Lee Harris remembers …
Well I was 27 when the 'mods' came, which was for the mods by 20 you were already too old, it was such a teenage cult and I do not know how I came in touch, I went first to the West End and I was aware at the scene clubs, a whole dance thing, a lot like the Ecstasy generation later.
So you suddenly saw an entirely different audience now?
Yes because what happened suddenly all these, and the age was like 15 to 17, with short hair and the Parkers, a whole lot of young kids, the girls had their hair short and looked like the boys, unisex, the first of the unisex things, and these clubs. A friend of mine ran a club called the Seam club, which Ronin Rahealey ran then, who had another club, Wardour Street and Hen Yard, Wardour Street they had the Flamingo. So already by the early sixties there was the beginnings of this whole new scene, which was the R n B, and the beginning everybody started at these clubs, so Lionel Blake ran the Scene Club, was the principal bouncer, he was later to go to Wormwood scrubs for running a disorderly house when people dropped their pep pills. And that was caused through me, and I will tell you what happened.
So you saw this new scene developing?
I saw this new scene developing, I had left drama school, I had done a bit of acting and I had started writing.
Right, you were living in the West End?
I was living in Earls Court, and I had become a night bird, I would sort of come into the West End at ten at night and leave at five, and sleep during the morning. I mean I was exploring these areas. So suddenly I came to this mod scene, and saw Wardour Street two-three o clock in the morning, hundreds of thousands of kids, and they were drifting into the dives, where in Wardour Muse, which is where the 2/3 famous dives were. And I noticed that they were all chewing gum and big dilated pupils, and started finding out and it was six pence a purple heart, that some of these kids were taking 80 or 90 a weekend, and having amphetamine psychosis, and brilliant dancing, because amphetamine is a perfect stimulant if you want to dance all night. And the clubs would end at five o clock in the evening, and these kids would have nowhere to go, all stoned out of their heads, and the dealers on Wardour Street, were young kids and other people, and also 'pills paradise' was up the road in Goodge Street with Greeks who were selling, and it was a huge big scene. And they were all going in the morning to the seaside, you'd see great gatherings at Waterloo, Liverpool Street, because nobody knew where to go, they all came from Illford and the suburbs, and suddenly huge amounts would end up at the seaside, which was the beginning of the mods and rockers thing. S o it was directly influenced from the amphetamine scene. So that was going quite nicely, and then I bumped into a boy there who was having horrors and bad scenes, and I went to his home and met his father, and he was badly addicted, and I was taping him. How I came to tape him is another story. 63 when this was happening it was the time of Christine Kealer and the Profumo. Now at that time I started smoking cannabis too. I will tell you the story too, because suddenly the Eldorado in Westbourne Grove, Kealer opened up first the cannabis thing, because she used to score the cannabis from in Westbourne Park road, the Eldorado Cafe because that had opened. I suddenly realised that we're in a vast big scene, why I was in the West End, because I was meeting the prostitutes who were involved in the Kealer case, that went to listen to the case, as I had so much free time I would go and queue in Marylebone to listen to Keeler. But this guy Terry Housego and I started smoking cannabis then, but I will tell you, called his MP, who was Ben Parkin, in Paddington, and we thought he said look, Ben Parkin had just made his name exposing Rachmanism, who became very famous because he was the first MP who brought Rachman's activities to parliament, which was an extension of Kealee, so then Parkin said to me, look I do not know anything about pep pills and drugs, there was an interview, I will raise questions in the Houses of Parliament, and then anyone who wants to know, I will give them your telephone number, because I was telling him what this boy's on, this kid's taking 90 pills, this boy his father had.
Is there something you thought was genuinely a problem?
