Book Review: London Babylon The Beatles & The Stones in the Swinging Sixties – Steve Overbury
(Stephen Overbury) £12.99
Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams
The film Performance, a chapter on which is included in London Babylon, also acts as a useful cipher for the themes of this intriguing book. The story at the core of Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s film, shot in 1968 though not released until 1970, is the societal collision between the East London gangster, Chas (James Fox), and the reclusive rock star, Turner (Mick Jagger), in whose West London house he seeks sanctuary. Interlaced with sex, drugs, violence, and esotericism, darkness undercuts the brightness of the psychedelic, and the cut-up technique blurs the real and imaginary.
Just as the cast and crew blurred the boundaries of fact and fiction, and encapsulated the conventions that ‘Swinging London’ had dissolved, in mixing, around its Kings Road, Chelsea epicentre, the aristocracy, the underworld and the new the new icons of pop- and counter-culture. Both David Litvinoff, the film’s consultant and dialogue coach, and John Bindon, who played one of Chas’ gang, had links to the Krays and the Richardsons, and violence was very much a part of their lives. Whilst the aristocratic antique dealer and interior designer, Christopher Gibbs, created the sets for Turner’s house, and Cammell, born into a privileged background, had been a society portraitist with a studio in Chelsea. Though that said, after boring of the latter, Cammell did live, by all accounts, a formidably unconventional and decadent life.
Unsurprisingly, given all the above, the stories and rumours, from the salacious to the troubling, that surround Performance are legion. Similarly the abutment of such an extraordinary mix of characters and backgrounds that gathered around the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the mid to late 1960s, has also given rise to equally extraordinary tales that remain highly intriguing even as, with the passage of time, their veracity becomes harder and harder to ascertain.
With London Babylon, Steve Overbury has in part taken a lead from Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, and also the shorthand and license that appending ‘Babylon’ to a title (vis à vis Imogen Edwards-Jones’ sequence of books) now brings, and does not shrink from recounting those tales in all their salacity and scurrility. Though his focus is not only the famous names, but also the lesser known characters who though they were at the fringes of the Beatles and the Stones, their actions were not without effect. Amongst them, Bindon and Litvinoff, the drug dealer and Keith Richard’s driver, ‘Spanish’ Tony Sanchez, and Count Jean de Breteuil.
Akin to the melting pot of styles and backgrounds present in ‘Swinging London’, Overbury’s book is also an hybrid of styles. As he explains in the introduction, the other motivator behind the book’s title was the discovery in his research that in the 12th century a section of London Wall was called ‘Babeylone’, and throughout London Babylon there are sections which are more formally structured and referenced studies of London’s cultural history. Whilst also threaded intermittently throughout the book are the surprising imagined dialogues between Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix and others.
London Babylon has clearly been a labour of love for Overbury; to bring the book out he has, as he explains on his website, had to resort to “Punk publishing”, and the hefty work load that that entails. The book is a little rough around the edges, for a future edition a further copy edit would be great, and for me at least a list of sources or bibliography would be fantastic. But that is not to diminish the breadth of Overbury’s passion and research, and the degree to which he has clearly immersed himself in his rich subject matter.