The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

Walthamstow in north east London was something of a Mecca for Punk and New Wave in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Must declare a bias here as I was born in Walthamstow so terribly loyal to the place. The otherwise uninteresting Hoe Street played host to Small Wonder Records – a record label and shop that was a magnet for Punks and New Wave fans. The founder, Pete Stennet, held court behind the shop counter in a woolly hat. His partner was Mari Stennet but I don’t recall ever seeing her.

The Small Wonder Records label brought us the first releases by The Cure and Bauhaus – who went on to be global pop sensations. Killing an Arab was The Cure single released by Small Wonder in late 1978 and later re-released on Fiction Records. Even when it was released, as a left-wing teenager, I found the title a bit disconcerting. Since then, the band has performed it as Kissing an Arab and Killing Another. Make of that what you will.

Small Wonder Records label

Small Wonder also put out singles by bands such as Crass, The Cravats, Cockney Rejects, Poison Girls and the Angelic Upstarts. Crass was an anarchist punk collective that lived further out of London in a cottage called Dial House near Epping in Essex. Basically a bus ride from Walthamstow. Dial House had been a free thinking commune since the 1960s.

In 1983, Crass produced a hoax tape where they had spliced together speeches by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The resulting tape inferred that Thatcher had allowed the British battleship HMS Sheffield to be destroyed in the Falkands War in order to escalate the conflict while Reagan was prepared to see Europe nuked in a final showdown with Russia. The US State Department wrong believed that the tape – dubbed Thatchergate – had been produced by the Soviet KGB. In fact, it was the brainchild of a bunch of anarchists.

DISCOVER: Anti-Nazi League carnival in Walthamstow!

Small Wonder also signed the Cockney Rejects – an east London band often credited with originating the term Oi! to describe a sub-genre of punk. Oi! was championed by the music paper Sounds and in particular by music journalist Garry Bushell. This post-Sex Pistols variant of punk liked to portray itself as a genuine proletarian punk movement in marked contrast to the art college and middle class influenced punk groups (for which read, The Clash). Some found it musically unoriginal and disliked the way the extreme Right hung round Oi! related gigs. While Oi! fans claimed to be misrepresented and the true voice of the 1970s street. In 1979, Small Wonder released the Cockney Rejects’ first single: Flares and Slippers.

Another punk band that was a bus ride from Walthamstow were the Poison Girls who moved from the seaside town of Brighton to a licensed squat at a property called Burleigh House – four miles from the Crass at Dial House. Burleigh was a genteel, decaying place scheduled for demolition as the proposed M25 motorway was set to plough through the area. The owner of Burleigh House was reportedly a woman referred to locally as ‘Old Mother Willet’ who had been in Egypt during the 1920s when Howard Carter, the archaeologist, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. In 1979, the Poison Girls single Closed Shop was released on Small Wonder.

My abiding memory of the Small Wonder Records Label in Hoe Street, Walthamstow was going into the dark store and approaching the counter rather nervously. I’d be trying to trade in a Prog Rock concept album for enough money to buy a punk or New Wave album, single or 12 inch. At this time, the giants of 1970s Prog Rock like Yes and ELP were despised as dinosaurs. So you’d hear a voice from behind the counter address the New Wave kids flicking through the albums: “How much shall I give him for Brain Salad Surgery?” It was never enough to make a straight swap. Punk and New Wave records were far more highly valued than the output of dinosaurs.

Vinyl Scrapyard in Walthamstow High Street

At 163 High Street in Walthamstow in the early 1980s was the Vinyl Scrapyard – which I seem to recall was vast. This was a time when we still listened to music off turntables (or tape decks of course) and as cash-strapped youngsters, were more than happy to trade records at stores like the Vinyl Scrapyard. London had several of these record and tape exchanges, most notably in Notting Hill and Camden, where the price of records would reduce every week until a buyer was found. Berwick Street in Soho – featured on the front of the Oasis album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? had one of the most popular record and tape exchanges until recent years when it was demolished to build a luxury hotel.

In terms of Punk and New Wave gigs, the Walthamstow Assembly Hall played host to The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers and Ian Dury on 17 June 1976. What a ridiculously amazing gig that must have been!! While I was too young to attend that august occasion, I did find myself at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall on 25 September 1981 when New Order supported by Doctor Filth and Airstrip One. Can’t remember a thing about the support acts. But of course New Order were stupendous. They had formed the year before out of the legendary post-punk band Joy Division after the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis.

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