I saw, I'd seen this boy who was having psychosis and going paranoid, kids were starting to get paranoiac, and seeing mice and spiders on the wall, and I suppose I was still an innocent and I was, I do not think I had started cannabis. I was a moralist, a friend of mine said to me, a psychotherapist who was sitting with Ronnie Laing, Sid Briskin said, because I had met Ronnie Laing then too, who had written his book, he said but you are a moralist. Ben Parkin MP brought up the first pep pill things in parliament. I got a call from Anne Sharpley who was a top investigative reporter on the Evening Standard, and did the royal tours and was a Beaverbrook protege, and I became a great friend of hers, and mentioned on her Desert Island Disks at that time 'needles and pins', but she said would you like to show me around the West End, so she was a tall lovely lady, and I said you can not come like that, come looking like this and I am going to take you on a tour of the dives. And I also had, which I had written as a prototype for my plays, a guy I met in 62/63, Johnny Colfer, who is an Irish guy, who not only smoked but was a heroin addict, not a heroin addict then, but was a pep pill addict, he'd take about 80/90 pep pills over the weekend, and chew his teeth, and talk, and when he talked he had a golden gift of the gab. I taped him, I got the tapes now on comedowns and his whole life, on pep pills. I've used them for a abortive book I wrote at the time called 'Living for Kicks', on youth cults, which Panther nearly published, but it was a hotch-botch of a book and liable reasons. but through him, so I introduced Anne Sharpley to him, and he was bubbling and we did a magnificent tour of Wardour Street late at night, where she went outside all the clubs and saw these thousands of young people, and saw the dealers passing the pills, and we went to the dives and that Monday was the heading of the front page of the Evening Standard, beginning of 1964, with a hand with pep pills, 'I See Soho's Pep Pill Craze', and it was the biggest story of the whole week, because the Queen Mothers' operation was the second. So by the Tuesday she had written the story of Johnny Colfer, the boy living on pep pills, the small sad world of, and pills paradise, and blew it open. But that Monday night the West End was deserted, there was not a sixteen year old, though the cops were not busy Monday, Tuesday. Suddenly there were questions in parliament the thousands of pounds the Evening Standard paid for the investigation, which of course I was given free meals and about fifty pounds for. But of course from then onwards I was rung up by Michael Hamlyn of the Sunday Times.
Oh were you in this article?
No, I was the stringer.
Didn't think so?
Yeah because I did not take any drugs, I mean I was a pure moralist, exposing, I was one of the biggest exposes of the time in the press.
That's quite ironic really considering the sort of career path you went to afterwards?
I was implementation, if you see the 1964 Misuse of Drugs Act, I actually when it hit me later and I looked at the Act and I thought 'Oh God I was one of the most important pinnacle in helping to bring forth that which rebounded on my friends.' So there was a terrific hue and cry, it was like the first big drug...Before that when I went with Terry Housego, this guy, to the Hews of the World offices, to see a journalist there, Derek, and look at their cuttings library, he said no, no, we're not interested in a story on mods and pep pills he said because look at the cuttings file, come with me, the only people who take pep pills are housewives in the Rhonda Valley, which the cutting were at that early stage, there weren't any youth associated with pep pills, Because it was not a craze, it all came from Welling Garden City 'Welcome' in Essex, a big factory was stolen, I do not know who was making a fortune.
Well it was a craze apparent?
Yes, it was coming.
The big criminal gains that were letting it happen?
Yes, but suddenly once I had exposed them, in that whole week, and I did quickly take down to the dives all sorts of.
It's probably just as well your name wasn't in the paper?
Exactly, except in the South African papers, I gave an interview that I had questions raised in the Houses of Parliament, I'd seen these kids in terrible, I was like equivalent to a Christian crusader. Though I also was interested in the underground dives, I suppose too, because I was sexually turned on by some of the people there, and had some erotic experiences, which were low life. I suppose coming from this pure prim background I needed to rebel in every way possible, so I suppose it would be inevitable, I decided I did not like pep pills myself, but I loved the dancing in the mod clubs and I loved the R&B and when you went down to the dives in Wardour Muse late at night at that period, it was the best period for dancing you ever saw, by the lesbians, fish dancing and of course all the R&B, all the Otis Redding, My Guy and all that bring memories of me of that period all night, the most primitive, erotic dancing. it was at night in these clubs would come out all these transvestites, all dressed up, and the knives and the lunatics, and everybody. The whole idea of these dives to seven in the morning was you'd dance, and the music, because R&B was in its heyday. what happened in these clubs with the music and these pills, was that all these groups started and I remember going at five o clock one evening to my friend, Lionel ran the Scene Club, to watch the. I forget the name now, who did 'Soot Zoot Suit' and 'I am a Mod' and later the Who, the High Nights with Peter Medin, and I went to the first ever performance at five o clock with our man doing Pete Townsend and his guitar, they had just come, they were going to play there, I mean I met Brian Jones there who is a friend of Lionel Blake, I would go to Brian Jones' flat.
