Resist the squatting ban!
The word “squat” carries a powerful emotional charge. When I used to spend a lot of my time in squats, I occasionally used the word when talking to the rent paying, mortgage enslaved general public just to see them try and stifle a shudder. The word evokes images of filth and squalor, hard drug abuse, petty crime, poor living conditions, and other things you would associate with Pete Doherty. However, the truth of the matter is a squat is simply a space used by people with no contractual right to be there, and the only limits to what a squat can be are the limits of the squatters’ imagination and will power.
The first squat I visited massively challenged every preconceived idea I had about squats. It was the NOID Gallery on Calvert Street, Shoreditch, in early 2007. Situated on an upmarket street off the main drag, the NOID Gallery was clean, well maintained, with a couple of different exhibition spaces, a small shop, a fully functioning kitchen and living spaces upstairs. Art students from the nearby Goldsmiths would hold their final exhibits there.
Musicians from all over would play there. Struggling artists with little in the way of income had somewhere legitimate looking to exhibit and sell their stuff. A BBC photographer exhibited there for a week and didn’t even realise he was using a squat. It simply looked like a low budget but well run art space, which is exactly what it was. I still remember vividly a conversation I had with Kevin, one of the key organisers about his philosophy behind the running of the NOID Gallery. His ideas were simple – find your space, secure it, get it up to scratch, paint it white to make it neutral and then maintain by any means necessary.
Across the road from the NOID Gallery was the legendary “This Is Not A Bar”. This place was the polar opposite of the NOID Gallery. Dingy, dark, unkempt but friendly, and willfully defiant of modern licensing regulations, This Is Not A Bar was undoubtedly a place in which to get messy. An old Victorian pub with wood panelling and the bar intact, we got lucky and ended up performing there on the opening night. On that jaunt, I was acoustic opener for the now defunct Meteor Street, and we’d arrived early a day early for a gig the next night. We’d been sat down about twenty minutes when one of the “This Is Not A Bar” crew appeared looking to borrow batteries as there was no power yet in their newly squatted pub .
We followed him back to find a scene that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the film “Oliver”. A few people sat around hunched over drinks in dim candlelight peering at us through the smoke as a flamboyant character named Andreas who was manning the bar welcomed us in, giving a warmer welcome than we found in most legitimate venues. We made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the bare floorboards and preceded to play as many songs as we could with the acoustic guitars, snare drum, voices and violin at our disposal, the place gradually filling up as the night wore on and the free drinks for musicians flowed.
We went back the next night. This time the power was on and we had the benefit of a PA, guitar amps, keyboard and all that stuff. There was live music from about ten in the evening till about 6 the next morning. Me and Meteor Street both played our second sets of the night, Andreas got up with his almost supermodel girlfriend to sing a Swedish folk song, a European girl whose name I forget sang her song about trying the “Physical Approach”, but big chunks of time were taken up with music that was entirely improvised. I shared the mic with singers whose name I never knew who sometimes used languages I did not understand. Our friend Kaya blasted out white noise over grooves by the Meteor Street rhythm section, making odd but cool music you could dance to that would never be heard again. I particularly enjoyed the many hours of improvised music that were made there that would never be repeated, the feeling that the music was great but you didn’t quite know what it was or how to describe it.
We would subsequently go back and do a couple more nights like this before the place was shut down for good amid rumours that would still be echoing when I visited London again a year later. It’s that sort of spontaneity, that atmosphere where anything can happen that virtually never occurs in normal venues, and even if a promoter does take such a risk, it’s rare for everyone to feel relaxed enough for it to work properly. One of the best things I’ve ever been part of, and one of the first things that jumps to mind when I consider what real rock and roll is or should be.
It was inevitable that we would eventually start squatting in our hometown of Worcester. When me and a friend found ourselves being over charged for a property where we were threatened and stolen from by the other tenants, we decided it was best to take the plunge and moved into an old industrial building that we later discovered was the old porcelain kiln for the original Royal Worcester Porcelain factory, a listed building being left to rot by a multinational corporation. Looking back on it, we might not have made the best decision – there was a hole in the roof, no bathroom, rats in the courtyard and access was via a barbed wire fence. However, there was a lot I liked about it. The kitchen was so basic that it was nearly always clean (that’s what happens when you only have two plates and a single hob to cook on). I had the biggest bedroom I’ve ever had in my life and all that space helped free up my creativity – I remember spending many happy hours drawing, writing songs and playing guitar. The rat infested courtyard was also a great place in which to learn kung fu. We were there for about 3 months and gained a few more occupants, one of which left our collective to start his own squat which still exists today .After a dubious eviction involving some crackheads and a mysterious man in a landrover who threatened to “set the dogs on us” (what dogs?), the rest of us moved on to the next squat which we called The Porch.
The Porch was so named because the first person to gain entry walked in through an open front door and assumed that the door in front of him was locked, and therefore all he had access to was a porch. However, it turned out the next door was open too, and the building was currently unoccupied. Four of us moved in that night, with little more than a dartboard for entertainment. Not sure what was the best thing to do next, unsure of what was to come, we decided the best course of action was to order a pizza. We settled in over the next couple of weeks and the other rooms in this neglected, three storey terraced house filled up pretty quickly with idealistic musos and arty types.. In fact, within a couple of months the place was oversubscribed so a bright spark squatted the empty property next door, so for a while we had two squats next door to each other, interlinked by passages through the ceiling. (Little known fact – many terraced houses of a certain age have no walls in the attics, meaning they are connected rather than separated. It’s amazing what you pick up from squatting).
