Sketches from the Cartoon
Towards the end of 2006, news filtered through that one of Croydon’s best-loved and longest-running venues was to close its doors for the last time. In response to enquiries from the Croydon Guardian and Wired magazine and as my tribute to a great live music room, here are some...
The history of The Cartoon dates back to 1976 when Stuart Wilder bought up one of the small business units between Cinatras nightclub and the old ABC/Savoy cinema. It was originally a pub/wine bar catering for the working population of Broad Green and West Croydon and the live music only started to appear when a few occasional singers performed on a Friday and Saturday night.
As these impromptu sessions became popular, Dave Holman was employed as bar manager with a particular mission to increase and improve the live music side of the business. With a new venue for groups to play, word quickly spread amongst local musicians and bands who emerged to fill every available slot and pretty soon The Cartoon began their seven nights-a-week music policy, making it a haven for live music fans right across South East London. The first regular band was Rockola, a tight-as-the-proverbial-ducks-bottom covers band made up from local drinkers/top session men. Named after their spot-on live jukebox sound, Dave told me: “Stewart could see the benefit of bands like Rockola pulling people into the bar; the amount of beer sold on a good night was phenomenal and of course, once a band built up a reputation you could start to charge admission on the door.” My full interview with Dave for ‘Rockin’ & Around Croydon’ contains tales of turning down Haircut One Hundred at an audition night and the likes of Albert Lee sitting in with country-rock outfit Seven Year Itch, plus hard driving blues from Chicken Shack, the Blues Band and JoAnn Kelly and Nick Van Eedes trio The Drivers, before they became the Cutting Crew.
The famous wall-length cartoon itself was the result of a launch event, where several well-known cartoonists were invited to decorate the walls as the muse (and the beer) took them. The centre-piece was a huge caricature featuring then-regulars as seen from the business side of the bar - wonderful stuff. This disappeared for a few years, turning up in the short-lived ‘Hang the Drummer’ venue in nearby Norbury, before being brought back to its rightful place by Noel.
Live music continued to flourish throughout the eighties. Progressive rockers Twelfth Night played early gigs at the Cartoon in September and November 1982. Eavesdropper were a local electric folk band led by Pete and Chris Fyfe, who really deserved more recognition than they actually got, creating a stir on the festival circuit and supporting Fairport Convention and Paul Brady. The launch party for their one and only album ‘The March Hare’ was held at the Cartoon in November ‘83 (modesty forbids me from mentioning the sleeve designer!).
Rock & roll innovator Bo Diddley turned out in March 1984, and that night his UK touring band were Mainsqueeze, featuring sax maestro Dick Heckstall-Smith and ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist Eric Bell. Strangely, Bo was in the middle of a country-rock phase and was heckled by a minority in the crowd who only wanted to hear rock classics with that trademark ‘bo-diddley beat’. Another regular during the mid eighties was Steve Marriott. The former Small Faces frontman was heading back to his roots by touring every pub venue available with ‘Packet of Three’, a trio including his old mates from Humble Pie, Greg Ridley and Jerry Shirley. The night I saw him, in November ‘84, there were flashes of the old magic, but sad to see a handful of young parka-clad mods down front, who couldn’t have been born when ‘All or Nothing’ first came out and failed to recognise Marriott when he ambled on stage.
The authentic sound of Tex-Mex arrived at the Cartoon in the form of Flaco Jimenez and Peter Rowan. As part of a lengthy UK tour they arrived in Croydon on April 19th 1985, Flaco and his band showing exactly why they had been chosen to back Ry Cooder, while Rowan’s CV included playing guitar in early bluegrass bands alongside the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. In contrast, the ever-popular Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts returned in August 1985, led by guitarist Graham ‘Dumpy’ Dunnell, at one-time a soundman for The Cartoon.
Soul man Roachford was another ‘Toon regular who went on to greater success with ‘Cuddley Toy’. The weird and wonderful Dr and the Medics played many times, both before and after their cover version of ‘Spirit in the Sky’ hit the charts. Ray Dorset & Mungo Jerry continued to pack out The Cartoon with their good-time jug band music, as Ray recalls: “We had been gigging as The Insiders but of course audiences always called out for the Mungo songs ‘In the Summertime’ and ‘Lady Rose’ which we always played later on in the set. I turned up late for one gig at the Cartoon Club in Croydon and said to the owner that I would do the next show for him as Mungo Jerry to make up for the fact, as several punters had complained about the band going onstage late. This is how I got to do so many gigs at the Cartoon.”
The Flying Pigs made several appearances around 1986/87, formed by Mickey Jones from Man. Their drummer Phil Little was no stranger to Croydon either, having been a resident at The Dog and Bull in the seventies with the band Budlipp-Springer. A line-up of The Sweet led by original guitarist Andy Scott appeared on more than one occasion, often under the name The Wandering Crutchlees, a band including various members of Statetrooper and Paddy Goes to Holyhead, while other 70’s pop-rockers Suzi Quatro and Showaddywaddy also passed through during this period.
