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Tome On The Range

Better Squat Than Rot: The Music Of The Housing Crisis
The Quietus , March 16th, 2015 11:40

George F, anarchist, poet, author and farmer, has just published his squatting memoirs Total Shambles. Here he gives us a YouTube playlist by means of illustrating his experiences

The first time I was in a squat, nervous and alone, I found myself by Camberwell Green, in a tumbledown old ice-cream shop, its walls armoured in sheet metal, now reopened for an acoustic queer-punk night. The paunchy guy on the pallet-stage was lackadaisically strumming a mandolin to the tune of a Crass standard, in front of a huge, stencilled banner that read: THERE IS NO AUTHORITY BUT YOURSELF.

"Do they owe us a living?" he crooned.

I fell in love. The atmosphere jumped with an easy camaraderie between strangers that had long been absent from London's bars. Over the next seven years, as I fell in and out, between the subculture and the mainstream, the music, the adventure and the locations would become inextricably intertwined. A renting wage-slave once, I would pay £20 to see dub-punkers Inner Terrestrials decry the death of the underground as they played alongside the Fun Lovin' Criminals and Asian Dub Foundation at a Reknaw party in the Coronet, Elephant & Castle. Later down the line twisted on ketamine, I would hang off the roof of a 20-year old Brixton squat while an army of police in riot gear assembled below, Future Of The Left blazing from speakers shoved out a window. From a street party opposite the World's End in Camden, I would look up at a building festooned with a banner reading SQUATTER'S RIGHTS OR SQUATTER RIOTS, jungle blasting from a mobile sound-system strapped on the back of a bike, and see a black-masked anarchist raise a defiant fist in salute. A man dressed as a reverend attended, and called upon the Gods of Squatting to shrink the testicles of the bailiffs.

"Of course they do! Of course they do!" we chorused back as one.

On Pancake Day at the Aylsebury Estate – the largest estate in Europe, with over 2,700 empty properties, made famous by the Channel 4 ident – I would dance to Bob Marley with dreadlocked crusties and the single mothers of the E15 Carpenters Estate while police gently dipped their heads, watching from the balconies above as the councillors and bailiffs scrambled to legalise their illegitimate paperwork. Later that night, the mothers would return to their kids, and the cops would be dragging people out of their homes to a soundtrack of angle-grinders squealing through metal barricades. Russell Brand was nowhere to be seen.

"Do they owe us a living?"

The more I saw of the violence of the State representatives towards real human beings, the more resolute I became to take direct action. I learned how to spot an empty building, how to open it, how to fill it with life and meaning and purpose again, how to share the space with neighbours and the community around us. I learned about barricades and bailiffs, about bin-diving for food and begging with lawyers for more time, about climbing on icy rooftops in the eyries of the city with a crowbar clenched in one fist. Inevitably, I learned how to resist those who would come to evict. I learned new jokes, told in the gallows humour of the barricades:

"Why do anarchists only drink chamomile?"
"Because proper-tea is theft."

"What do you call an animal with a cunt half-way up its back?"
"A police horse."

"My mate Leroy told me that four men kicked the shit out of him.. I said, 'Did you phone the police?'
He replied, "What for, Round Two?"

"What's orange and looks good on a capitalist?"
"Fire."

I learned about jail cells, about the impotent bureaucracy of 'justice', the callous dismissal by judges, the media, and the police of my friends and I as subhuman 'squatters'. I would see these same subhuman beings battling to solve their own problems outside the mandate of authority, putting people before property and profit by breaking unjust laws and defying the orders from the courts and the cops; doing it for themselves. People fighting back, whether they defined themselves as anarchists, or mothers, as squatters or the homeless, or as they historically were known, self-housers.

"Of course they do! Of course they do!"

Previously, many people's only experience of squat culture will have been through the warehouse party scene, taking in the full electro-dance milieu of techno, psytrance, jungle, dubstep, raggatek and beyond, or perhaps through the crustie festivals and free parties in the woods and vales outside the city. Yet last year there have been more evictions from rented properties than ever before, and the number of homeless and people living in temporary accommodation has exploded. The demonisation of those who would self-house in the half a million plus empty properties across the UK has to stop, and the perspective of what is happening changed. This is why I have chosen to tell my own story and go on record as a 'dirty squatter'.

