they were highly glossy shoes previously worn by dancers also lots of basket weave (still THE ultimate Mod shoe) and two tone brogues and slip ons.

Clothes wise… early on it was all about being suited and booted, tonic mohair being preferable but by ’66 it was largely smart casual with Fred Perry (type) shirts being very popular.

It wasn’t all about names though as it is nowadays. You’d be pretty happy to buy a Fred Perry type shirt from your local High Street it wasn’t necessary to have the label.

As Steve Marriott famously told Nicky Horne in an ’85 interview when asked “How did success change you?” He replied “Well, I stopped going to Woolworths and went to British Home Stores instead”!

LTW: Did you have your suits made bespoke? If so, how many did you have, what styles/fabric, and how were they personalised?

I had my trousers made bespoke and would wear contrasting jackets with them. I did have suits but they’d be off the peg.

Suits were, for me, always tonic mohair. Loved that material, still do.

Personalised only with the likes of the essential silk hankie overflowing from the top pocket. That was just me, many others would personalise much more so.

LTW: What part did Mod girls play within the Mod scene..Can you describe their styles?

Not much as far as I remember. Within my circle it was mainly a male thing.  The girls were mainly modeled on the likes of Twiggy or Cathy McGowan who were THE female icons of the day, a bit later on they all wanted to be Julie Driscoll who had that very short almost cropped fringe (a male Steve Ellis!).

LTW: What was your normal weekly schedule of clubs/gigs/shopping?

From leaving school in ’64 to early ’66 it was work in a betting shop (would you believe) and all of my wages went on clothes, records and gigs.

About an even 33 per cent on each…I saved the odd 1 per cent that was over! I went to at least 2 or 3 gigs every week but a lot of those were local events not always up West. By 1966 I was playing in semi pro-bands myself as a pretty average drummer and that took up a lot of my time.

LTW: The Small Faces were quite clearly your favourite band, what was it about them that meant so much to you?

The Small Faces had me hooked on the image. They were a great sounding group but it was so much more than that. I’d buy all of the girly mags of the day just for the pictures and then be off “up west” to buy clothes that I’d seen them wearing. The image was perfection and I still get a great thrill nowadays if I see a picture of them I haven’t seen before (as does Mr Weller). Seeing “new” pics becomes more and more rare as the years roll by (obviously).

 

LTW: How many times did you see them play and what were they like live?

I saw them around eight or nine times but never heard them around eight or nine times! Club gigs would be tremendous, very much East Ham meets Memphis but the pop package tours would be a different thing altogether.

They’d be in a cinema or theater and they’d do about 20 minutes worth of their hit singles. It was Beatlemania, really was… didn’t hear a word! A great experience all the same.

LTW: Do you think the new Mods created by the media coverage have left the wrong impression on history, when looked back at by people today, of what the Mod scene was all about and what a Mod actually was?

Yes, definitely. It doesn’t matter how much you read up on it you needed to have been there to get the full picture. Some young guys (not all) think it just takes a target t-shirt and parka! Some think it just takes a three buttoned suit and knitted tie…it was evolving and changing all the time.

What was “in” one week would most definitely be “out” the next. It’s easy for the kids nowadays, anything ’60s seems to be accepted. Retro is fashionable and “Mod” gear is available on the High Street but if you want the REAL thing it still takes a bit of searching out.

But clothes is just part of it, attitude and suss make up the rest. Steve Marriott in his dungarees was still a Mod! I knew the guy in his later years and he was most definitely a Mod, not necessarily in his attire but everything else!

LTW: What did Mod mean to you at the time, was it just a fashion that coincided with your youth, or did it have more meaning and resonance to you?

Everything and it still does. It was a fashion that coincided with my youth but it’s ended up being a life long obsession. I’m still as enthusiastic about everything ’60s Mod as I was back in the day.

LTW: When did you stop being a Mod, and why?

