Bob Marley and the waxworks

A BUILDING ON THE CORNER of Lancaster Road and Basing Street, a few yards east of Portobello Road, looks as if it was once a church. Attached to its brickwork is a plaque commemorating the fact that the building was once used by the reggae artist Bob Marley (Robert Nester Marley:1945-1981). While we were looking at the building, a friendly passer-by stopped and chatted to us, confirming that the building had once been used as a church, but also as a waxworks studio and, maybe, a synagogue for a time.

Whereas many Jewish people used to live near the building before WW2 (www.rbkc.gov.uk/pdf/Colville%20March%20Newsletter3.pdf), notably in nearby Powis Square, I can find no evidence that there was ever a synagogue where the church-like building stands. A detailed map, surveyed in the 1890s, reveals that this building was a ‘Congregational Chapel’. It was ‘The Lancaster Road Congregational Church Notting Hill’ and is described in “A Book of Metropolitan Churches and Church Enterprise” by William Pepperell, which was published in 1872. The Reverend Pepperell describes the origin of the chapel as follows:

“The foundation-stone of this chapel was laid by Samuel Morley, Esq., M.P., in July, 1865, when, although so recent, the whole of that part of North Kensington in which it is situated was open field, with here and there a dotting of new buildings commenced, and new streets laid out.  At the present time the occupied suburbs extend quite a mile beyond it either North or West.  The congregation worshipping here first assembled in smaller numbers in Westbourne-hall, where they kept together for between two and three years, always with a view to a separate building as opportunity offered … The form of service is what is understood as Congregational, and the Congregational Hymn-book is used.  An organ well suited to the dimensions of the building is efficiently employed by Mr. Charles Wetton, Jun., in aid of the devotional singing, which seems to lose nothing of its congregational life and character by the presence of the instrument.”

The authoritative British-history.ac.uk website confirms the date when the chapel was established and makes no mention of it ever having been used as a synagogue. It does state that the building was designed by James Rankin of St Marylebone and is now used for commercial purposes, its interior having been completely remodelled.

I could not find the chapel marked on a detailed map surveyed in 1914. This is not surprising because in the early part of the 20th century, the chapel became home to the workshop of Gems Waxworks (“Colville Conservation Area Appraisal”, published by RBKC in 2014). It was at this workshop that the model of the serial killer John Christie (1899-1953), who had a flat at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill (located at where is now Bartle Close and Andrews Square), was prepared (www.golbornelife.co.uk/colvillenewsletter1.pdf) in the 1950s for Madame Tussaud’s exhibition in Baker Street.

By 1970, the former chapel had reincarnated as the ‘Basing Street Studios”, established by Christopher Blackwell, founder of Island Records (began in 1959). In 1970, Led Zeppelin recorded his album “Led Zeppelin IV” at the studios. The same year, Jethro Tull recorded his “Aqualung” album at the same place. At one point in 1973, Bob Marley and the Wailers were using the studios at the same time as the Rolling Stones. Bob Marley lived for a year at the studios in 1977 (www.timeout.com/london/blog/15-places-in-london-with-a-bob-marley-connection-051116). Early in that year he recorded his album “Exodus” there. Before that, in 1973, he recorded his album “Catch a Fire”, also at Basing Street. In addition to the works already mentioned, many other well-known songs and albums, including Queen’s “We are the Champions” and Band Aid’s “Do they know It’s Christmas”, were recorded at these studios.

In 1983, Trevor Horn (born 1949) and Jill Sinclair (1952-2014), of SARM studios, acquired the recording establishment in the former chapel. The plaque on the outside of the building was placed there by the Nubian Jak Community Trust, which is:

“… an African and Caribbean community organisation that provides products and services to the generic population of the UK and internationally” (http://nubianjak.org/).