Is this Lionel Blake still around?
I have not seen him in years, he was a South African and a bouncer, but I'll tell you through Lionel I met Paul who big groups who played there, and Georgie Fame, I'd go with him, but I ended up doing him harm. The outcome of my hue and cry in the press which I did took ground, different journalists dressed up to show them, it was a big thing then it spread everywhere, is that the clubs were raided. And a lot of police, and people dropped their pills and my friend Lionel was done for running a disorderly house and got twelve months in prison for it. And I went to visit him and gave an 'affidavit', and I felt terribly ashamed that in my zeal I had caused a bit of trouble for people and destroyed a lot of fun and but I do know that there was a lot of dangerous things going on, but people were young, people were having the horrors, but I was aware that as long as it kept down in the underground, or undergrowth it was all right. But suddenly it was all these ordinary young working class and middle class kids, and at twenty they were too old to be mods, it was essentially a youth thing.
You began to talk about Christine Keeler, the Eldorado, and cannabis, just tell me that?
That was among my spring of journalism and my low life thing, which I have tapes, which I'd showed to Dr. Eustace Chesser in his Harley Street rooms. My other interests besides, I suddenly got obsessive about drugs, because I did not know, but the other thing was sex. So the Keeler thing encompassed both. So I'd read a quote from Roger Gelbert in the New Statesmen on a play he'd written that 'male and female are beach heads of the vast unexplored territory.' So I had a big old grundig in 63 and I lived in Bayswater, and I decided because of the Keeler business, and because I met Julie Gulliver who was the last girlfriend of Steven ward, and I knew some of the prostitutes who had been involved in the Keeler thing. And I lived almost in the area. I went and did three interviews with prostitutes. one was a call-girl who lived in Chelsea Cloisters, and I talked to her in between clients, who would come to her room and cry, and tell her that they were sick of being an accountant, they lived with their mother, and one was a lesbian, who had been beaten in torture chambers, who had been abused terribly as a child and sold her virginity four or five times and had lesbian relationships. And the third one was a street girl from the Chinese street, Chinatown, Gerrard Street, who went with the Chinese waiters and 'Duhai' means business in Chinese, 'come to my loom', and take all her expenses off the Chinese waiters. She was a girl who had been abused by her parents in Cardiff, and the father had gone to prison for sleeping with her for five years. I had this extraordinary low life things which I was going to call 'Living for Kicks'. I was going to write my Genet type work, I would be the man who has seen the low life, of seedy London. And I could open the doors to people who did not know of this life for various reasons. So the Kealer thing was the first coming in the open of cannabis, because we were then aware and also the most important thing because of the Keeler thing and all that, in the mod clubs was coming the first use of 'spliff', of 'draw', because many of the mods liked the West Indian culture. I used to know mods who would shave their hair off and wear berets and talk with west Indian accents. So that was the first, besides pep pills, there was a big coming together of weed, draw, there's a whole lot of names.
Why you seem to be saying something, the expose of Keeler and all that had something to do with the growth of the use of cannabis?
Might well have done, the connection, the whole of 63 was Scandal 63, who is the man in the mask, who wore no clothes? Christine Keeler used to go off from Stephen Wards trial in the case and smoke cannabis, or sleeping and smoking cannabis with the Minister of War I think and the Russian Defence attaché and John Edgecombe. The whole Keeler thing broke of course because of this West Indian, John Edgecombe, who I have met through Howard Marks, who was Christine Keeler's boyfriend who used to score at the Eldorado and smoke, And then he got angry and jealous and other things of the news at Baker Street and came there with a gun, and got shot - he got seven years for that - but that opened all the rest of Stephen Wards thing, I mean that was the beginning of it which unleashed and of course Keeler and Mandy Rice Davis were involved with Rachmanism. And Rachman lived in the Grove. Also at that time I became interested in Rachmanism because of my other reporting things in 64 was exposing the housing conditions of the West Indian immigrants, the Irish people and Rachman were shoving them, whole families into one room at a high price, with one toilet, there were whole estates, I remember before the 63 elections.
Did the smoking cannabis bit around Keeler, did that get publicity as well at that time?
I think there was.
Was that part of the scandal?