"Do they owe us a living?"

My own soundtrack to this struggle planted its roots in that very first encounter, in the old ice cream shop in Camberwell, circa 2007, in the ethos and aesthetics of anarcho-punk. Local, rootsy, accessible, interactive. In the next eight years, these would become the guidelines and the soundtrack to my personal struggle to find and open spaces for communities to come together within London's housing catastrophe, experiences I attempt to record and recollect in my book, Total Shambles, with the aim of humanising those who experience homelessness and the threat of eviction.

"OF COURSE THEY FUCKING DO!"

The following tracklist is a mixture of recorded and live shows, trying to capture the spirit and energy of the performances and the rowdy interaction between band and audience.

Squatter's Rights – 'Inner Terrestrials'

"UP THA SQUATTERS!" Their logo is a synthesis of the anarchist 'A' and the lightning-bolt arrow of the squat international, and for two decades they have championed the South London DIY scene with raging dub-punk. Their original drummer, Paco (RIP), used to play with first-gen anarcho-punks Conflict. In 'Squatter's Rights', they fly their black flag high, the refrain a tribute to Peter Tosh's 'Get Up, Stand Up', showing a knowledge of the lineage their songs of resistance owe. In an interview from last year, Jay Terrestrial sums up the roots mentality: "Punk and reggae are folk music, grass roots music by the people for the people ... Music is so primal, so natural to us. We can't help but express ourselves through sound and word."

Autonomads - 'Fite Dem Back/Antifa-Hooligan'

I met Ian from Manchester anarcho-dub-punks at the Koepi Social Centre in Berlin in 2012, and he let me pay less than a Euro for a screen-printed band-patch: a single 'A' converted into a bicycle above the band's name. They performed a brilliant fusion of 'Fite Dem Back' by Linton Kwesi Johnson and Los Fastidios' delightfully silly dancefloor bootstomper 'Anti-fa Hooligan' – soundtracks for the militant anti-fascist movements. They had been squatting in Rusholme for some years, but in residential properties. The change in the law in September 2012 had left half the band homeless, and others criminalised. In an interview from 2014, they had this to say on their politics:

"For me anarchy means freedom from external control, freedom from the coercive nature of the state, economy, corporations, racial prejudice, freedom from homophobia, expectations imposed upon us based upon gender, fascist media, the destructive and oppressive impact of organised religion, state education, the falsely imposed borders that run across the land like a festering wound forcing people here and there in the name of sovereignty and national interests, so we can live the life everybody deserves to live in which WE shape the life we live and the terms of our relationships with each other and the planet. It means a world where we organise our time on this earth in a way that suits us and those around us not a small group of out of touch white men decide how everybody else lives in a way that is most beneficial for them."

Crack Rock Steady - 'Leftöver Crack'

Be it as Choking Victim, Morning Glory, the Crack Rock Steady 7, or as Star Fucking Hipsters, Stza and the gang are all intimately connected with the C-squat building in Manhattan, New York City. As with Koepi and the Berlin autonomen squats in the 90s, and with many squats across London in the 60s and 70s, C-squat brokered a deal that made it into a legalised housing project, allowing the residents what all squatters desire: security of tenure. Wherever I travelled, I was sure to find a sound system where we could sing along together: "Crack rock steady!/ Are you ready to stop/ The rotten blue menace/ Let's go kill us a cop..."

Sound Of Rum - 'Cannibal Kids'

One of the first squatters I met was a phenomenal percussive acoustic guitar player - and a savage, self-professed k-head. Some mornings he could be found atop the roof in Peckham, whacking the guitar and shrieking through a deranged version of 'Wake Up, Boo' by the Boo Radleys. He raved at me about the dedication and drive of one young rapper he had squatted with in South London. "She just wants to practice all day, jam all night, man, she's on a mission." Years later, he's fled a nasty ketamine habit and now teaches ukelele in South East Asia somewhere, and she has become the internationally celebrated polymath Kate Tempest. Her words spit a bitter litany on the spiritual poverty and decay that is gutting the dispossessed peoples of London:

"Round here
These cannibal kids want to be kings
But there ain't no royalty left
Cause round here
The sirens and screams float on the wind

And even the street shudders

Yes, even the street shudders.

