Punk meets reggae in the Grove

Talk to anyone about music in the Grove and they invariably come up with the name of Wilf Walker. The following is as much Wilf’s story as it is a glimpse of the ways in which music evolved in and around Acklam Hall in the 1970s.

Ladbroke Grove has a rich musical history, from the early days of West Indian clubs and shebeens, to the germination of home-grown steel bands, through to the development of reggae and its unexpected alliance with punk in the mid-1970s. A key venue during the Seventies was Acklam Hall in Acklam Road. Like so many developments in Notting Hill, the use of Acklam Hall as a regular music venue was a direct result of community action, this time in the form of a project called Public Pictures that was dedicated to painting murals on the concrete walls under the Westway. Money was needed for paint, so John Tabieri, then manager of local pub band The 101’ers (later to lose Joe Strummer to The Clash), organised a string of benefit concerts in Acklam Hall. He was supported by aspiring music promoter Wilf Walker, also a community activist, who went on to become a key figure in Notting Hill’s music scene.

Wilf had arrived in Notting Hill from Trinidad via Shepherd’s Bush in 1961. Unusually for a West Indian, he began his career by putting on white rock performers such as Hawkwind, the Pink Fairies, Quintessence and John Otway in 1974, some of whom had supported the mural project. But after the Carnival riots of 1976, knowing of his previous involvement in benefits, members of the black community approached Wilf to raise funds for Carnival defendants. Only then did he start to connect with the growing number of London reggae bands.

A benefit took place, headed by Aswad from Westbourne Grove, but it was a decision by US band The Last Poets to play their first-ever UK gig at Acklam Hall that gave Wilf his big breakthrough. Born out of Harlem and inspired by the South African black consciousness movement, these fathers of rap and hip-hop excelled in the poetry of outrage and rebellion, to the accompaniment of African rhythms. Jimi Hendrix was among their admirers, and their arrival in Ladbroke Grove created a storm of media interest that launched Wilf’s career as a full-time promoter. From then on, riding on the wave of the British Rock Against Racism movement, he was able to set up an office under the Westway and transform Acklam Hall into a regular performance place. This was the era of punk, and every Friday night Wilf put on two punk bands and one reggae act. Unlike mainstream promoters, he recognised the links between these two very different types of music. In the words of Anthony Marks, writing in Paul Oliver’s anthology Black Music in Britain (1990),

Like Rastafaris, punks viewed the musical and political establishment as an enemy; unlike the Rastafaris, punks were prepared to fight the system on a very basic level. The alliance of punk and reggae groups in the late 1970s for Rock Against Racism concerts prompted a surge in interest in reggae, as well as a heady optimism engendered by the sense of working for a common aim.

So it was that bands like The Slits, The Raincoats and The Members shared a stage with Aswad, Merger, Sons of Jah, Barry Ford and King Sounds. In addition, two other elements favoured the rise of reggae here: the presence of Chris Blackwell’s Island Recording Studio in Basing Street (now Sarm West) and the occasional visits of Bob Marley, who used to hang out with young bands when visiting his wife Rita’s family in the Grove.

Wilf’s Friday-night concerts went on for 18 months, until petty theft and attacks by skinheads drove him to concentrate his energies elsewhere. Among other things, he went on to join the Notting Hill Carnival Committee and initiate the staging of live acts during Carnival, first under the flyover, then in Meanwhile Gardens and Powis Square. In true community spirit, a mix of big names – Courtney Pine, Carol Grimes, The Passions, Sugar Minnott – were featured alongside local unknowns who were picked from a mountain of tapes sent in to a central office. But this too changed and with the new corporate face of the Carnival from 1992, Wilf abandoned his efforts in favour of schemes he could more easily believe in. Today he is still promoting black music, but also spends as much time as he can in his native island of Tobago. (For more on the music scene, see Tom Vague).