Their plaque not only celebrates Bob Marley’s use of the former chapel and his fellow musicians Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, but also the memory of Jill Sinclair. When the plaque was unveiled by her widowed husband, he said:

“… So much great music was made in the building while it was open for over 50 years as a recording studio. This plaque commemorates my late wife Jill Sinclair who was a long time supporter of the local Jamaican company. She would be happy to see the community being recognised for the music culture brought to the local area.” (https://tiemotalkofthetown.wordpress.com/2019/10/08/bob-marley-and-the-wailers-honoured-with-blue-plaque-at-legendary-sarm-studios/).

Currently, SARM is based on nearby Ladbroke Grove.

Having seen this building and looked into its history, I feel sure that the Congregationalists who used to sing in the chapel long ago would be pleased to know that the building remained a place of song, even if what was sung there is somewhat different to what they used to sing.

Music for Pleasure

 

My parents were not particularly musical. My late mother, a person who never gave up on anything she started, was forced to learn to play the piano when she was a child in South Africa. Through persistence rather than out of love of music, she passed many piano exams. When she became a mother, she decided that it was up to my sister and I to decide if we wanted to learn to play any musical instruments. My sister learnt to play several instruments, but, apart from one miserable  six week attempt at the piano, I did not.

At the school I attended between 1960 and ‘65 in London’s Swiss Cottage, we had music lessons once a week. They were conducted in the so-called ‘Billiards Room’ by Miss McDonald. We spent the lesson singing songs such as “The British Grenadier” while she accompanied us on the piano. Miss McDonald quickly worked out which of us in the class could sing well, and which could not. I was one of the vocally challenged group. Those who she considered to be poor singers had to sit on the floor. She referred to us as the ‘mice’. Potential choristers and others with tolerable singing voices sat high above us on upholstered chairs. Several times during each lesson, our teacher made the mice sing one verse of a song alone and unaccompanied. No doubt, we sounded feeble and unmelodious. The rest of the class, the future ‘Pavarottis and Bryn Terfels’, laughed at us.

When I arrived at my secondary school, Highate School (founded 1565), a boy’s school in 1965, all the new entrants had to take a voice test. The purpose of this was to determine which of us had a good enough voice for the school choir. Mr Chapman (nickname ‘Cherry’), the senior music teacher sat at a piano. The new boys lined up. One by one, each of us approached the piano. Cherry hit one key, and the boy had to sing the note. When I reached Cherry and his piano, I made a sound that must have resembled the ‘Aaaah’ that one makes when a doctor is examining your throat. With that short demonstration of my vocal skills, I was rejected from joining the choir. Once a week, there was a forty-five-minute period when the school choir met for rehearsals. The boys, who were not required for this, spent the period reading quietly.

In addition to music, Cherry also taught mathematics. Occasionally someone in the class, who had not heard what Cherry had just said, would shout: “pardon.” Cherry always replied; “granted” because he wanted to make the point that when someone could not hear him, he expected them to say something like: “Pardon me, sir, but what did you say?” To their faces, all teachers were addressed as ‘sir’.

The deputy music teacher was a Mr Wallace. During a year nearer the end of my five years at Highgate, we were given classes that were outside our chosen pre-university specialities. The idea was to broaden our general knowledge. One of these weekly classes was conducted by Mr Wallace. He used to set up a gramophone, and then play us classical music on LPs for forty-five minutes. He simply told us what we were about to hear and no more. Less of a disciplinarian than Cherry, he must have hoped and prayed that the class would not end up in mayhem, which it did often. Most of my fellow classmates were far more interested in The Rolling Stones than Rachmaninov.

One day, Mr Wallace played us one of the first two of the symphonies by the Finnish composer Sibelius. I was entranced by it. That weekend, I made my way to the branch of WH Smiths in Temple Fortune, our nearest shopping centre, and bought a recording of the symphony. It was issued by EMI on a low-cost series of recordings called ‘Music for Pleasure’. I played it often and bought other recordings of Sibelius’s music. I was hooked on classical music. Thanks to Mr Wallace, I began amassing a huge collection of classical music LPs, and then later CDs. Thanks to him, I enjoy attending classical concerts and meeting musicians.

I imagine that Mr Wallace must have passed away, and now enjoys music played by angels on their celestial harps. Sadly, I do not think that I ever told him how much I valued his musical appreciation classes.