After college I moved back down to London and found a room in a friend's squat in Brixton. On a sunny Saturday morning I walked into town and into Brixton Market, where the exotic vegetable stalls, lurid pink hanging pig carcasses and competing reggae soundtracks filled my eager senses. Sensimilla by Black Uhuru was both the soundtrack and the sweet pungent scent of strong grass that floated down every street, from every shop doorway. There was no need to travel any further to see the world, and Brixton held its magnetic pull on me for the next seven years, right up to the first explosion of riots.
In the late seventies the squatting community gave shelter to punks, radical queers, feminists, left wing housing activists, Rastafarians, artists, junkies - people who were running away from one world and trying to create another. It was an idealistic time, if a little flawed and crazy round the edges, and, for a while at least, this eccentric mix of colour, class, gender and sexual orientation bobbed happily along on the same wave.
I decided to devote myself to music with a nun-like devotion. I didn't care much about making money. Beyond feeding myself and staying warm in winter my needs were minimal. I cycled everywhere, to band practices, to my first paying gig as a restaurant pianist in the West End, to dance classes where I accompanied children as they wafted around as butterflies or autumn leaves. Some women from North London asked me to join a band as a keyboard player, and as soon as I had an outlet I started writing songs. The Spoilsports were part of a growing scene of feminist bands, much of which has been archived at The Women's Liberation Music Archive.
Politics was intense. Anti-racism, anti-fascism, anti-sexism, gay liberation, Trotskyist groups of all kinds denouncing each other, Troops Out, anti-imperialism, anarchist collectives. And there were badges for everything pinned to our dungarees. We were self-righteous and provocative: "How Dare You Presume I'm Heterosexual!" and "A Woman Needs a Man Like A Fish Needs A Bicycle" clinked and rattled next to "Gays Against Fascism" and "Eat the Rich"
One April afternoon, I was leaning out of the upstairs window of the house I shared with Racine in Strathleven Road. Someone was playing loud ska music that filled the street - Ghost Town by the Specials - and I heard Rico Rodriguez' sublime Jazz Jamaica trombone rising from the grey streets like a bird in an updraught. The sky held an eerie yellow darkness, a storm on the way, a clammy stillness and state of suspension. Thatcher had come to power and the innocence and idealism of the seventies was to crash to a halt. The National Front was marching in Lewisham and Deptford, and in Brixton anger was gathering like the storm clouds above. Reggae accompanied us into tougher times. Less One Love from Bob Marley and more Police and Thieves by Junior Murvin.
I remember walking back from a pub with Racine and a white policeman hissed "black c***" at her as we passed. I felt her rage and humiliation and her determination that I should not see her suffer. The notorious SUS laws were criminalising and radicalising a generation of black youth, and it didn't take much to spark off the first Brixton riot in 1981.
One Saturday afternoon Sonia and I set out for the Ritzy Cinema to see Nine To Five and we found ourselves in the riot. A line of policemen was being driven down Railton Road by a very angry crowd. And here's the thing: the crowd I saw that day, as the riot began, were black, white, old, young, male, female - the whole community was furious. And as the defeated police retreated from the town centre to wait for reinforcements, Brixton had a party. Yes, there was looting, and yes, there was damaged property, but the mood on the traffic-free streets and in the pub I was in that night was one of carnival, a wild joyous celebration of an unthinkable victory. "Anybody want a television?" " Anyone want a fur coat?" It was the ancient human ritual of reversal, king for a day, where the powerless take power and the powerful tremble.
Later, I learned that there had been 280 injuries to police, 45 injuries to members of the public, over a hundred vehicles burned, including 56 police vehicles, almost 150 buildings damaged, with 30 burned. There were 82 arrests. Guns of Brixton by the Clash...
The Scarman Report into the riots found "unquestionable evidence of the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of 'stop and search' powers by the police against black people." As a consequence, a new code for police behaviour was put forward in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
Nights out were the Women's Discos, and Racine was Queen of the Turntable. She kept a proud, inscrutable stillness while we boogied and flirted and threw shapes to I'm Coming Out and We Are Family. Once when when she was stopped by a policeman:
Policeman "First name?"