Because The Porch was close to the town centre and had fairly notorious, hedonistic occupants, there was a lot of parties. However, there was more to it than that. For instance, at the time my brother endangering his own life from alcoholism, having been given the choice of “give up drinking or die” by the doctors. His only other alternative was to live fairly precariously with two other alcoholics, so he moved into the Porch. He was looking into various intimidating forms of rehab when one last attack hospitalised him yet again. Once detoxed in hospital he returned to The Porch and ended ten years of solid drinking by simply choosing not to drink again, with nothing but some free space and a supportive crew of people around him to help him through. Had he gone down the NHS route, he’d of cost the government thousands of pounds in rehab bills, benefits etc or could of died on a waiting list. Strange as it sounds, he regards The Porch as key to his recovery. He remains alcohol free to this day and performs under the name Jimi Loveridge (check out his stuff on soundcloud).
Lots of creative projects found solace at The Porch. For instance, I recorded my debut ep “Tattooing My Toes In An Abandoned Building” there. Violinist Johnjo Murray (currently with The Robinson Band/Johnny Kowalski and the Sexy Weirdos) recorded parts of his superb “Worrisome Ankletrout” solo album there. Both were recorded on equipment that could only be afforded because of money saved on rent by squatting. A disparate bunch of strangely haired miscreants formed a junk percussion collective called The Narcoleptic Penguin that would in time become the scurge of Worcester high street, as well as regulars at many venues around Worcester, the Big Chill festival and many of the local schools as drum tutors. Looking back on it, I find it hard to think of one person who lived there that wasn’t involved in the local music scene in some way, and often in more ways the one, for example booking gigs as well as playing in a band, etc. But the peak of our squats in Worcester came with Wetpaint.
With Wetpaint fortune definitely was definitely shining upon us when we found a multi room industrial space that had foolishly been left unsecured and was in full working order, electricity working, water running and ready to go. We didn’t even have to paint it white. If god exists, he certainly wanted us to squat this place. This one we opened up to the public with what was once a carpet showroom into a gallery space with a hundred plus works of art from local artists. We also put in a homemade bar which alongside a fridge, a sink and a camping stove became a small kitchen from which meals were served. The meals were made almost entirely from food found in skips, and virtually all the furniture was acquired in the same way. The front door included a custom door bell built by local circuit bending genius Squidfanny . There was a button with three knobs below. The button would create the sound, the knobs would control it, meaning you could make and manipulate hideous squelching noises from the doorbell which were then sent echoing through the whole building via a guitar amp. This area was open to the public during the day, and it was always fun to talk to some mild mannered passer by about our cute little local art project before eventually revealing that the building was not rented but squatted. It was also surprising how many of the middle class residents of Worcester were receptive to the idea when it was put to them in the right manner.
The other rooms included sleeping quarters, a “gig” room with sofas and a homemade stage and a vast warehouse space with various projects dotted around the edges. A typical night in Wetpaint might include some musicians jamming in one corner, someone painting in another, Squidfanny tinkering with his circuit bent gadgets to a small, spellbound audience, various others “chilling” and maybe a skateboarder or two cruising around the open space. It was actually an ideal place for noise as there were no residents nearby. The police only turned up twice, and it was the same policeman, both visits during the same morning. We awoke to banging and crashing. After investigating, we discovered it was a policeman trying to gain entry, kicking in a fence that didn’t even belong to the building we were squatting. When we finally let him in he looked ever so surprised to see a clean, open space and not the used needles and depravity he was obviously was expecting. He was looking for a resident of a local hostel, hostels having a legal responsibility to investigate if one of their residents goes missing. After he had left, for reasons that are unclear to me to this day, Johnjo suggested we paint a mural on the front of the building so we grabbed our found cans of pink and purple dulux and went to work. I think this strange decision must have been down to a mixture of the shock of being awake that early and the smirking thrill of having thoroughly confused a policeman. Less than an hour had passed when the very same policeman came round the corner and told us to stop. I sheepishly painted over the unfinished mural a few days later.
The project lasted about six weeks and involved several weekly music and comedy events as well as a couple of birthday parties, including my own. There’s a million other little stories I could tell but the point of all this is show from a personal perspective just how important squats can be at this time when they could be eradicated completely. Obviously, an outright ban on squatting would effect far more people than just musicians and artists, but I think that the music scene particularly benefits from squatted spaces. Developing a band or solo act (let alone starting a music career) requires space, be that a space to record/rehearse/perform in or purely a space to live in for little or no cost, though often a space can be both. What is seen as the “popular” music scene isn’t taken seriously enough to get the funding many of the other arts get, and small venues don’t exactly have it easy either. Tolerating squats would be a cost free way of contributing to the music scene, and might even contribute to the wider economy by encouraging companies that own empty properties to use them instead of leaving them empty. However, it seems that not only does