Music writer Patrick Humphries reviews Dulwich’s popular musical past

While the history of Dulwich itself is rich, its role in popular music is… limited. But broaden the horizons and there’s fertile territory to be ploughed. Even while growing up in the 1960s, you could not help but appreciate just how seismic those changes rocking society were, and the soundtrack to those changes is still with us today.

In the pre-rock & roll era, Dulwich resident Anne Shelton (1923 - 1994) was fondly remembered. As a teenager she began singing on BBC radio and performed alongside Bing Crosby and Glenn Miller. Along with Vera Lynn, Anne was “the forces sweetheart”. After the war she began establishing success on the American charts, and in 1956 enjoyed a UK No.1 with her signature song, ‘Lay Down Your Arms’. A long-time resident of Court Lane, her house now has a plaque honouring her.

Another Dulwich resident, this time of Frank Dixon Way, was Brixton-born Jess Conrad. He enjoyed considerable UK success in the early 60s as a singer, his ‘Mystery Girl’ was a Top 20 hit in 1961, Sadly, though Jess is probably best remembered when his ‘This Pullover’ was voted one of the world’s worst records in a Capital radio poll! Like so many of the solo singers, Jess’s career was overturned by the arrival of The Beatles. 

Try as I might, I can find no direct link with Dulwich to the Fab Four, apart from everyone buying their records when they were released. The closest the group got to Dulwich was playing shows in Tooting, Croydon and Lewisham. 

Dulwich College famously educated Phil Target-Adams, who felt that his mother’s maiden name had a more rock & roll feel when he became Phil Manzanera and joined Roxy Music, who this year celebrate their 50th anniversary. Phil was also in an early College group, Quiet Sun, featuring the school’s Bill MacCormick on bass and Charles Hayward. Bill went on to play with Robert Wyatt’s Matching Mole and Random Hold. The latter group included David Rhodes who went on to become Peter Gabriel’s long-serving guitarist.

Another pupil at the school was Ian MacDonald; Ian went on to edit New Musical Express during the glory days of the 1970s and later wrote one of the most-acclaimed books on The Beatles, Revolutions In The Head. Pop trio Right Said Fred took their name from a short story by Old Alleynian P.G. Wodehouse.

Pink Floyd had a good SE London connection, the legendary band’s first photo session took place at Ruskin Park in 1967. They went on to play at the Crystal Palace Bowl in 1971 - the crowd was delighted to see a sea monster rising from the lake during their set. Between 1971 and 1980 a number of classic acts also played at the Bowl, including Elton John, Yes, Santana, the Beach Boys and Bob Marley. 

The following website has some lovely first-hand memories of those shows : https://www.ukrockfestivals.com/Garden-party-71.html

Happily, after an enthusiastic campaign from local residents, the Bowl is back in action. See https://southfacingfestival.com for details of this summer’s event.

Sydney Carter (1915 -2004) was a songwriter and lived in Holmdene Avenue, best known for ‘Lord Of The Dance’, which has been recorded by Donovan, Martin Carthy and the Dubliners. Sydney also collaborated with Donald Swann on a series of songs after the pianist’s partnership with Michael Flanders ceased. I believe Sydney lived in Herne Hill…

A definite Herne Hill connection can be established when U2 played at the Half Moon on 11 July 1980. Their Concert File calls the gig “a landmark, as it’s the first time they’d sold out a concert in the United Kingdom”. 

The Half Moon has another strong musical connection: a former manager of the pub was Frank Sinatra’s chauffeur on occasions when Frank appeared in the UK. His former wife Mia Farrow was pictured enjoying a glass in the pub, and rumour has it that Ol’ Blue Eyes even popped in for a pint!

While we’re on urban myths, and off at a bit of tangent. Herne Hill’s The Commercial was the home pub for supporters of the London Welsh rugby team. One of the team’s erstwhile supporters was the poet Dylan Thomas (from whom Robert Zimmerman later took his name). After a drink at the Commercial, the ‘original’ Dylan was said to have made his way home, along Milkwood Road…!

Still in Herne Hill, in September 1978 in Brockwell Park Elvis Costello rocked out in a Rock Against Racism event… While Brixton’s Effra Road was where ‘punk poet’ John Cooper Clarke shared a flat with ex-Velvet Underground diva, Nico… On a sadder note, AC/DC’s Bon Scott was found dead in December 1980 in a car on Overhill Road, East Dulwich…

Of all the South East London musical connections for this article, the strongest was that of The Artist Formerly Known As David Jones. David Bowie was born in Stansfield Road, Brixton in 1947, where he lived until he was six. The family then loved to Plaistow Grove, Bromley where Bowie lived until he moved to Haddon Hall in Beckenham. It was here that Bowie hatched his plans for superstardom; it was in Beckenham that Major Tom took off on ‘Space Oddity’, and from where Ziggy Stardust was launched. Following the Ziggy explosion, Bowie moved to Chelsea, then left London behind in the mid-70s. For many though, his best, and one of Bowie’s own favourite albums, was 1993’s The Buddah Of Suburbia. It was a return to the suburbs which had spawned him, and while David Bowie may have moved into the rock pantheon, as someone once observed: “You can take the boy out of the suburbs…”Before Ziggy there was Arnold Corns, a group of Dulwich College pupils (Including Mark Pritchett and Tim Broadbent) who Bowie recruited for a one-off single in 1971. Bowie would later record ‘Hang On To Yourself’ and ‘Moonage Daydream’ on his breakthrough Ziggy Stardust… album the following year. 

I used to see Bowie on Sunday nights at the grandly titled Beckenham Arts Lab, actually the back room of the Three Tuns pub on the High Street. It is now a Zizzi’s restaurant with a plaque acknowledging Bowie’s link, if they had any sense, they’d have a pizza called ‘Zizzi Stardust’. 

I would welcome any memories or anecdotes or confirmation about this article… Folk clubs, legendary musical sightings, local gigs, like… were you there the night Frankie played the Half Moon?

Visit my website www.patrickhumphries.co.uk for bits of my 40 years of rock & roll writing.