Was the ‘Bristol Sound’ created in the Bearpit?

Bearpit Improvement Group director Richard Jones digs back into the Bearpit’s musical roots and puts out a call for memories and photos

Watching the finale of Massive Attack’s triumphant (if wet) set on the Downs in September reminded me of a piece I’ve been meaning to write for ages about how the ‘Bristol Sound’ emerged from the influence of punk in the late 70s and early 80s.

This isn’t that piece; it’s a request photographs and information about one

factor in the complex narrative that led to the global success and genre-defining impact of Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and others.

That factor is the role of the Bearpit and specifically Haymarket Walk.

Pop Group: Mark Stewart back left (pic: John Spink).

Pop Group: Mark Stewart back left (pic: John Spink).

The established history of the Bristol Sound references The Pop Group as being the founding influence, The White Lion in Clifton Wood, Trinity in Old Market and the Dug Out being some of the places where punk met reggae; Revolver Records on the Triangle (where Grant from MA worked) and Tony’s Records on Park Street (where the city’s DJs hung out) as being another area where various influences overlapped. And, of course, there were the festivals. In the late 70s and early 80s we’d experience a unique cultural journey in the space of four or five summer weeks by going to Glastonbury, St Paul’s Carnival, Ashton Court free festival and WOMAD.

But nobody really talks about the Bearpit scene that centred on the original Bristol Virgin Records store and punk fashion boutiques Paradise Garage and to a lesser extent Bonie Maronie, all of which were in the Haymarket Walk underpass in the Bearpit.

I was reminded about all of this while I was editing Punks on Scooters: The Bristol Mod Revival 1979-1985 by Michael W Salter (Tangent Books, £9.99, www.tangentbooks.co.uk). Salter makes several references to Virgin Records in the Bearpit because it had the best selection of punk singles in town. Many people now associate Virgin with Broadmead, but the original shop at the heart of the first wave of punk was in the Bearpit.

Salter and his punk-soon-to-become-mod friends were from Frampton Cotterell and couldn’t get to the Virgin during the week because of the inconvenience of school, so one of their mums – a 50-year-old office worker – queued with the spiky-haired youth in her lunch hour to get the first pressings of tunes from the Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Ruts, The Clash and many more.

Then came Paradise Garage. The original Paradise Garage (the shop not the New York club) was a King’s Road Boutique. In 1971, Malcolm McLaren (later Sex Pistols manager) opened a stall at the back. McClaren soon took over the whole shop, rebranded it as Let It Rock and in1974 with girlfriend Vivienne Westwood relaunched it as Sex and specialised in fetish, bondage and punk apparel. It was the centre of the King’s Road punk scene and the meeting place of the Sex Pistols.

A similar thing happened in The Bearpit. The Pop Group’s first manager was Alan Jones who had been in the music business since being a member of 60s welsh band Amen Corner. Jones was well connected with the nascent London punk fashion scene on the King’s Road and in Kensington Market and opened Paradise Garage in The Bearpit.

Wild Bunch: From Left Daddy G, 3D, Willie Wee, Nellee Hooper, DJ Milo (pic: Beezer).

Wild Bunch: From Left Daddy G, 3D, Willie Wee, Nellee Hooper, DJ Milo (pic: Beezer).

One of the young punk shop assistants was Miles Johnson, AKA DJ Milo, one of the founders of the Wild Bunch hip-hop crew who later evolved into Massive Attack.

Miles recalls: “Paradise Garage was the epicentre of every band around at the time from the Pop Group through to the Wild Bunch/Massive attack. I became friends with Daniel Day Lewis in Paradise Garage back in the early 1980s as he was a friend of Rich Payne’s who ran the shop and I always hung out down there.

“Eventually I worked for them in London’s Kensington Market. I met Daddy Gee and 3D down there at separate times. Everyone who was into the punk scene and funk scene went through Paradise Garage every weekend. Without a doubt The Bearpit was pivotal to the Bristol music and fashion scene.”

Punk was undoubtedly the spark that ignited the Bristol music scene, but in Bristol the young punks embraced hip-hop as their counter culture once the first phase of punk was perceived to have become too mainstream and sold out. Mark Stewart of the Pop Group said in a magazine interview: “Wild Bunch used to come to Pop Group shows… Milo was the man. He was the coolest. There was a clothes shop called Paradise Garage, which was owned by our manager Alan Jones, who was in the band Amen Corner in the 1960s, and me and Milo used to go there.”

I was going to end this piece by asking you to send memories and photographs of Paradise Garage, Virgin and Bonie Maronie, but then I met up with Patrick Duff, lead singer of 1990s Bristol indie sensations Strangelove and since then a very fine solo artist.

Strangelove: Patrick Duff front.

Strangelove: Patrick Duff front.

Patrick was recruited by Strangelove after being spotted busking around Bristol and one of the places he busked as a 17-year-old was the Bearpit.

“There was a group of old Irish guys who used to hang out on the grass in the Bearpit,” Patrick recalls. “These were the generation who came over to build the motorways – really interesting people. They used to give me a fiver to sing to them.”

So, The Bearpit can claim to have played a significant role in the formation of Massive Attack and Strangelove. If you’ve got any memories or photographs of the punk and funk days in The Bearpit, get in touch with Richard Jones

richard@tangentbooks.co.uk