I’d been living in Walthamstow for five or six years before I realised I’d been here before.
Walking home up Hoe Street, I passed, as I did every evening, the ABC cinema. I walked on went up my road to our house, put the key in the door, entered the front room, turned off the alarm and thought “James Brown”.
I had seen James Brown and his Famous Flames at that cinema! In....this is where it got hazy...1965/66. I was still at school; I remember we drove up from Brighton in my old Ford Anglia. I think there were four of us. Me, Des, Ag and Bev.
It was Walthamstow via Brixton, both geographically and musically. Up the A23, thorough Streatham and Brixton and across the river into uncharted lands. As a lad from the South Coast, anything north of the Thames was “off limits”. Had I known the Kinks were from Muswell Hill , I might have had doubts about their worth.
Brixton. I didn’t know Brixton, I knew the Ram Jam Club. I can’t now tell you where it was, what it looked like, but I know what music was played there. Sam and Dave, Don Covey, the Miracles, the Temptations, Len Barry, Carla Thomas, Junior Walker, Otis Redding and Ska and Bluebeat. I think we saw Don Covey live – that Sweet Soul Music. While our school friends were getting off on the Move, The Lovin’ Spoonful and Spencer Davis, we were entranced by Stax.
I don’t know how it was we got to Walthamstow. Bev, with 9 grade “A”s in O level and a coolness which was obscene had played some discs in our six form liberal studies class. James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” was one of them. Someone else played Dylan and The Beach Boys. For a kid who was still deciding whether the Stones were acceptable this was left field (although at the time I had no idea what left field meant, or for that matter what cunnilingus involved– this was pre 1967).
I’m always surprised by the staying power of old cinemas. Besides the massive trauma of James Brown’s brass, the old Walthamstow cinema shuddered to the sound of our unrestrained teenage voices, stomping feet and generalised sexual energy. The Scala, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, The Hammersmith Apollo, The Forum – lovely old cinemas – now unflinchingly absorb the kinetic energy of our age.
And there we were watching James, the Famous Flames urging him back, his cloak laid on his back as he’s dragged to the centre of the stage– screaming, screeching, and we thought that this was it. Anything else was a distraction. We were bonded into a sweaty, sound drenched, sanctified brotherhood of “S..o..u..l”.
I’m not sure how I feel about the old cinema now. Certainly, I don’t like how it is at present. In no man’s land, trapped, in danger of decaying away so that no matter how much people try to save it, it’s crumbled away.
It’s owned by a religious group, they can’t use it as a church and it can’t be put to an alternative commercial use. It was put up for sale, but because of the Arcade site development proposals the church took it off the market .That’s how matters stand. So the cinema sits there decaying; looking forlorn, boarded up, a refuge for drunks and the homeless.
Forty years ago the Granada was alive. Now it is dumb, defaced and tragic. To me and to others it speaks of Walthamstow’s bankruptcy. Not of its citizens, but of its political institutions.