Now, we were born
Into these blood-soaked cities of industry
Informed of the savagery
The infamy, barbarity of history,
Controlled, and contrived, and depressed
And attested, and stressed out and vexed
It's a message we've been fed
So we could propagate their system
Of division, inhibition,
Viciousness and contradiction

52 Commercial Road - 'Kadmar'

Named for the now demolished and redeveloped Whitechapel squat where they refined and defined their searing post rock sound, for more than a decade 52 Commercial Road have straddled the underground and the mainstream with their melodic noise constructs. I first stumbled across them at a building called 100 Flowers in the Manor House area, its walls a garish panoply of graffiti, can of Red Stripe in hand, and remember some entertaining cat-and-mouse fun-and-games with the volume and the police who kept popping in to see we were all safe and sound.

Noise Complaint - 'Fuck The Doner Man'

On Valentine's Day, 2015, I spent the afternoon clearing dogshit from the floor of our very own abandoned ice cream factory in preparation for our party – The Super Sexy Anonymous STD sExchange Ball. I don't even own a dog, though I do possibly have an STD. My complaint that the line-up featured no ska, dub, or roots punk of my usual flavour lead to mocking jibes of: 'hippy', 'peace punk' and even 'hipster'. There is a whole lineage of anarcho-punk that eschews the influences of reggae and its lighter notes for the crust and hardcore rage that traces its history through bands like Flux of Pink Indians, Doom and Extreme Noise Terror. One of the standouts from that romantic night's line-up was thrashcore crossover Noise Complaint, to which the slow dancing took the form of an intense moshpit of mangled crusties.

Captain Hotknives - 'I'm In An Anarchist Squat-Punk Band'

Homeless for a time and a pioneer of the house-gig and spontaneous lo-fi lounge performance, Captain Hotknives reminds us here of the dangers of becoming too generic and predictable in our modes and codes of resistance, and also the unexpected problems of animal liberation direct action.

Attila The Stockbroker - 'Levellers/The Digger's Song'

For 30 years, Attila the Stockbroker has blagged his overtly-political poetry across Europe and beyond, a regular fixture at Glastonbury Festival since 1982, a year before I was born. I grew up visiting his shows in squat gigs, pubs, and met him one year at a free festival in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I asked him about performance poetry, how to get into it, and John, as he asked to be called, uttered the immortal words: "Just get your stuff out there. If people like it, carry on." Here, he covers the classic militant folk tune of the True Levellers against land ownership and the power of the dominant classes, giving a punk rock voice to a struggle dating back to Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, who occupied land in the 1600s "for the common treasury of all". On a lighter note, he also does a great line in mocking the archetypal crusty image in 'With My Doggy On A String'.

Spiral Tribe - 'Breach The Peace'

Not party and protest, but party is protest: Spiral Tribe epitomised the spirit of rebellion and resistance to authority that manifest through sound systems and free festivals. I was there the year they chained a tractor to the fence at Glastonbury Festival and tore down a section of the barrier, allowing hundreds of free-partiers to flood through the gap and join the festivities. Here they incite us to wreak havoc through electro-dub fusion and noise.

Dave The Drummer & Chris Liberator - 'One Night In Hackney'

It had to be in any list about squat parties. The raging, alien, techno blast of any and every warehouse party of East London in the last five years, telling the misadventures of a man who hears about a party on Sunday afternoon in a warehouse, after being up all Saturday night. A vicious celebration of excess, hedonism and the indomitable party spirit that used to be Hackney's speciality. Of later years, Mare Street and the wilds of Hackney Wick have been cleansed and gentrified by the roving hordes of Hoxton hip-seekers, but you can be sure to find people still screaming: 'Fifteen cans of Stella!'

Total Shambles is out now. You can read more articles and interviews by George F here

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