Well this is an odd question to answer because to the outside world Mod had finished by 1967 and  did not re-appear until 1979. As I said previously Mod was always evolving and from ’67 it evolved into Psychedelia. We were now digging the sounds of San Francisco instead of Memphis.

We grew beards, funny mustaches and wore military uniforms but myself and my crowd still thought of it as Mod. The media wrongly thought Mod segued into Skinhead. It never, we grew the barnet and although we never became fully fledged Hippies we leaned that way!

Not just my crowd but Marriott, Meaden, Andrew Loog-Oldham, Jeff Dexter etc, etc. I can’t speak for those guys but to me it was just a new form of Mod as strange as that will seem to the Target t-shirt brigade!

Between us we had a few good ‘taches I must say! For me it’s now gone full circle and ’60s attire is the order of the day…again!!

LTW: How did you get involved with the DWWL fanzine, and end up as sole editor?

My love for the Small Faces never wavered. They are the soundtrack of my adult life really.

In the early ’90s a guy from Liverpool sent me issue one of his new Small Faces fanzine and asked if I would contribute a story for them. This I did, happily reviewing a 1968 gig that I had been to.

I did a similar story for issue three but was then told that the fanzine was folding as the guy couldn’t afford to keep it going anymore. He was only doing 100 copies and it was very primitive. This was before computers were the norm and it was just a copy/paste job.

Anyway, I decided to take it over, I took a graphic designer friend on board and together we took it to another level, making it glossy and definitely more up market. We were still doing 100 copies at start of issue 5, we’re now doing 5,000 copies distributed world wide.

Wapping Wharf in 2011 also incorporates a Steve Marriott specialist record label in conjunction with Steve’s estate and a promotions company that, as well as annual Small Faces conventions, has staged sold out Memorial concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and London Astoria. A fact, which I’m very proud of.

LTW: Did you get to know Steve Marriott well?

Yeah, pretty well. I first met him in 1983 and became fairly pally with him. His low key gigs would be the highlight of my week. He still put on a great show right to the end. I interviewed him in 1984 and co-wrote his biography All Too Beautiful in 2004.

LTW: You’ve been keeping the flame of the Small Faces alive via DWWL and the Small Faces Convention for may years now, how much material do you have in the archives and how long do you think you can keep the fanzine going for?

As Wapping Wharf as a company has grown the magazine has actually become a smaller part of the organisation. I only produce two a year now instead of four but finding good material has actually become easier. The more the readership grows the more feed back I get so that combined with my own 50 years worth of personal material means that there is no shortage of good things to write about.

 

LTW: What is it about the Small Faces that keeps them sounding as fresh and relevant today as they did back in 1965?

Well, in nearly half a century I’ve never seen a bad picture of them…the pics are timeless.

They are from an age when looking good meant something. Most bands in 2011 look as though their stage clothes were the same ones that they went to be bed in the previous night.

The music is also timeless, just listen to the likes of Tin Soldier or those instrumental b sides and they could well have been recorded last Tuesday!

To young Mods the world over they are iconic figures. They started life as the East End of London’s version of Booker T and the MGs, that’s all they ever wanted to be… now, nearly 50 years later, they have a cult following from Tottenham to Timbuktu to Tokyo and my mail box proves it!! NICE!!

Check out Wapping Wharf or find John Hellier on Facebook.

Interview by Carl Stanley. Read more from Carl on LTW here.

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  1. John has done a fantastic job with the fanzine. But I am the graphic designer friend John refers to who re-designed the fanzine (from a pretty crude A4 photocopied effort) including the Ogden ‘logo’ (which in those pre computer days took an age to do). As he said the re-design looked professional, had a dramatic effect, and the whole thing took off. After several issues I, sadly, had to drop out due to the birth of my daughter and a continuing full time job. I am proud of the not insignificant contribution I made to the fanzine but it would have been nice to have given more credit for that contribution. My name, for the record, is Alan Hughes.

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