Well I would have to research it, but it did, the Edgecombe and Lucky Gordon are still around the Grove. The cannabis thing was very big first among the West Indian community, in the dives with white women who went with them, but it was not open to a general public, because there were lots of people in the early sixties it was starting to go.
Why it drifted at that point? You think it's 63, you began to see these kids who were either used to chew pills and were now smoking dope or had been doing both?
Yes, what happened I can explain it from my own experiences. I was 27. Two things, I first wanted to smoke cannabis, and I had some middle class friends and some gay friends doing it who lived in Holland Park, and oh I must try this and I came with my big Grundig tape recorder and it was 63 and I was going to record the experience and it was a great disappointment, not only didn't I get high, but all I got were these two Jewish girls giggling in a corner who were rather droll. It was very disappointing because I what I would capture on tape was an amazing drug experience of cannabis people are talking about which I wanted to try. Only a little later in the West End in Oxford Street did I meet one of the Irish, because throughout 63 I also hung around in an all night dive in Queensway, and I met this Irish labourer guy also hanged around the West End, and this guy said 'would you like a spliff?' Now he rolled it up two o clock in the morning in Oxford Street, we walked along and we smoked it. And for the first time I suppose I got high on it. Now what you did then was you stayed up all night at the club, the big thing is the West Indians were becoming very big on the mod scene, and the saying was 'nice, man, nice' if you were stoned. So I think with the mods and the pep pills was the beginning for me and lots of people of coming into contact with grass or weed.
Because the mods began to get into black music?
Yes, and all the Otis. And suddenly there was all the West Indian culture, it was part. By the early sixties, 63, there was a beginning of a cannabis culture, which was very linked I suppose more with the mod culture and with the West End and the artists, art students, and the people who went to some coffee bars.
So how is it regarded again, it does not seem to me from a historical view, well it was no part of my life, but it still was not anything political or anything like that around at that time. That's from a later period, it began to get associated with the anti-war movement, students and all that?
So this was just another way to get smashed basically at that time?
Yes, it was a way of getting high and throughout the mid-sixties of course, also what happened another thing in 63, besides the Keeler thing, I come back to because that was the liberating thing of the sixties. Because soon after that came a Carnaby Street, a 'swinging London'. So I am forgetting that the mod period was also 'I was Lord Kitcheners Vallet', the wearing of the uniforms, and the coming of Mick Jagger and The Beatles in 63. So how much was Keeler, how mush was The Beatles is hard to say but I mean 63 I often think was a defining moment - 67 was the next and a great defining moment for youth culture - in fact almost as big as 67 because it was the coming of the whole British - it happened here rather than in America, like 67 was with the Stones and The Beatles and The Yard Birds and Georgie Fame and all those and they were playing live at the clubs where the kids were. so it was a tremendous, though I was much older, the participant observer, I was fascinated because this was the first. the Elvis Presley in 57 was all right but it was not linked with any drug thing, with alcohol might be.
So how did things develop for you and your involvement in the scene, okay we are into the mid-sixties, you wrote this play didn't you?
Yes well I ended up in 64 writing a play, a one act play called 'Buzz Buzz' and the mods and pep pills with some of the tapes and with the lovely lingo 'watcha watcha Sammy Lee', 'How's it?'. What I met in the West End was what I call the mod cons - a group of five/six really nice guys, who were kids, who were hustlers, or they were on the street, the 'kicksters' I called them. They were the first kids I met who were living for kicks, that would outwit everyone, making life hustle, dealing drugs, had a marvellous lingo, the first sort of, I got a play 'Love Play' and Love Play is written in hippie language. 'I cut out, did you?', 'I split the scene, did you?' So in the early part the rhythmic speech.
Have you still got a copy of this?
I've got copies I'll show you. Buzz Buzz won me an Arts Council and the Star Certificate in Taunby Hall, National Association Youth and Jewish Drama Festival won star certificate. it was the first time, because it was ideal at youth clubs, I had sixteen/seventeen year olds to play the mods. So I wrote this play, and then I went, I'd had enough of the West End or because it's like a vice, in 64 I went to the docks and I caught a ship and went for four and a half months to Australia.
This is a part of an interview of Lee Harris – done by Harry Shapiro in 1998. No mistakes were corrected … the interview can be found in its entirety here : http://www.leeharris.co.uk/LeeHarris/History/ShapiroInterview.htm ... well, remember - just say NO !