The policeman wrote it down, and Racine held her poker face while we struggled not to collapse with laughter.
I had started to play the saxophone, and little by little I was withdrawing from the social whirl, staying home at night to practice long notes. My friends would call round en route to a club and thought I must surely be depressed not to hang out with them. But I was so happy, so obsessively happy. I was listening to Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. I discovered John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Cannonball Adderley, and these giants of jazz were my new companions.
I'd also been invited to play keyboards with Carol Grimes, a well-respected London r&b singer, and suddenly I was moving in a different circle of professional musicians. Carol gave me the gig because she wanted to encourage female musicians, but really, I was out of my depth, and my ego took a huge blow when I eventually got fired. But for the time being I was playing in the best music pubs in London - Dingwalls in Camden, The Cricketers at the Oval. I was learning Aretha Franklin tunes, Billie Holiday songs, and earning a musician's living.
As a child I woke daily to the sound of classical music floating or booming up the stairs while my Dad smoked his first pipe of the day or sang robustly along to his favourite Beethoven or Mozart symphonies. My mum's favourites were the pop songs of the 40s - Ella Fitzgerald and the Andrews Sisters. I remember her singing "A Tisket a Tasket, I Lost My Little Basket" and "Don't Sit Underneath the Apple Tree with anyone else but me".
A piano came into the house and my brother David started lessons with Mr McDaniel down the road. I had to wait till I was seven and then I too trotted down to Mr McDaniel and learned to play The Bluebells of Scotland and The British Grenadiers. Mr McDaniel had lost a leg in WW1, and it was hard not to look at the pinned up trouser against his stump. If I got to my class early I sat on his settee and looked at copies of Titbits Magazines, naked breasts and female mud wrestlers, exciting and disturbing in equal measure, while Audrey Swinburne finished her five finger exercises. Back home I was encouraged to practice by the placing of an egg timer set for fifteen minutes on top of the piano. Even though I could hear my pals playing out on the street and longed to join them, the egg timer held me to the piano stool till the bell went ping and I could run out to play.
Neither of my parents played an instrument, though Mum remembered a group piano class where they were given silent cardboard keyboards and were expected to...what exactly? They were delighted that David, Debbie and I all wanted to learn and encouraged and supported us through exams and small concerts. We belonged to the Methodist Church and went every year to a church-organised music and art competition for the Kent area. We were the family Von Nelson, winning cups and certificates that Mum hung on to for years. When relations or family friends came to visit we were asked to play and sing. I sang "In an English Country Garden" and "The Ladies of the Harem of The Court of King Caractacus" by Rolf Harris. When I played piano there was a sighing agreement - she's so sensitive!
We listened to the Saturday morning Childrens Favourites programme, Danny Kaye and the Ugly Duckling, Doris Day in the Westwood Stage, Oklahoma, The Hippopotamus Song by Flanders and Swan. Pop music was rationed in our house. We could watch Top of the Pops, or Juke Box Jury, or Thank Your Lucky Stars. The Beatles changed everything. Even Mum and Dad would come in from the kitchen or the garden to see them on the telly. They were a sensation, an event, a happening!
On my last day at primary school the boys could all be Beatles and the girls could all be Supremes and we could mime to records. Oh hang on.... I wanted to be a Beatle and play bass guitar. Signs of things to come. On family holidays at YMCA guest houses in Folkestone or Shanklin David and Debbie and I formed bands with our cousin Gill. David banged out tunes on ancient pianos, Debbie played cardboard guitar, Gill played drums on wastepaper baskets and I was the lead singer in jeans and sunglasses. It's the Loving things You Do by Marmalade and Last Night in Soho by Dave Dee. Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich - a band name that never struck me as dumb at the time. We sang harmonies on long car journeys, laughed ourselves sick singing My My My Delilah with full dramatic absurdity and Massachusetts in high BeeGees falsetto. And David taught me how to play Georgie Fame's Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde on the piano. A walking bassline! A stomping beat! Dominant 7th chords! My first Blues!