The venue started up its own local gig list magazine, Cartoon Capers, closely followed by Dishrag, Croydon Live and South London Live - long before Wired picked up the baton and ran with it. Scantily dressed rock chicks were the order of the day in January 1989 as Beki Bondage & the Bombshells rocked the venue on more than one occasion. Top guitar-slinger Jamie Moses was a regular too, with his bands This Way Up, Broken English (remember their hit ‘Coming On Strong’?) and later as a member of the Tex-Mex band Los Pacominos, featuring Paul (Wherever I Lay My Hat) Young on vocals. Ideally suited to the venue, The Hamsters became a regular fixture, as this hard working trio brought their mix of Hendrix, ZZTop and great original blues tunes. In September 1989, the Cutting Crew returned for a warm-up gig prior to a US tour, although vocalist Nick Van Eade had a bad throat and the band played for less than an hour. Cartoon punters complained about ‘vfm’ for their £5 ticket money! The strangely named (but a very fine band nonetheless) Abbfinoosty also appeared in September, as did Mungo Jerry and good old Basil’s Ballsup Band.
Fast Freddie fast became a Cartoon favourite, appearing at various times with The Doughnuts and The Fingertips. Hailing from Crawley, his brand of ‘New Town Soul’ proved very popular - one minute he was in the confines of the Cartoon and the Gun, next he was off supporting Randy Crawford on a nationwide tour in April 1992. His own cartoon appeared on the inaugural cover of Dishrag.
Croydon’s (second?) favourite punk Johnny Moped brought his big-band line-up to the venue in April and December 1992. Early in 1993, the afore-mentioned Eric Bell brought his new line-up to the bar, followed by ex-Jethro Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams who reformed Blodwyn Pig to appear on 19th March 1993. Iron Maiden’s Paul D’Annio played with his band Killers in May ‘93, supported by a local band Little Egypt that included the offspring of Purley resident Francis Rossi. The first half of 1993 also saw appearances from the Climax Blues Band, Steve Gibbons, Eddie & the Hotrods and Poormouth, the new band formed by Jackie Macauley, one-time guitarist with Them and Trader Horne.
Manager Mick Burns left the bar for pastures new around April/May that year and the new order stated that they would concentrate on original groups and reduce the number of covers/tribute bands. Sounds familiar eh? - nothing changes. To back-up their claim, the Cartoon began running an ‘indie’ night every Tuesday and the much vaunted local band and Go-Discs recording artists Anna played a free showcase gig in December. The Christmas specials were always a great way to round off the year and 1994 saw sell-out festive gigs by Dr & the Medics and The Hamsters.
The fortunes of our favourite venue took a dip when it temporarily closed its doors sometime around the end of 1997 only to reopen as The Cool Room. The new look was neon, chrome, cocktails and bottled lager while the booking policy tried too hard to cater for every taste; comedy nights & club nights equalled less live music and consequently fewer punters. A few big names turned up, among them John Martyn and an acoustic Nils Lofgren, plus a fine set from New Zealand band The Muttonbirds, who brought out the antipodean ex-pats of South London. Generally though, the new system failed to work and it was a huge relief when Noel arrived on the scene; the old name reappeared over the door, along with the original cartoon back on the wall and the seven nights-a-week hard rock, rhythm and blues policy was reinstated. Many of the old regulars returned, both punters and bands alike and work started to return the venue to its former glory.
Into the new millennium, Dr. Feelgood performed on 13th May 2000 and heavy metal outfit Praying Mantis appeared in August and October 2000. The trend for tribute bands continued - needs must, I’m afraid - but a real highlight came with a couple of appearances by The Muffin Men, a Liverpool-based Zappa tribute outfit with a difference, as their line-up often included original ‘Mother’ Jimmy Carl Black, whose Captain Beefheart impressions have to be heard to be believed.
In May 2002, Mark Perry’s Alternative TV appeared, supported by the Pork Dukes. Marc Bolan’s old sparring partner, Mickey Finn took his version of T-Rex to the Cartoon in June 2003. Sadly, only a year later the percussionist from Thornton Heath died in Mayday Hospital and a memorial concert to Mickey was held, and filmed at the Cartoon. Always regarded as something of a bikers gig, the Road Rat bike club hosted an evening with Cry Wolf in January 2005. Cry Wolf was formed by Tom and Dave Farmer, who will be well known to seventies rock fans as the founder members of Blackfoot Sue. New owner Mat continued the good work and for 2006, the venues 30th anniversary year, he engineered the return to Croydon of The Fall and Mark E Smith, playing a four-night run in March in the town where John Peel first saw them; Peel was recommended to see them live at the Greyhound by Danny Baker back in May 1978!
The news that The Cartoon was to close came as quite a shock. I’ve long held the opinion that Croydon needs a 200 to 500 capacity stand-up venue to bridge the gap between pub backroom and the comfort of the Fairfield. Now that it seems the doors have finally slammed shut on the Cartoon, we need that alternative venue more than ever before.
Originally supplied to Wired, Croydon's listing magazine – November 2006.